“Christ the Stranger”

April 12, 2015


Luke 24:13-35


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 tale.”

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.

That stranger…

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 stranger.

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 they walked.

The risen Christ is first of all a stranger—unknown, unrecognized.

There is something in these strange stories about the unrecognized resurrected One that helps explain why we are liberal Protestant Christians.

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 lives back.

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 them.

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 Christ.

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.

If Christ 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.

We will 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.