Today’s passages are filled with buzz words that trigger many thoughts and feelings to modern ears, just as they have for centuries. In Acts we hear that the first converts were devoted to the disciple’s teaching and to fellowship. They shared all things in common. There were signs and wonders done in their midst, and many were added to their numbers every day.
Sometimes this story is used by people who are fed up with the hypocrisy of the church. “We are nothing like the first century church,” they say, and they are right. We do not know what signs and wonders were performed in those days, but I do wonder how long they were able to share things in common. It also makes me think of a carnival atmosphere or a renaissance festival. It sounds like a party, and maybe it was.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know. What we do know is that they were gathered with an expectation. Initially that expectation was that they would experience the active presence of God, and as that experience took hold it became something new. It became an expectation that God’s return and God’s judgement was going to happen very soon.
So, when Peter wrote these words about God’s judgement and about living in reverent fear, he was telling the believers to stay strong in their faith, because God was coming soon. He wasn’t threatening them with some kind of boogyman. He was telling them that the sacrifice that had been made by Jesus had covered all that had come and gone. The future, however, was up to them.
And in the nearest future – for them and for us – the most immediate experience of God is found in our love for one another. How else can we respond to God’s action of purifying our souls but to love one another – deeply, from the heart?
Such love is not safe. Loving one another is not the same as being nice to one another, for love requires vulnerability. The villains in books and movies say that it makes you weak, and it does. But the heroes always prove that it is also the source of our greatest strength. Either way, love is the great equalizer that makes all of our other social cues and levels of power and influence irrelevant. It places us at the same table.
Earlier this week I attended such an table at the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette. They were hosting a breakfast for area clergy to support an upcoming event called 8 Days of Hope. At my table sat the Pastor of First Baptist, the Mayor of Lafayette, and another pastor from a small town I had never heard of. Throughout the room there were servant leaders with various titles, but all of us were focused on one thing – the fact that there is still enough suffering in our community to warrant the attention of national relief organizations.
The speaker, a man named Steve Tabor, talked about his personal experience of going down to help out in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. At the time he was a successful businessman who wanted to give back. Yet after he saw what a natural disaster can do to the lives of others, he could no longer return to his old life. After that he started up a non-prophet based on partnering with local organizations in communities that had experienced disasters in order to mobilize volunteers from across the country for a short term commitment with a huge impact.
Now, in many ways, he’s doing the same thing that we are doing through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. He’s just doing it in a shorter time span. What’s important about all of this is not the number of people that his organization can mobilize or the number of homes that can be done (although 300 homes in 8 days is pretty impressive). What matters is that Steve had what some might call an Emmaus road experience.
This is a man who already knew and loved the teachings of Jesus. This is a man who probably made good and bad decisions along the way, but who realized that he needed to love others more genuinely and openly. Why? Because when he sat at table with strangers helping strangers he realized that Christ was present.
That’s what happened on the way to Emmaus. Two of the disciples were walking to Emmaus. We don’t know why. Maybe they were trying to get away and start over. Their beloved teacher and friend was killed most brutally and publicly. What’s worse is that they thought he was the one that was going to call Jerusalem to revolution! They thought he was the one who would restore the Jewish state and kick out the Romans.
And then some crazy story comes along that Jesus is alive? No wonder they got out of town. No wonder they were not expecting to see Jesus and did not even recognize him on the road. I know it still seems a little odd, but it was evening. There is too much unknown to say what it was that kept them from seeing him, but the most obvious answer is that they did not want to see him.
This resurrected Jesus did not fit into their understanding or expectation of what it meant to be God’s people, which is why it is so important that Jesus framed it for them that way. By turning first to the scriptures, Jesus taught them that they should have no other expectation but the suffering death and resurrection of the Messiah.
Still not convinced, they ask him to stay – even though he was ready to move on. I think that’s a pretty big detail. Jesus was walking ahead. He had somewhere else to be. If they had not invited him in, he would have moved on. I don’t think that means that the work of God is totally dependent on our invitation, but I do think it means that God is going to do what God is going to do with or without me or you.
So, they prevailed on the stranger, and when he broke the bread it triggered something deep inside from their last meal together. “This is my body,” he had said. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he had said.
And even as they realized who he was he vanished. I have to admit that I don’t really know what to do with the hocus pokus moments of scripture. I’ll just say that they don’t do much for my understanding of God’s presence and God’s providence. The way this particular passage speaks to me is not as proof that God can do miraculous things. Instead it is in the way that our awareness of God’s active presence is limited by our own expectations. And often times we only get it when we look back on where we’ve been.
But the really important thing is not to be able to prove that God was there. Nobody needs an “I walked to Emmaus with Jesus” t-shirt. What we need is to allow those times and places to transform and direct the path we will follow the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
For us, and for our congregation, it means that all those buzz words and triggers out there in the world pull us to one common table – to one common expectation – and that is the sure knowledge that God is with us, purifying our souls so that we may love genuinely!
That reminds me of one more thing that Steve Tybor said at the breakfast the other morning to a room full of clergy. He said, “I’ve heard a lot of great sermons, but the best ones were the ones that I’ve seen in the actions of people loving other people.”
As we move forward in faith, we are called to the one table that equalizes and grounds our hopes and fears in one common reality – Christ is risen, the Lord is with us, and we are called to live and love one another! Those are easy words to say, and they get complicated when we start talking about school systems and health care and the role of the government and poverty and justice and racism and women’s health issues and gun violence and war and mental health.
These are all topics that can trigger any number of responses, and we need to be engaged in them all thoughtfully and faithfully. Because if we don’t approach them with love and faith and compassion for the stranger, we may find that we have missed the chance to break bread with Jesus. My hope and my prayer is that we don’t leave him at the door, that we recognize him at this table together, and that we might all be transformed again and again by the love of God - the only love that never gives up or gives out - but always triggers a response of love for the sake of loving.
I pray that we may be transformed by this love today and tomorrow and all the days to come, and all to the glory of God. Amen!