On Easter Sunday, we heard how Mary went to the tomb, early in the morning, and discovered that the tomb was empty. She ran to tell the disciples, who in turn, ran to the tomb to see for themselves. Peter, and another disciple eventually looked in and found only the cloths that had been used bind the Lord’s body. Not knowing what else to do, they went home.
Mary, though, stayed. Stayed longer than the others. When she looked into the tomb, she saw two angels, and they asked her why she was weeping. Outside the tomb, she encountered Jesus, though at first she thought he was the gardener. She knew it was Jesus when he said her name.
Last week, we heard how the disciples were all gathered together except Thomas, and though the door was locked, Jesus appeared among them. He said ‘Peace be with you’, and they knew it was Jesus. Later that week, again all together, this time with Thomas, Jesus appeared to them a second time, also saying ‘Peace be with you’. Jesus encouraged Thomas to put his finger in the holes in his hand, to put his hand in the hole in his side. When Thomas did that, he knew it was Jesus.
Today, we heard how the disciples were traveling on the road to a place called Emmaus. On the way, they encountered a stranger. Their conversation turned to the recent crucifixion of Jesus, and the stranger talked about scripture, and how it was all related. When they had reached their destination, they invited the stranger to stay with them, and when they sat down to eat, when they broke bread, they knew it was Jesus.
If those of us who struggle to be the church in the 21st century hope to know Jesus, scripture gives us a few hints on how we might make that happen: we’ll have to wait around the empty tomb long enough to encounter Jesus, or we’ll have to be patient to wait until he speaks our name, or we’ll have to gather together enough times to share his peace with one another, saying ‘Peace be with you’ to each other, or, we have to be close enough to Jesus to put our fingers in the holes in his hands, or put our hands in the hole in his side, or we have to gather to break bread together.
The community that the writer of John’s Gospel was trying to reach was in a tough spot: they were cut off from their Jewish brothers and sisters due to their belief in Jesus as the son of God. They were cut off from their Christian brothers and sisters because of their particular way of being community. The author of John’s gospel was writing to a community that needed desperately to be reassured of their place in relationship to the sacred, in relationship with Jesus.
Oddly enough, the community that wishes to continue to be the church in the 21st century needs desperately to be reassured of our place in relationship to the sacred, needs desperately to be reassured of our relationship with Jesus.
So what are we to do? We need to be the church. We need to do what Mary did, and stay around long enough to encounter Jesus. We need to do what the disciples did, and gather often enough to share the peace of Christ with each other, and with others. We need to do what Thomas did, and get close enough to Jesus to touch his wounded hands and side. We need to do what the disciples did, and break bread together so that Jesus will be known to us, too. All these things are about being the church. About gathering together, about being present and ready for the presence of Christ. And they don’t seem that difficult!
But if we don’t gather, if we aren’t patient outside the tomb, and we go home, we’ll miss Jesus. If we don’t gather, if we aren’t together to pass the peace of Christ, or if we aren’t close enough to Jesus to touch his hands and side, we’ll miss him. If we don’t break bread together, we’ll miss him. And if we miss him, if we continue to try and be the church without gathering, what will we be?
In my home church, growing up, I remember interviewing a parishioner as part of my confirmation process. I had to ask a series of questions about their faith, their participation in the local church, and possibly, the wider church. When I asked about attendance, he told me that during the nicer weather, he worshiped at the altar of the 18 links.
Since then, I’ve had parishioners tell me that they will often worship when camping, fishing, doing laundry, going to the beach, skiing, or hiking.
And these things can very much bring us closer to the sacred, and they very well may be enjoyable and even spiritually fulfilling. But they won’t bring us to Jesus. To do that, we’ll need to be together.
Here’s an interesting thing: on the ancient maps, there is no place called Emmaus. In Hebrew, its meaning is something like ‘deep longing’. So in our scripture today, the disciples were on the road to ‘deep longing’, and were joined by Jesus, who was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Perhaps the answer to the steep decline in the health of our churches these days isn’t in recreating the successes of the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and 70’s, but instead lies in recreating the early communities that literally and symbolically feared for their very existence, and gathered together as much for protection and support as they did to worship.
Regular gathering for worship, regular gathering for passing the peace, and regular gathering for breaking bread together seems like a pretty good recipe for seeing Jesus.
Fairmount members might remember this story, but I’m going to tell it again: A little over 20 years ago, I became acquainted with a middle-aged couple named Tim and Cheryl. Cheryl was a special education teacher nearing retirement, and Tim was a retired auto worker who also happened to be blind. I had been bitten by the cycling bug, I loved riding my bike, and often, my conversations with Tim revolved around cycling. He told me that as a teenager, at his school for the blind, he had been taught to ride a tandem bike. He knew how to keep his balance, even though he could not see. We cooked up a plan to find a used tandem bike so that we might ride together. When we told his wife Cheryl, she looked at me like I was crazy, and she said, ‘Gary, are you trying to see Jesus?!’
I suspect what she meant was that another way to see Jesus is to be near death, which makes a lot of sense to me, but that seems like an awfully dangerous way to see Jesus. It seems a lot safer to just gather regularly, pass the peace of Christ, and break bread together, don’t you think?
The Johannine community, the group of faithful that the author of John’s gospel was trying to reach, didn’t worry about how many members they had, they worried about the quality of their interactions with each other, and with Jesus.
We could take a page out of their playbook: if we became more concerned with the quality of our faith interactions, and worried less about how many people are in the pews on Sundays, we just might survive these difficult times.
Focusing on our ability to live into our hopes, live into our faith, as opposed to living out of our fears, might just bring us to our Lord and Savior. Using Mary and the disciples as a template for our own faith practices may open up new ways for us to see Jesus. I still would like to get Tim on a tandem bike, just to see if we could ride together, but that’s just me. I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker…
We are an Easter People. At the very heart of our faith, at the very core of our understanding of our faith lies the process of death and resurrection. Jesus teaches us in his own way about the seed that must die and be buried before it can grow into a plant, our own seasons show us that after the death of winter, plants find new life in the spring. Over and over again, repeated cycle after cycle, there is death, and there is resurrection.
So why do we fear the coming death so much? When will we be able to accept that we won’t experience new life, resurrection, for the church until the old church dies away? When will we trust that the cycle, the process, is both natural, and necessary?
Gathering in Christ’s name to pass the peace, to worship God, and to break bread together puts an emphasis on our relationship with Jesus, and not on our survival. These things help us to see how the church can be stronger in order to do the things Jesus calls us to do for and with our neighbors, and even our enemies. It can also show us how trying to meet our own needs through the church can get us on the wrong path. Ironically enough, our survival will be guaranteed if we could focus on being the church again, for the sake of others, and be worried less about the church that meets our own needs.
It’s beginning to look like the church of the 21st century is more of a means to live out our faith than a way to serve ourselves. Like the disciples on the road to ‘deep longing’, the church of the future will be part of a journey, not a destination. When we try to make it a destination, we risk losing sight of Jesus.
On our own collective journeys of deep longing, if we are patient, if we can wait by the empty tomb long enough for Jesus to call us by name, if we can share the peace of Christ with each other, and with others, if we can be close enough to Jesus to touch his hands and side, if we can gather to intentionally break bread together, Jesus will be known to us, and we will be doing the work of the 21st century church. Let’s get to it. Amen.
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