Third Sunday of Easter (Year A, 8 May 2011)

The risen life: walking in hope

Readings
1 Peter 1.17-23
Luke 24.13-35

 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.

Cleopas and his friend had hoped…but their hopes died with Jesus.

People can live through any loss, except the loss of hope. Hope is essential to a human life. Without hope, we are diminished.

How do we sustain hope when things go wrong? How do we keep ourselves out of the pit of despair?

To answer those questions, let’s join Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus. (There are those who believe this was no friend with Cleopas, but his wife—and I think they make a good case. So I’m going to call them Mr and Mrs Cleopas.)

As we join them on the road, we notice something straight away. This isn’t an amble, a ramble or a stroll. Neither is it a quick march, and there’s no spring in their step.

These despairing disciples are trudging, they’re plodding, barely able to drag one foot after another.

The stranger can’t help but notice the way they’re walking. It looks a lot like the walk of a condemned man to the scaffold.

Yet even in their deep despair, they allow this third man to join them. They extend hospitality to him.

The Emmaus story always reminds me of the experience of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was an Antarctic explorer around the time of the First World War. In his book South, he described his experience that a fourth joined him and two others during the final leg of their journey. He wrote:

during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.

Shackleton believed that the fourth with them was the Lord Jesus himself. Other survivors of extreme hardship have reported the same thing. Someone joined them at their point of greatest need. One study of cases involving adventurers reported that the largest group involved climbers, with solo sailors and shipwreck survivors being the second most common group, followed by polar explorers.

This experience actually has a name: it’s the Third Man factor or Third Man syndrome. It sounds to me very like the experience of Mr and Mrs Cleopas at Emmaus. I suppose that’s why it’s called the ‘Third Man Syndrome’, as Jesus is the ‘third’ person in the Emmaus story.

Mr and Mrs C tell this strange companion the story of Jesus, how this ‘prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people’ was crucified; and how some of the women had seen a vision of angels who said that Jesus is alive. But no one else saw anything other than an empty tomb. Mr and Mrs Cleopas didn’t or couldn’t believe them, or their reports of angels.

How can they ever find any hope in this situation?

And what do we mean by hope?

If I look up ‘hope’ in a thesaurus, I find words like optimism; wish; dream; desire; trust; expectation; anticipation.

Christian hope is different. Christian hope is relational, it involves personal trust, it’s growing to love Jesus the faithful one. It’s trust that Jesus is here with us now; it’s trusting that he keeps his promises.

Christian hope more like the hope I put in my wife than hoping we’ll have fine weather next weekend. Simply put, it’s hope in Jesus and his love.

Of course, Mr and Mrs Cleopas had hoped in Jesus… ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…’ But Jesus had gone. Let’s face it, there’s no point putting your hope in a dead man.

The stranger is nothing if not blunt:

Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?

And then he gives them the Bible study to end all Bible studies—the risen Lord himself, explaining that suffering was necessary for the Messiah. We don’t know which passages Jesus opened to them, but I think Isaiah 53 would be a safe bet:

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering…
…he was despised,
and we held him of no account.

…he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities…
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

…By a perversion of justice
he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off
from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression
of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

This doesn’t change Mr and Mrs C into people of hope again, because he is still a stranger to them. But they want this stranger to stay with them, so they invite him in when they get to their place.

That’s when it happens. Around the meal table, the place of real hospitality. If you want to show someone you really want to know them, you invite them for a meal. Then they knew. It was the Lord Jesus himself.

Hope was restored!

Let me highlight a few things here, things Jesus said and did, and things Mr and Mrs C did.

The thing Jesus said:

Jesus spoke of the necessity of suffering—for the Messiah, but not for us, surely? Friends, the resurrection isn’t a happy-ever-after ending to a sad story. It’s the beginning of a whole new world, which brings suffering to those who dare to live in it. Take the Apostles Peter and Paul: Paul is beheaded, Peter crucified upside-down.

In Romans 5.2b-5, Paul writes

we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

There’s that same connection of glory and suffering, but this time it’s about us.

And just in case the point isn’t made enough, Paul repeats it in Romans 8.15b-17:

When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Suffering and glory.

Once, a woman came to Jesus, washed his feet, and dried them with her hair. The host of the meal hadn’t shown Jesus the normal courtesies of washing his feet. On that occasion Jesus said,

her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.

She showed how much she was forgiven by how much she loved. In the same way, those who suffer can learn what Christian hope really is. It’s hope in the Lord who walks with us through suffering, who guides us to springs of living water and restores our soul.

The thing Jesus did:

He revealed himself by the way he broke the bread. It was an intimate moment. Every time we sit with another at a meal table—any meal table—we are also sitting with the Lord Jesus. He is present, whether bidden or not, whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not.

This is what Luke says:

he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them…

Actually, that’s not part of the Emmaus story. That’s what Luke says happened at the Last Supper. At Emmaus,

he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

This wasn’t a Communion meal—yet. But Luke wants us to know that the risen Lord is present every time we gather around the Lord’s Table and share the Holy Meal.

So why don’t we do it every week? It’s because of ‘the tradition of men, that’s why’. There’s something awfully ironic about reading this passage on a non-Communion Sunday.

So Jesus connects suffering and glory; and Jesus comes to us at the Lord’s Table, but also at each and every table.

What are the two things Mr and Mrs C did?

Firstly: they listened. In their despair, they opened their ears. And later they realised that their hearts were burning within them while the stranger opened the scriptures. They knew his voice, though they didn’t know it was the Lord.

The second thing they did was to show hospitality. Imagine if they had told the stranger to go away when he joined them on the road! Imagine if they had let him keep on walking! But they opened their ears and their hearts. And the Lord opened their eyes in the breaking of the bread.

This is still how we prepare ourselves today. We come to the Lord with open ears and hearts, and ask him to open our eyes to his presence in the people around us.

Let’s close by listening to Paul’s words once more:

we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Amen.

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