One of the reasons we have such a long “Season OF Easter” is that there is too much to grasp in the story of Easter on just one Sunday. It is a huge story, and it is the defining story for us as Christians. In our Gospel reading today we have one of the pieces of that story.
Here we see a group of men heading for home. A small piece of cultural context here: this is a group of observant Jewish men. What difference does that make? A lot! It tells me that when the gospel says that they were talking, I have an idea of what that was like. Do you know the difference between a temple and a synagogue? A temple is a place where you go to offer sacrifices. A synagogue is what we might call a Bible school. It was a place to gather to pray, yes, but even more to learn. Prayers are appropriately done at home, several times a day if you are observant. But learning requires books and a teacher if you are lucky, and these are very poor people, they do not have books at home. In a place like Capernaum, they would be pleased with themselves for having a Torah – and we know they did, because Jesus read out of it.
Next it is important to know how they were taught, what was the style of learning? There are two parts: memorization and argumentation. It was expected that you would memorize the Scriptures, the psalms at the very minimum, and much more was the norm. That also is not strange in a society that revered the Scriptures, which for them was the first five books of the law, the prophets, the writings and the psalms. It is the second part that we might not think about that I think is so very important to understanding what happened on the road to Emmaus. It is based on the idea that the truth is not self-evident, that it needs to be teased out. So, for instance, here is a law – what does it mean for us today in this place? The people would read it and discuss it, then the rabbi would come, and would explain more, and then the rabbis would get together and discuss it, and then they might take something really vexing and take it to a really famous rabbi.
They argue the law, as passionately as any lawyer – and as noisily. I remember the first time I went to a real Chinese restaurant and was overwhelmed with the shouting. I thought there must be something terrible going on and that any minute someone would pull out a gun and shoot someone, because they were all being so very loud and disrespectful of each other. Of course, once I learned more about the cultural context, then I understood, and it didn’t bother me any more. It is somewhat similar if you go to a Jewish yeshiva, an orthodox high school. It sometimes sounds like bedlam!
What I am getting at here is that the men walking down from Jerusalem to Emmaus would naturally have been discussing what had happened and what they thought it all meant. It would not have been a very strange thing for a single man to join them, it was a somewhat dangerous road with occasional bandits – but the bandits did not travel by themselves either. As soon as Jesus opened his mouth, it would have been clear that he was a rabbi, and of course he would teach them, and of course they would discuss it with him, in the way that they all knew and loved. Having walked the seven or so miles to Emmaus with this rabbi, they of course told him that he was going to be their guest at dinner. As the guest, he would have been invited to give the blessing over the bread and to break it and hand it around. And then the second miracle, they recognize him in the breaking of the bread, and he is gone. It is at that point that they recognize the first miracle, the teaching that he gave them during the walk. They are so excited that they put their outer garments and sandals back on, and walk the seven miles back up the hill to see the others in Jerusalem, where they hear the great news. Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, we saw him too. Everyone is more than excited.
Now we come to Peter’s speech. Peter has gone from a man who was absolutely crushed at having denied Jesus, not once, but three times. At that point he was totally without honor, and it is at that point that the risen Jesus honors him with his presence. This catapults Peter out into the streets, and here we find him in the public square telling everyone that they have done the worst thing possible, they have killed the Messiah that they have all been waiting for. Could there be a worse indictment for an observant Jew? I don’t think so!
Here is a group of people who have been praying with all of their hearts for the Messiah to come, and they now hear that they have killed him? As the text says, they were cut to the quick! Nooooo, they cry, and then they say, what must we do? Of course, they argue with Peter, because that’s what you do when you are learning something new. You ask the proponent of this new thing, but what about this, and that? And so we read about Peter explaining and exhorting them. This is not a short sermon! This is a major teaching, with much back and forth. However, Peter is clear, both about what has happened, and about what needs to be done now. And apparently, a lot of people were convinced by his argument, and they got baptized, acknowledging Jesus as Lord.
What is our take-away from all of this?
I want to suggest that one important thing for us is the reaction of the people, including Peter. Peter did a really, really bad thing. It was not that someone else said what he did was bad, he knew it. The people did a really, really bad thing. When Peter pointed it out to them, they knew it. We call this being convicted. It is a stronger word than being convinced. Being convinced is a “head” thing. Being convicted is a heart thing. We do have done really bad things, whether we know it or not. However, what Jesus does to Peter, and what Peter does to the crowd, is to not leave them there. Because while the first truth is that we have done wrong, the second truth is that we have been forgiven. We too are risen from the dead.
The question that stands in front of us this Easter season is this: Are you willing to accept the forgiveness? In many ways, it is easier for us to stay in the middle of our muck. We know what this feels like. No, it’s not nice, but it is familiar. It is easier for us to say either, I’m such a bad sinner, or, I am not a bad sinner at all. So, what does it mean to be a sinner? What does it mean to sin? It means being human. It means that we are not God. It means that we miss the mark, sometimes badly, sometimes on purpose and sometimes not, but we miss the mark. It does not mean we are bad people, it means that sometimes we do things that hurt – well duh! This is called being human, and acknowledging that. So when someone says I’m not a sinner, they are saying that they are God, not human, and my response to that is: Fascinating! And when someone says they are such a great sinner, but they don’t add that they have been forgiven, then I think, hmm, they like Good Friday more than Easter, there is something wrong here.
I want to remind you of the difference between shame and guilt again. Shame says you are a bad person, guilt says you have done bad things. I am not very comfortable with the traditional language of “I am a sinner” because it fits into the shame box. Saying “I have done, and will continue to do sinful things, whether I want to or not” feels very different in my book. This acknowledges that I am guilty, but keeps open the door that God loves me, just as I am. The whole point of Easter is that yes we do bad things, sometimes, we do very bad things, and God says, yes, you did that bad thing, there are consequences, we will deal with that later, now it’s time to come in for dinner. And when you come in for dinner, you had best put on your good clothes and participate in the party. That’s what we learned in the parable of the two sons and the loving father, the parable we call the Prodigal Son. The prodigal son does very bad things, but the elder son who will not come in to the party also does bad things. The younger son is willing to accept the consequences of his behavior, the elder does not realize that he is at fault – so he cannot accept his father’s forgiveness.
If God forgives us but we do not accept it, then nothing changes. We sit in a feeling of shame, saying to ourselves, I am bad, I am so bad that even God cannot reach me – which makes us more powerful than God! What does it say to our insides when we say “I’m forgiven?” What shifts for us?
If we are forgiven, simply because we exist in God’s reality, then we have to acknowledge first that there is nothing, absolutely nothing we can do that will separate us from the love of God, and second, that our brothers and sisters are also forgiven. There’s a problem! We may be able to wrap our heads around the idea that God has forgiven us, but certainly God would not forgive the terrible things that they did! What kind of a God would let go of that? This is an extremely important question. What kind of a God would let those scoundrels come back into the family? Well, the same God that would let us back in, and the name of that God is Love.