May 4 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Third Sunday of Easter
Texts: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
Theme: This week we have one of the three great "resurrection appearances" in which one of the key elements is the apparent difficulty intimates of Jesus had in recognising him after his resurrection. So perhaps something along the lines of "Who is this Really?" Or something shorter and snappier like "The Identity Crisis". Alternatively, we might take a lead from the reading from Acts and go for "What then should we do?", which is a question we should constantly ask ourselves as we attempt to follow the Spirit's leading.
Introduction. Our first reading, from Peter's "Pentecost sermon", picks up where we left off last week. He repeats his charge that his hearers are guilty of killing the Messiah, the Son of God. Now we have their extraordinary response: they accept their guilt and ask what they can do about it. The answer is equally straightforward: repent, be baptised, and receive the Holy Spirit. Our second reading also continues on from last week, but with the unfortunate omission of some key verses. We seem to have an aversion to long lessons, but an exception could well be made in this case. At the very least we should start with verses 13 to 16 to remind ourselves that we have a role to play in working out our own salvation. And we finish with the mesmeric story of the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.
Background. I have had a refrain running through my head for the last few days – the only words I can remember are "slow down, you go too fast; you've got to make the moment last", or something like that. Perhaps my problem is that I am slowing down, but it feels to me that the Easter Season is going too fast. I can't keep up. I'm still having flashbacks, still needing time to ponder Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and already feeling that I need a lot more time for Easter Day. So I'm starting this week with a few fairly random "catch-up" thoughts.
First about Good Friday. Where are we in that drama – on the Cross with Christ, running away with his disciples, weeping with the gutsy women who stuck it out to the end, or in the middle of the mob chanting for blood? It's a very disturbing question, isn't it? I suspect that St Paul may have something to answer for here, or, at least, are understanding of his teaching. He says we died with Christ, and even that we were crucified with him; and there is a profound truth in that, of course. The difficulty is that it is only an "ex post facto" truth: it wasn't true at the time Jesus was actually being crucified. Yet perhaps at some level St Paul's masterful baptismal theology has helped us to put ourselves in the role of victim, and therefore exclude ourselves from those who killed Christ.
And while I was pondering this thought another line from St Paul drifted into my consciousness. He says "Christ is my life". If that is true, then to kill Christ is also to kill myself: we are, as it were, "suicide-crucifiers", spiritual forbears of today's suicide bombers. Indeed, perhaps it is true that to kill another person is to kill ourselves spiritually, even if we do not physically die in the assault. Does any of that make sense? I don't know – I need more time to reflect. The Easter Season is going too fast.
And then we come to Holy Saturday. What's that about? Is it just the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday or does it have some greater significance? Yes, I know we have some vague idea that the Spirit of Christ descended and harrowed the depths of hell on that day; but such an "event" surely happened outside of time, so "to date it to Holy Saturday" doesn't seem to make much sense. So I suspect the reason why Jesus could not be raised immediately after death was that we needed the time in between to begin to reflect on the horror of what we had done. Do we do that? Does the Church encourage us to do that?
And so to the discovery of the empty tomb. More and more I have felt the need to focus on the emptiness of the tomb, rather than the "mystery of the missing body" – to enter into the nothingness that is found wherever Christ is not. That was my first thought as I stayed with the empty tomb. But then another question came to me: who is this Christ who is now nowhere to be seen? The true Christ, the true Son of God, or the false Christ, the one whom we wanted him to be and thought he was – the one of whom Cleopas says "we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel" (that is, our pet saviour there to look after us and do our bidding – and to hell with everyone else)? So perhaps the tomb was empty in one sense because every false understanding of Christ had been demolished on the Cross and the empty tomb underlined that all such understandings had gone for ever. Could that help explain why it was that when the true Christ was raised from the dead his closest followers had such a hard time recognising him?
More about the issue of recognition shortly, but a related issue for me is what light this whole Easter experience sheds on the idea, central to so much of Jesus' own teaching, that to follow him we must "die to self". Just as we have false images of Christ so we each have a false self which we present to others and try so hard to believe in ourselves. (Thomas Keating is particularly helpful on all this.) Is it not to this false self that we are called to die; and when we do that, when we strip away every last bit of self-delusion, what are we left with? Perhaps we need to look inside the tomb and see for ourselves: is one day enough to see the emptiness that is all that remains?
What then should we do? Like Peter (and Paul) we know the answer, don't we? We need to receive the Holy Spirit, a.k.a. the Risen Christ, and let him be our true self, our life. Isn't that what it means to be raised with Christ? Isn't that what it means to be Easter people? Well, maybe, but I need more time. The Easter Season is going too fast.
We must hurry on to confront the problem of recognition. At the heart of the three great stories involving resurrection appearances we find the common theme of the difficulties those who should have known Jesus best had in recognising the Risen Christ. Mary at the tomb thinks he is the gardener; the disciples on the road to Emmaus walk for some miles with him and assume he is some sort of visitor to Jerusalem out of touch with what's been happening there; and in the so-called Galilean fantasia in John 21 the stranger on the shore is not recognised by the disciples until he repeats his guide to good fishing. What is the problem here?
In one sense nothing has changed. Think for a moment of the episode on the lake when Jesus stood up and calmed the sea. Do remember what the disciples said? "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" And, of course, there are other instances in the gospels when they struggled to work out who Jesus was – usually when he had done something "miraculous". So there always was a problem in recognising the Son of God rather than Jesus of Nazareth.
But, of course, with the resurrection everything has changed, and our thinking and understanding, our "spiritual seeing" struggles to keep up. Yes, we know that the one who was dead is now alive. But as to how it is that he is now alive...ask him. He is of the ages. He will speak for himself.
Acts. Now to give credit where it's due, The Lectionary starts this reading in exactly the right place: Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified. As the great comic books of my past would put it POW!! When have you heard preaching that comes anywhere close? And that's what makes their response all the more wonderful. No attempt at evasion, self-justification, dissembling or downright lying. No sending for the lawyers – not even a plea of lack of knowledge or intention. They plead guilty to all charges; and because of that there IS a way forward. Their remorse is genuine – "they were cut to the heart" – and their desire to do something (to make amends) is clear. They want a fresh start and that is all that is needed: Peter shows them the way (and the truth and the life).
Taking It Personally.
- Start with a period of self-examination and confession. Try to recall a specific occasion on which you said something, did something, or thought something that was unloving. As you replay it, monitor your feelings, and be particularly alert to any attempt to shift the blame or evade responsibility. (It might take two to tango but you are only responsible for your missteps.)
- Focus on verse 41, and particularly on the words "those who welcomed his message", implying that some who heard him did not welcome the message. Re-read verse 36, hearing it as addressed to you. Do you welcome it?
- Tough as his message was, 3000 were converted that day. What does that tell you about the "secret" of evangelism? How does the proclamation and teaching in your community of faith measure up?
- Read verse 42. How do you measure up?
Peter. As stated above, we really need to read the whole of this first chapter. Notice how it is balanced between the work of Christ and the work of us as believers. The NRSV brings this out nicely with its subheadings of "A Living Hope" for verses 3-12, and "A Call to Holy Living" for verses 13-25. Of course, Christ's work comes first, but it is completed in our response of faith. The unifying element throughout this chapter is the work of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the letter is addressed to those who have been "sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ". In other words we are only capable of "holy living" because we have received and been empowered by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps verses 22-25 should be treated as a summary, or a bringing together, of the two parts of the chapter.
Taking It Personally.
- Start with verses 13-16; and slow down – don't go too fast! Ask the Spirit to guide you through this passage. What changes may the Spirit be asking you to make?
- Move on to verses 17-21. How personally do you take these verses? What were some of the "futile ways inherited from your ancestors" from which you have been set free?
- Close with reflection on verses 22-23. Notice the past tense. How true are they of you?
Luke. Luke must surely have been Shakespeare's favourite gospel writer! The hidden identity leading to high comedy that is always on the very edge of farce is shown at its most dramatic and effective in this wonderful story. It works so well in this way that we can easily overlook the fact that it is one of the most theologically crafted stories in this gospel. It is a road story (read "spiritual journey"), as so many other great stories are; and, although two men are walking along the road, only one has a name; the other could be you, me, or anybody else who has difficulty in seeing Christ even when he's at our side. In verse 9 Cleopas even calls the Risen Christ a "stranger". Next comes a brilliant summary of the story so far: in just 6 verses Cleopas recounts the story from Jesus' ministry right through to the empty tomb. Then the Risen Christ – the real Jesus as opposed to the "gentle Jesus meek and mild" beloved of Christian children of all ages – challenges them head on. They have understood nothing: they have got the Scriptures – they have got him – all wrong. Had they really been open to what the Spirit had been saying for centuries through the Scriptures they would have known all that happened had been foreseen by the prophets.
Notice how Jesus was walking on ahead, and appeared to be continuing on. This is another motif we find in Matthew – "he is going ahead of you to Galilee". Always the journey home to God continues, but with pauses along the way. Here is one such pause Luke shows us as the Christic apparition gives way to the Sacramental Christ. We have a new way to recognise Christ is our midst. May we do just that every time we gather at the Holy Table.
Taking It Personally.
- Pray your way slowly through this story. Are there any particular words or phrases that strike you. Stay with them until they have said all they have to tell you.
- Notice how the disciples first have to surrender their false understanding of Jesus (as restorer of the nation's freedom and fortune) before they are open to the real truth of his identity. What false understanding of Christ may you have hindering your openness to the inflowing Spirit?
- How much does this story help you to go deeper into the mystery of Holy Communion? Do you recognise the Risen Christ in the bread and wine?
- This Sunday, put aside you prayer book for the Great Thanksgiving. Let others give the congregational responses. Focus on the paten and chalice. Listen to the words spoken by the priest. Watch the elevation, fracture and other movements of the priest. Ask the Spirit to open your eyes that you may truly recognise the Risen Christ as the bread is taken, blessed, broken and given. And slow down – make the moment last – even if you might be holding somebody else up!
- When you return to your pew spend time in reflection on the Emmaus experience you have just had, and be thankful.