Third Sunday of Easter A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Life doesn’t always turn out as we expect it.
As a little kid, I had hoped that I would grow up to be a train engineer, or inventor, or astronaut, or magician. I read up on trains, I doodled all sorts of Rube Goldberg machines, I checked out books on stars and the planets from the library, and I used to put on magic shows for my parents.
None of that worked out. Though I still have a deep love for astronomy and the wider universe, and a soft spot for magic and illusion.
After four years at Marian Catholic High School under the direction of Mr. Greg Bimm, who directs one of the nation’s top high school band programs in the country, I had hoped to follow in his footsteps and become a music teacher, a band director. That’s why I went to Capital University and enrolled in their Music Education program under Jim Swearingen.
That didn’t work out, either. I dropped out of the Music Education program and, after some heavy discernment, conversation, and encouragement with people I trusted, prepared myself to go to seminary.
I’m not sure what I hoped would happen after that. I know that I wasn’t expecting the road to lead to Three Lakes, WI. I just don’t know what I expected.
“We had hoped…”
These three words express better than any others how Jesus’s disciples felt after Good Friday. “We had hoped…” Jesus’s disciples, and others who heard of him and followed him, placed a lot of their hopes and dreams in him.
We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.
We had hoped that he would be our king.
We had hoped that he would throw off our oppressors, liberate us from the Roman Empire.
We had hoped that he would remind us that God still existed, still heard our cries, still remembered the covenant with us.
We had hoped that he would be hope for us, a people who needed hope, needed something, someone to believe in.
Good Friday ended all of those hopes and dreams. It’s difficult to be a king when you’re dead. It’s difficult to liberate a kingdom when you’re dead. It’s difficult to inspire hope when you’ve been executed.
The death of Jesus Christ wasn’t just the death of a friend. It was the death of a movement. It was the death of a different way of thinking. It was the death of God here on earth, in the flesh. It was the death of hope.
“We had hoped…”
The disciples were not the only Christians to have their hopes dashed. The church in the last 50 years has experienced disappointment as it looked to the future and what it hoped to accomplish.
50, 100 years ago, it looked like Christianity in North America and around the world was constantly growing. Steadily, it seemed, more and more of the world was at least hearing the word of God, if not converting to Christianity altogether. Analysts confidently predicted that the rate of growth would continue in a linear fashion, and based on that, that the entire world would be Christian by the 21st century.
In that same time period, our congregations in North America were experiencing similar growth. And we, too, assumed that it would be a linear growth. If we had 70 people worshiping on a Sunday and next year it was 80, then the next year, it would obviously be 90, and the year after that, 100, and the year after that 110, and so on and so on. We were so optimistic about our future that when it looked like we were about to run out of seats in our sanctuaries, we simply tore them down and built newer, bigger, better ones, assuming they would fill up at the same rate.
We had hoped, but our hopes were not to be.
We had hoped that our growth would continue in a linear line until everyone in the world was Christian.
We had hoped that our privilege would mean we never had to confront our society’s and our own racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, classism, mistreatment of the poor and immigrants.
We had hoped that we as the church would maintain our highly privileged spot in our society, where everyone bent over backward for us because it was how one proved they were a good American.
We had hoped that we would never lack for money or volunteers or pastors or programs.
We had hoped it would be easy. And none of our hopes have really come true.
And it’s not just our institutions that had hoped for things that didn’t go the way we planned.
Maybe we had hoped that cancer would be cured by now, instead of watching people we loved die from it.
Maybe we had hoped that something would jumpstart our little town’s economy, attracting young people to move here, instead of everyone growing up and leaving.
Maybe we had hoped… well, what did you hope? What have you hoped?
The road to Emmaus from Jerusalem was anywhere from 6 to 10 miles long. It wasn’t a long walk, even by today’s standards. And yet to the disciples, it was a walk that would have no end. Their hopes lay dead in a tomb near a Jerusalem, behind them.
So deep are they in their sadness and lost dreams, that they miss the obvious right in front of them.
First, a lot of this could have been avoided if the disciples had just listened the women who went to the tomb. The church has a long history of discounting the voices of women, and that starts right from the beginning of its existence. The women, whom we hear on Easter morning running to the disciples and exclaiming, “We have seen the Lord!”, are ignored, and their good news forgotten.
Good news is difficult to hear when things are bad. It’s difficult to hear when hope is lost. It’s difficult to believe when it feels like we’ve lost everything.
But it’s in those times, when we can’t hear good news, when we can’t possibly believe it; it’s on the road to Emmaus, that Christ appears in the flesh, even when we don’t recognize him.
Because of their grief and their dashed hopes, the disciples on the road to Emmaus walk for some miles with Jesus and don’t even know it. They don’t recognize him because to them, he, the living representation of their deepest hopes and longings, is dead. And they know, as well as we do, that no life comes after death.
Which is to say, we don’t know it very well at all.
It’s why the disciples don’t believe them when the women, the first apostles of the good news of the resurrection, tell them “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”. It’s why the disciples who run to the tomb and see it just as the women had told them still don’t believe it. It’s why even after Jesus explains to them everything, while they’re still on the road, that they don’t get it. And yet, Christ is there.
It’s why we don’t believe that churches are successful if they’re official numbers are done, even when the church is doing good things.
It’s why we don’t believe the church has any worth when everyone in it is a sinner (and that is the truth), even though we know that Christ came for us sinners, so that we may live.
It’s why we don’t believe that the church is anything if our society doesn’t value it more than everything else, even though the church spent centuries being looked down on by the surrounding cultures of its time, and yet, Christ is there.
The road to Emmaus feels like it goes on forever when our dead hopes and dreams are at the beginning. But it is on the road to Emmaus that Christ is found, not dead, but alive; not hopeless, but hopeful.
Because we are not a Good Friday people, who walk away in fear and despair; but an Easter people, who like the women at first Easter morning run to share the good news, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”, and who meet Jesus on the road.
We meet Jesus on the road when we realize that it is not the number of Christians that matter, but their mission.
We meet Jesus on the road when we realize that privilege doesn’t make the church, the church makes do with whatever it’s given, and has for the last 2000 years and hasn’t yet died.
We meet Jesus on the road in the love and support we see for cancer patients and the survivors left behind.
We meet Jesus on the road when we confront the sins of the church, ask for and receive forgiveness, and live into our baptismal callings as beloved children of God no matter how screwed up we are.
Time and time again on the road to Emmaus, we meet Jesus, our hearts burning within us, yearning for the hope that we thought was dead, and yet, is right in front of us, as God peels away the layers of doubt and despair that keep us blind to the ways in which Christ is here, really here, today, tomorrow, and every day.
So that we too, in the very same hour, may get up and return to the place we thought we’d let our hopes die and proudly, confidently, boldly, unashamedly proclaim, as the women did, as the disciples did, as Christians have for the last 2000 years:
“Alleluia! Christ is risen!”