6.27.10 Sermon: “Would You?”

Texts: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

A couple of weeks ago at Annual Conference, an invitation was issued to join the bishop in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January. I am envious of those who will be making that journey. I would love to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, see the places that he saw, to imagine the biblical stories in a new way. I had some friends who went to Israel one summer during seminary, and I always eagerly awaited their photoblog so I could see pictures of the places they had been. A trip to the Holy Land: every seminary student and every pastor’s dream. One of these days I will get over there. One of these days I will get over to Jerusalem to see the Temple mount, and the wailing wall. One of these days I will get to walk where Jesus walked, on his way to Jerusalem. For me, it would be a fun and educational trip. But what does it actually mean to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem?

The gospel lesson starts out with a significant statement: Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. He had been hanging around the Sea of Galilee, preaching, doing miracles, and ministering among the people. But now, there is a rather dramatic shift within Luke’s gospel. Today’s gospel lesson marks a transition from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee to his journey southward to Jerusalem, where he will stand trial and go to his crucifixion. It marks not only a geographical shift, but a theological shift also, and we are called to experience and understand the magnitude and commitment of true discipleship.

Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem. He is looking ahead toward the road of trial and suffering. He is gearing up, preparing, exhibiting determination. In other words, he’s made up his mind and is committed to going where the Father is calling him. Jesus was obedient to the Father in all things, even when the road got tricky, even when his human nature felt like it might have been over-riding his divine nature. Jesus knew where he had to go. He knew what he had to do. The road to Jerusalem was one of suffering. It was a road that championed non-violent resistance over the forces of evil. It was a road that went against the natural human inclinations to places the self above all others. This road to Jerusalem is no easy road to take. And yet, if we are to call ourselves Christians, then that is the road that we must take. Today, we hear the story of several unnamed characters who are unwilling to walk the path of discipleship that Jesus invites them to.

Let’s start by looking at the response of the Samaritans. Jesus sends his disciples on ahead of his way to let them know that he is coming. Yet when Jesus gets to Samaria, he finds that no one is willing to receive him. Why? “Because they saw that he had his face set to Jerusalem.” Perhaps they would have been willing to receive him just weeks before, when he was traveling around, doing miracles, and preaching. Perhaps they would have flocked to see him. After all, it isn’t too hard to follow Jesus when things are good. In this segment of the story, Luke is making the theological statement that the Samaritans know what Jerusalem holds for Jesus, and they do not want to share in any part of that. They don’t want any aspect of discipleship that would be difficult, or inconvenient. James and John get angry that the Samaritans aren’t even willing to receive Jesus and want to call down retribution against them, but Jesus rebukes them. There is no punishment for them, but they still miss out on the journey.

Jesus continues on down the road from Samaria, and a person came up to him, with these eager words: “I will follow you wherever you go!” This response is a familiar one to many of us. We see the way Jesus has been working, we hear the words he preached, and we think, yeah, we can get on board with this! We get excited and enthusiastic, and we may feel bold enough to say to Jesus, yeah, I’ll go wherever you want me to! But we fail to recognize the weight of those words, and the challenge they prompt us to. This first would-be follower had no shortage of enthusiasm. He walked right up to Jesus, completely unprompted and initiated the conversation, thinking Jesus would be totally gung-ho about having this new follower come along with him. And undoubtedly, Jesus would have been thrilled if this person did decide to follow. But Jesus asks him a question to test his mettle, to see if he is really prepared to be a disciple. Jesus basically replies, “this is a difficult path you would be going down: I am a homeless wanderer. You can’t follow me from the comfort of your living room. You will have to give up your luxury, and leave what you know. Are you ready for that?” We get no answer from this first would-be disciple. His enthusiasm quickly turns to silence when he hears Jesus’ response. He didn’t know following Jesus would mean all of that! Maybe it would be best to just back away quietly and pretend like the conversation never happened.

Jesus then meets the second would-be follower. Jesus invites him: Follow me. The second would-be disciple seems willing enough, but only after he can go and bury his dead father. Back in this time, the proper burial of a loved one was an extremely important priority. This was no trivial request. It was totally legitimate of this would-be follower to ask Jesus if he could go and take care of burying his father properly. I have always felt that this response of Jesus is rather harsh. “Let the dead bury the dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Why won’t Jesus let him bury his father? This encounter relays a couple of different things. First of all, it highlights the priority of discipleship over all other priorities. Following Jesus is not mutually exclusive over other priorities in our lives, but as Christians, our primary task is discipleship, of journeying with Christ and learning from him, being transformed by him. Second, this story reminds us of the eternal life that God promises us. This would-be follower has failed to see the promise of resurrection and the privilege of being able to proclaim the kingdom of God, the kingdom that gives life to those who are dying. This would-be disciple has his priorities flip-flopped. His excuse for not following is, as far as excuses go, perhaps one of the most legitimate excuses. He has to care for his family and give his father the honor due him. Family is a priority, Jesus agrees. And yet, the call to discipleship in this story reminds us that Jesus’ command to follow him can go even beyond family boundaries. Sometimes this one still just blows my mind. How on earth could we respond in any way other than that of this would-be disciple in this case? And yet, Jesus still says to us, “Follow me.”

He encounters a third would-be disciple, who says to Jesus, “I’ll come with you, just let me go home and say goodbye to my family and friends.” Again, Jesus’ response seems very harsh. He says, “No, we need to go now. You can’t look both backwards and forwards in the kingdom of God. We need to move ahead. This is urgent.” It seems like a natural response to me for this would-be follower to want to at least be able to say bye to his family and friends, rather than just run off with Jesus without saying anything. But here, Jesus probably knows that if this would-be disciple goes home to his own familiar territory, he will never be able to break out of it. He will never be able to leave. In many ways, it is a now or never situation. It’s hard for us to leave what is comfortable, what is familiar, what may even be loved. Contrast this would-be follower’s response to that of the calling of the first disciples in Matthew’s gospel: Jesus calls out to Peter, and Andrew saying” Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” It then says, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him Later that day, Jesus says the same thing to James and John. They respond by leaving the boat and their father in order to follow Jesus. These disciples don’t hesitate, they don’t find excuses. They leave their livelihood, their families, and their obligations in order to follow Jesus. Don’t mistake me for saying that God is calling us to abandon our families or our responsibilities. God does not ask us to be irresponsible of neglectful of that which we have been given. Nonetheless, this story points out the priority of discipleship, and the power of the call to follow Jesus. These first disciples hear the call, and they follow, without excuse, without hesitation. They see their moment, and they take it before it is gone.

This past week at SYC, one of the preachers who happens to be a second degree blackbelt was demonstrating some self-defense techniques as a way of illustrating how we protect ourselves from sin and evil. She had called one girl up to demonstrate how attackers will often attack by grabbing long hair or a ponytail. It is very hard to break away from someone who has you by your hair, and she said this statement which stuck with me: “If they have your head, they have you.” If something has a hold of your mind, it has you. In the case of these would-be disciples, something other than Jesus has their heads. This is not to say that what occupies their mind holds no importance, but it is to say that following Jesus is not their ultimate priority.

In the gospel lesson, we have seen four snapshots of those who could never really be called true disciples of Jesus. Sure, they had met Jesus, they liked him just fine, but they were not prepared to walk the road that Jesus walked. While the circumstances of these would-be followers  may not be universal or apply to each of us, the obstacles to following still often block our way, and the call to discipleship seldom takes priority in our lives over the many obligations and desires that pull us this way and that. So what does it look like to follow him? If this is the story of the would-be disciples, what does a real disciple look like?

We live just down the road from St. Albans. Have you ever heard the story of the saint who the town was named after? Saint Alban lived in the 3rd century in England. He is known as the first British martyr of the Christian faith. Saint Alban was not a Christian when a Christian priest seeking refuge from persecution came to him. Alban took him in, and eventually he was converted and baptized by this priest. However, one day, soldiers came to Alban’s house looking for the priest. Rather than hand over the priest, Alban actually traded clothes and put on the garb of the priest. Alban allowed himself to be arrested in the priest’s place. He was taken before the magistrate, who was furious when he discovered the deception and ordered that Alban receive the punishment intended for the priest, if, in fact Alban had become a Christian. According to tradition, Alban responded by saying, “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.” He was then led out and up a hill, where he was beheaded. We may live in a different time and place, and in different circumstances, but Alban was one who was not afraid to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. He wasn’t afraid to set his face to Jerusalem.

When I hear stories like this one of Saint Alban, I can’t help but wonder how I would be in the same situation. Would I have the courage to do what he did? Would I have the conviction of faith to be that kind of witness, to be the kind of disciple who is willing and able to follow Jesus to Jerusalem? On my own, absolutely not. On my own, I would be a coward, I would be selfish, I would be unwilling. The good news is that with God’s grace, we may walk down the road with Jesus. With God’s grace, we too, can set our faces to Jerusalem. But we have to be willing to allow God to transform us. We have to at least be able to say to God, I know I can’t do this on my own. I need you to lead me. I need you to break through those things that hold me back. But even getting to that point can be a challenge.

One of the biggest issues we face in the church today is a watered-down gospel: a gospel that invites us to meet Christ, but doesn’t actually ask us to follow after him. It’s a gospel that says all you need to do is accept Christ as your Savior and show up to church on Sundays without compelling us to go down the deeper path of discipleship. It’s a gospel that maybe gets people in the doors of the church, but then fails to form them into people who actually are Christ-like. We, the modern day church, are a church that is full of would-be disciples.

We may say, Jesus, I want to follow you, I really do. But can’t I just take care of these other things first? Can’t I just deal with my other priorities so I am completely free to follow you? Sure, I’ll follow you wherever you go. But wait, what’s that you say? No, I can’t possibly do that. Maybe I spoke too soon.

We don’t get to put the conditions on our discipleship. We don’t get to say to God, yes, I’ll be your true disciple, but only if I can still have this, this, and this. These would-be disciples never get beyond the hypothetical. So I ask you, are they really disciples? Do you ever get beyond the hypothetical? Do you ever find yourself saying, well, once I retire, I can give my time to God? Or, once my kids get off to college I can commit myself 100% to being a disciple? Or, as soon as I finish high school or college and really become an adult, then I can get serious about following Christ? We are a church full of would-be disciples: you, me, all of us. We are all would-be disciples or one point or another. But we don’t have to be! Jesus gives the command to follow him now. Are we prepared to hear and obey?

This gospel story today is not a story about salvation: it is a story about discipleship. The text does not say that these would-be followers of Jesus were not saved, that they did not receive the grace of God. It is instead a story of discipleship. Jesus doesn’t call down punishment on those who do not receive him. But they miss out on the journey. We never hear about these particular Samaritans or would-be followers again. They have a small cameo in God’s story, but we never even know their names. Do you want to make nameless cameo in God’s story, or do you want to be credited as a main character? It’s up to you. But if there is to be meaning in being a part of this community, the only true meaning comes through going on the journey with Christ together. A church is not a social club, a community center, a social institution. While the church may have aspects to it that remind us of these other things, the church, the Body of Christ in the world, is something entirely unique, and if it is not filled with people who are willing to seek out true discipleship, then it is not really being the church. God will not strike you down because you don’t go on this journey with him. But you miss out on the journey with God. You may be stuck in the village and Jesus has moved on. So I ask you today, are you ready to follow Jesus? Are you ready to walk along side him as his face is set to Jerusalem? It is no easy task, but with the grace of God and with a willing heart, we can walk with him, and the greatest gift of the journey is the company of our Savior.

This last week at SYC I helped out with a covenant group for the days that I was there, and one day, we all worked on writing our life story in six words or less. I had several different ones that I came up with, but my favorite and perhaps most fitting one was this simple prayer that has captured the central struggle of my life: Wherever, whenever, however: help me follow. May this be our prayer to God today. Wherever, whenever,

4.25.10 Sermon: “People are Strange when You’re a Stranger”

Texts: Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

When I was living in Scotland I would frequently leave St. Andrews and take the train to Glasgow or Inverness or Edinburgh to spend some time exploring. One of my favorite parts of traveling was the train ride. The train would pass through Scottish countryside and through small towns and large cities. I saw some beautiful views through those train windows. But perhaps the view that I saw the most of was sheep. They were everywhere. Practically on every hill and every valley, near and far, I could see sheep dotting the landscape. Sheep are very common in Scotland because they, to this day, play a significant role in the economy. All of the wool for Scottish tartan have to come from somewhere! Just like in Scotland, sheep were a significant part of the economy during Jesus’ day. Their wool and dairy products were very valuable, providing economic security. There was always need for cloth and food. Sheep were important, and the job of shepherding those sheep was also very important!

Today in each of our scripture readings we find a particular image: the image of the good shepherd who cares for his sheep. This is an image that runs throughout Scripture, offering us one way of understanding a little bit more about who God is in Jesus Christ, and also who we are as human beings in relationship to God. Because the gospel passage that was read today is only a snippet of the Good Shepherd text of John, I want to go back and read the earlier segment of it.
‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’

Today I want to focus on two key elements of this text: 1) the sheep recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd and respond to it, and 2) the sheep will not recognize the voice of a stranger.

So for the first part: the sheep recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. Right from the get-go, this statement insinuates a familiarity, an intimacy. If the sheep are going to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd, then obviously they will have to be pretty familiar with him. They have to know him. Do you have someone in your life who you know extremely well? The person who can call you on the phone and simply say, “it’s me!” and you know exactly who it is? My mom is probably the only person I know who can hear just one word out of my mouth and know if something is wrong, even if I think I am disguising my mood. She just knows me so well that she intuitively understands what a slightly different inflection in my voice means. And then Darick growing up, used to play out in his neighborhood. Many of the parents in his neighborhood would often whistle when it was time for their kids to come home. Yet, still, out of all of those whistles, Darick knew what his mom’s sounded like. He knew her special call in the midst of all the others. This is the sort of intimacy that Jesus conveys when he talks about the relationship between the sheep and the Good Shepherd.

Do we recognize the voice of God this easily or this intuitively? Do you spend enough time with God to know when he is speaking or what he is saying? Can you distinguish God’s voice in the midst of other competing noises? Conversely, do you know that God hears your voice, and knows you uniquely even in the midst of every other human being? Do you know that you are special and treasured by God, and that you don’t just get lumped into the crowd before him?

When I was in Scotland, I didn’t have a car (nor would I have felt too confident driving on the other side of the road or from the right side of the car), so my usual transportation consisted of walking or riding my bike. One of the things I liked to do on occasion would be to take a long bike ride in the countryside around St. Andrews. One day I was riding my bike down a path I hadn’t taken before. There were just fields around me. I came across a field full of sheep. They were pretty close to the barbed wire fence next to the road, so I hopped off of my bike to go take a closer look. I think seeing some of the cute little lambs was what caused me to pause and get a closer look. But as I went over to the fence and was looking at the sheep for a while, I started to notice that each of the sheep looked different from the others. Each had some sort of distinguishing mark or habit or personality. I don’t know about you, but when I normally think of sheep, I tend to think of them as rather boring and dumb clones that blindly follow. These days, it is usually an insult to call someone a sheep. It insinuates lack of uniqueness, ignorance and blind allegiance, or an inability to think for one’s self. It insinuates homogeneity. When we call someone a sheep, we are placing them under a stereotype, as if to say, that’s just one of those skater kids, that’s just one of those prim and proper church ladies, or that’s just one of those non-Christians, transforming unique and valued people into one-dimensional objects, indistinguishable from the masses. I reckon people do that with each of us sometimes. But as I looked at those sheep, I could see that they were individuals. They weren’t all just alike. I imagine that when a shepherd looked at his sheep, he knew each of them.

A shepherd actually lives out in the fields with his sheep. He doesn’t go home at night, leaving them to graze on their own. He sleeps in the fields with them. He guides them, protects them from wolves that may come, and leads them to areas of fresh grazing. He goes after a sheep that gets lost, he untangles them from brambles. I also imagine a shepherd talks with his sheep. After all, a shepherd probably doesn’t have human company very often. Not only is he charged with caring for the sheep, but they are also his companions. To him, they aren’t one monolithic reality, simply a herd. They are his sheep, each with distinct characteristics and personalities.

How often do we look at someone and label them before we have even met them? How often do we take a human being with complex thoughts, feelings, and motivations and reduce them into a one-dimensional person? So often we approach people making assumptions about them. We approach them as strangers, and they see us also as strangers.

This leads us to the second idea of the scripture passage I want to focus on: that the sheep will not follow the voice of the stranger. We live in a society where interacting with strangers is not particularly encouraged. We teach our kids from a young age not to talk to strangers, we avert our eyes from people we don’t know when we are passing them on the street, and often inserting ourselves into conversation with complete strangers is seen as odd or invasive. And yet, sometimes, when it comes to evangelism, we go into it, expecting to have an encounter with someone who we don’t know very well or even at all, wanting to talk to them about Jesus Christ. So often, we approach evangelism against this backdrop. We want to jump right in and talk about Jesus to people who are strangers to us. In our zeal to help them know Christ, we can sometimes bypass the natural development of a relationship, seeing someone as little more than a target. While I don’t think we intentionally do this, we do still do it.

While it is good to be passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, how we go about doing it is just as important. In the same way that Jesus says that the sheep will not follow the voice of the stranger, neither is it very likely that someone we don’t know or have only just met will respond to the words of a Christian sharing the good news, especially in the younger generations. For us, the goal cannot be to just get people to come to worship to hear the message or to get kids to come to programs. Sure, we want more people to share in our life as a faith community, but getting them in the building cannot and should not be the regular starting point. Building relationships and friendships outside of the church should be the foundation. Building trust and familiarity is crucial. And while we may do this in part because we hope that they can come to know Christ in this way, we do it more because they are loved and treasured by God, regardless of where they are in their faith. Brian McLaren, a pastor and author wrote that we need to ask this very important question: how is the good news of Christ good news for the world? How is it good news for both those who adhere to the faith, but also non-adherents of the faith? Could it be good news for the latter group because of how we as Christians may love and respect them as unique people, loved by God, even if they do not currently have faith in Christ? Because we treat them as people, not simply as targets for conversion?

A few weeks ago I read a book called “UnChristian”, which is a book written about a study done on the perceptions people outside the church hold about the church. In it, one young man tells the story of how he had just moved to New York City and didn’t really know anyone. He was on the subway one day, and another guy about his own age started talking to him and was really friendly. This young guy was really excited because he had not met anyone that friendly yet. The other guy suggested that they hang out sometime, so he was stoked to finally be making a new friend. Not too long after that, the guy he had met on the subway invited him to come to a bible study. This young man wasn’t too keen on doing that. When he politely declined, he never heard from the other guy again.

In this encounter the young man who had just moved to New York City was approached more like a target than as a person. When he wasn’t prepared to go to a bible study or talk about Jesus, he was then dismissed. But would Jesus, the Good Shepherd dismiss him so easily, or see him only as a target? Would not Jesus the Good Shepherd see him as one of his own beloved sheep worthy of his time, even if the sheep was one that continually wandered off?

When it comes to sharing the good news of Christ, do we seek to be more like the shepherd himself, or are we more like the hired hand? Do we run away at the first sign of challenge? At the first sign of resistance? Do we walk away from a sheep if it is being belligerent? If it is showing doubts or contentment with where it is? Do we leave them behind if we think it is a lost cause of trying to bring that sheep to come graze over in our greener pasture? Do we actually want to spend time with the sheep, live with them, keep them as our companions?

I firmly believe that the intimacy found between the Good Shepherd and his sheep found in today’s gospel lesson has a lot to offer to our understanding of evangelism. At the heart of this story is relationship: a closeness, a friendship, a recognition. It is a story that reminds us that if we are sheep of the Good Shepherd, then we should be able to hear his voice, to be able to know when God is speaking to us. Our first task is to get to know this Good Shepherd who has laid down his own life for us. But we are also to imitate our Good Shepherd. Our second task after being in relationship with God is to be in relationship with our neighbor. God has called each of us by name, he knows us and wants us to know him. And we ourselves want to be known, loved, respected by God and by those around us. Now how can we be reflections of God’s intimate love for us? How can we begin to show that to others? Hear these words of Jesus a final time: “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them in also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock and one shepherd.” Together, let us seek to build relationships amongst ourselves and even more importantly, amongst those outside of the church, so we might reflect the love of this utterly relational God who has called each of us by name.

4.3.10 Easter Vigil Sermon: “An Idle Tale?”

Text: Luke 24:1-12

This is it! Tonight is the night! The night where Jesus crossed from death into new life. The Great Vigil of Easter is a unique worship experience that the Church has practiced for years. In it, we cover the scope of God’s saving work through his chosen people of Israel, which culminates in Jesus. Right now, we are in the dim light of the sanctuary. We sit with Jesus in the darkness of the tomb. Right now, we are just waiting. Waiting to experience that new life, to have that encounter with the resurrected and living Christ.

But if we look at tonight’s gospel lesson, we get the feeling that the three women who went to the tomb were not expecting to find good news there. Desperate and grieving they come. Perhaps depressed and anxious. Their whole world has been torn out from underneath him. They had spent the last months and years following Jesus, traveling around with him, hanging on his every word, putting their faith in him. And yet now he was lying in a tomb. Had they misplaced their trust in him? Was everything that he told them about himself an idle tale?

We live on this side of the resurrection. We have the luxury of being able to look back, having knowledge that these women did not have as they approached Jesus’ grave. The Church has been proclaiming the truth of the resurrection for nearly 2000 years. And yet, do we still not come, looking for Christ, but wondering whether it is just all an idle tale? What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to believe, to understand, to encounter the resurrected Christ? In many ways, we are still a little like those women that came to the tomb.

We find ourselves at times asking, where is the power of the resurrection in our lives? Where is the power of the resurrection in our church?

Perhaps sometimes we have trouble seeing the power of the resurrection because we sometimes try to keep Jesus in the tomb. After all, things are safer for us there. If Jesus is kept safely in the tomb, we are free to exercise our own power, our own agenda, our own desires. We don’t have to worry about God intervening and messing up our well-made plans. This is a problem that we sometimes have as Christians, but the story of the resurrection blows all of that out of the water. I’m going to read a bit more in Luke’s account of the resurrection. After the women and Peter were astonished by the empty tomb, the story resumes with two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. We pick up with the story in 24:15.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes did not recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

In this story, we find something very interesting: Jesus is at first completely unrecognizable after his resurrection. The disciples can’t recognize him. He doesn’t look entirely like he did before he died. The disciples, who thought they knew Jesus better than anyone couldn’t even tell who he was at first, and this teaches us a very important lesson: What we think we know about Jesus is always challenged. Just when we think we know exactly who he is and we have him figured out, there is still something in him that is unrecognizable, that goes beyond our comprehension. We can’t contain him. The resurrected Jesus is a Jesus that we can walk with, talk with and eat with, but we can’t hold onto him. In the story, when the disciples recognize him in the breaking of the bread, Jesus then vanishes from their sight. In the same way, the resurrected Jesus meets with us. He meets with us, but we can’t hold onto him. He isn’t ours to hold onto or to possess or to wield as we see fit. One of the great temptations we face as human beings is to try to mold God into our own image, and to make our agenda God’s agenda. The disciples can see and touch the wounds that Jesus bore as a human being, but as the resurrected and glorified Christ, he cannot be contained. We can’t domesticate him for our own purposes, or keep him inside a box. The resurrection breaks through any boundaries we might seek to place around God. Just as the boundary of the tomb and death could not restrain Jesus, neither can we.

Some of you may be aware that this coming week there is an extremist Christian group that will be protesting various things in various places in Charleston and Wheeling. This group believes that they are pronouncing God’s righteous judgments on America, and that they are the only ones who truly get God’s message, that they are the only ones who truly get Christ. Their tactics are extreme, as the picket all around the country proclaiming God’s hate for anyone who doesn’t look like them or believe exactly as they do. I struggle with anger when I hear about this group that has so blatantly molded Jesus to fit their own agenda of hatred. And yet, while they may do this in an extreme sense, we all domesticate Jesus at some level. We all try to create Jesus in our own image, rather than allow ourselves to go through the lifelong journey of being conformed to his image, the image of the invisible God.

I read an interesting book called “American Jesus” a couple of years ago for one of my classes in seminary. This book was a study of how Jesus has been defined and redefined within American culture, over and over again. He starts by looking at the way Thomas Jefferson redefined Jesus as “an enlightened sage” and literally took a knife to his Bible, removing all of the parts that didn’t line up with that image of Jesus. When Jefferson had finished, he had very little of the Bible left. You can still see copies of this Jefferson Bible today. During the second great awakening of the 19th century, Jesus was redefined as a childlike and feminine “sweet savior.” The early 20th century saw a move towards painting Jesus in a more masculine, manly redeemer, with a charismatic personality. Those are just a few examples from our history. This book was very interesting for me to read because it helped me to realize that throughout our own history, we have been guilty of recreating Jesus in our own image, and in doing so, we miss out on who he really is: the living God.

It is natural to imagine Jesus in our own image. After all, as the church, we do emphasize that he came down as a human being. We focus on the incarnation and affirm that he was fully human. He had experiences that we all go through. He loved, formed relationships, grieved, felt physical pain, needed sleep, showed frustration, along with everything else that we experience. So it is easy to begin to imagine that Jesus is just like us. But tonight, tonight as we make witness to the night when Jesus rose from the tomb we are reminded that Jesus is not like us. He is God. He is the living God that goes beyond our ability to fully comprehend or hold on to or possess for ourselves. Jesus is something entirely different from us. This is the great mystery of our faith. That Jesus should be fully human and identify with us, and yet, he is God, utterly transcendent, utterly divine, and we can’t box that up. We can’t keep it and control it, and craft him into our own image.

As we continue to move in the direction of reaching out into the community of Dunbar, seeking to reach those who do not know Christ or who are outside of the Church, it is an important lesson to remember that we are not the sole possessors of Christ. We get the joy and privilege of inviting others to encounter Christ, to be a part of our church family, and to go on the journey of discipleship along with us, but he doesn’t belong to us.

A few weeks ago, I was in the Kroger parking lot about to go get some groceries. I was getting out of the car when am woman came up to me. I could see that she had been putting pamphlets on people’s cars. She handed one to me, and I said, “what’s this?” She then proceeded to tell me that I needed Jesus Christ and that she could bring me to him. I politely explained to her that I already did know Jesus Christ and that I was actually the youth pastor at the church right down the street. She looked a little surprised when I told her that. But I tell you this story to give an example of what it means to think we can possess Jesus. The woman saw me, made an assumption that she had something that I didn’t, and only she could give it to me.

So let’s look back again at our story. Jesus has walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and he has sat down at the table with them. When he blesses and breaks the bread, it is in that moment that they recognize him, and that they sit and eat with the resurrected Jesus. But as soon as they meet him, he vanishes. We, tonight, will come to meet Jesus in the breaking of the bread as we share in Holy Communion at his table. We meet him, talk with him, and get to know him. But we, in the church, do not and cannot possess him. He is not an object we hold where we get to decide who can have him and who can’t. Instead, he is the image of the invisible God who we can simply reflect. It is a privilege to seek to be a reflection of him.

Is the resurrection an idle tale? It is if we try to hold onto Jesus and fashion him in our own image. Where is the power of resurrection in our church? What if we came to Jesus not expecting that we know everything already? What if we come to meet him with minds open to the idea that God could reveal something new to us? What if we came remembering that God is always beyond that which we can fully understand? As we reaffirm our baptismal vows and come to the communion table tonight where Jesus comes to meet with us, let us remember that we meet the living God who possesses us and is fashioning us in his own image. May we always come seeking the God who is so much greater than we can ever fathom and be thankful that he extends his love to us, and to all.