Sermon for Easter 5A

Note: Today we honored our high school graduates at the beginning of the service. One of them sang “Show Me the Way” by Styx. You can listen to that song here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXf2PbEPQ-Y

John 14:1-14

How fitting it is this morning that Alex has sung for us “Show Me the Way” by the rock group Styx. I don’t know if she knew that today’s Gospel reading would include Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” or not, but as I said last week, God has a sense of humor. Or, in this case, God just gave me the perfect introduction to today’s sermon on John 14. So thank you, Alex, for wanting to sing that song for us today. The song talks about how the person singing it is asking for guidance, and how he wants someone to show him the way, to wash away his illusions and his confusion so he can see clearly the way that he is supposed to go. It’s an age-old longing: we human beings have ached for a sign, a sure sign that we should turn to the left and not to the right, and then for assurance that we have made the right decision. We are always confused, groping and stumbling about in what seems like the darkness. We find out that the people we follow, the ones we thought had it all together, are just as confused as we are. And so, we say with Thomas in today’s gospel, “How can we know the way?” Into this confusion and perplexity, where our illusions are stripped away and our fears seem larger than life, Jesus speaks a clear word of promise, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Unfortunately, many people don’t see this as a promise, but rather as a threat. Coupled with Jesus’ next words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” these verses have been used to say that unless one believes in Jesus—and believes in Jesus in the exact right way by attending the right church, behaving oneself, and doing good to others—that person will not go to heaven to be with Jesus when he or she dies. These beautiful words of promise have instead become a stumbling block for many, and cause people to say that if that’s the way things are, they don’t want anything more to do with the church. These words have been used as an excuse for infighting among Christians as to who has the right way to Jesus, as well as an excuse for well-meaning Christians to convert others forcibly to Christianity. Those Christians who want to improve interfaith relations have done well until they are confronted by these words, and then they either find ways around them or they ignore them completely. And finally, these words have caused people to wonder about the fate of their loved ones, alive and dead, who either don’t believe in Jesus or who do, but not in what the person considers the right way. In short, these words spoken by Jesus in John’s gospel have caused much pain for many people over the centuries. Can the words be redeemed and given new meaning? And if so, how?

Like so many verses and passages of the Bible that have been taken out of context, I believe this one has been, too, and so it is helpful to explore that original context. In this passage, we encounter Jesus with his disciples on the night of the Last Supper. He has just washed his disciples’ feet. Judas has gone into the night to make arrangements to betray him. Jesus has given the disciples the commandment to love one another. Jesus has predicted that Peter will deny him three times. And after all of this, Jesus begins speaking about the things he wants to tell the disciples before he goes to the cross to die. Of course, after all of the charged events of the evening, Jesus starts by telling the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Because of course the disciples are troubled, and so Jesus wants to comfort them. He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them. Thomas asks Jesus where he is going and how they are supposed to get there, and Jesus replies that he is the way.

In this context, it is hard to see how Jesus would even think that his words would one day be interpreted in a manner that would create fear, mistrust, and alienation. He was not saying that in order to follow him to his Father’s house, one would have to believe in the right way, behave correctly, and do the right things. Where was Jesus going and how was he getting there? He was going the way of the cross, and by being crucified and resurrected, he was himself becoming the Way. In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals God the Father to the world. And God loves the world, the whole world, as Jesus himself says earlier in the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

So our troubles then, I think, come with the English word “believe”. In order to believe, in our culture, we must believe in certain teachings and doctrines. But the Greek word which Jesus uses here can not only be translated into English as “believe” but also as “trust”. So, how would that change things around if we were to have Jesus saying, “Trust in God, trust also in me”? Then we’re not so limited when we look at these verses. It makes it easier for us to say, “Hey, even though the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, etc., don’t believe in all the same things we do, they still trust in God and trust in Jesus, so I bet I’ll see them in the life to come.”

The last remaining question, then, is what about those of other faiths, of no faith, or who are still searching? When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” where does that leave Jewish people, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, and so many others? This week on Thursday some of us came together to discuss the book Love Wins, by Rob Bell. In this book, he wrestles with the idea of heaven and hell, and towards the end of the book, he tackles today’s passage from John. Bell states that yes, Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him. However, Bell says, “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.” Or, in simpler words, Bell says, “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.” The letter to the Colossians says essentially the same thing in chapter 1: “and through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” Jesus goes the way of the cross and in so doing, becomes the Way himself through which the earth and everyone and everything in it will be saved.

So, right now, we’re going to engage in a prayer exercise. I would like you to call to mind a person or people whom you have loved and lost to death, especially someone who you may have wondered if they went to heaven or not. Perhaps at the time of their death, someone shook their head and said sadly that they weren’t in heaven because they didn’t believe in the right way, or they didn’t believe at all, or their behavior here on earth wasn’t the best. Take a few moments to think about these people, and then I will begin the prayer. *pause* Lord Jesus, we remember before you our loved ones who have gone ahead of us. Lord, we trust in you and in your love, that you are indeed the way, the truth, and the life. We pray forgiveness for those times when we have used your words of comfort and promise as words of separation, division, and exclusion. We commend our loved ones into the comfort of your arms, and we trust that you are, indeed, in a mysterious way, reconciling the entire world and everyone in it to God. During those times that we feel the pain of missing our loved ones, we pray that you would comfort us with those words that in your Father’s house are many dwelling places, and that we will one day see all of our loved ones once more. Into your hands, O Lord, we entrust the care of all whom we love, both living and dead, and we trust in your mercy upon them. In your holy name we pray, Amen.

“Show me the way,” the singer pleads. God has indeed shown us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and Jesus has revealed the love of his Father for the whole world. May we never take those words as a threat to keep us in line, but instead as the beautiful promise of comfort that Jesus meant them to be. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 3A

Note that I have decided to post this after getting good feedback on it. However, the examples and illustrations that I used today are pretty specific to my congregation here in Powell, so if you have any questions, please let me know.

Luke 24:13-35

 

When I was in junior high school, my English class was assigned to read The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. It took place in the Civil War, which is all I remember about the story itself, because our English teacher used this book to introduce us to the concept of symbolism. And this is what I remember about this book: any time a color was mentioned in the book, we had to write down the instance of the color, and then determine what the author meant the color to symbolize. Not only did this ruin the book for me, it was a rather heavy-handed introduction to the world of symbolism. As the famous saying goes, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Unfortunately, this is what Biblical scholarship has done to today’s Gospel story of the resurrected Jesus. Many people look at this story and say, “Oh, Luke is talking about worship here. The two disciples walking to Emmaus symbolizes how we gather together in worship. When Jesus comes alongside them and opens up the Scriptures to them, this symbolizes how we hear the Word read aloud and preached on. Then, when Jesus blesses the bread and breaks it, that’s like Communion, and when he disappears, that’s reassurance that he is with us in the meal even though we can’t physically see him. And when the disciples return to Jerusalem, this is like how we are sent out after worship.” While it seems to make sense—so much sense that this is the widely accepted interpretation of this story at seminary—there are several problems with this interpretation, the biggest of which is that we don’t know for certain that this is how worship in Luke’s community was done. And this symbolic interpretation of the Emmaus story has pretty much ruined the story for me.

So today, we’re going to see if we can rescue this well-loved Gospel story from the depths of overdone symbolism and look at it afresh. For when we put aside the symbolism, we can find new meaning in what Luke is telling us in this story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Let’s look, then, at how the disciples interacted with the stranger, not knowing that it was really Jesus, and see how we can find meaning in that for our lives today.

The first thing that Cleopas and his companion did, when the unknown person came walking along beside them, is that they welcomed him into their conversation. When Jesus asked them what they were discussing, they didn’t ask him who he was or why he was so rudely butting into their conversation. Instead, they welcomed him to join in and told him what they were discussing. They shared their shattered hopes and their pain with him, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They related the story of how the women came back from the empty tomb and said they had seen a vision of angels, and how the women’s story had been dismissed as an idle tale. In short, they held nothing back from the stranger, but invited him in to their lives and in to their conversation, hoping, perhaps, that he would have something helpful to say.

In our congregation, we are good about welcoming new people into our worship service. We ask them to sign the guest register so that we can send them a card thanking them for worshiping with us. We give them a gift of a loaf of bread. And the fellowship hour after worship is something that I have not seen in any congregation before this one. It is a time of bonding closer together between all of us, and that is absolutely wonderful. But one thing that I have seen in the fellowship hour does bother me somewhat, and that is that everyone has their assigned “table”. There is a men’s table and a women’s table, and the tables after those two are somewhat mixed. But more often than not, guests and folks who are newer to the congregation are not always included at the more “established” tables. Now, I do make an effort to sit at a different table each week for fellowship, and you all know that I love to break up the men’s table with my presence. But when we sit at the established tables with our friends, we don’t welcome the stranger into our conversation. And when we don’t welcome the stranger into our conversation, we often miss out on new perspectives and perhaps someone to whom we can open up about pain in our lives that we can’t open up to with our established friends. So today, after worship, I’d like to see all of you mix it up a little bit during fellowship hour. Sit with someone you don’t know very well and have a conversation with that person. You may just learn something new and find a new friend.

After the disciples welcome the stranger into their conversation, the next thing that happens in the encounter is that Jesus—still unrecognized by them—opens up the Scriptures to them and interprets all of those passages and prophecies which refer to himself. He shows them that the Messiah was not supposed to be the conquering hero who was going to kick the Romans out. That idea came not from the Scriptures, but from human beings who longed to rule themselves. Instead, Jesus shows them how the Scriptures reveal that the Messiah was to suffer pain, humiliation, and execution, and only after that to enter into his glory. And the disciples are so caught up in his teaching that, when they realize it is night, they invite this still unrecognized and unknown man to stay with them.

When has someone opened up the Scriptures to you and caused you to understand them in a new way, a way that made you say, “Oh, now I get it!” As an example, let’s look at Mary Magdalene. Many of us have believed for much of our lives that she was a prostitute. Many years ago it was pointed out to me by someone, and I can’t remember now who it was, that the Scripture never says that she was a prostitute. Luke tells us that Jesus drove seven demons out of her, and John tells us that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrected Jesus, and the first person to bear the good news to the rest of the disciples. The idea that she was a prostitute came from a pope who believed Mary, wrongly, to be the same person as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. And when whoever that person was taught me this, a light bulb went on and I had an “Aha! Now I understand!” moment. As people of faith, we can never assume that we understand everything there is to know about the Holy Scriptures, and we can’t believe that there is only one right interpretation of any given passage in Scripture. The important thing, for all of us, is to be open to hearing different interpretations, meditating on those interpretations, and discerning how God may be speaking to us even through those we do not know. And if I can put in a shameless plug here, Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, which is the book that we will be discussing on May 15, is opening up Scriptures for me in a new way. So I encourage all of you to pick up a copy of that book, even if you can’t make the discussion group on the 15th, and read it.

After the disciples have welcomed the stranger into their midst, and after the stranger has opened up the Scriptures for them, the encounter between the risen but unrecognized Jesus and the two traveling disciples concludes with the disciples inviting Jesus to stay and eat with them. As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, many people think that Luke is talking about Holy Communion here. But, if you can remember back to last year, when we were going through the Gospel of Luke on Sunday mornings, you’ll remember that meals of any kind are important to Luke. This Gospel has more episodes of Jesus eating with those who were called “sinners” than probably any of the other Gospels. And not all of those episodes can be tied to Holy Communion. Instead, these meals are scenes set for the revelation of who Jesus is and for genuine fellowship with one another. And so it is here in Emmaus. After much preparation through discussion of the Scriptures, they sit down to a meal together, and the disciples finally see the resurrected Jesus in the stranger sitting with them.

Even today, eating a meal together signifies friendship and fellowship. In all of the meals I have eaten with other people, I can’t recall a time when I ate together with people who I did not regard as my friends. So what does it mean for us to invite a stranger to eat with us? Again, another shameless plug: today after worship, the evangelism committee and I, and anyone else who is going to join us, will be going to the Campus Ventures house to provide lunch for the students who will gather there. And not only will we be providing lunch, we will be eating that lunch with them. This signifies to me that we want to be in fellowship with the students with whom we eat, and that we can get to know them so that they will become friends. Hopefully they can provide some insight for us into their lives, their wants, and their needs, and how we here at Hope can help. And perhaps they can provide some new understanding for us: a new way of viewing our faith, perhaps, that will help us continue to see the resurrected Jesus in the most unexpected places around us.

For in the end, that’s really what this Gospel account is all about: seeing the resurrected Jesus. It’s about how two disciples went from a misconception of who Jesus was to a correct perception of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and a correct understanding of what the Messiah was sent to earth to do. And it’s about how we as his disciples can also grow in our understanding of who Jesus is, by welcoming the stranger into our lives, by continually reading the Scriptures and discerning what God is saying to us, and by eating with friends and with strangers alike, sharing fellowship and hospitality with them, and being open to the change that others bring into our lives. In these ways, we can be open to the presence of the risen Lord Jesus in our lives. May he continue to remind us of his presence always. Amen.