Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter, Sunday, April 30 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 2:14a,36-41; Ps 116:1-3,10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Lk 24:13-35
It is the end of hope, and Cleopas and his companion—let us assume it is the woman Matthew mentions as Mary, the wife of Cleopas—can only get out of town. Crushed, confused, grieving, and almost certainly frightened of being rounded up by the authorities. If the second person is indeed that Mary, she had watched the terrible murder a few days earlier, she had seen her teacher die, she is carrying the memory and the trauma of that; and they both carry the knowledge that their own leaders, their own greater community, had made this thing happen., and that they themselves had done nothing to prevent it. So when the stranger approaches them, there is only one thing about which they could be speaking, could be thinking, and they are astonished that he is not.
Realistically, of course, there would have been thousands of people in and around Jerusalem who had no idea about “the things concerning Jesus of Nazareth.” Crucifixions were a routine event; for most, this would have been no different than all the others. But for Cleopas and Mary right now, it is the only real thing in the world, and they assume that everyone must know, everyone must care, everyone must be wounded. How could this stranger be untouched by the tragedy?
Of course, the stranger is not untouched; indeed, the stranger is the one who bears the scars of the wounds in his own risen body. But they don’t realize this, not right away, not for some time. They talk to him along the road for probably a couple of hours, but without recognizing him. It is an odd feature of the story, which Luke accounts for simply by noting that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” a bit like saying that they couldn’t recognize him because of reasons. But it is not really, in some ways, surprising. To recognize resurrection, to recognize the possibility of life breaking out of death, the possibility of renewal, of a world suddenly changed; to realize that the deepest desire of your heart may after all be fulfilled, if only in for a moment, if only in mystery—that is actually very hard. It is hard when we are battered by grief and loss, when we are numbed by the brutalities of power and the betrayals of community and the knowledge of our own complicity. It is hard when all we want is to get somewhere safe and hide. The renewal of hope, of life, of love, is too much to believe in, too likely to be a dream, something better dismissed before we can be hurt again.
So they walk with the stranger, and they talk to him, and they find his words compelling, but they do not know him. And when they come to the place where they’re staying, he begins to walk on, as if he has somewhere else to be. But then they do something perhaps unexpected even by themselves—they ask him in.
This is a part of the story too often neglected, I think. Cleopas and Mary still don’t know who this person is, and they’re taking a considerable risk. His words have been powerful, but they have every reason to believe that they’re being hunted by the authorities, and he could very well be a spy. They have seen Jesus betrayed by one of the men who was closest to him, they have no reason to be trusting. And the stranger isn’t even asking for shelter—he isn’t in obvious need, he’s evidently content to walk off alone into the night. But they ask him in.
They don’t recognize him yet, they are not all the way to knowing and acknowledging the possibility of resurrection. But they are willing to take a risk. They are willing to assume that the world will not always do harm, that, despite what they have just seen, an offering of kindness, a moment of vulnerability, may not be met with betrayal. They are willing to assume that they themselves may have the strength to go on being the people they have been learning to be while they were with Jesus, a people of open hands and no defenses. Despite the murder. Despite it all.
And because they do this, because they say, implicitly, that it is not after all the end of hope, something more happens. In the breaking of the bread, in that action performed before hungry crowds in Galilee, at a table in an upper room on the night before his death, in that action he gave as the sign and realization of his self-offering, they recognize him. The bread, the wounded hands. He is present with them, for a moment only, but they are changed forever. Life breaks through.
But the first step was to take that risk, to allow that moment of hope. And that is what we too are called to do, in this world of betrayals and dangers and absence. Even when we cannot believe that God is present with us, even if we cannot believe that God is anything other than dead, we are called still to behave as if love were true, as if love were real. To make it so. To hold onto whatever we have learned of self-offering, and to go on living it out, even when we feel lik we are doing this entirely on our own, entirely exposed to the bitter, murderous world. To open ourselves, defenceless, to possibility, including the possibility of hurt, because only in this way might we know the possibility of life. To take the unreasonable step, to invite the stranger in.
We are asked to encounter the stranger, the other, without conditions, and to be changed by that encounter. And the stranger may be a man on the road who wants to talk. It may be someone from another faith group, another race or culture, a different experience of life, someone whose struggles are not the same as our own, whose story we must learn. The other may be someone—or some community—we have betrayed, harmed, tried to kill, as the settler church has begun to learn in our encounter with Indigenous survivors of the residential schools; the encounter may be an encounter with our own guilt, the work and pain of owning this. Or it may be someone who hates us, who may be trying to harm us, someone whose own suffering and real being we must somehow, nevertheless, acknowledge. And the stranger may be someone very close to us, someone whose existence, fully encountered, may entirely change us. In the words of Judith Butler, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”
Of course, a good deal of the time we are missing something, often missing everything. But in those fleeting moments when we do allow ourselves to be undone by each other, then the resurrection is there before us, the wounded hands which break the bread, the shared bread which is God’s life among us, the risen Christ in our midst.
And from that moment we go forward—which means, sometimes, going back to where we were, and starting again differently. So Cleopas and Mary go back, into the city of oppression and murder, and they go immediately, by night, in the very night against which they had warned the stranger. The fear, now, does not paralyze them or send them into retreat; it may still be real, and even justified, but it does not control them. They have work to do in that city, a story to tell, a story of which they must be part.
And so we go from the encounter at God’s table, from the broken bread in our own hands, back into the city. Known, forgiven, restored; given back, taking back, the chance of hope. The servants of the living God, freed from the chains of despair. Here in this difficult Jerusalem, the story still unfolding.