Monday, May 25, 2020

This Liminal Time

'When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.'
--Acts 1: 6-14

Those of you who are familiar with the church’s calendar of high holy days, will recognize that we are in the middle of two of the most sacred moments in the life of Christianity:  the Ascension and the Day of Pentecost. 

Depiction of the Ascension on a notecard from Chad, Central Africa.

The Ascension is the name we give to the event we heard about in our first reading this morning.  This is Jesus’ return to heaven, and it is marked every year exactly 40 days after Easter, so it always falls on a Thursday.  Many times we move the celebration of this day to Sunday so that we can hear the story once more of Jesus’ last action on earth, his physical return into the heavens with the words to his apostles that that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit and will go into the world to be his witnesses. 

The Day of Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday, is the fulfillment of that promise from Jesus, the day that the Holy Spirit comes among the apostles and inspires them to put their faith into action. 

The Day of Pentecost, as depicted by El Greco.

Today, though, we are somewhere in-between those two moments. This is what we call a liminal space, a thin place, if you will, not quite this but not yet that.  This liminality is an important feature in the way that the story of Christianity plays out.  Jesus is raised from the dead on Easter Sunday and spends 40 days appearing to his followers.  On the day that he returns into heaven he does not bestow the gift of the Spirit on the apostles right then and there, instead they have to go back to Jerusalem, back into their home, back into isolation—social distancing, maybe?—and there they must enter into a time of intentional prayer, a time of waiting for God to act.  This is the only way that the story can play out.
That’s because right down to the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, the apostles still don’t really understand.  In the moments before he ascends they wonder if this is the time that  he will finally restore the kingdom to Israel.  Think about what they are asking him in that moment.  They wonder if this will mark a return to the past, the restoration of a monarchy long since dissolved.  Their minds are not fixed on what is ahead, on what can be, but rather on what already has been.  This is why they cannot receive the Holy Spirit in this moment, the reason why they need to return to Jerusalem and enter that period of intentional waiting.  Jesus, for his part, immediately redirects them.  It’s not about the restoration of something from the past, and what’s more it’s not their place to even begin to figure out how, when, or even if God the Father will do such a thing.  Theirs is to be recipients of the promised Spirit, to embrace the presence and power of the Spirit in their midst, and to be agents of that power and presence out in the world.  The only way they can do this, though, is to enter that liminal space of waiting, watching, and praying.

The day Jesus ascended into heaven the apostles must have been filled with so much curiosity about what all of this meant, and maybe they were considering what the coming days were going to be like, or they just wanted to bask in the moment, staring up to heaven and taking it all in.  Then like THAT they’re told in no uncertain terms by these angelic figures in white that they need to stop what they’re doing and go home.  I wonder what that walk down from the Mount of Olives to their little apartment was like.  Maybe they complained or wondered who those angels thought they were to tell them what to do.  Or maybe there was a gentle acceptance.  Regardless of how they got there, they did go back, and what’s most important is that they entered into that time not knowing when God was going to act but trusting that God would.  Someday. 
That trust took the form of their constant devotion to prayer and caring for one another in the context of community.  It was because of this period, this in-between time, and the way that they used it, that the apostles were able to not only receive the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost but transform the world as we know it by the Spirit’s power.

We are in a liminal space right now, not just the liminal space between the Ascension and the Day of Pentecost, but the liminal space between what was and what is to be.  Like the apostles we have been driven back into our homes and told to stay there, to wait for…something.  This is where we are now.  There are a few ways that we can look at our situation, both as individuals and as members of communities.  We can be stuck here, bored out of our minds, frustrated by all of the unknowns—about the virus and about if and when things can be normalized—or we can see this time as a gift, the gift of liminality.  Now is the time for us to pray for guidance, for comfort, for strength, and for patience.  Now is the time for us to care for one another in the context of our various communities—and yes, caring does mean remaining separated.  Now is the time for us to wait for…something, for the Holy Spirit to tell us when we, like the apostles, can go back out into the world.  And when we do, thanks to this time of discernment and intentional prayer we will be poised, like them, to transform the world as we know it. 

There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainties in our lives right now, but one thing that is certain is that whatever God has in store for us will not be a restoration of something from the past.  Rather, whatever is to come will be a new future highlighted by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  Neither the Ascension, nor Pentecost, was the day when Jesus restored the kingdom to Israel.  That day never happened.  Many of us have been hoping and praying that God will likewise restore our world to the version that we knew, to something familiar.  Yet it is clear that this is not how God operates.  Jesus tells the apostles before he leaves them that they are not to be concerned with such matters, but they are to be recipients of the Spirit, so that they may move the world forward, toward that promised Kingdom that we always pray will come on earth as it is in heaven.  Christians are not a people who look to restore the past, but as a people of resurrection we look for new life and meaning in a future that is guided by the Holy Spirit and with Jesus at its epicenter. 

There is no going back, there is only the forward movement of God.  Likewise, some of us may find ourselves looking up into heaven, waiting on Jesus to return and fix everything, like the apostles staring into the sky when Jesus left them.  But discernment and intentionality are not passive actions.  We are not so much waiting for God to act, as we are watching and listening for the ways that God is calling us into action.  These were the hallmarks of that liminal time in the lives of the apostles, a time that we find ourselves in now.  It's a time that can be, if we let it, a tremendous gift from God.

One day the Holy Spirit will drive us out of our homes and into the world, not back into something old but into a brighter, more hopeful future. What we do on that day will be determined by what we do with these days, with this liminal time of retreat, reflection, preparation, and prayer.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The (Not So) Unknown God

'Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”'
--Acts 17: 22-31

I'd like to take some time this week to talk about this important moment from the Acts of the Apostles.  Last week we heard in one of our Sunday readings about the death of Stephen, who is regarded as the first martyr of the Christian faith.  His death was, at least in some small way, attributed to a young man named Saul, who had launched a fierce campaign against the Followers of the Way.  This campaign was halted, though, after an encounter with the living Christ along the road to Damascus.  Following that experience, Saul repented of the wrongs he had done and become a full-fledged member of the very community he was trying to stop.  By the time we find him this week, Saul has even taken a new name, Paul, and for much of the rest of the book of Acts we hear his exploits preaching and teaching among the Gentiles; that is, among non-Jewish folks.  One of the most heated arguments in this early church was whether one had to be Jewish in order to be considered a Follower of the Way—folks like Saint Peter insisted that only Jews could be permitted, though he later softened on that, while Paul felt that God was opening the message of salvation originally given through Moses and the prophets of Israel to all people through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  So Paul makes it his mission to share this good news with folks who have no understanding of the Scriptures and no connection whatsoever to the stories and beliefs of his own people, and what better place to do that than in Athens.

An Eastern icon of Paul preaching to the Athenians.

As a lot of you know my wife Kristen and I honeymooned in Greece after we got married two years ago, and the first place we spent time was Athens.  We were both struck by the fact that Athens could be described as the original metropolis—for lack of a better turn of phrase.  Other cities would try to copy what Athens had in terms of architecture, art, philosophy, religion, food—first Rome, then Paris, then New York—but none can really beat the original.  Athens had it all, and still does.  If you wanted to have a conversation with someone about things that really mattered, this is the place you wanted to be.  It was a big reason why we wanted to go there for our honeymoon.

We find Paul, then, standing at the Areopagus, a small hill, also called Mars Hill for the Latin name of the God of war.  It stands in the shadow of the Acropolis, the great hill in Athens that serves as the home of the Parthenon, the huge temple of Athena that was the jewel of the architectural reforms of King Pericles in the 5th century BC.  This is where meaningful conversations happened in Athens, and Paul finds himself right in the middle of one. 

We can learn a few things from the way that Paul engages with the Athenians.  First of all, there is no sense of proselytizing on Paul’s part, he isn’t trying to convince the Athenians that they have been wrong all this time and that he has all the answers.  He acknowledges right out of the gate that they are a religious people; in fact, religion was so much a part of their daily lives that it was something they took for granted.  No one really denied the existence of the gods, but they were so commonplace that they were often pushed to the sidelines when it came to conversations about “real” issues—something that the Athenians seem to share with many in our culture today. 

Paul starts with the positive, relating to his audience.  He commends them for their deep sense of devotion, but he also points out something interesting:  they hold the gods in such high devotion that they elevate them to a place of unknowing, as they partake in the spiritual flavor of their culture but can’t really name a core belief, hence the altar to an “Unknown God,” which was a catch-all, or a sort of spiritual insurance policy, to make sure that the Athenians were honoring ALL the gods, even the ones that they didn’t actually know.  There’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the divine, but there is little desire to be in relationship with the divine, let alone to actually believe the divine would want to be in relationship with them.  This is what Paul seeks to undercut, to let them know that the God they call Unknown is, in fact, known, as in this is the God who created all things, loves all things, and has made all of humanity siblings in one great big family.

Notice that Paul never mentions Jesus in any of this.  He isn’t concerned with winning anyone to his side, but rather of simply letting people know the truth that he knows, which is that we are all united one to another in this God.  As Marcus Borg points out in his book The Heart of Christianity, it is the kind of faith that imagines God as the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is.  The universe is not separate from God but is in God.  Paul Tillich called this the "Ground of All Being." 

This is Paul’s point.  It’s not an argument about the validity of a certain doctrine or discipline.  It’s not a theological discussion on the merits of Christ’s presence in a post-Resurrection world.  It’s a pretty simple point, one that cuts through all of the philosophical jargon of Paul’s day and, one would hope, cuts through the dominant philosophies of our day:  conservative Christianity, secular humanism, spiritual-but-not-religious, neo-nationalism, etc. etc.  Paul meets the people where they are and in doing so brings the light of Christ into their lives without ever mentioning his name!  I wonder what might happen if we were able to cut through the static of our own personal and even communal philosophies to just get down to the reality of the presence of God in our midst.  What might happen then?

When we were in Athens we climbed up the Acropolis to the Parthenon and on the way down stopped on the Areopagus and took in the awesome reality that Paul stood in this place and talked with the folks here about God.  As we stood there we noticed something quite remarkable.  To our left was a group of folks that we determined were mostly Episcopalian—one of them a bishop—all white folks and presumably pretty well off financially.  They were in Athens for a conference on the church and climate change.  Just in front of them was a man, presumably homeless, with clothes falling off of him, who wandered up to a trash can and picked out a half-drunk cup of iced coffee.  As he proceeded to finish it, we noticed that nobody seemed to pay him any mind, and even when he walked away none of the church folks to our left seemed phased at all by the moment.  We wondered:  could that have been Jesus?  Could the presence of God have broken through in that moment, also?  And is this what it means for us to be church?  To be so consumed by our own worldviews, by our own philosophies, wants, and desires, that we are blind to the presence of God and the needs of God’s people right in front of us?  Are we eager to continue to seek out God in our midst or are we convinced that we’ve already found God? 

Kristen and I at the Areopagus in Athens on our honeymoon in 2018.

What the Athenians had become were a people so religious that they had literally put their gods on their shelf, in the place of honor in their homes, and left them there.  We do the same any time we think that we have figured God out, or any time we get bogged down in doctrines and disciples and forget the spirit of why we do what we do or what it even is that we do.  This leaves us blind to the reality that God is, in fact, present everywhere that we turn: on the Areopagus that day Paul preached and on that day the homeless man finished that coffee in front of those church folks.  Out there now in a hurting world that is too often ignored, leaving God to go unnoticed. If we have eyes to see and hearts that long for that relationship, then this God will be known to us.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

A Message of Hope from the Gospel of John

 'Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”'
--John 14: 1-14

An icon of Saint John the Divine (or John the Evangelist, or John the Revelator, or just John).

It’s confession time for this priest.  I have had a very—how shall I say—complicated relationship with the Gospel of John. It is often elevated by Christians above all the other Gospels, but also it contains some sayings from Jesus that are, at least for me, very difficult to hear, ones in which I find it hard to find good news.

One such example is John 14: 6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”  This passage has caused me—and others—such fits, largely because it has been used to promote something we call exclusivism; that is to say that the message of God’s love, of peace and hope for the world is exclusive to the biblical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In other words, everyone else is out, and only Christians are in because—the exclusivist argument goes—Jesus said so, it’s right there in black and white—or red, depending on your Bible.  Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it.  This is an exclusivist mindset, and for much of my life whenever the question about the validity of other religions comes up, someone inevitably cites John 14: 6,

I have been troubled by folks who preach such a message, and so for years I would often overlook the Gospel of John because of this and other passages that seemed to be to be exclusivist in nature.  But when I got to seminary and had the chance to finally dig into not only the words of the Gospel but the community that produced it I began to see that, rather than being exclusivist, the Gospel of John is meant to be a message of hope to a beleaguered community.  And it’s here that we find our good news.

Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  Let’s break down each of those three words:  way, truth, and life, and see what’s going on in this text. 

Jesus is the way.  At the time the Gospel was written the followers of Jesus were not called Christians, but rather the people of the Way.  They were called this because the way implies a journey of faith.  And that journey is one that stretches far back into the history of Jesus’ people:  Abraham journeyed to Canaan; the children of Israel journeyed from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land; Jesus himself journeyed from his home in Nazareth into the wilderness where he faced temptation, and then to Galilee for his ministry, and finally to the cross; and his followers journeyed from the empty tomb to every corner of the world to spread his message of love.  The way implies a journey, and faith of any kind requires a journey.

Jesus is the truth.  Here is where it’s easy to think that John is saying everything and everyone else is false.  But one of the main themes of the whole Gospel is found in the very first chapter, when John says that Jesus is full of grace and truth, meaning that he is full of the very same qualities that were associated with the Jewish Torah, the revelation of God’s goodness and mercy for the world. He is the embodiment of those qualities. This is truth that is not exclusive to Jesus—as we see in the Torah and later the Muslim Quran –but it is truth that Jesus certainly embodies, as Jesus is the truth incarnate.

Jesus is the life.  One of the tenants that the community of John’s Gospel preached excessively was the notion of eternal life.  But what did they mean by this?  They weren’t talking about heaven, but instead about right now—the way we think of heaven today was not part of their thinking back then.  To participate in the active movement of God’s kingdom here on earth is to have eternal life.  Instead of implying that those who follow him will inherit some reward after this life, Jesus is instead saying that this is what happens when a person follows the way of love, they are already engaging in eternal life, an understanding that’s not exclusive to Christianity.   

Those are the ways we can break down the first half of John 14: 6 to see that an exclusivist message is not the point, but the second half is also troublesome: no one comes to the father except through me.  We need to take a moment to understand the context here.  The Gospel of John was written roughly 70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  By this time the Jewish revolt against the Romans had been lost, the Temple was destroyed, and the kind of Judaism that Jesus himself practiced no longer existed, as the center for worship now became the local synagogue and the traditions kept alive by the rabbis—we call this rabbinic Judaism.  It is during this time of great fear that the message of Jesus really began to take hold, so much so that by the time John’s gospel gets written—30 years after the temple was destroyed—there is a great deal of tension between those who are trying to keep the old traditions of Judaism alive and those who are embracing Jesus as something of a successor to the old ways.  These tensions boil over to the point that synagogues erupt in violence and people declaring Jesus’ messiahship are thrown out.  It is in this context, the context of a people living in fear, isolated from their worship communities, and uncertain about the future, that this gospel gets written.

Rather than a condemnation of another religion, it is instead meant to be a message of hope for a particular community.  The words of the Gospel of John, then, act as something of a two-level drama, where the life of Jesus is actually meant to be a reflection of what’s going on in the gospel community, and the words of Jesus to his disciples are heard as words meant for the community.  This means that when they heard Jesus say to the disciples, no one comes to the father except through me, they heard Jesus’ reassurance to them that, yes, in fact, they’re right, despite the hardships they’ve faced. It’s hard for us to remember this, but these folks were marginalized, and it is very common for anyone in a marginalized group to write their story in such a way that vindicates their group while putting down the other.  But in no way was John’s community trying to say those who had cast them out were never going to get into heaven.  This passage, and the gospel as a whole, is an apology for the faith of one particularly unique community, not a condemnation of every other one.

What, then, does this have to do with us here and now?  What kind of good news can we gleam from this relatively short bible study this morning?  First, I would suggest that it is so very important for us to understand that the gospel of Jesus was never, ever meant to be exclusive, and those who today would use Jesus’ words to condemn the genuine faith of others are doing a grave disservice to the ministry of Jesus and the intention of those who wrote about him.  John 14: 6 is not the final arbiter in the discussion of the merits of different religions or understandings of God, and in a time where we are so entrenched in our divisions across cultural and religious lines, we need to remember that.  We can also use this Gospel to help us remember that it is entirely possible to affirm one's own experiences without totally condemning the experiences of others.

Secondly, while we are not facing any kind of persecution like John's community was, we are all in the midst of great fear and concern for what our future holds.  We do not know when we will return to our houses of worship and what they will look like when we do.  We can easily fall into the trap of scapegoating or lashing out in our frustrations  Or we can take a cue from the Gospel of John, whose entire message, I think, lies in the very first sentence of this reading:  do not let your hearts be troubled.  When we are at our lowest points, Jesus comes to us with that message, the very message that the community of John’s Gospel clung to.  It is the message that love is the way, that God’s goodness and mercy are the truth, and that to abide in them is to have eternal life.  This is the hope of John’s community, and it is our hope even now. 

May the message of Jesus as proclaimed in this gospel, the message of comfort, hope, and divine love be yours today and always. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Gate

'Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”'
--John 10: 1-10

The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

3 He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.

6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
--Psalm 23

The Good Shepherd.

While I know that there are a fair number of folks reading this who go to other churches, or maybe don’t even go to churches at all, we are very much aware that the majority of you tuning in are members at the parish I serve, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, NC.  So I suspect that these readings today will hit the Good Shepherd folks a bit differently simply because of that recurring image that we see today, in our Psalm and Gospel, and a little later even in our collect for the day.  It’s the image of the Lord as our shepherd.

This picture of a shepherd always seems to be so comforting to those of us in great distress.  We read Psalm 23 very often when we are times of trouble—most notably in our tradition we read it at funerals.  Shepherds protect their flock against a variety of dangers. Their rod and staff—objects used to both ward off thieves and wolves and to herd the sheep back together—are tools of comfort and peace.  It’s no wonder that Psalm 23 is so well known and so loved; it reminds us that as long as the Lord is our shepherd, our protector, our guide, our comforter, we have nothing to fear, no matter how perilous things may get.

Our Gospel for this week comes from the 10th chapter of John, two-thirds of which is devoted to Jesus making a similar comparison, though he does not actually refer to himself as the ‘good shepherd” in this particular section of John that we read today.  We read verses 1-10 of John, chapter 10, but it isn’t until verse 11 that Jesus actually makes a direct link with Psalm 23 and calls himself the “good shepherd,” the one who lays down his own life for the sheep.  Instead, Jesus begins by talking about the difference between shepherds and thieves.  The shepherd comes in through the gate and calls the sheep by name, and they respond to the shepherd.  The thief sneaks in to steal, kill, and destroy the flock, and the sheep respond in fear. 

But the people don’t understand this metaphor. So Jesus uses another one. He tells them, “I am the gate.” Unlike his later statement that he is the good shepherd, this statement by Jesus often goes unnoticed. Maybe that’s because, while there are a bunch of churches out there called Good Shepherd, I’ve never once in my life seen a “Church of the Gate.” So what does he mean by this? 

Jesus didn’t feel the need to have to explain this metaphor to his audience, because their culture was one that understood shepherds and their customs very well. But perhaps those of us who are not shepherds ourselves or who don’t know about the customs of shepherds from ancient Palestine aren’t quite as quick to grasp the significance of this statement.  As theologian William Barclay points out in his commentary on this passage, at the end of the day, the sheep were gathered together in a makeshift circular pen of brush, sticks, and rocks—you can actually still see some of these temporary sheepfolds around the Palestinian countryside today.  But the doorway to these pens didn’t actually have a gate or door attached to them. So as night fell, the shepherd would lay down in the doorway, literally becoming the gate by which anything and anyone entered or exited the pen. 

An example of a shepherd serving as the gate for his sheep.

This, then, is who Jesus is.  He provides support, comfort, and protection by placing himself between us and the thieves, bandits, and wolves of the world.  We do, however, need to point out that when Jesus says in this text that all who came before him were thieves and bandits, he is not talking about the prophets of old, nor is he talking about the Pharisees, scribes, and other folks that we have incorrectly labeled as the “bad guys” in the Gospel story.  Instead, Jesus is referencing all those other would-be messiahs who were popping up in 1st century Palestine on a daily basis.  Josephus, the great Jewish historian, made note that there were as many as 10,000 different disruptions in Judea caused by charismatic, zealous leaders claiming to be the ones who would save Israel.  These are the thieves and bandits to which Jesus is referring: those who use their charm or infectious personality or charisma to sway a person into following their cause.  I think it can truly be said that we still have a number of such thieves and bandits in our own time, people who would rather inflate their own egos and advance their own personal interests than protect, comfort, and support the people. 

This is what Jesus offers when the rest of the world cannot.  He provides a kind of security that is not built on force, or defensiveness, or lies.  Instead, he is the one who is the gate, who puts himself in that liminal space between the sheep and the world, placing himself directly at the threshold of our lives. It is his light that surrounds us and shines in our darkness, his love that supports us when we are most afraid.  We are walking through a literal valley of the shadow of death right this moment. Here in the United States we have about a third of the worldwide cases of COVID 19, even though we represent only 4% of the world’s population. As states begin to reopen while the death toll from COVID 19 continues to rise over the quarter million mark, plenty of thieves and bandits tempt us to walk that treacherous path with them.  But Jesus is the gate, the one whose first priority is the safety and security of his flock.  Like the shepherd whose voice is known by the sheep, he calls each of us by name right now, but he is not the only one.  So the question is whose voice will we listen to:  Jesus, or the thieves and bandits?

In these times of such confusion and want, let us remember who we are and whose we are.  Those of us who have committed our lives to the Jesus Movement are part of his flock, called together by love and by a hope that is beyond ourselves and this world.  Our shepherd is the one who is also our gate, our protection and comfort.  No thief or bandit, no disease or strife of any kind, will succeed in destroying the flock of Jesus, because we are his own, and when everything else in the world seems to fail us, he is there, offering care, strength, and love through the darkest of valleys. And that is good news!

Along the Emmaus Road

'Now on that same day two of Jesus' disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 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?” 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, 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. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 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. 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.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 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. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 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?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.'
--Luke 24: 13-35

An Eastern icon of the Walk to Emmaus.

Those of you who are of the Methodist branch of the Jesus Movement, or who grew up in that denomination, will be familiar with Walk to Emmaus.  It is a weekend-long retreat for folks to deepen their relationship with Jesus, where they can be renewed and reminded of their belovedness.  In the Episcopal tradition our version of this weekend is called Cursillo (spell it).  In the fall of my first year of seminary we juniors—that’s what we called first year students—went on a retreat to Connecticut with the middlers—the second year students—and one of the activities we participated in was what we called an Emmaus Walk, where a junior was paired with a middler, and we walked the trails and back roads around the conference center, getting to know each other and hoping maybe Jesus would show up.

Any road that we travel, where Jesus meets us unexpectedly, is an Emmaus road.  This story from the Gospel of Luke that we hear this morning is the origin of that term.  Two disciples, in the late morning of Easter Sunday, are walking to a town called Emmaus, when a stranger approaches and converses with them  They get the stranger up to speed on all the goings on, especially regarding the recent death of their teacher and friend, but there’s also whisperings that he rose from the dead earlier that day, though no one can be certain.  The stranger scolds them for their lack of understanding but agrees to stay with them long enough to share a meal together when they get to the town, and once that meal is shared, the eyes of their hearts are opened and they realize it was Jesus with them the whole time.  They then head back to Jerusalem to share their story, their lives forever changed by this encounter on the Emmaus road.

I once walked to Emmaus.  In the summer of 2011 I spent three weeks with a group in the Holy Land, studying a course called Palestine of Jesus . After spending time in Bethlehem, Galilee, and Jerusalem, on our last day we headed out to find that old Roman road and have our own Emmaus walk.  Well, sort of. 

I say sort of because no one actually knows where Emmaues is, or was.  There is no town with that name anywhere near Jerusalem today.  Luke tells us it was the equivalent of about 7 miles outside the city, but some ancient sources like Josephus say otherwise.  Through the years four different towns have laid claim to being the modern-day Emmaus,, so we hedged our bets.  We walked along a wooded road near one such town called Motza, which was quiet and peaceful, with no signage, or any other tourist attractions, and then we closed out our experience by celebrating the Eucharist at the Convent of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant in other possible Emmaus town called Abu Ghosh.  

On (one of the) road(s) to Emmaus.

Throughout the day there were some whispers amongst our group as to whether or not we were walking the actual road to Emmaus, but both of our guides—one an Episcopal priest from California and the other a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem—reminded us that trying to figure out where modern-day Emmaus is located is really not the point.  Given that the story only appears in Luke’s Gospel, with Emmaus never being mentioned anywhere else, and none of the ancient mauscripts being able to agree on where the town was located, it really is an impossible task. This story is not concnerned with such details. As our Palestinian guide would often say, “If you come to the Holy Land seeking facts, you’re going to leave sorely disappointed, but if you come looking for truth, you will find it.”  That’s because there is a difference between fact and truth, a reality that our western culture hasn’t quite grasped yet, especially since the Enlightenment. Facts are about quantifiable, provable details like whether or not that was the real road.  But truth is about the deeper meaning of the story, and the truth of Emmaus is that Jesus risen Jesus showed up then and still shows up now, usually unrecognized, and it is often not until well after that fact that we realize he was there..  For that reason, I’d say this story, more than any other post-Resurrection account, sums of our modern-day Christian experience.
I find these two disciples on the road fascinating.  One gets a name—Cleopas—but that name never appears anywhere else in Scripture, and the other doesn’t get a name at all.  I like that!  This story reminds us that Jesus comes to us all—both the well-known and totally unknown—and more often than not, we don’t recognize him,.  We, like them, are so pre-occupied with what’s going on in the world around us that we can’t see him, but when the dust settles and we have a chance to reflect on the experience, we notice the presence of the living Christ in our midst, and like those two disciples we are changed by that encounter. This is Gospel truth, even if the facts of the story are a tad wonky.

Can you recall a time when you looked back at an interaction with someone and said, “Wow!  I think Jesus was in that!”  That’s an Emmaus moment.   Maybe it was a day later, or a month, or a few years, but I bet most of you have had those moments when you have looked back with hindsight and realized Jesus was there all along.  One such moment happened to me in 2007, when I picked up a hitchhiker on US 23 between my hometown of Pound, VA and Pikeville, KY, where I was working at the time. This guy was a heavy-set fella, who was making his way to West Virginia and by all accounts was not making good progress.  So I invited him to get in and drove him as far as I could.  He told me about his family, his siblings who were ill and children who were going through various struggles, and when I dropped him off, and I met my friend for lunch in Pikeville, I told him what had happened, and he said—in that wonderful Free Will Baptist tone of his—“Well, brother, ya never know!  That guy might have been Jesus!”

I’ve often recalled that encounter, and I think my friend was right. I think I did meet Jesus along that road, and I think I helped Jesus get to West Virginia, and I think Jesus used that moment to shape the way I would interact with strangers in the years to come, whether in New York City, Lexington, Kentucky, or now in Asheboro, North Caroline.

I wonder:  what have been your Emmaus moments?  And how they have shaped you?  But even more than that, I wonder how this time, right now, might be an Emmaus moment.  Cleopas and the other disciple were filled with fear and uncertainty on that first Easter when they met the unrecognizable Jesus. 

In a similar way, many of us are experiencing this time with tremendous fear for our world, as we see unemployment rise and more and more people getting sick and dying.  We are all of us uncertain about when social distancing measures will be lifted, and even when they are we don’t know the ways all of this will affect our lives moving forward.  Like last week, we find ourselves sharing a lot in common with these two disciples. Yet like them, Jesus still comes to us.  This is the very core of the Easter proclamation, that the Lord is risen indeed. You may not recognize him, but he’s there.  And that encounter with him will change you forever if you let it. So will we have eyes to see him in our midst right now, surrounded by so much fear and uncertainty?  Will we allow ourselves to be changed by the risen Christ or when all of this is over will we just return to business as usual?   

I don’t think it’s an accident that we cannot find the actual road to Emmaus nowadays.  I think the purpose of the story is to remind us that Emmaus can be anywhere at any time.  Your street that you’ve walked your dog on 12 times a day, that’s an Emmaus road.  The grocery store line, where folks are scared but hungry, and so they risk their health to feed their families, that’s an Emmaus road.  Those ordinary, everyday moments that you experience in this time of quarantine, those are Emmaus moments: working in your yard, sitting down to a meal, praying in silence when you just don’t have the words anymore.  Even when you, like those two disciples, are afraid and confused, even those times are Emmaus moments.  Because the risen Christ is there in the midst of all of our moments.  

Let us pray, then, for eyes to see Jesus during this time, ears to hear him,  hearts to be set on fire with love for him, and lives eager to be transformed by him.. Every ordinary action is a chance for Jesus to be revealed to us.  I wonder where you will find him.  And how you will be changed forever by this Emmaus road that we are on.