Senior Sermon, Wednesday of the First Week of Easter

My Senior Sermon for Berkeley Divinity School’s Evening Eucharist on 4/4/18, preached at Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School.

Psalm 118:19–24
Acts 3:1–10
Luke 24:13–35

When Jesus rises from the dead, there is to be no forgetting. Holy Week has passed, for now, and you can read its passing—the joy, relief, exhaustion—on the faces and in the Twitter feeds of those who have been particularly involved in its liturgies, which includes many in this room. If you are one whose spirit is greatly affected by the changing of the liturgical seasons, if you managed to keep a Lenten practice that ultimately stirred up new life, if the stripping of the altar strips bare your soul before God so it might bloom with the lilies of Easter, or if you’re simply one who attends church services regularly, you know that the stone has been rolled away and that the tomb is empty, smelling strangely of resurrection. And if you’re one who needs to be reminded frequently: The Lord is Risen.

And though we proclaim with one voice and with joy and certainty that Jesus rises from the dead, there is to be no forgetting of the weeks that have recently passed, of the sadness and uncertainty of Holy Week—at least not if you’re on the road to Emmaus. Though we are now a few days past Easter Sunday, our lesson tonight from the gospel of Luke happens on the same day that Jesus’s body is found to be missing. The atmosphere is still one of grief, disbelief, and disorientation. Add to that the common observation of commentators that, besides knowing that they are walking the seven-mile road apparently to eat a meal and then go back, we aren’t really sure who Cleopas and his friend are or where this Emmaus is. Cyril of Alexandria says the two are part of the group of seventy disciples that are appointed by Jesus in Luke 10 to go “in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (Luke 10:1).

Cleopas and his friend aren’t really sure of some things either—namely who Jesus is. Because who they understand him to be is contingent on how they understand his crucifixion and the absence of his body and how they receive the message from Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, mother of God, and the other women—their message that “two men in dazzling clothes” told them, “‘He is not here, but has risen’” (24:5). The two have a lot right—when Jesus appears to them, they narrate to him the string of events with some detail—but conclusions aren’t coming easily. In a poem by Spencer Reece (poet, priest, and Berkeley grad) called “The Road to Emmaus,” the poem’s speaker describes a postcard on the wall at the office of his spiritual director. Through a humble ekphrasis, the poem portrays the postcard’s depiction of the story as follows:

There it hung, askew in its golden drugstore frame.

It was the scene from the end of Luke, the two disciples,

one named Cleopas, the other anonymous

forever mumbling Christ’s name, and with them,

the resurrected Christ masquerading as a stranger.

They were on their way to that town, Emmaus,

seven miles out from Jerusalem,

gossiping about the impress of Christ’s vanishing—

they argued about whether to believe what they had seen;

they were restless, back and forth the debate went—

where there is estrangement there is little peace.

The estrangement of Holy Week—of being in the lurch between what has been hoped for and what will yet transpire—is not suddenly peacefully resolved when Jesus rises from the dead. Not, at least, for his disciples. St. Augustine interprets the discussion between the two of them and then with the hidden Lord as evidence of their loss of faith and hope. “They were walking along, dead, with Christ alive,” he writes, “They were walking along, dead, with life itself. Life was walking along with them, but in their hearts life had not yet been restored” (Sermon 235.2-3). The glorious turbulence of Christ’s resurrection occurs in the spaces where one’s hope has been disturbed and life has ended: in the tomb and in the heart, yes, and in the spaces in which we exact evil on each other—on stolen land, in the streets, in backyards; in broad day light, at night, under surveillance, and in secrecy; and in elementary schools, high schools, universities, and churches. The glorious turbulence of Christ’s resurrection occurs in the spaces where one’s hope has been tried and disfigured to the point at which what is hoped for becomes unforeseeable and unrecognizable, even when you are looking it in the face. In these spaces, we say, The Lord is Risen.

The estrangement and confusion of Holy Week may not resolve swiftly, but they do not, in the end, remain the inevitable to which we resign ourselves. What are we to do? When they had revealed their lack of clarity to him, the risen Lord told his disciples to pick up their Scripture and try reading it again. When they had reached their destination and their Lord, the stranger, made to move as if he would just keep going, though they still did not recognize him, his disciples said, “‘Stay with us…’ So he went in to stay with them,” becoming the host of their own dinner (24:29). It is then, when they, on something of a hunch, invite the stranger to stay, and it is then, on his own time and in his own way that the risen Lord becomes recognizable, in the breaking of bread. Before vanishing.

If his vanishing at the moment of recognition seems cruel or at least slippery, it is also essential to learning what Christ’s body in life, death, and resurrection is. In an essay called, “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ,” Anglican theologian and priest Graham Ward traces what he calls the various displacements or transpositions of Christ’s body—in incarnation and circumcision, it is the male-identified Jew; in transfiguration, the Second Adam; in the Eucharist, bread, in all of its genderless glory; in crucifixion, “mere flesh, a consumable, a dead, unwanted, discardable thing”; in resurrection, “the plenitude of God’s presence” in the emptiness of the tomb, the unrecognizable body of Christ in the post-resurrection appearances, and the Gospel narrative itself; and finally, in ascension, the Church. So, when Jesus blesses the bread, breaks it, gives it to Cleopas and the other disciple, and then vanishes, Jesus is demonstrating and enacting that what the disciples were understanding as his absence is in fact a sign of the mystery of the presence of his resurrected body, in bread and in them, together with all the Church. It is not presumed, I think, that Cleopas and the other disciple were in the room at the last supper in the first place, so their recognition of Christ in the breaking of the bread suggests that part of what happens in the Eucharist’s incorporation of the Body of Christ is a sharing of memory and knowledge; to participate in the breaking of the bread is to know Christ.

Though the Good News of Easter, Christ’s resurrection, is difficult to swallow, the mystery does not, ultimately, prohibit the church from doing the work Jesus has given it to do, which is to say, despite the limitations of human knowledge, the Body of Christ is the Body of Christ, witnessing to Christ’s resurrection in what we do and how we do it and what we say and how we say it. In the commissioning of the seventy disciples in Luke 10, this means going out into the neighboring towns, sharing peace; “eat[ing] what is set before you; cur[ing] the sick who are there, and say[ing] to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” or “‘The Kingdom of God is at hand’” (10:5–9). And if their witness to Christ in actions and words is rejected, they are to declare, “‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near’” (10:11–12).

Years ago, I heard it preached, based on the story of Christ’s resurrection appearance to Doubting Thomas, that in the wake of the disappearance of Jesus’ body, the disciples were lost and confused to the point of not knowing what to believe in some sort of permanent way, as if doubt were the defining characteristic of the earliest church. The point of saying this, I believe, was to comfort those of us today who have difficulty leaving Holy Week and its suspension of hope behind, because believing in resurrection is, admittedly, difficult. After, I spoke with a friend and professor of Christian scripture who was furious, saying if the earliest followers of Christ weren’t completely confident in the good news of Christ’s resurrection, none of them would have gone out to preach and heal, none of them would have been martyred. Without the resurrection, there is no (are no) Acts of the Apostles.

So it is good to have the story of the road to Emmaus paired with our reading from Acts. In it, we find that the Body of Christ is the Body of Christ. On the way to temple to pray in the afternoon, Peter and John see someone at the Beautiful Gate who was something of a permanent fixture—a man who is identified by his presence day-to-day-to-day, asking for alms. To be the Body of Christ means to see people who sink into their surroundings, to break through the sort of everyday rituals that turn people into objects of glazed-over glances, to offer what healing we can through God’s power, and in so doing, to witness to the reality of resurrection that already is. So this is what Peter and John do; they become willing vessels of Christ’s power. The healing of the man who is identified so closely with his begging “at the Beautiful Gate of the temple” does not sever him from the place in which he is known but rather allows him to move within it differently—he enters the temple, praising God.

In the story of the road to Emmaus and in the story of the man who jumps up to walk, the new life in Christ’s resurrection brings about movement and exclamation in those it touches. When you experience and witness new life and Christ, you tell somebody. The man’s newfound walk turns quickly into jumping and leaping and praising God in the company of “all the people.” Within an hour of their arriving at Emmaus, Cleopas and friend leave town again to schlep the seven miles back to Jerusalem to the eleven disciples and echo the eleven’s own jubilant proclamations in saying, The Lord is Risen.

My suspicion is that there are people here who have experienced healing by the power of Christ’s resurrection in ways we fear would make others uncomfortable. May we continue to learn how to receive the gospel as it is enfleshed in the bodies of others even as we continue to learn how to share it as it is in enfleshed in our own. I also suspect that, though we are in the season of Easter, there are people here who feel estranged from God and others in ways that seem hopeless. May we know ourselves to be joined with the resurrected body of Christ in the breaking of bread, and may that be sufficient for us today. Finally, I know that we are all witnesses of the relentless onslaught of the deathly and quotidian violences of racism, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and the manifold other ways humans devise to assert our domination at another’s expense. May God grant us grace and strength to bear witness to the resurrection in our bodies and words in spaces distorted by death and violence. And if we are not welcomed there, may our witness to the resurrection be a protest.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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