“Christ the Stranger”
April 12, 2015
This is always a congregation in change. In part it’s the nature of our
community—a lot of people come here for a period of time and then move on. We
are a community of transition in a city that is rapidly reinventing and
remaking itself. And if we are open to the grace of God, we find in that grace
that we are even a community of transformation.
Lately, the amount of change around here has been glaringly obvious.
When I look out at this congregation today—or on any recent Sunday morning—when
I talk with members, when I hold you in my prayers, I think of all the changes
that people in this room are facing: retirements and new jobs, upcoming graduations
and weddings. Many are moving to new homes here in town—there’s a whole group
of Congregationalists taking over Oaknoll soon—and many others will be moving
to new homes out of town. And there are all those who have been moving through
times of serious illness—we celebrate all those signs of healing that we have
seen and we also know that for many the road ahead is long and uncertain—and we
will continue to walk that road together.
We hear stories of resurrection in this context of change this year.
Maybe we hear those stories that way every year, but it is certainly shaping my
understanding of Easter in these days.
We do not come quickly to understand resurrection. It takes time to
grasp what Easter means and what it means for our lives. Luke’s story of Easter
hints at this—it begins at early dawn and continues until after dark.
When the women discover the empty tomb and two
messengers tell them, “Jesus is not here. He is risen,” we’re just at the start
of things. Mary Magdalene and the women with her tell their experience to the
other followers of Jesus. Peter goes to check out the tomb and is amazed. But
generally the words of the women are regarded, Luke tells us, as “an idle
The empty tomb does not settle matters. As the day
goes on, there is little Easter joy to be found.
Two followers of Jesus, Cleopas and his unnamed
companion, take the road heading out of town. Their hopes were dashed with the
crucifixion. And reports of the empty tomb in no way revived them. They give
voice to their despair, saying: “We had hoped that he was the one…” to a
stranger who seems to have no idea of what has been going on in recent days.
Several times in the Gospels, the followers of the
crucified Jesus meet up with Christ the stranger:
A week ago at the sunrise service we heard the account
from John’s Gospel of Mary Magdalene weeping outside the empty tomb. John says
that she “saw Jesus standing there but did not know that it was Jesus.” Christ
the stranger. Mary thinks he is the gardener. Only when she hears him say her
name does Mary realize who it is that is speaking to her.
The Gospel of John concludes with a story of seven
disciples going fishing. After spending the night catching nothing, they look
toward the shore. John says that “Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples
did not know that it was Jesus.” Christ the stranger. Only as they talk back
and forth—and especially as the act
on what this stranger tells them—does one disciple come to realize who this is
and then tell his companions, “It is the Lord!”
And Luke tells us when Jesus started walking with
Cleopas and his friend “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Christ the
Those who knew him do not recognize the one for whom
they provided, the one who first called them from their nets, the one with whom
The risen Christ is first of all a stranger—unknown,
There is something in these strange stories about the
unrecognized resurrected One that helps explain why we are liberal Protestant
The risen Christ will not be pinned down to our specifications. The
risen Christ will not be weighed down with our expectations. The living Christ
will not be held captive by the church or by scripture or by our own
always-incomplete understanding. As
Albert Schweitzer said, “He comes to us as one unknown.” Because of this we are
reluctant to limit Christ by the definitions of creedal formulas. We refuse to
speak the final word about who Christ is and who might be numbered among those
who follow him.
This is good news for people in transition. It means that as we change,
as the circumstances of our lives change, we will discover new ways in which
Christ is made know to us. We will
discover new ways of following this living stranger.
Yes, like Mary at the empty tomb, we will sometimes look
for Christ in the expected places—places where he always seemed to be in the past. There might be times when we despair over
not finding him there, times when the absence of God, a sense of emptiness, is
all that we will know.
Like Mary we will come to understand that we can’t get a handle on the
risen Christ. Christ is not ours to possess. We are Christ’s and Christ claims
us and calls us to love this world and the people in it. We are Christ’s and
Christ goes ahead of us into all the uncertainty of each new day. Christ is
free in the world, where we are called to follow. Christ is present in the poor
and the afflicted, in every life that we would deem insignificant or
unimportant. And—wonder of wonders—Christ is present even in you and me.
Yes, like those disciples on that long ago beach, we too
will attempt to do what Christ the stranger asks of us.
When Peter and the others returned to fishing, they were seeking the
known, the familiar—the boat and the sea, to the nets and the fish. Perhaps in
returning to these familiar pursuits, to what they knew, they could get their
In three words, John tells us the result: “They caught nothing.”
“Children,” Christ the stranger calls out somewhat condescendingly to
those in the boat, “Children, you have no fish, have you?”
And they admit it with a simple “No.”
Even though they are not clear about who it is that speaks to them, they
seem open to trying something else—so they act when Jesus tells them: “Cast the
net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some fish.” And they had a
great catch of fish—something they could not achieve on their own, something
that required looking once more in the midst of discouragement and despair.
I think that in this congregation we try to do what Christ asks of
us—the demanding work of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming
the stranger. In doing so, we need to hear that invitation to try something
new. As we try—and when we succeed—our attempts become affirmations of our
basic human equality before God and one another, a demonstration of respect for
other faith traditions alongside our own, a living out of our commitment to
thoughtfulness in our faith and faithfulness in our thinking, and the creation
and sharing of beauty. And in all of this there is a hope that looks forward
and a present joy. The “Yes” of resurrection that comes to us today and invites
us to new ways of going about all we are called to do.
And, like Cleopas and his unnamed companion, we even
catch glimpses of who Christ the stranger is for us today.
As dusk approaches they extend basic hospitality to the One unknown:
“Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
At the table Jesus takes break, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to
But that’s not the end of it. They don’t then have a nice meal and call
it a day.
When Jesus gives bread, their
eyes are opened and they recognize him. The One who had been crucified, dead
and buried is there with them.
When bread is blessed, broken and given our eyes are opened as well.
We take bread and remember a life broken that we might be made whole.
We take a cup and remember a life poured out that we might be full.
We hear again the good news: “This
is for you—in your brokenness, in
your emptiness. Suddenly we find that we are, each of us, being called by name
and that we are no longer strangers.
It happens at this table, and
because it happens at this table, it
also happens whenever we extend hospitality. It happens anytime we reach out in
simple or difficult acts of friendship or compassion. It happens anytime we
find the grace and the strength to follow the new commandment that Jesus also
gave when he gave this meal and love one another just as we have been loved by
Our eyes are opened. By the
grace of God we recognize the risen Christ
among us—not as one whom we can grasp and cling to, but one who seems to vanish
almost as quickly as we recognize him.
the stranger can be found in a garden, on a beach, at a table, there seems to
be no limits to how or where we might encounter him.
always be a congregation in change, a people in transition. Through all of this,
in all of this, the risen Christ—a stranger made known to us in all manner of
ways—will call us to new tasks, new opportunities and transform us into his
followers through all our changes.