April 25th, 2020
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
As I approach the age of forty, I have realized that I can now say that I am part of what they call a certain generation—and my generation all knows what happens when you say this: Well, this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down, and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, and tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air. That’s the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which almost every kid watched after school. I thought of it when I was thinking about this story of the Emmaus Road. What are the gospels but stories of how life got flipped, turned upside down, and an invitation just to sit right there, to hear how Jesus became the Prince in the air?
Life got flipped, turned upside down. There is a double irony in this story of the Emmaus Road. When Jesus finally becomes clear to the disciples, he disappears, and they immediately run the seven miles back to Jerusalem, the place they had just spent the entire day putting behind them, just to tell the others: we have seen the Lord! Their lives got flipped, turned upside down. Nothing was the same. But on the other hand, you could also say their lives got flipped, turned right side up. The Lord was raised: God showed again that he is master of life and death. Jesus says to them, “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart you are to believe all the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Was it not necessary—was it not the path that had been proclaimed by the prophets? Was it all really flipped, turned upside down? Then, Luke tells us, Jesus “beginning with Moses and all the prophets interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” The scriptures—and by this Luke means the Hebrew Bible, since the New Testament wasn’t considered Scripture yet—showed that Jesus would suffer, die, and be raised. The necessary had come to pass. It meant new life, but it also meant the same old story that we love so well to tell: the Scriptures had told us of God’s love, and they did not lie. Now the Word is alive, before our eyes, and sometimes, living like a flame in our hearts. Their eyes were opened and Christ vanished from their sight, and finally, just as we understand this, just as we grasp that the Word of God is our truth and our guide, and our dizziness settles down, the Prince vanishes. We have to seek him again.
I always think of this Sunday as Church Sunday. Last Sunday was Doubting Thomas Sunday, next Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday—but today Luke tells us the story of the Church. All the signs of the church are here: wayfarers on the way, the presence of Jesus unseen, unknown, the proclamation and explanation of the Scriptures, and the breaking of the bread at the Lord’s table (note that it is Jesus who takes bread and blesses it—he has become the host!). It’s a story that has new meaning for us now, when it seems as if we cannot be on the road together, when we’re fasting instead of breaking the bread. But there’s something here that no lockdown can overcome: the Word of God, present in the Scriptures, the living Word that no lockdown can keep away or keep in. The Word of God makes the church, calls it together, gives it life. The Word avails us. The Word does not fail us. The disciples run to the other disciples to say: “The Lord has risen indeed!” And that is nothing but the proclamation of the Word. The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia.
Nevertheless, I have been struggling this week. Maybe some of you have, too. Today is a day both gladly awaited and bitterly dreaded. Today we welcome as members the Wayfarers of this past year. It’s the biggest cohort of new members that I have ever worked with. God has brought them to us in the nick of time, each of them gifted by the Holy Spirit, all of them with prayers to share. I am so grateful to God that has brought them.
And at the same time, we have to talk about our budget, and the toll of the lockdown on our congregational finances. We will talk about emergency government funds, payroll cuts, and all the other sad topics you’ve all had probably to discuss in your homes, at your tables, at your own places of work. The picture for the budget is bleak—the PPP could give us a couple of months, but once it’s gone, the real squeeze will begin. I don’t know how we’ll be able to fix our roof, fix our bathrooms, and pay our employees. And I know many of you are having similar conversations.
This balance happens quite often at church—we are both a living body, molded by the resurrection, and an institution of human beings, with all the faults that come with that. It can lead to strange feelings, like today. The feeling of welcoming others into our fellowship of faith while having a very sterile conversation about money. Where is flipping, the turning upside down? What about the signs and wonders, the breaking of the bread, the baptisms?
Our lectionary also gives us today a bit from the Peter’s First Letter, which has something both beautiful and helpful for us today. This letter was written to a church that was always in danger of persecution, if not always actually persecuted. In that way it was kind of like churches in Germany or South Korea, which are preparing to slowly leave lockdown, while knowing that lockdown can be imposed again with almost no warning. It was a community often at risk, often ignored, a community strange to its neighbors and continually out of place and time. But these words speak directly to us today: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not from perishable but imperishable seed, through the living and enduring Word of God.”
It turns out that the spiritual and the material are not separated, not in our Christian community. We live in a material world, and we are material girls and boys. But so is Christ our Lord, who has taken us into the love of God through his own flesh. So, we love God by loving one another with mutual love, giving what we have to one another. Some of that is simply prayer, some of it is conversation, some of it is time, some of it is money. The disciples gave up their table to their guest, and they discovered they had Jesus. So, we too discover Jesus’ presence among us as we love one another from the heart, with mutual love.
The mutual love Peter cites is love that comes from God. God’s love is a mutual love: we love because God first loves us. But the love, like fire, and like a virus, is one of those things that does not diminish as it is shared, but increases exponentially. The living and enduring word of God, which we see incarnate in Jesus Christ, we see also in the way we share what we have with one another. The Wayfarers, who have shared their lives through Scripture, share in God’s love with us now. This moment, this worship service, amazes me every week. God’s love has come again. Death cannot stop God’s love; distance cannot stop God’s love; nothing can stop it all. The living and enduring Word of God breaks all boundaries, unites the scattered, uplifts the downtrodden, gives strength to the weary. Our meeting together, even on Zoom, even like this, is a sign that the Word will not, cannot be stopped. It may feel like we have been flipped, turned upside down, but just sit right there: the Word will guide us.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack