What Things?

As it turns out, slime is a superb symbol for Easter.

Luke 24:13-35


Better than slime

What things get you excited on Easter Sunday? There are lots of options, of course – the empty tomb, springtime, allergies, Easter lilies, new clothes, Easter egg hunts, children’s excitement, getting the family together, ham for dinner. The oddest Easter enthusiasm I ran across this past week was the TV commercial from Michael’s I must have heard twenty times this past week: “Fill your children’s Easter basket with what they love, including everything they need to make their very own slime!” I was totally unaware that one of the things kids these days love about Easter is producing personalized putridity.

Let me tell you what got me excited today. As you know, I study and speak about the Bible for a living. One of the challenges for me at Easter and Christmas is that there are only a handful of stories in the Bible that relate directly to those holidays. I have been ordained for thirty years as of this year, so I have returned to these same stories repeatedly. If I can see something I’ve never seen before in the Bible, that gets me more excited than a chocolate egg or a fresh batch of slime.

The story we read from Luke’s gospel is probably familiar to almost everyone here. William Barclay called it “one of the immortal short stories of the world.” One of the puzzling parts of the story is why these two disciples apparently walked and talked with Jesus for a couple of hours and didn’t recognize him. On one level, that’s not so surprising. The picture below is of me about ten years ago, and not many people who know me now would recognize me in that picture. Within about a year’s time I lost 50 pounds, started wearing glasses, and shaved my beard and mustache for the first time in my adult life. Same person – very different appearance. Not long ago, I rediscovered in a file the video we took on the Sunday I shaved off the beard during a Holy Humor worship service. We’ll show that video next Sunday.

In Luke 24 Jesus reappeared in a resurrection body, and surely that means more physical change than what I went through nine years ago. What the story actually says, though, is that the disciples on the road were “kept from recognizing him” (16). The Greek original indicates that their eyes “were being restrained” and later verse 31 says their eyes were “opened” (31). The new insight for me was about why. Why did God prevent the two disciples from recognizing Jesus as they struggled and agonized?

The answer to that question is related to another new insight on this passage, one that has me even more excited than that. I need to give a little background for those of you who don’t attend here regularly. Several years ago Dr. Carl Welch suggested I preach a whole series of sermons on the part of this passage that says Jesus tied together his life with “Moses and all the prophets.” He thought it would make a fine series of sermons to show the connections between various parts of the Old Testament and the life of Jesus.

That’s what we have been doing here at Corinth since before Christmas. What got me most excited about Easter this year was that for the first time ever I understood what Scriptures Jesus had to have tied in that day. I’m going to tell you what they were, but not yet. All you need to know right now is that I’m really excited about it.

What’s more, my discovery is directly related to one of the most challenging questions people ask not only about the Christian faith, but about any faith, even about life. Anytime you can shed even a little light on a very difficult subject, that’s very exciting. And guess what? It has something to do with, yes, slime! Let’s jump into the story.

Cleopas and Mary

All four gospels relate the story of women coming to Jesus’ tomb early that morning and finding it empty. Luke and John both tell about Jesus appearing that night to the Eleven remaining disciples. (Judas had committed suicide early Friday morning.) Only Luke tells about the two disciples Jesus met on the road to Emmaus.

Notably, these two were not among the Eleven. We assume Luke names Cleopas because he’s familiar to at least some of his readers and that he’s still living when Luke writes. “Go ask Cleopas if you want to verify this story.” We don’t know much about him, unless he’s the same as “Clopas” whom John names, in which case his wife was one of the women who stood near the cross of Jesus as he was dying (John 19:25). If that’s true, it’s even possible that these two disciples were Cleopas and his wife Mary, an eyewitness to the crucifixion. Without a better theory, let’s go with that.

The couple apparently lives in a town called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. For perspective, think of the distance from Corinth to Catawba Valley Medical Center. At a typical walking pace, that’s a 2-2½ hour walk. As Cleopas and Mary walk home in the late afternoon, they are processing the events of the past week. Remember, it’s been only seven days since Jesus was feted with palm branches while a crowd shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Sure, he rode on a donkey but he also accepted the adulation of the crowd who clearly believed he was the Messiah. Everything had gone downhill from there.

A stranger joins them. I’m sure there were a number of people spread out along this road, headed away from Jerusalem to wherever after the Passover. We know the stranger is Jesus, but they don’t.

The stranger asks them a question:  “What words are you tossing back and forth as you walk?” They freeze. Sadness is smeared on their faces. So is puzzlement. Cleopas puts their thoughts into words:  “You’ve just come from Jerusalem as we have. Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about the things that happened?”

I love Jesus’ response: “What things?” In Greek it’s one word: “Poia?” Can’t you see a slight twinkle in his eye as he says it? The irony, of course, is that they think they know what he doesn’t know, but in reality he knows everything they don’t know.

Cleopas answers, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth.” He now seems to be a combination of sad and excited. “He was a great man, a prophet who did and said mighty things before God and all the people! Then the chief priests and our rulers condemned him to die! They crucified him! We were so hoping he was the Messiah. That was three days ago. My wife Mary here was there on Friday and watched the whole thing. But now we’re even more confused, because some of our other women went to his tomb this morning. His body wasn’t there and they said they saw angels. Some of the rest of us went to the tomb to check it out and they were right – no corpse was there – but no one’s actually seen Jesus.” You have probably heard this before, but it’s true. This is one of the great reasons this story about the resurrection is credible. If you were making it up, you wouldn’t put women at the tomb first. In that culture, women were disrespected as witnesses.

Jesus says, “Your head is not thinking and your heart is slow to believe your own prophets. Was it not absolutely necessary for the Messiah to suffer and enter into his glory?” Then Jesus continues – but remember, their eyes are still restrained from recognizing him – with what has to be the finest Bible lesson ever taught. If I had a time machine and could pick one hour from Bible times to visit, I think it would be this one. I don’t remember anywhere else in the Gospels where Jesus teaches an extended Bible lesson. It would have been so cool to eavesdrop.

As they get close to Emmaus, Jesus acts like he’s going on further, but they insist he accepts their hospitality since it’s late in the day. They stretch out for the meal and when Jesus blesses and breaks the bread the blinders come off and they knew him! At that moment he vanished, apparently to go find Peter. One of the best parts of the Easter story, but one about which we have no detail at all, is that on the day of his resurrection Jesus had a one-on-one with the disciple who had denied him three times.

Mary and Cleopas renew their chatter:  “Did you feel the same heart burn I did while he opened up the Scriptures?” Late in the day or not, they get themselves together and hustle back to Jerusalem. “Keep up, Cleopas!” Mary shouted when he lagged behind for she had run many a 10K and he was a couch potato. (That part’s not in Luke 24.) When they find the Eleven plus some of the others, they are eager to tell their story. Before they can do so, it is the others who say, “Indeed, the Lord is risen! (That’s a literal translation, and it’s the source of our Easter greeting.) He appeared to Peter! Too bad you left for home early and missed all the excitement.”

Mary says, “We didn’t miss anything. Let us connect some dots for you between the things that have happened and the things in the Scripture. Guess who gave us the Bible lesson!” If you sneak a peak to the next few verses, you learn that while they are all together – Cleopas, Mary, Peter and nine other disciples (John tells us Thomas missed out that first night), plus the women who had been at the cross and some others, Jesus appeared again and scared the you-know-what out of them.

Great day, huh?

Things 1, 2, and 3

There are some things about this passage that get me really excited.

“What things?” you ask. Thank you for asking.

Thing One: Struggle is where Jesus meets us.

I want to connect this thing to our puzzlement over Mary and Cleopas’ inability to recognize Jesus at first. On one level, we can’t blame them, right? Luke specifically says their eyes were being restrained. But why?

Imagine how the story would have played out differently if their eyes had not been restrained. They’re sad, they’re down, they’re walking along the road home. Jesus shows up and says, “I’m back!” Suddenly they’re so happy. That’s really all they wanted to know. They try to hug him and he won’t let them, like he wouldn’t let Mary Magdalene early in the morning. He vanishes. They’re so excited anyway, so they run back to Jerusalem.

What would they have missed? They would have missed what they were missing all along. They would have missed the time walking along with Jesus, learning from him, being with him, enjoying the world’s greatest Bible lesson ever. The time of waiting and struggling set them up for one of the most amazing encounters with Jesus, ever.

The front of your bulletin pictures a butterfly, a wonderful symbol of the resurrection. You have probably heard how fierce the struggle is for a caterpillar to release itself from its cocoon. Yet how foolish it is to try to short-circuit that process, to help the caterpillar emerge prematurely. It is in the struggle that the insect creates its strength and transforms into its beauty.

God has many ways to get through to you.  The Bible is obviously one of the key ones, but sometimes there are strangers, or circumstances, or confusing things that happen, or people who show up in your life unexpectedly, or just having to wait when you want things to work out and they just won’t – not on your timetable.  Thing One I take away from the Road to Emmaus story is that the struggle we try to avoid is one of the best ways Jesus has to get through to us.

Thing Two: Suffering is how Jesus saves us.

This is the thing that got me most excited last Sunday and Monday, but I am well aware that if you haven’t puzzled over the same question I’ve puzzled over, you might not get quite as excited. For years I have wondered what Scriptures Jesus opened up to those two disciples on the road to Emmaus. There are lots of Bible verses we connect to Jesus, and even some Jesus himself connected. We’ve had five months of sermons on those connections, and I won’t try to repeat them all. But which ones, specifically, did Jesus talk about on the day of his resurrection?

Last Sunday I was preaching on the cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which he quoted from Psalm 22. Without thinking about this Sunday’s sermon, I said, “Jews don’t believe that passage is about Messiah. From a Jewish perspective, a Messiah is never forsaken. He doesn’t suffer. He doesn’t die. He shows up, he fights battles, and he always wins. He never needs to cry out, ‘God, where are you?’” This is why Jews don’t believe in Jesus. From their perspective, he couldn’t be Messiah because he suffered, he died, and most importantly, he failed to throw off the Romans and change the world.

Jesus had tried to warn his disciples that he would suffer and die in Jerusalem, but they never really heard him. The crucifixion was a shock to them. Now, on the day of his resurrection Jesus shows them from their own Bible that it was “absolutely necessary” for him to suffer. A Messiah not only can suffer and can die but has to suffer and die.

Which Scriptures did he open to them? The ones in the Old Testament that no Jew applies to Messiah. It starts with Genesis 3:15, where God says to the serpent, the seed of the woman “will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” From Abraham to Joseph to Moses to Ruth to David to Jeremiah to Esther, the greatest of God’s servants suffer greatly before they rise to glory. Why wouldn’t the greatest of God’s servants suffer?

Then there’s Isaiah 53, which is all about the servant of God who suffers. Jews, whose story is saturated with suffering, see their nation in Isaiah 53 – “despised and rejected by men,” “stricken by God,” “oppressed and afflicted.” But Isaiah 53 is a puzzling passage of Scripture, and even begins with “Who has believed our report?” The suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is not suffering for his own sins, but on behalf of others. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

That has to be what Jesus unfolded on the Road to Emmaus, because by the end of Isaiah 53 the suffering servant is exalted. “After the suffering of his soul he will see the light of life and be satisfied.” How could that be about anything or anyone except Jesus? It was there all along, but they were foolish and slow of heart and missed it! It is only through his suffering on our behalf that Jesus can pay the ultimate penalty for sin and change the world one person at a time through grace. He’s still doing it.

Thing 3: Slime is what Easter is all about.

As it turns out, Michael’s is right:  Easter really is all about slime. I really think slime might be a better symbol for Easter than chocolate bunnies or Easter eggs.

This is the part of the story that addresses the most perplexing and recurring question about faith – not just the Christian faith, but any faith. The question that will not go away is why evil exists in the world if there is a God who is all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving.

Notice I did not say this answers the question. If someone had come up with an easy answer to the question, we wouldn’t still be asking it. But Easter does address the question in a way no other faith can address it. We serve a God who not only knows about the slime in which we live, but came into the world to experience it in his body and soul. There’s no greater evidence of that than Good Friday.

Some of the mess we experience in our lives is not of our own making – it happened to us. As we started our early service today, I spoke to one dear lady and said in a cheerful voice, “Happy Easter!  How are you?” “Not so good,” she answered, “I’m missing my son.” She lost him several months ago. That wasn’t her fault. Many of the messes in our world are messes that were handed to us.

Then again, let’s admit it: much of our slime is slime we produced. We chose poorly. We were warned, but we did it anyway. We knew the right fork, but we wanted to experience the other one. The Bible has a fairly simple word for this: sin.

From an Easter perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the slime we’re in is a mess we made or one handed to us. Slime is why Christ came into the world. Slime is why he died. Slime is why he rose again. We can never say to God, “You don’t know what it’s like to suffer in our world. You don’t know what it’s like to bear the weight of sin.” Oh yes, he does. And he also knows that slime is never the end of the story.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.

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