Preached on Sunday, May 8, 2011, using the text from Luke 24:13-35
It had been a hard couple of days. And now the dawn of this new day made the previous days’ events confusing as well. As two companions walked down the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, they tried to make sense of all they had been through. At some point along the way, a stranger came up to them. He saw they were deeply engaged in conversation, so he asked them, “What are you talking about?” The companions stopped in their tracks, their sadness overwhelming them. One of them said, “You really don’t know what we’re talking about? Are you the only person inJerusalem who does not know what has taken place over the past few days?” The stranger continued to probe, “Tell me about these things.” The companions let the words tumble out of their mouths, as if somehow explaining it all to this stranger might help make some sense of all that happened. “Jesus of Nazareth, have you heard of him? He was a prophet and spoke of God and God’s kingdom, his words were hard and true, he healed the sick, he dined with outcasts, he was mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. But this very week, the chief priest and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and he was crucified. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They paused when they said this, their crumbled hope lying around them in pieces. After a few breaths, they continued the story. “And yet, this morning, it seems something incredible has happened. Some of the women of our group went to his tomb to attend to his body, but his body was not there! They had a vision of angels who said that he was alive! Some of the men went after them, to see if it was true, and they also did not find his body.” But something in their voices told the stranger that they didn’t quite believe it. And so the stranger said to them, “You were told that this would happen.Did your teacher not tell you it would be so? That it was necessary that the Messiah suffer and then rise again? Let me share some things in scripture that might shed some light on this, some things in scripture that have been a part of your lives since you were very young and yet somehow, you have failed to integrate into your living and your being.”
Of course, we know this stranger who joined the companions on the road was Jesus. Jesus saw that they were being overwhelmed by their sadness, that they could not see what was right in front of them, even though Jesus had tried to prepare them for this, even though they could see this would be the inevitable conclusion to a life lived as Jesus lived. Challenging the powers that be, that’s dangerous work. But Jesus also knew that this work was so important, that this message of God was so transformative, death could not silence it. Thus Jesus said things to his disciples like, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” However, we shouldn’t be surprised that these words of Jesus did not sink in for his disciples as, in reflection upon these words of Jesus, the writer of Luke’s Gospel says, “But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” We are not so unlike these disciples, you and I. There are many things that Jesus has said to us that we have not understood, that we have not grasped, that we have failed to actually integrate into our ways of living. And I have to say, a prime example of this occurred this past week, in response to the death of Osama bin Laden. Now, please do not hear what I am about to say as condoning the terrible acts of violence and manipulation that bin Laden committed and was behind. His methods were reprehensible and he apparently did not feel regret over the many thousands of deaths he was in some way or other responsible for. Also know that I have seen and heard people from all sorts of political leanings different than my own express something similar to what I am about to say. What disturbed me this week was the very public rejoicing that occurred in response to bin Laden’s death. The celebrations in the streets outside of the White House and at Ground Zero inNew York City. Hearing of these public celebrations (and again, when I say public celebrations, I do not mean the relief or even joy that flooded through many upon learning the news of bin Laden’s death, I mean dancing and singing and chanting in the streets), hearing of these public celebrations, I couldn’t help but think of the images of people in other countries rejoicing on 9/11 when they learned of the terrible attacks inflicted upon civilian targets in the United States. I thought such celebration then was shocking and sickening, and my response to the public celebrations over this past week was no different. Now, I don’t say these things out of a desire to be holier than though, but rather because it seems to me our faith in God as followers of Jesus compels us to respond in another way.
In Proverbs 24:17 we find the words – “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” And in Ezekiel 33:11 we read, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. And of course, whether we’ve integrated them into our lives or not, we know that Jesus shared words like these as well. Jesus himself said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Why did Jesus say this if he didn’t mean for us to follow it? I don’t think he was kidding. I don’t think there’s some cryptic message in these words. In Jesus’ words is a clear recognition of the fact that violence begets violence. As our General Minister and President Sharon Watkins reflects, “Maybe that’s ultimately in part why Jesus told us to love our enemies. Not just for the principle of the matter, but also because in practice, hate will circle back and strike at us again.” In her thoughts on the response to bin Laden’s death, she goes on to say,
“In the midst of these conflicting emotions, there is the reality that we can choose which [emotions] we act on. Jesus witnessed to the power of love and life. He brought his message into a violent and repressive empire. He expected his followers to resist evil with all their strength – but not by adopting evil’s methods of fear and hate. He called his followers to love at all times and to call upon the power of love to overcome evil, thereby being the sign posts of God’s empire of healing, hope and wholeness.”
What I find even more powerful is that Jesus didn’t just say these words. He lived them. On that terrible Friday, as Jesus hung on a cross, spikes driven through his wrists and his ankles, a crown of thorns pressed into his flesh, people deriding him, spitting on him, on that terrible day, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Father, forgive them.” Such love in the face of such hate. Do you think the Roman soldiers felt remorse when Jesus uttered these words? My guess is they thought he was crazy. Was Jesus looking for their remorse before he asked for their forgiveness? No. Jesus just loved. And such love cannot be silenced by death.
As the companions walked on the road to Emmaus, they had Jesus there with them on the road, and though he drew upon scripture, upon their sacred texts that they knew and loved, their blindness continued, blinded by the emotion of loss and devastation in the wake of their beloved Jesus’ death. It was not until he broke bread with them, doing the thing he had always done with them, that their eyes were opened to his presence in their midst. On that Tuesday morning almost 10 years ago, as I watched the Twin Towers crumble, the first thought that flashed through my non-violence oriented mind was, “What do I think of the death penalty now?” In that moment of overwhelming emotion, I felt my stance against the death penalty wavering and it gave me pause. But over the past ten years, in the wake of warfare and further terrorist attacks (both attempted and carried out) and, I must admit, in my fear of the inevitable retaliation for Osama bin Laden’s death, my eyes have been opened to the fact that true justice cannot be brought about by human beings. Many say justice was done last Sunday. Was it? One definition of justice is
“the principle that punishment should be proportionate to the offence.”
In light of this definition, could justice ever be achieved in the case of 9/11? Can a person really be proportionately punished in a proportionate way for the violent death of thousands? Such justice is not possible. Once a heinous crime has been committed, nothing can be done to make it right. Nothing. Does that mean that the perpetrator of the crime should not face consequences? Of course not. But we do need to recognize that the punishment will not make it better. It may give us relief, it may bring some modicum of joy, but it can never erase what has been done. The death of Osama bin Laden does not bring back any of the people who died in this country on September 11 or elsewhere in this world over the years as a result of his leadership in al Qaeda. It doesn’t really set anything right. Thus my conviction that justice cannot be brought about by human beings. It is only through the grace of God that justice can be achieved. Which my human mind wrestles with because I then wonder if perhaps true justice must have an element of forgiveness…
Something I have really been struggling with in the aftermath of last Sunday’s announcement is where my true allegiance lies and whether that’s something that can really be put out there for all to see and know. However, I feel compelled, no, I feel called to stand before you and say I am a Christian first and an American second. This does not mean that I do not love my country or that I am not proud to be an American. Not at all. But it does mean that when I say Jesus is Lord, when I proclaim Christ as Lord, those words need to have some implications on my life. It means that I need to take what Jesus says to us through scripture seriously and reorient my life accordingly. And my belief that Jesus is Lord goes hand in hand with my belief that God can bring about justice in ways that human beings could never dream of doing on their own. I think of God’s justice when I read about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, set up by President Nelson Mandela in the wake of the dissolution of apartheid. When I hear stories of confession and forgiveness that came out of South Africa during this time, I can’t help but believe God’s hand was guiding the process, for it seems so beyond what we as human beings can accomplish on our own.
And so I pray for God’s hand to continue to guide us. I pray for the risen Christ to be known among us in the integration of his words into our lives. I pray for our eyes to be opened to the One standing in our midst, inviting us to the Table to experience the fellowship that is shared when we break bread with one another. I pray for the wisdom to act on the emotions that compel us to love and forgive and reconcile rather than the ones that compel us to seek revenge. I pray for us to recognize that when we proclaim Jesus as Lord, our lives can never be the same. Amen.