Sermon Seeds: Followers of the Way
Third Sunday of Easter Year A
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Worship resources for the Third Sunday of Easter Year A are at Worship Ways
Followers of the Way
by Kathryn Matthews
Throughout the Gospels we have seen and heard of many astonishing events: healings, exorcisms, the raising of Lazarus, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, and the sky opening up with the voice of God addressing those present. These many, convincing “revelations” are powerful, but no more powerful than the simple acts and events of this passage from Luke about the Emmaus story.
Friends are making their way from one place–a place of hope-turned-into-despair, a place of perplexity and the unbelievable (and “idle”) tales of women–to another place: Emmaus. In The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner writes evocatively of the many ways we seek to find a place, an Emmaus, to run to when we have lost hope or don’t know what to do, a place of escape, of forgetting, of giving up, of deadening our senses and our minds and maybe our hearts, too. Perhaps we are a bit surprised to hear him say that “Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday.”
We’re on the road together
As you look from the pulpit at your congregation, you may see at least some folks who have “gone to Emmaus,” even though they appear to be “in church.” (Perhaps there are days when you feel like you are one of them!) What do you think took, or drove, them (us) there, to a place of forgetting, of giving up?
The community of faith, of course, is called to support the “opening of their eyes”–of all of our eyes, really, because we, as the church, are truly “companions on the road”–and it’s fitting that the word “companion” is rooted in the words for “bread” and “with.” Surely, we are on this road, the journey of faith, together, breaking bread, together.
What happens when bread is broken?
In fact, these beautiful narratives of resurrection appearances are powerful stories of community, of believers, doubters, and strugglers gathering and breaking apart, and gathering again, coming together and telling the stories of their experiences, sharing their memories of Jesus–his acts and his words–and then, like people of faith today, shining the light of Scripture on that experience and coming to new understandings and new inspiration.
But that’s not all. They sit down at table together and break bread, and often, more than intellectual understanding, they come to see with their hearts what was right before them all along. What are stories from your own life, when your eyes were opened because someone welcomed you, or because you opened your heart, your door, your life, to a stranger, someone you never expected to be a blessing to you?
A world rocked by one death
If the world of the disciples had been turned upside down by the life and teachings of this person Jesus, think of how that same world had been “rocked” by his death. Even so, they haven’t had time to absorb that calamity when new stories have sprung up. Think of times when the news, or your own life, unfolded in ways that shook the foundations of what you believed in, perhaps too fast for you to process and integrate into your understanding. What did you do to find peace and balance, and to build new foundations?
And if the Bible is about hospitality, hospitality, hospitality, we might hear and tell this story then as one of hospitality and its deeper meanings. Hospitality isn’t a condescending or begrudging, dutiful sharing (preferably from our excess, not our substance–that way, we won’t feel it so much): it’s an openness to change and a welcoming of the new learning change brings (however uncomfortable and perhaps even painful that change may be).
Hospitality and openness make transformation possible, especially when brought to us from the most unexpected places by the most unlikely people, particularly by “strangers,” especially those considered “other.” If we know that we must see Jesus “in the least of these,” we have a clear mandate from him to share our table and its abundance with all who are hungry, physically and/or spiritually.
Hungry bodies, hungry souls
In the church, we can sometimes neglect both spiritual and physical hunger as we go about our “church business,” or perhaps we have a thriving hunger ministry with our food pantries and hot meal programs, while unintentionally neglecting additional ways to feed the spirit. Yes, the spirit is fed when we are fully engaged in mission, but we also need times of quiet, of reflection and meditation, of deep prayer and meaningful worship, of spiritual growth through the arts and through nature.
In one of my favorite reflections, Anthony B. Robinson writes, “People want to experience the divine, the sacred, the holy. They are dying for want of grace, wonder, mystery, and not for want of by-laws, committees, and sign-up lists. At least they don’t want those things instead of God” (“From Generation to Generation (or not)” at http://www.ucc.org/vitality/ready-set-grow/foster-discipleship/generation-to-generation-or.html). In what ways have you known hunger, both physical and spiritual? Who was the unexpected person who shared something with you, and in doing so, transformed your life?
The power of hospitality to transform
R. Alan Culpepper’s commentary on Luke’s Gospel in The New Interpreter’s Bible draws on the work of Eugene Wehrli to note wonderful parallels between this story and that of Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31). Both stories involve the interpretation of Scripture (“Moses and the prophets”), table sharing (or not!) and “someone rising from the dead.” Again, hospitality has the potential to transform our lives if it opens our eyes even more than we have opened our doors. It’s not simply a matter of being nice; hospitality is justice and generosity embodied, a spiritual practice that both requires and brings spiritual growth.
As the United Church of Christ strives to extend and embody extravagant hospitality, where are the possibilities of transformation within our congregations and our selves? How is God still speaking to your congregation in the simple breaking of bread, the sharing of the story, the study of Scripture? Do we need to open our eyes to what is happening, each time we come to the table of God’s grace?
Perhaps, in a time of increasing polarization in our public discourse (and that is putting it gently), we in the church can find common ground in the simple but faithful practice of hospitality. It will take practice to develop this discipline because it’s not easy to welcome all of God’s children along with the hopes, and dreams, and beliefs that animate their lives and may transform our own.
Many different ways to be hospitable
I’d like to share two examples of challenges to my own sense of hospitality: first, watching a short clip of a Sunday news show where three religious voices, all with a Christian perspective very different from my own, were expressing their thoughts on the decline in religious practice in the United States. I found that it takes an extra effort on my part to quiet my mind and listen to what they’re saying, and maybe even to find common ground with them: it demands a kind of intellectual hospitality that I practice more readily toward non-Christian sisters and brothers than I do toward Christians who disagree strongly with my perspectives.
I sometimes wonder if I could sit down to dinner with these “other” Christians, and be at ease (or not), but in any case, to feel that I met them as my brothers, not as “others.” (In this case, they all happened to be men.) It seems to me that many folks become unexpected friends because they sat down to dinner and broke bread together. (And, of course, they would need to be willing to sit down with me!)
Re-learning one another’s stories
Second, as a community and nation, I wonder if we might open ourselves to entertain stories and histories that will change our understanding of who we are and how we have been in relation to other peoples, other nations. When I was a history major in school, there was so much I was never taught; as an adult, I read Howard Zinn’s work, A People’s History of the United States, and it changed my life. I realized the need to fill in those tremendous gaps in my education, and my reading in retirement focuses on the stories I’ve missed. Books like The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead), Homegoing (Ya’a Gyasi), Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance), Night (Elie Wiesel) and Janesville (Amy Goldstein) would be powerful “companion pieces” to our Bible study and our preaching, as would a number of fine films that also delve into the stories of those who walk this way with us.
Reading good novels and non-fiction, including biographies and memoirs–“listening” deeply to the stories of others–can help us to open our hearts and lives to others, and to see Jesus in everyone we meet. Perhaps, if we could see ourselves and those we consider “other” in new ways, we might practice a new humility and graciousness in sharing the blessings of God more generously, more equitably. Intellectual hospitality, and hospitality of the heart, both open our lives to the stories, suffering, gifts and hopes of others. But it takes a lot of practice, and the change of heart and mind it requires often presents a difficult challenge to what has become our deeply entrenched comfort zones.
Glimpses of God’s presence
The experience of these two travelers (one may have been a woman, like other New Testament pairs) was fleeting, just as our glimpses of God, or brushes with God’s presence, tend to be. We look back on our experiences and process them, understanding them better “in the rear view mirror” than we did face-to-face. How does God still speak to you today, not only through the encounter these early Christians had with Jesus, but through your own encounter with Jesus, in the breaking of bread, the sharing of stories, the study of Scripture?
We’re not just hearing/reading a story about something that happened to other people, long ago and far away. The same amazing things, the wonderful works of God, are happening here, today, in our lives, too, if we open our eyes and see, and then, maybe our hearts, too, will burn within us. When we struggle with questions of meaning and we just can’t understand what’s happening around us, the answer is often right before us.
The promise is for all of God’s children
So much in this Sunday’s readings, as in all of Scripture, calls for our response. The crowd in the reading from Acts, hearing Peter’s passionate sermon, asks what they should do, and he calls them to repent and be baptized. But he also makes a promise: they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is not just for them, but for their children (for us today, their descendants in faith), and “for all who are far away, all whom the Lord our God calls to God.”
If we understand these words as meaning “the Gentiles,” which was unthinkable for many in the early church, we may look around and wonder who the “unthinkable” ones are, those who are “far away”–at least from us–but nevertheless called by God. Again, how does the hospitality of a gracious-in-every-age God call for a response from us that repents our failure to include and welcome and empower even the least likely and the most unexpected, “all who are far away”? What sort of transformation might that work in our lives and our communities?
How can we love one another along the way?
The reading from First Peter may be addressed to those who are not only metaphorically “aliens” but concretely so, those who feel “not at home” where they are, perhaps stripped of their rights to participate fully in the life of the community and to enjoy its protections and benefits. If our response to all of this good news, and to the call of a gracious, generous, hospitable, compassionate and still-speaking God, is to “love one another deeply from the heart,” how will our lives look and feel different than they do now?
What would this troubled world look like, what would it feel like, if justice, mercy, kindness and humility informed and formed our relationships–internationally as well as interpersonally? What is the connection between all of this and the peace that Jesus breathed into his disciples when he appeared to them in last week’s reading from the Gospel of John (20:19-31)?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Anselm of Canterbury, 11th century
“I believe in order that I might understand.”
Benjamin Franklin, 18th century
“Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.”
Oscar Wilde, 19th century
“I can believe anything, provided it is incredible.”
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
“God is at home; it is we who have gone for a walk.”
Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
“Live your beliefs and you can turn the world around.”
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 16th century
“All sorrows are less with bread.”
Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Richard Bach, 20th century
“Your friends will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years.”
Gwendolyn Brooks, 20th century
“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, 20th century
“You wake from dreams of doom and–for a moment–you know: beyond all the noise and the gestures, the only real thing, love’s calm unwavering flame in the half-light of an early dawn.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
I love God,
because God has heard my voice
and has heard my supplications.
Because God inclined an ear to me,
therefore I will call on God
as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of God:
“O God, I pray, save my life!”
What shall I return to God
for God’s bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of God,
I will pay my vows to God,
I will pay them in the presence
of all God’s people.
Precious in the sight of God
is the death of God’s faithful ones.
O God, I am your servant,
and the child of your servant.
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you
a thanksgiving sacrifice;
I will call on the name of God.
I will pay my vows to God
in the presence of all God’s people,
in the courts of the house of God,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise be to God!
1 Peter 1:17-23
If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday”–not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!