“God’s Reply”

May 11, 2014


I Peter 1:10-16

Luke 24:13-35


Our dear friend, the late Russ Fate, was a student of Joseph Sittler, the mid-twentieth century Chicago theologian. Russ loved Sittler’s final collection of essays, Gravity and Grace, in which he imagines a child waking in the middle of the night and a mother coming into the room to hear her child say, “I’m scared.”

The mother says, “There’s nothing to be frightened about. There’s really no bear in the closet. There’s nothing under your bed.”

But of course, the indeterminate fear is the most irremovable fear, so the child says, “I know, but I’m still scared.”

The mother does not answer the fright of the child. A wise mother says, “Don’t be frightened, I’m here.” That is not an answer to the child’s fear, Sittler says. “It is not an answer, but it is a reply.”[i]

These days after Easter remind us that the resurrection of Jesus is not an answer, so much as it is God’s reply to our fear, God’s reply to all that troubles us. In the night when we worry about what is happening to those we love, when worry about what will become of us, resurrection is God’s reply—a promise that we are not left to ourselves.

This is not to say that we don’t often feel abandoned, alone, or as the spiritual puts it, “like a motherless child.” 

On the Sunday after the crucifixion, two followers of Jesus head out of town for someplace called “Emmaus.” It’s probably about seven miles from Jerusalem, and we'll have to take Luke's word for it because nobody today has the slightest idea where Emmaus is—or was. Emmaus is somewhere, but somewhere isn’t much of a destination. Going “somewhere” is not a matter of being lost. It’s more like not knowing where you're going—or why you’re going there.

These two travelers aren’t mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. One of them isn’t even important enough to be named.  They are the kind of ordinary people that history forgets.

So why would we remember the story of Cleopas and his companion?

Perhaps their experience was enough like the experience of others that early Christians thought it worth handing down to future generations.

And perhaps these two followers of Jesus who were so unaware of the ways in which God was acting in their world and in their time could just as easily be us today.

We know, don’t we, the despair, the bewilderment, the fear that Cleopas and his friend were experiencing on that Sunday after the crucifixion.

A project at work or school turns into a disastrous failure.

The illness that seemed under control is suddenly getting worse.

Dreams fade and plans don’t work out.

Someone we love dies.

In sorrow and grief, in despair and fear, even in self-pity we know what it’s like to give up and start walking that road to Emanus, the road to somewhere—or nowhere.

Cleopas and his friend, scared enough to get out of town while the getting was good, walk down that road. They know dashed hopes. They were convinced that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel. But now as far as they know, he is three days dead. The women among them tell them good news—this same Jesus is alive. But nobody is about to believe that.

And just then Jesus, the unexpected and unrecognized Christ, draws near.

Just then, with their world falling apart, the risen Christ is closer than he has ever been.

Any time we ask questions like

“Where is God?”

“Does God care about this world?”

“Does God care about me—or am I as insignificant as that unnamed traveler on the road to Emmaus?”

The risen Christ draws near to us,

            hears our doubt and despair,

                        listens to our confusion as we search for direction and purpose.

and speaks to our suffering out of his own.

We don’t always recognize God’s presence with us, among us—which is one reason we continue to turn to scripture.

Cleopas begins a wonderful summary of the gospel as he talks to the stranger on the road: "Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet mighty in deed and word, delivered up to be condemned to death and crucified. . . .And the women said that he was alive."

But it is the unknown Jesus who completes the good news by interpreting the Torah of Moses and the words of the prophets so that the two disciples understand that the suffering of Christ led to resurrected glory.

Scripture points us to two things:

the suffering of Christ—that it is real and to be expected;

and the glory of Christ—that through struggle comes victory, even that through death comes life—and that is always the  surprise, isn’t it—that through death comes life.

Through the scriptures we get the “whole picture”—we learn who this stranger is who walks beside us.

But even when we listen for the word of God speaking to us, we don’t always hear God’s reply.

Even with the lens of scriptures our eyes don’t always see.

There is an analogy to be found in the “averted vision” of astronomy. If you want to see a very faint star, you should look a little to the side because your eye is more sensitive to faint light that way—and a soon as you look right at the star, it disappears.[ii]

So instead of looking directly, 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.

God’s reply of resurrection is made real in the meal that we share with each other when we gather at this table. When Jesus gave this meal to his followers on the night of his betrayal and arrest, he filled bread broken and wine poured with a wealth of information—about who he is, about how God acts in the world, about what life might be like for us. That was all there. But it is only in the light of the resurrection that we fully see what is offered.

Look as Jesus takes the bread into his hands. This is the common, the ordinary, stuff of life.

Your ordinary life will do.

My ordinary life will do.

The ordinary busy, fearful, confused days that we know can be occasions in which we recognize Christ.

Jesus offers up the ordinary to God. We can imagine him speaking the ancient Hebrew words: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of all creation, for you bring forth bread from the earth.” The blessing of a meal has two functions.

It binds those who eat into a community in the sight of God.

And it offers the praise and the thanksgiving of that community to God.

Blessing brings ordinary bread and our ordinary lives into the presence of God who gives both bread and life. 

Then Jesus breaks this bread—as his body was broken for us. I’m always touched by those words spoken when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper: “The body of Christ, broken for you.” I have spoken these words to people with arms or legs in casts, to people whose relationships were torn apart, to people who were themselves broken in mind or spirit.

We know brokenness. And in our brokenness we come to know Christ who was broken for us.

When we are broken, when our world is falling apart, when we fear the worst has happened—or is about to, Jesus is closer than he has ever been.

We hear again the good news: “This is for you—in your brokenness, in your emptiness, in your fear.

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 stranger becomes the friend that they knew and loved. The One who had been crucified, dead and buried was there with them.

When bread is blessed, broken and given our eyes are opened as well.

It happens at this table, and because it happens at this table, it also happens whenever we extend hospitality: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick. 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. And we are called out of darkness into light, out of bitterness into love, and out of death into life.

At the table we see more clearly.

Which may be why this congregation does so much eating.

At the table together we find out who we are, who our neighbor is. Our eyes are opened as we talk and eat together. The stranger becomes a friend.

In a congregation strangers become neighbors, neighbors become brothers and sisters in Christ.

At the table together, our eyes are opened. We see in new ways.  It is a wonderful thing that we say. We say that we have seen Christ—in scripture, in the breaking of the bread, in welcome and hospitality.  The risen Christ comes to us—even in our despair and disbelief and fear. He listens as we speak, as we search for meaning in the rubble of our lives. He receives us as we are. And he accepts our invitation to stay a little longer when the darkness seems to be closing in around us.

At the table when bread is blessed, broken, given, eaten, our eyes are opened and we recognize Jesus 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. We get some small sense of God’s presence, some vague realization of meaning and purpose—even in difficult times—and it is gone like the morning mist burning off an Iowa field—which is why we continue to come to the table. Our eyes once opened begin to close again. Our souls, once fed, become hungry once more. 

This resurrection meal is not an answer to our fear, to our bewilderment. But it is a reply. At the table, God, like a mother, comes to her fearful children and says, “I am here. I am here when you are broken. I am here when you are afraid. I am here when you don’t know where you are going.”

To our hurting lives, to our hurting world, the God of resurrection replies: “I am here with you.”

[i] Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace, pg. 100.

[ii] Complexity, pg. 319