First Words (Easter Sunday, 2021)
Luke 24: 13-17; 28-35
Over the last six weeks during Lent, we have been looking at the final words of Christ; the last words that Christ spoke while he was hanging on the cross. And we’ve looked at the things that we can learn from what he said. And I told you that I believe that Jesus was teaching us on the cross; teaching us about God, teaching us about himself, teaching us about ourselves and how we are to live as followers of Christ in the world. And that he knew we would write down his last words, and so he spoke these things to teach not only the people who were there, but generation after generation who would read the words that would be written down as well. Until ultimately Jesus was teaching you and I.
And last words are important. We write down people’s last words, from the best last words: words like our founder John Wesley’s Final words, “the best of all is God is with us.” Words like that. Words that are so powerful and meaningful, beautiful final words we speak over and over again.
But as much as we remember what people had to say last, we also remember what people had to say first. Both as babies, saying things like mama, or dada, or milk, or something like that. But also first impressions: what is this new person I just met, what is the first thing they say? We remember that as well.
And of course one thing to remember is that, Biblically speaking, Jesus’s final words on the cross were not his final words. But they kind of were. One chapter in the story of Jesus is complete on the cross, and then on Easter Sunday a new chapter begins. A resurrected Christ begins. And this is a new chapter in the story, so much so that the only gospel writer who continues to write (the Gospel of Luke) ends the gospel and begins the second book: the book of Acts. Because this is a different Christ interacting with us in a different way.
And just as I think Jesus thought through most of the final words that the incarnate Jesus speaks on the cross, I think Jesus thinks through and is intentionally teaching through the first words that be resurrected Jesus says to his disciples. What are these words? How do they teach us, and what do they tell us about how we are to live, and more importantly who this resurrected Jesus is, the form that we still experience him as in 2021, nearly 2000 years after Easter?
When we’re looking at the very first words that Jesus spoke after the resurrection we have a few different options. Each gospel records a different thing as the first words that Jesus says. Due to overlap, we have three options.
The story of Easter begins at the tomb with at least Mary Magdalene, but usually the three Mary’s that were at the foot of the cross. They are coming to the tomb to prepare Jesus‘s body; give it a proper preparation now that the Sabbath was over. And when they arrive, they discover that the tomb is empty. The stone has been rolled away. The guards that were there have left and the body of Jesus is missing. None of them jump to the conclusion that he’s been raised from the dead, because that’s crazy talk. That doesn’t happen. And then they encounter someone. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke this person is an angel who tells them Jesus isn’t here, they’re looking in the wrong place, that Jesus has been raised from the dead. But in the Gospel of John, this is where Jesus first appears.
In the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is sitting there in the garden next to the tomb weeping. She is heartbroken that Jesus, her Lord, has disappeared, that someone has taken his body, convinced that whoever took his body is doing it for nefarious purposes and is going to drag his body through the mud. Jesus appears to her, and the first thing he says is “woman, why are you weeping?” And she responds by explaining things to him, believing him to be the gardener, begging him to say that he was the one who took the body and will just quickly give it to her to bury somewhere else. Jesus looks at her and says, “Mary.” And in hearing him say her name, she recognizes him. And is overjoyed. It is the compassion and empathy that he displayed throughout his entire life in those words as he focuses on her that identifies him. His entire universe is just her. That’s what she recognizes. That’s what defined him for her; and still defines him.
In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel says most of that, and they leave. But, they leave still not quite believing it. So Jesus appears to the three women as they are walking away and says “do not be afraid.” First, addressing them and showing his recognition and caring for them. But then saying “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There they will see me.” So he’s caring about the disciples as well, communicating that he will meet them too.
But the one that was read today is perhaps my favorite Easter story of all the Easter stories. Here we see these two disciples. They have heard the news. The women have come back from the tomb and they’re saying that Jesus wasn’t there, and furthermore an angel told them that Jesus was resurrected! And Peter and John have gone to the tomb and confirmed that Jesus‘s body is gone, but they didn’t see an angel so they don’t believe that it’s been resurrected. And now these two are headed home to get on with their life. They thought Jesus was going to be the Messiah, but it turns out he wasn’t. So now they are going to move on and get on with their lives back home. As they walk along the way, a stranger comes up, a stranger who they don’t recognize and they don’t know. And the first words he says is “what are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” Again, Jesus meets the people where they are, his entire universe is them, and he’s dealing with what is concerning them in that moment as they try to process everything that happened over the last week; or maybe more, we don’t know how long these people have been following Jesus.
And then he begins to explain to them what happened, and why everything that happened during that past week was exactly what the Scriptures had said, what the prophets that said. This is what was going to happen, and this is how it fit into what just happened. I’ll tell you that this is my dream: to have God himself walking alongside me explaining the Scriptures that clearly. It would’ve made my life, and the life of pastors last 2000 years, a lot easier. But maybe there’s something to this idea that you have to wrestle with it, that you have to to figure it out yourself, have it explained it yourself. That it doesn’t work if someone else is doing that work for you.
And then we get to the main lesson of this particular appearance of Jesus, when he gets to the end of the road. Jesus begins to keep going, and they remember the teaching to be hospitable, loving, and kind; so they don’t let him go on. They insist that he come and spend the night with them and have a meal with them. And so he enters their house and they place the meal before him, and they ask him to say Grace. So he takes the bread, and gives thanks to God, and he breaks the bread. In that moment they recognize him in the breaking of bread, they recognize him only then. And then he disappears! They run back up the road, all the way up to Jerusalem, and they run into the upper room. The disciples say “We saw the resurrected Jesus too! We saw him!” And they celebrate, finally in the evening, that first Easter Sunday.
Jesus meets them where they were as exactly what they needed, whether they needed a gardener, or a stranger, or a Messiah with hurt hands and feet like with Thomas. And this is continually how Jesus acts with us: Jesus shows up in our life as exactly what we need in that moment, to help us through whatever we are going through, whatever we are struggling with in that moment. To be with us. To offer us peace.
Here’s the thing: those two disciples only recognize Jesus as they break bread with him, as they offer him hospitality. Had they just let him go, had they not offered him to come into their house and stay with them, had they just let him go on his way and not sacrificed of themselves, they would never have realized that they were walking with Jesus. And furthermore, they retroactively are able to look back and say “we’re not our hearts burning within us as he was talking?” But in the moment they didn’t recognize that; it was only after they recognize Jesus that they bothered to look back at the interaction and explore what they were feeling in those moments.
And each and every time I come back to the story, I am always amazed at the patience of the resurrected Jesus to keep coming back to these disciples who don’t get it no matter how many times he tried to explain it to them. But every time I come back to Emmaus, I also wonder how many times I have gotten my wish, how many times has Jesus been walking alongside me explaining all the Scriptures to me, and I don’t know it because at the end of the walk I let him go on, I never broke bread, I never looked back to see my heart burning. How many times have I entertained angels without ever knowing it because I let them go on?
The number one reason that I hear from people who are not Christians as to why they can never believe in God is because God doesn’t show up their worlds. That they were in some kind of a bad situation and God didn’t show up, or there was something that they didn’t understand and God didn’t show up. And every time I try to raise the possibility that maybe God did, but it takes a sacrifice on our parts to recognize him. For these disciples, it took offering a place in their house so that a stranger wasn’t walking down the road in the middle of the night, at risk of the animals and the bandits. It took them caring for someone they didn’t know. And maybe that’s what it takes for us; or maybe it takes for us a vulnerability, opening up and allowing ourselves to to risk getting hurt. Maybe for you is it giving up on vengeance that you’ve been trying to get for 30 years. Maybe it’s something else. I don’t know what it is. But often times God can be right there, right next to us, and we don’t see it because were refusing to do the little bit that would allow for us to see Jesus.
Maybe you have entertained angels without knowing it. Maybe you’re entertaining angels right now. Today. This upcoming week. Listen for those moments of the Spirit. Pay attention to when your heart is burning within you, and maybe pray that God would indeed work within you, show himself to you, and help you to grow. That’s what happened for all of these disciples throughout all the history of the Church. May the Resurrected Christ show up for you. Amen.