Sunday, May 04, 2014

Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24
19 “What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

If you thought mainline Protestants were in trouble, consider the sorry state of Jediism in the UK.

Way back in 2001, nearly 400,000 residents of the UK described themselves an Jedi. By 2012, the number had dropped by over 50%. Now, before you lose sleep over the notion that so many have to turned their backs on Master Yoda and the Force, consider that the 2001 result was largely in response to one of the first “viral” internet campaigns.

Geeks worldwide (and I mean that in the most positive way) were encouraged to write in “Jedi” as their religion on their national census form, just to see how many “guardians of peace and justice” there were in this galaxy.

And in the UK it worked. And this, of course, was followed by an effort to add Jedi Knight to those deserving religious protection under the law—an effort that eventually failed. And the worldwide effort failed too, with countries like New Zealand refusing to publish a distinct Jedi total, lumping them in instead with The Church of Elvis and another religion with the evocative title “Rugby, Racing and Beer.” So, what time’s your service?

Just now you’re thinking ‘what kind of preacher-magic will he use to link Jedi Knights to the Road to Emmaus story?’ Well, I won’t use the Force, but I will remind you that Anakin Skywalker was thought to be the chosen one, and after he went over to the dark side, there was great confusion among the remaining Jedi. Okay, that doesn’t really work.

So Jesus said to the two on the road, “So, what are you talking about?” They stood for a moment, faces downcast, and one of them, Cleopas said, “are you the only one in town who doesn’t know the things that have happened this week?”

And the hidden Jesus said “What things?”

“About Jesus of Nazareth, a powerful prophet, who was handed over to death. It was our hope that he would be revealed as the chosen one. But then something remarkable happened: the women in our group found his tomb empty, and spoke with angels, and learned that he is alive! But the men followed, and found only the empty tomb.

And Jesus said, “how slow you are, unwilling to believe all that the prophets predicted. Don’t you recall that the chosen one would suffer before gaining glory?” And beginning with Moses and the prophets, he explained all that was written in the Bible concerning himself.

The rest, of course, you know: the breaking of bread and the recognition that this was indeed Jesus, the Word made bread and reappearing in the sight of those who gather in his presence and break it. It is paradigmatic in the fullest sense of the word: when we break bread we are granted the same presence, the same recognition that the Risen Christ joins us at table.

So that’s the joy of the passage, but what of the great frustration of a passage such as this one? Where is the missing explanation that Jesus gives them, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, explaining to them what was said in the scriptures about himself.” So what did he say? Luke doesn’t tell us. We will need to figure it out, looking at the clues, and imagining what he meant when he began with the figure of Moses.

Citing the prophets seems simple enough. Early on Isaiah says ‘unto us a child is born: wonderful counselor, the prince of peace’ (Is 9). Jeremiah describes him as ‘the righteous branch’ of the tree of David, long promised to Israel (Je 33). And Isaiah brings it full circle, grown up as a tender plant, but then despised of men, a man of constant sorrow, acquainted with grief (Is 53). It’s almost too easy to find Jesus in the prophets, something future scholars will note and turn into complete careers.

But Jesus began with Moses, the liberator, the law-giver, the one who argued with God on behalf of a broken and disobedient people. So maybe that’s it. Maybe Jesus wants us to see him as the new Moses precisely because he will spend eternity arguing for us, asking God to forgive our brokenness and disobedience.

Remember the moment when God tried to say ‘look Moses, at what your people are doing,’ but Moses would have none of it? “No,’ Moses said, ‘those are your people, and you brought them out of Egypt. What would the Egyptians say if you killed them now, having gone to all the trouble of liberating them?’ And God relented.

That may be all there is to the Jesus-Moses connection, but I think it may go further, and to try to prove it I’m going to turn to our old friend Walter Brueggemann. He wrote a wonderful book called “Reverberations of Faith” in which he tries to give a short summary of every key concept in the Old Testament. But he goes even further, explaining that you can’t understand these key concepts unless you also look at four people: Moses, David, Elijah and Ezra.

Today we’ll stick to Moses, and what Brueggemann tells us goes from the familiar to the unexpected. First the familiar: Moses is the ‘human perpetrator’ of the Exodus, the wilderness guide, the ‘mediator of divine revelation’ and, of course, the intercessor who saves the unruly ones in the desert.

The unexpected Moses, the one we need Brueggemann to see, can be broadly described as the one who engages in a practice we now call rewritten Bible. It works like this: The Law of Moses, the commandments revealed in the Book of Exodus and other laws that follow are not Moses’ final word on the law. He is also given authorship of Deuteronomy, rewriting the very commands he has shared in Exodus.

In other words, Moses shares God’s commands, then sets about to interpret them (or rewrite them) as an aid to understanding, and in doing so creates an entire new way of approaching scripture. Brueggemann calls this “authorized rootage and contextual extrapolation,” but then he’s just showing off. What he means is that Moses establishes the foundation of the law and then gives it meaning, both then and now. He creates a model for ongoing interpretation, convincing us that these are more than words on a page: they are living words that continue to bloom and grow in our imagination.

So Moses is the Great Extrapolator, the model that Jesus cites at Emmaus precisely because he came to do the same thing. Jesus says “do not think for a moment that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets—I have not come to abolish them but fulfill them” (Mt 5.17). Jesus too will extrapolate: by fulfilling the law, and by demonstrating the heart of the law, which he tells us means loving God (with all our heart, mind and soul) and loving our neighbour as ourselves.

Brueggemann tells us that every time Jesus says “you have heard it said...but I say unto you...” we learn that God is still speaking, that scripture is still being rewritten, and that the Word of God is busy generating more meaning for our lives. The Puritans said “God has yet more light to break forth from the Word” and it remains true. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall never overcome it.

And when he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

The Road to Emmaus is an emotional journey, from sadness and longing, to confusion and the first moments of recognition. Hearts began to burn in light of revealed meaning, as Jesus appears in bread broken and wine poured, but also in the opening of Holy Scripture.

May we too recognize the risen Christ in our midst: in the rituals and actions that define our faith, but primarily in the Word, opened to us, generating new meaning and new life, now and always, amen.


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