Rev. Peter Faass
(Picks up cell phone)
Let’s see, where’s that “Google Maps” icon? Ah, there it is.
E-M-M-A-U-S (presses search). Oh, there’s no Emmaus listed. Well, there is the “Emmaus Bible Fellowship Church” in Mentor, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the same place.
I’m not sure why Emmaus didn’t come up on Google; everything else does! The Biblical text says Emmaus was seven miles from Jerusalem. Let’s see if I can find it if I type “Jerusalem, Israel.”
Yes! There’s Jerusalem. Oh no, not Jerusalem, Ohio! Oh great, this GPS only finds locations in the USA and Canada. How I am going to Emmaus so that I can encounter Jesus if my GPS can’t get me there?
This is how meeting Jesus and believing in the Resurrection happens. You have to duplicate the same circumstances and be in the same environment for it to be real. It’s like a scientific experiment; we need a methodical and empirical procedure, with the goal of verifying, falsifying, or establishing the accuracy of the Resurrection. If I get on the road to Emmaus, I can see if Jesus meets me just like he did with Cleopas and his companion. It would be cool to watch him vanish from my sight. Poof! Now you see him, now you don’t. If this doesn’t happen for me, if it’s not scientifically repeatable, how can I possibly ever believe in his Resurrection?
A lot of Christians – especially we Episcopalians - are skeptical about these passages of scripture that speak of Jesus’ paranormal appearances. That stuff isn’t real, we think. We are too smart, savvy and sophisticated to believe in those myths. If we don’t have concrete evidence or see it with our own eyes, then it can’t be true. And yet, Biblical texts about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ are all paranormal experiences meant to inspire our faith and not lead us to disbelief.
Mary Magdalene encounters a man who suddenly appears to her at the empty tomb. She believes he is a gardener. It is only when the man speaks her name that she recognizes him as the risen Jesus.
The terrified disciples are secreted away in a locked room when the risen Jesus suddenly appears. Only when doubting Thomas insists on hard evidence and sees the marks of crucifixion on Jesus’ body does he believe.
On the Road to Emmaus, two followers of Jesus were heading out of Jerusalem on the Sunday of the Resurrection. News that the women who visited the tomb have seen the risen Lord is fluorishing. As these two walk the dusty road, a man suddenly appears. The text tells us “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This is similar to Mary’s experience in the garden.
This mystery man walks with the two men as they relay recent events about Jesus, events they’ve not yet reconciled. Jesus admonishes them as he interprets these events through scripture.
As they approach Emmaus, the two men encourage Jesus to stay and have dinner with them. He accepts their invitation. When Jesus is at table with them, he takes bread, blesses, breaks and gives it to them. The active verbs of taking, blessing, breaking and giving are Eucharistic. In the context of these actions, the men recognize the risen Jesus, clearly indicating they were present at the last supper just a few nights prior.
Jesus then “vanished from their sight.”
Astonished, the two men begin to connect the dots. Of course this was Jesus. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” they ask. Despite the late hour, rush back to Jerusalem to share their encounter of Jesus with the disciples.
The Road to Emmaus Resurrection Story, as well as the stories of Mary Magdalene in the garden and Thomas and the disciples hiding in the upper room, provide us with a boilerplate truth about our Christian faith; a truth that strikes at the head and heart dichotomy that splits Christians and how we engage our faith . . . or not.
The central question these Resurrection stories ask us is, “How do we encounter the risen Jesus in our lives? Is it through deductive reasoning, scientific evidence, our intellect, or in the experiences of our heart?”
If we believe the former, and our minds can’t rationally process the Resurrection stories and the presence of the risen Jesus, do we disbelieve? Do we disbelieve because we fear the experience of our hearts, thinking them as too emotionally fraught, irrational and susceptible to sentiment?
With both Mary and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the evidence clearly favors the heart. Mary didn’t know she was encountering Jesus until he lovingly uttered her name.
The man in the garden did not compute in her mind, which told her that a gardener was standing in front of her. Mary was struggling to resolve the impossible situation of the empty tomb. When Jesus finally spoke her name, her heart leapt in recognition.
Cleopas and his companion couldn’t intellectually compute the presence of Jesus walking with them on the dusty road. They were trying to figure out what this bizarre story of a man coming back from the dead meant. When they heard Jesus’ voice, blessing and sharing bread, they realized, “Oh my gosh, it’s him!” When the men recognized Jesus, they said to one another,
“Were not our hearts burning within in us while he was talking to us on the road?”
They recognized the risen Jesus in their hearts.
As Benny van Buren sings to his struggling baseball team in the play, Damn Yankees, “You gotta have heart!”
We know the heart helps us recognize the risen Jesus after the Lord responds to Thomas touching his wounds and professes his faith. Jesus responds, “Have you believed me because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Just like my GPS will not lead me to Emmaus and a real-time encounter with Jesus, my mind itself will never ultimately lead me to an encounter with the risen Jesus. If we just trust in our highly educated, rational minds, we will always be skeptical of what we believe is the irrational experience of the heart when Jesus appears to us. Our blessedness only occurs when we make our hearts vulnerable so we can encounter the risen Lord.
Our intellects are valuable assets – we Episcopalians believe that Jesus died to take away our sins, not our minds – but our faith cannot be built solely on an academic, intellectual or scientific enterprise. Scripture is clear that the human heart is where God meets us.
Our life journeys are our road to Emmaus, where we encounter the risen Jesus. To be a pilgrim on that road, we must open our hearts to experiences that are beyond rational explanation.
Jesus is present in the hearing of the word and the breaking of the bread. Jesus is also equally present to us in the rest of our lives. Just as with our eyes, we need to open our hearts so we may know the presence of the risen Jesus as he accompanies us on the way.
Emmaus reminds us that our intellects and great powers of rational thought that don’t ultimately matter.
Our risen Savior seeks us out, is with us, and walks with us in our human confusion, fears, pain, anxieties and joys. Emmaus brings awareness to our hearts burning within us, recognizing Jesus’ love.
Ultimately, when it comes to the Resurrection, “You gotta have heart!
Rev. Peter Faass
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
One of my all-time favorite films is The Wizard of Oz, with Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger and Jack Haley. The familiar mantra of “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my” occurs when Garland, playing Dorothy, Haley, as the Tin Man, and Bolger, as the Scarecrow, are deep in the forest. Night is falling and the enveloping darkness and sounds of hoots and howls of birds make the three friends very afraid. Dorothy says, “I don’t like this forest, it’s dark and creepy . . . do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?”
Scarecrow asks, “You means like ones that eat straw?”
The Tin Man remarks, “Some, but mostly lions and tigers and bears.”
The threesome repeatedly chant, “lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” as they hastily skip down the road. Moments later, they encounter a lion, played by Bert Lahr, who puts up a ferocious front of threatening behavior and roaring. When the lion begins to chase Toto, Dorothy comes to her little dog’s rescue and smacks the lion’s nose. Shocked, he cries, and reveals his true self; he’s a Fraidy cat in lions clothing. While a lion is supposed to be a fearless King of the Beasts, this one is not. Dorothy accuses the lion of being nothing more than a great big coward. To which lion replies, “You’re right, I am a coward.” “In fact,” he says, “I haven’t any courage at all.”
The three friends invite the Cowardly Lion to join them on their journey to see the Wizard at the Emerald City, from whom they hope to receive courage, a heart, a brain, and a return ticket to Kansas.
The Cowardly Lion believes that his fear makes him inadequate and prevents him from being courageous. He does not understand that courage means acting in the face of fear. When the Wizard of Oz gives the Cowardly Lion a medal of courage, it changes his attitude. The medal gives him courage, but more importantly, it gives him faith in himself so he no longer fears those things that threaten him.
“Do not be afraid,” the Wizard seems to telling the Lion, “you will get what you need, including courage, to do good things in the face of terrifying circumstances.
“But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, he has been raised from the dead. ’”
“Do not be afraid.” Angels and messengers say this phrase at key moments of tension and drama in the biblical story. “Do not be afraid” are the restorative and empowering words of courage that define the Gospel. Courage in the face of fear is the essence of the good news and lies at the heart of the Resurrection.
Words of courage were offered to the terrified women who came to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. And there certainly is no shortage of fear-inducing events to be terrified by! First, there is a huge earthquake, followed by an angel swooping down from the heavens and rolling away the enormous stone that seals Jesus’ tomb. The angel’s appearance is described as being, “like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” All that flashing white light the angel emits is fear inducing. So fearsome in fact that we are told, “for fear of him the guards [at the tomb] shook and became like dead men.” Which is a face saving way of saying that, like the Cowardly Lion, they fainted from fright.
And then the angel utters those words of empowerment and comfort, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So the women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy to tell his disciples.
Fear and great joy! The announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away their fear; it empowers them to keep faith amid their fear, and to do as the angel commanded them, sharing the good news in spite of their anxiety. They are given courage.
As with the Cowardly Lion, the two Marys discover that courage means acting in the face of fear. This is the very definition of courage. And for this reason, courage is precisely what Easter is about.
Believing in Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the grave is not some panacea that takes away life’s hardships. If that’s what you’re looking for, you will be disappointed. The Resurrection of Jesus gives us the courage to stay standing when life’s earthquakes strike. It enables us to persevere and flourish through adversity. The Resurrection gives us courage.
When the women encounter the risen Lord, he repeats the angel’s words and tells them, “Do not be afraid.” These words are not some saccharine, reality denying, alt-truth. They are the essence of the good news.
We all are aware that living a mortal life means encountering enormously fear-inducing things. Jesus, of all people, understands that.
Chronic and life-threatening illnesses occur, robbing our health and vigor. Family and friends die too soon. In a changing economy, we worry about our jobs, our financial security and retirements. We are fearful of aging and maintaining our physical agility and mental acuity. Crazed dictators, uninformed presidents, and callous governments threaten our security and way of life. The deteriorating environment and the havoc being wrought by global warming on “this fragile earth, our island home” terrifies us. We fear the world we are leaving to our children and their children. Human life is filled with fear.
As we witness the two Marys and the other disciples, the Resurrection of Christ creates the possibility of joy, hope and courage in the face of these fearsome things. Like the medal of courage the Wizard of Oz gave the lion, God in the Resurrection gives us the courage to face life’s hardships. In the Resurrection, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is more powerful than hate, that compassion overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient. Sure, these challenges are real, palpable and painful, but because of Jesus’ Resurrection, they do not have the last word nor represent the final reality for us. Resurrection changes everything.
Winston Churchill understood this truth of the Christian faith. At his funeral (which he planned), Churchill arranged to have a trumpeter play Taps in the west end of the nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The sun sets on the west side of the church, where the architecture also signifies death. Taps signals the end of a day and is often played at military funerals. After a respectful silence, a second trumpeter played Reveille in the east end of the great nave. The east, of course, is where the sun rises, and in a church signifies Resurrection and new life.
Churchill exhibited great courage in the face of enormous fear, and understood that Christ’s resurrection tells us that God is a God of new life. The good news of Christ’s Resurrection does not take away our fear. It does offer us courage and hope with its promise that God will have the last word, and that word is one of light, life, grace, mercy and love.
Do not be afraid. He is not here, for he has been raised.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Jack Shelley is a parishioner of Christ Church and o member of our church leadership, the vestry.
As we reach the end of Lent, it seems appropriate to look back at what sort of Lent we’ve had and what we might have learned. I have been thinking how the life I lead on a daily basis matches up with the sort of life that God would want me to live. It also occurs to me that we are in a time where living our faith outside of church is more important and more difficult than it has been in a while.
Although I don’t need to tell you this, there currently are a lot of unchristian things happening in the world. The most vulnerable among us, refugees, undocumented immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Jews, members of minority groups, and the poor are being mistreated:
These people are often suffering because of policies enacted by governments or, more insidiously, by those with political power or media influence to say things suggesting it is OK to treat them poorly.
Jesus calls us to serve people suffering the most in our current social and political climate. I am not a biblical scholar, so I can’t give you chapter and verse, but I know that the Bible commands us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome strangers. There is clearly a tension between much of the current zeitgeist and what we are called to do as Christians. The question is, what do we do? How do we convert our faith into action? How do we act as Jesus would have to aid those who are being increasingly marginalized?
As individuals and a faith community, we can help in numerous ways. We can donate money and time to organizations that help the homeless or advocate for LGBTQ rights. We can sponsor refugees or stand in solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. We can call and write to our elected officials and demand that they serve all Americans and oppose policies that cause harm around the world. These are all good things to do, but they are in some ways the easy things to do. Supporting an organization that shares your beliefs or working with people who think like you do can be rewarding and fulfilling, even if coming up with the time or money can be challenging. Calling or writing your government officials can be done from the comfort of your own home and there’s really no downside to telling people who work for you what you think. The hard part, especially for me, is saying or doing something when you come face-to-face with intolerance, bigotry, or callousness.
It is difficult to stand up to power and swim against the tide of popular opinion. At the same time, if we are looking to model our lives on Jesus’ example, that is exactly what we need to do. The story of Jesus’ life is so familiar to us that it’s easy to forget how disruptive he was to the political and religious power structures of his time or how radical it was for him to spend time with and value the marginalized. Where does this leave us if we are not always able to stand up to power or defy public opinion? Would Jesus chastise us for our weaknesses?
Today’s readings answer some of those questions. For the longest time, Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus struck me as an odd part of the Passion narrative, but I now see it, in a somewhat roundabout manner, as evidence that Jesus understood what it was to be human.
Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus happened during a time of fear and uncertainty for Jesus’ followers. The full weight of the religious authorities had been brought to bear on Jesus and once he was arrested, his followers were on their own. They no longer had the comfort of Jesus’ physical presence and they knew how things were going to end. Simon Peter had the courage to follow Jesus to the high priest’s house, but when he was asked whether he was a disciple, he lied. He lied for the same reason that any of us might lie in a similar situation. If we feel our lives or our freedom hinge on giving the “right” answer, we’re going to tell our questioner whatever we think they want to hear.
What does this have to do with Jesus’ appreciation of what it is to be human? We have to look a little earlier in the story for the answer. Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus has its origins at the Last Supper. After Jesus tells his disciples he will not be with them much longer, he tells them that they cannot follow where he is going. No one else says anything, but Simon Peter responds to this news by saying “Why can’t I go with you? I’m ready to die for you!” There is no doubt in his mind, he’s a true believer. He’s sure he’ll never waiver.
Jesus says to him. “Are you really ready to die for me? I am telling you the truth: before the rooster crows you will say three times that you do not know me.”
We don’t know what was going on in Jesus’ head at that moment, but I can see him thinking, and not in a mean way, “Giving up my life is going to be unbelievably hard. You’re as ready to die for me as you think you are. I know that when you feel like your life depends on saying that you don’t know me, you will. You’re human and your life and your freedom are precious to you.”
If my interpretation is correct, Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus is not a story of Simon Peter’s failure to keep the faith or stand by his convictions. This is a story of what human beings do when they are scared. Jesus’ prophecy that Simon Peter would deny him three times is not a dig at Simon Peter, it’s Jesus knowing how we value our lives and saying to Simon Peter, “I know that you’re human, you don’t want to die any more than I do and you’re going to do whatever you can to stay alive.”
Keep trying to live as Jesus would want you to. Strive to help those in need and stand up to people and situations that are intolerant, bigoted or callous. Stand up to them even when it is difficult or uncomfortable to do so, but don’t beat yourself up if you fall short. Strive to do better the next time and know that Jesus understands our humanity and loves us because of it. As the reading from Hebrews states, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-15
Rev. Peter Faass
The capture and destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE was an apocalyptic event for Israelites. Everything treasured – socially, religiously, culturally – was assaulted and seriously threatened. The oppressive Babylonian empire appeared to purposely destroy the core identity of Hebrews through forced exile and forced co-mingling with foreign nations.
Exiles anguished in despair, lamenting that their bones felt dried up and their hopes perished. They felt utterly cut off from the Promised Land and Jerusalem – and from God himself.
In the midst of this despair, God sends the prophet Ezekiel who experiences a series of oracles. The most famous prophecy is the vision of the valley of dry bones. Just before Ezekiel sees the oracles, God shares his desire to offer the House of Israel a new heart and spirit to revive the Israelites and restore their hope.
God then relayed visions of Israel’s future. In the opening verses Ezekiel proclaims, “I was among the exiles by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” (Ezek. 1:1)
In one vision, Ezekiel is brought to an arid valley of dry bones. It was the site of a former battle, with the unburied bodies of armies left to rot and be eaten by carrion-eaters.
God asked the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.”
God tells him to prophesy to the bones. As Ezekiel does, the bones slowly come together; bone-to-bone, sinew binding them, flesh upon them and covered with skin. God then breathed life-giving spirit into these bodies. “And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
God said these resurrected bones were the people of the House of Israel. “I am going to open your graves,” God tells them, “and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel . . . O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
It’s an awe inducing vision, nearly impossible to believe. For the as good-as-dead Hebrews in exile, good news was difficult to hear – and even more impossible to visualize.
As he relays his vision, Ezekiel challenges the Israelites to view their dire circumstances past their visions of despair and through God’s eyes.
With human eyes can dry, desiccated bones live? Well, of course not!
But see them through God’s eyes, and suddenly bone comes to bone. As one commentary I read stated, “Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tight. Watch as God’s spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up – a great army testifying to the power of God . . .
[Through human eyes] can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Absurd! But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit and return home.”
If God can restore the desiccated bones of a hopeless people back to life, then there are absolutely no limits to God’s power to do the same in our lives. If we can see hope through God’s eyes, then there is no limit to the possibilities of hope for our being revived from even the most desperate and hopeless circumstances.
God’s opening the graves of the dead and putting his spirit back into them is exactly what occurs in the story of Lazarus. This miracle occurs in John’s Gospel, which was written by a community of early Christians who had just been exiled (or if you will, excommunicated) from the Jewish faith. At its inception, this community considered itself a Jewish sect. Around the turn of the first century, institutional Judaism determined that Jewish expectations of messiah had not been fulfilled in Jesus, whom the community of John proclaimed as the authentic Messiah. So they were cast out, no longer welcome, even despised. They were considered as good as dead.
This denial caused considerable despair and hopelessness. From the context of this situation, the author of John presented the story of Jesus raising the dead man Lazarus from the grave.
Whether we believe this is an actual bodily resurrection or not misses the point. We are seeing through our own, limited eyes and not God’s. It does not matter if Jesus literally raised a corpse to life or not, although he could have done so.
It mattered for the despairing and entombed Johannine community that Jesus –who of course sees everything through God’s eyes - offered them hope. With that hope, they were raised from the graves of despair. That hope is centered in the statement Jesus makes to Martha when he tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
In that theological statement, we find that whether death is literal or metaphorical, God’s powerful love for us and the world defeats death in all its insidious forms if we believe in the way and truth of Jesus. We’ll see as Jesus did, with God’s eyes.
Ezekiel shared God’s vision for the “defeated and as-good-as-dead people, giving them hope. Looking through God’s eyes, it was only a matter of time before Israel was freed from exile and restored to Judea, with the Temple and Jerusalem rebuilt.
Bone came to bone. Sinew, flesh and skin grew, and God breathed onto them. God’s vision of salvation for the people became reality.
In John’s community, the death and entombment of excommunication was transformed by Lazarus’ rising from the grave. Jesus did this because he loved Lazarus, also conveying this love for the despondent Johannine community.
In both instances, God gave dead communities a new heart and spirit. Love is resurrection and life; to love is seeing with God’s eyes.
The entire purpose of Jesus’ life was to teach humanity how to see through God’s eyes – the eyes of love. As the hymn, My Song is Love Unknown states, “love to the loveless show[n] that they might lovely be.”
The incarnate God’s desire is always to give us a new heart and spirit so that when our bones are dead and dry, sealed in the tomb of death, we may find the hope to live. When we see through Jesus’ eyes and see as God sees, we are released from the graves that entomb us. Jesus becomes resurrection and life.
When we feel as if our bones are dried up and our spirits gone, when we feel like the tomb has been closed over us and the stench of death grows ever stronger, I can’t think of a greater life-giving message than this one. This is true for us individually in our own struggles and challenges and corporately, as we encounter social and political shifts that threaten us.
Can we believe that God has power over the course of life and death, that God can raise the driest of bones and the deadest of bodies? Can we envision a way of life that sees our lives and the world around us through God’s eyes, with love? If we do, we will have hope. Hope will propel us to testify to the power of God, and a new resurrected life will be ours.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.