Deacon Sue Nebel
You probably did it the first time as a young child, and probably many more times again as an adult. You stood at the edge of a lake, a pond, or maybe just a nice deep puddle. You stretched out your hand and dropped a small stone or a pebble into the water. Then you stood there, watching intently, as a small circle formed where the stone had dropped and disappeared. Then gradually more and more circles formed, spreading out on the surface of the water. Smaller ones in the center, surrounded by increasingly larger ones. I don’t know about you, but I never fail, even as an adult, to be amazed by the sight of those circles.
The stories of the experience of the Resurrection are like those circles. They begin small and get bigger and bigger. At the Easter Vigil and on Easter Day, we hear the stories of the discovery of the empty tomb in the early morning. Not many characters involved. Some women and an angel or two. In the version of the story in Matthew, two women, Mary Magadalene and another Mary the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body nowhere to be found. They rush off to tell the others. In the account in John, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone. Stunned at what she finds, she runs to tell Peter and another disciple. The men rush to the tomb to check out what she has said. In both stories, we have the first post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus. In Matthew, he appears to the women and the disciples. In John, Jesus appears only to Mary Magdalene and she then tells the others, “I have seen the Lord.” The empty tomb. The stone dropped into the water. Circles starting to form.
In last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus appears again. By now, it is evening. The disciples are in a house, somewhere in Jerusalem, gathered in fear. Jesus comes to them. He shows them his wounds and breathes on them. And then the words, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The hint of what lies ahead. A bigger circle is forming. The disciples will not remain in this small place. They will not sit still, paralyzed by fear, and do nothing. Jesus is going to send them out to do the work that he started.
In today’s Gospel lesson, this one from Luke, another post-Resurrection appearance. A larger circle. Jesus now appears to people who are not part of the small group of women and men closest to him. On the road outside of Jerusalem, Jesus joins two of his followers who are headed to the village of Emmaus, some seven miles away. They do not recognize him. They are discussing the extraordinary events of past few days. When he asks them what they are talking about, they are astonished that he does not seem to know about what has happened. So they recount the events. Then Jesus begins to teach them, interpreting the scriptures for them. As they approach the village, they invite Jesus to join them. At the table, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Suddenly, they recognize him, and in that same moment he disappears. They say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was interpreting the scriptures to us?” Instead of staying in Emmaus, they return to Jerusalem to tell the smaller group of disciples what they have experienced. Jesus teaching them on the road and how they knew him in the breaking and sharing of bread.
Scripture and shared meal. Key elements in this story. The pattern of the earliest days of the Jesus Movement. People gathering in homes to share a meal. Telling stories about Jesus. Wondering and talking together about the meaning of all that he taught them. Then going out from those gatherings to spread the good news about Jesus. To live out his teaching to love another. To build the Church. We have come a long way since those early days. The church has become a huge, complicated institution. We have taken the simple pattern of word and shared meal and dressed it up. Made it grand with vestments and music. Scripture read from lecterns. The stories and teachings of Jesus proclaimed from the center aisle. The meal, the Eucharist, begins at a large table, front and center with elaborate coverings and silver vessels. Words that remind us of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. Words that give expression to layers of meanings we have given to the simple actions of sharing bread and wine. “This is my body, which is given for you.” “This is my blood of the new Covenant.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Word and Sacrament. The framework, the basic structure of our common worship. It is probably most familiar to us in what we do each Sunday morning when we gather here. With some variation in seasons like Advent or Lent, we follow the same pattern, week after week. We listen to the Word. We share the bread and wine of communion. This is how we learn about Jesus. This is how we come to know and experience Jesus as a living presence in our hearts and in our lives. It is our road to Emmaus experience. Not a one-time, heart-burning-within us moment, but something we do over and over again. The familiarity of its pattern shapes and grounds our faith. It strengthens us to go out from this place and continue the work that Jesus and those early disciples started.
Yesterday was the consecration of Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows as Bishop of Indianapolis, a grand event with all the pomp and circumstance the Episcopal Church can muster. Lots of people from our diocese were there. Kristin and John White, Andrea Mysen and Rene Brandt and Sadie and Ascher among them. At the same time yesterday, I was at the funeral of Rebekah Rimkus. She was the wife of Bill Rimkus, a deacon in our diocese. A time of sadness, honoring a woman who had died of brain cancer at the age of 63. Two very different liturgies, yet both taking place within the basic framework of Word and Sacrament. A framework that is pliable, flexible. Opening up to include unique elements. In the consecration: an examination of Jennifer, testimonials to the validity of her election, the giving of symbols of her new position. In the funeral, space for a eulogy given by one of Rebekah’s daughters, a poem as one of the readings, interment of her ashes in the parish columbarium.
The consecration of a new bishop, a beginning. A funeral, an ending. Beginnings and endings—and everything in between. Framed by familiar ritual of Word and Sacrament. That is our life in the Church. Within that structure, we welcome new members and say goodbye to others who are leaving to continue their life’s journey in another place. We bless pregnant women. We give thanks for newborn babies and adopted childen. We baptize, we confirm and receive people into the Episcopal Church. We marry couples. We recognize and commission a variety of ministries. In all of those events, we hear the Word and share the meal. .
Two people in the fading evening light, heading from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Encountering a stranger. Then the dawning light of recognition: it is Jesus. Known and experienced in hearing the scriptures interpreted and in the breaking and sharing of bread. A small, simple beginning. What a long way we have come since then.
Easter 3; Year A
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-3,10-17; 1 Peter:17-23; Luke 24:13-35