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April 26, 2020 Sermon From 11 Frightened Disciples: Jesus’ Continued Presence

April 26, 2020 Sermon
“From 11 Frightened Disciples:
Jesus’ Continued Presence”

 

Scripture Readings

Our first reading will be the guiding passage of this sermon series, a reminder of how the disciples began the evening of the first Easter locked away in a room out of fear.

 John 20:19-20

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

“From 11 Frightened Disciples:  Jesus’ Continued Presence”

There’s a dream from my childhood that I can still remember rather vividly; it made quite an impact on me.

To set the context, in the real world – not the dream world – my parents were away somewhere for the evening and so left my sister and I to stay with our grandmother, who lived very nearby.  (My brother must have been at a friend’s house.)  My grandmother was a regular church attender: worship services, fellowship meals, Bible studies; it so happens that on the night of my dream, my grandmother had an event to go to at her church building, a building I knew rather well because my family attended the same church.  So…that evening, we attended a typical fellowship meal and then, while my grandmother attended her meeting, my sister and I were put in a room by ourselves.  We were young – probably between 6 and 8 – but old enough to be able to be left alone…and it was late, and we were tired, so we just fell asleep on a couch.

In my dream – which felt so real I think because the events of the dream took place at that very same church building on that very same night – in that dream I went through the events of the evening prior to falling asleep in the room. And then I fell asleep, and I woke up.  Except when I woke up my sister was gone.  So I wandered outside the room to see where she had gone.  All the lights in the building were off, so it was dark and scary (to a child).  And I couldn’t find my sister.  I went to the room where my grandmother was supposed to be…but she wasn’t there; NOBODY was there.  I realized it was very late, everyone had left, and I was all alone.  I ran through the hallways, trying to find a person…anybody…but I was all alone.  The church building was too far from my house to walk…and the doors were locked anyway…and the phones weren’t working.  So I just ran and ran through the building, looking, and then screaming, trying to find someone.

Until I was startled awake (for real) by a group of adults who apparently heard me screaming in my dream and came to find out what was wrong.

The lasting feeling I have from that dream…to this day around 43-45 years later…is the feeling of being completely alone – and terrified.

I encourage you now to take some time to ask God to remind you of times in your life when you have felt like this, when you felt alone and terrified due to your loneliness or isolation.  Getting in touch with that loneliness is critical in understanding something that was going on with the disciples in our scripture readings for today.   

Last week, as I introduced the topic of our sermon series for this season of Eastertide, “From 11 Frightened Disciples”, I hinted at the disciples’ isolation.  I talked more about their fear of other things, external things, like the plot of the chief priests and elders to discredit them and maybe even kill them.  But I also mentioned how Jesus had promised his continued presence with them in his ministry, Jesus knowing there would be a time when his disciples would be looking for him, longing to have him present, but when they would feel alone. 

Jesus seemed to have known about the incredible power of loneliness, isolation; Jesus was worried for the time when his disciples would experience it.  And just like Jesus provided his presence to calm the disciples’ fears about the Jewish leadership, Jesus ALSO provided his presence – a resurrection appearance – to calm the disciples’ fears about being left alone.

You know a thing or two about the fear of being alone, being isolated, don’t you?

With each passing day, I read on social media and in the news about people going stir crazy due in part to being locked down, being shut up in their homes, but ALSO due largely to people being kept APART from others, people feeling isolated and alone:

  • I see pictures of people with faces pressed up against windows…just so they can SEE their friends and loved ones on the other side, so they can be close…without being so close as to transmit or receive this virus.
  • I read of people talking about how incredibly DIFFICULT it is to stay away from family and friends who are not members of their household. I’ve read on social media of many people who find this so difficult that they actually break the rules and go visit their loved ones ANYWAY.  (I’m imagining it takes some serious loneliness to put someone you love – yourself or someone else – at such great risk.)
  • I read stories of people who are in quarantine, even from their families – living in isolation in their basements, their RVS, a single bedroom – because they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or believe they may have it, stories of people who are completely isolated from everyone for 14 days and as a result discover how lonely such isolation really is.

I’m guessing all of us know about the fear of being alone right now, even if we are not completely alone…yet.

While our present circumstance is by no means fortunate, what IS fortunate is that Jesus anticipated a time when his disciples would combat a feeling of being left alone, and Jesus even re-appeared to some of his disciples in the midst of their feeling left alone, so we can learn some things about how Jesus provides for us during these times.

Look no further than our second scripture reading for today.  An encounter with the risen Christ provided the dominant means by which two disciples received what they needed in this passage.  Interestingly, these two on the walk to Emmaus were not two of the Eleven.  Which means this passage provides a glimpse into how some OTHERS – maybe more like us (because they were not part of the core group that spent three years with Jesus) – received what they needed to help shape the movement of Jesus into a worldwide force, even out of their feelings of being left alone and isolated.

In case you didn’t catch it in the scripture reading, I’m quite certain this passage from Luke’s gospel presents these two disciples as feeling left alone as a result of Jesus’ crucifixion, as feeling isolated from most of the world.   When encountered by what appeared to be a stranger on the road who asked them “what things” they were discussing, these two disciples didn’t START with the empty tomb, even though they ended up revealing they were aware of the women’s discovery and conversation with angels who proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection. No, they started with something else:

“The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. “

Can’t you hear the desperation, the loneliness, the isolation in their words?  “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  Jesus was “mighty in deed and word before God”, but “they crucified him.”  Y’all, on that first  Easter Sunday, even after news of resurrection had reached them, these two disciples were STILL feeling isolated, alone, afraid.

And then Jesus appeared, and these disciples received from the risen Christ renewed strength to continue Jesus’ ministry.  Let’s consider what transpired that led these two disciples to receive renewed strength…so that maybe we can discover something for ourselves in our time and place.

To begin, the disciples were “talking with each other about all these things’, which means talking with each other about Jesus.

Talking about Jesus might not seem like something that gives strength, but it is.  Later in the day, those same disciples reflected, “were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”  While I get it that Jesus’ presence with them – and Jesus’ explanation of the scriptures – had quite a bit to do with their hearts burning, I believe their hearts would have been burning even if Jesus had NOT shown up.  Just spending more time talking ABOUT Jesus, talking about faith, talking about God, can provide great strength.

Here’s why.  In the scripture reading, Jesus appeared to the disciples WHILE they were talking about Jesus.  Coincidence?  I think not.  In fact, I would suggest a causal relationship: Jesus chose to appear to these disciples BECAUSE they were talking about him.  Y’all, when we spend more time focusing on Jesus in our lives, especially in conversation, we will be more attentive to Jesus’ presence and we will experience Jesus’ presence with us, we will receive strength from Jesus’ presence with us…MORE.

But the story of the disciples’ receiving strength didn’t end there. Those two disciples ALSO chose to talk about Jesus with OTHERS, not just themselves.  (The “other” in this instance happened to be Jesus, but the two disciples didn’t know it at the time; they would have talked to ANY others about Jesus.)

That’s a big shift, an essential shift, for the spread of Christianity.  It was in the 1st century, and it is today.

Let me share with you how I experience similar interactions in the world today.  I see two Christians, sometimes I’m PART of two Christians, talking about their faith, starting to get revved up, hearts burning, receiving strength.  Then, a stranger approaches and asks, “What are you discussing?” Actually, such faith conversations have a tendency to lead to this kind of question from others precisely because they can see how much the hearts of Christians are burning when they talk about Jesus, talk about faith.   But it’s in what happens next  that I see things take a dangerous turn.  More often than not, one or both of the two Christians respond to the stranger’s inquiry with something like, “Oh, nothing much.”  Really?!  Oh, nothing much??

My friends, if talking about our faith makes our hearts burn, if talking about our faith gives us strength, if talking about our faith brings us closer to Jesus, why do we keep it locked up tight for NO ONE else to experience?  Why do we keep it locked up in our sanctuaries?  Why do we keep it locked away from our friends?  Why do we keep it locked away from our co-workers?  Don’t we want everyone to experience what we experience when we encounter Jesus?

Well, whatever your answer, the story of Cleopas and the other disciple from our reading today demonstrates that we receive power when we SHARE the stories of Jesus, share the faith, with others.  Also, sharing the story with others is the only way the story reaches more and more people…instead of dying with us!

But the story of those two disciples receiving strength didn’t even end there.  They continued to talk with Jesus, even though they didn’t know it was Jesus. 

They continued to talk with Jesus even after he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”  

I wonder, if you were having a conversation with a close friend in the faith, and someone else walked up and inserted herself/himself into the conversation, and THEN made a statement like this declaring the inadequacies of your faith, would you keep the conversation going or shut it down?

In our society, we tend to stick close to people with whom we agree and push/pull away from people who think differently than we do.  With each passing day, this phenomenon seems to gain momentum.  Notice what the two disciples in the story did – even what Jesus did – they continued the conversation with a “stranger” (they didn’t know it was Jesus yet) who strongly disagreed with them on a few points of faith.  We could learn something from them!  (By the way, if you think this only worked because the stranger was Jesus, I’m curious how deeply you continue conversations with Jesus when you encounter him in the scriptures saying and doing things, even commanding things, that aren’t quite consistent with your strongly held beliefs?)

But they didn’t just keep the conversation going – even after he said something that would end most conversations today; they invited him to STAY with them.  (I’m assuming they hadn’t rented out an extra room in advance, so they invited a complete stranger to spend the night wherever they would be spending the night.) And, they invited him to dine with them, which was a much more intimate act in that time and place than it is today.

My friends, keeping the conversation going – even with strangers who disagree and rebuke us – and working hard to keep relationship going, even to the point of inviting strangers into the family for long enough to have a real and complete conversation about faith (rather than just short, surface-level conversation) is the example we’re provided of how to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.  

And it is ALSO the example we’re provided for combating loneliness and isolation.  If you choose to ONLY converse with and be in deep relationship with people who think and act and talk and believe just like you, you are isolating yourself from MOST of the fellow travelers God has placed in your midst in this lifetime.   Somehow, we – even Christians – have reached the point of excluding people because they are different from us and wondering why we are lonely…and wondering where the good conversation has gone…and wondering why we get bored with all these people who are just like us.

For the disciples, the story didn’t even end there.  The story continued with two more elements.  The first I will not address in detail because I discussed it last week. These two disciples’ ultimately recognized Jesus’ identity in the breaking of bread (which I discussed last week as a means of recognizing the risen Christ in our midst and receiving strength from him).  And the story ends with one more amazing way the disciples received strength to combat loneliness and spread the gospel, a way we can do the same: celebrating and worshipping with OTHER disciples.  Cleopas and the other disciple intended to stay at Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.  But when they broke bread with the stranger and realized Jesus had been in their midst, “that same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem” to share the news with the eleven and celebrate.

As I look at our worship today – I don’t mean the outline of the service but more how we approach our worship – I wonder if we share and celebrate too little.  That’s exactly why we now share and celebrate God-sightings in our midst during each worship service: there is power in and strength to be had from celebrating God’s presence and acts (and our recognition of them) when we gather.

(PAUSE)

In this story from long ago, five things happened that helped combat the loneliness, the isolation, and the fear of two disciples; five things happened as examples to be followed for how to receive strength from the risen Christ, for how to grow the church.  Not surprisingly, the growing movement of Jesus’ followers incorporated these five things – talking about Jesus with each other, sharing conversation about Jesus with others, taking the conversation and relationship deeper (even sharing meals with worshippers), breaking bread together, and celebrating God’s presence together – the growing movement of Jesus’ followers incorporated these five things into their communal life, their communal DNA.  The results?  The disciples’ sense of loneliness and isolation faded, to be replaced by a fellowship that regularly experienced the risen Christ’s presence and relatively quickly spread to the ends of the earth!  The same can happen for us.

Amen.