"Easter 03: Faith"
by Cole McGee
So two years ago Valerie and I went on a civil rights tour through the south on our way to Atlanta. As we went we immersed ourselves in the sermons and the talks of Martin Luther King Jr. We went to the national civil rights museum, we went to the birthplace of dr. king. We went to birmingham, biloxi, selma… it was an amazing experience.
This experience sparked something in me that I wanted to bring our youth group into as well. So this spring break I took a group of students down to Memphis to go to the NCRM and this place called Slave Haven (An Underground Railroad Museum).
So… for two years I have been listening, studying, and trying to learn the story of our african-american brothers and sisters in Christ, …. My pursuit has been to give up my power and listen to them.
… and truthfully it is changing the deepest parts of who I am… and it is changing my faith, and I would like to share that with you this morning.
So before we begin the story today I want to introduce to you a major difference between white america and african-american america. Well… actually white america and pretty much any other marginalized group in america.
I noticed this to be deeply true about the African American identity.…
My identity as a white person is not activated very often because I don’t necessarily see myself as a part of a white community. I don’t even know where or what the “white community is.” It actually doesn’t sound positive honestly. But then again it might just have something to do with starbucks and ikea. So I’m not sure.
But… for example let’s say a youth pastor was killed while on vacation in the bahamas. That story would activate my identity as a youth pastor WAY before my identity as a white person. I don’t even know when that identity would be activated...
… for African Americans and other marginalized people groups… that’s not how it works. Being African American is a huge part of their identity. Way more than it is for us. So when you see a young black child on TV who has been shot… it’s not just that child… it’s their child. It's a deep wound to who they are.
This is something that happens to marginalized people groups. The marginalization they experience has a way of galvanizing this deep sense of communal identity around the very reason they are being oppressed.
And as you look at the Jewish people in and around the time of Jesus… you find a people who have very similar story… their scripture / their history is filled with slavery, exile, and occupation. Jesus was born into a marginalized and oppressed people, lived, died, resurrected, ascended, and will be returning as a member of a marginalized and oppressed people.
So as we read the text this morning… I ask you to listen with two ears.
One the story of the marginalized people in our world and
TWO the story of the marginalized people in this world.
13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.
As I was preparing this sermon I kept marveling over how clear and how identifiable the imagery was in this story. When you think about what is going on here, you can immediately see the story in your mind.
Two committed Jewish men come to jerusalem for passover. They are members of a people who are not taken seriously, seen as second class citizens, and have silly traditions, customs, and behaviours.
In fact the Jewish people are a small and insignificant subculture within the roman empire that doesn’t really play along with the dominate roman culture. In fact… this has gotten the jewish people into problems, because sometimes this anger… this desire for freedom and equality burns so hot they speak out… they protest… they even violently revolt.
Some Jewish people are playing along though. Some have forfeited their Jewish identity and have become more like the Romans. They sold their identity for safety, for power, and for wealth. The chief priests and the elders are sell outs.
These two men are in Jerusalem because the rumors of a messiah have been bubbling up. The rumors of a real Jewish messiah who NOT ONLY WILL FREE THEM FROM THEIR OPPRESSION, but is also healing the wounds of that oppression. The sick are being healed… the lame are walking… the blind are seeing… he is speaking with and connecting with women who are so desperate for cash they are selling their bodies for income.
This messiah is getting traction because nobody in the roman empire seems to care about those people. But for some reason this Jesus of Nazareth not only sees their struggle but is one of them.
They travel into Jerusalem and Jesus rides into town (on a donkey) but still… it’s about to go down. Freedom from the oppression of Roman occupation. The rise of KING Jesus. The king who says things like the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The king who says things like blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God.
So you can see how these two brown skinned Jesus loving Jewish men would be all in with that. You can see how Jesus is not only speaking their language, but they believe deeply might be the answer to their problems. Their physical poverty, but also the emotional trauma of being enslaved and oppressed.
But I pray that you have ears to hear: The romans did not see Jesus as hope… they saw Jesus as a threat to their money, to their safety, and to the control that they had over their way of life.
So what does Rome do? They kill him. They do what Rome does. They exert their dominance. They think by flexing their muscles they can lead the world. They decide to execute this Jewish king in front of everyone to show how powerful Rome is and how weak the Jews are. To remind the jews that they are less… that they are weak… that they are powerless.
And these two men are getting out of Jerusalem and are walking to emmaus.
STORY: Slave Haven
When I imagine these two men leaving Jerusalem… I am imagining that these men are getting out. I am imagining… that they are running. They are opting out of the struggle. These jewish people are leaving the place where Jesus is located… where Jesus is at work… they saw Jesus die… and they are done.
The overwhelming struggle and trauma of their life has pressed on them so much… that to find relief… they are headed to Emmaus. Some small town that has been lost in the history books. They are going to live out their lives. And do you blame them? Why would they stick around anymore? Why would you keep trying to speak out when you just keep getting silenced… why would you practice the teachings of Jesus anymore when it obviously doesn’t work… it’s not effective… it is fixing nothing… it has no traction in a world dominated by the roman way of power, control, and safety.
Love you enemies… take up your cross and follow… it just leads to death like everything else… so why not just go start a church in emmaus and talk about what it means to be jewish.
“What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
I wonder if they were having a serious conversation about what it means to be the people of YHWH when all they have ever known was oppression, slavery, and occupation.
What kind of God let’s that happen?
What kind of God does nothing about their struggle?
These men were experiencing deep … deep… doubt.
Why are we still doing this?
Why do I keep trying?
Can I do this for another 20 years?
Am I worth anything?
Do you see me God?
Are you there?
So… hear the tone of their voice when they say to Jesus, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
You can hear the anger at the guy who is ignorant to the pain of their people. This event has activated a deep cultural identity.
19 “What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.
Wow… look at that… look at the pain. That word redeem just screams at me there... That word in greek is lytroo (lew tra-o).
We had hoped that he was the one who was going to REDEEM Israel.
Here is every single definition of that word… if you can’t see the parallels with slavery… then I don’t know what to tell you:
to release on receipt of ransom
to redeem, liberate by payment of ransom
to cause to be released to one's self by payment of a ransom
to deliver: from evils of every kind, internal and external
When you hear african american preachers preach you can hear it in their voice and in their sermons… they know this story… and it’s not just head knowledge… they know it in their bodies what these men are feeling.
When you hear Dr. King speak… you can hear that he knows deeply the experience of doubt, of hopelessness, of struggling to find a reason for hope of liberation.
When you hear the music of John Coltrane… you can hear the sounds of a man who is wrestling with believing, in having faith, wrestling with conjuring up the hope for freedom and equality. To be redeemed.
And for me… and probably you… what do you think of when you read this text? What emotions come into your body?
Let me be a little more explicit…. As a white american Christian… can you identify with this text? Seriously? Don’t do mental gymnastics… tell the truth… do you identify with this struggle? Do you feel the pain of this text? The doubt… the fear… the desire to run to get out and escape to Emmaus?
Do you see a problem here? Do you see how it is kind of difficult to make this text speak to our lives?
These guys are leaving. They are done… they are walking to Emmaus, and Jesus appears to them on the road.
They do not recognize Jesus at first of course (which shows that they should have recognized him… and there isn’t facebook or any picture of Jesus floating around… so in some ways that implies that these guys would have been very familiar with Jesus),
but Jesus is present and he is with them in this doubt and this loss of hope, and after they explain what they are doing… Jesus responds responds to the pain:
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Whoa… that’s a long story. I’m trying to imagine a youth group where I told the story of the entire OT and the kids didn’t either fall asleep… or do the thing bored kids and adults do … you know… pretend to go to the bathroom.
But that is what happens here. This is not just some educational trip down memory lane. When you read that… when you read the line: “and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” … you should hear… that Jesus reminded them of the story of who they are.
Jesus is activating their unifying identity. It’s their story… it’s where they came from… It’s exactly the same thing that happens when you listen to civil rights leaders speak and they always tell stories of Marcus Garvey, John Coltrane, Dr. King, Malcom X, or Dianne Nash. These people who make up the history and cultural of a people.
This is what Jesus was doing with these two. He was reminding them of who they are.
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.
So in response to these two guys running away… Jesus responds with three acts of faithfulness to them.
Jesus is completely present to them. He does not see them as traitors to his people… It’s like they are lost sheep who are wandering from the fold. I would imagine after the resurrection there are plenty of important people Jesus would or could appear to… but he decides to go to these deeply broken and traumatized men wandering away from Jerusalem. … So he is present with them.
Jesus tells them the story of who they are. Where they came from.
And finally Jesus breaks bread with them. That language is supposed to make you think of the last supper. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Communion the final act of the remembering process. He tells them the story of who they are, he is present to them with no expectations, and they participate in eucharistic meal with each other…
Then they wake up. They realize what is happening here. They see the resurrected Jesus. They remember what he looks like. What he acts like. What he is about.
What they could not see before… they can now see. They see Jesus, and immediately Jesus is just gone.
You know Martin Luther King once said that, “In slavery we escaped to the north. In the north we found freedom, but we didn’t find equality.”
What King was saying is that a hundred years after slavery the civil rights movement was not going to be an escape from oppression. That in order to find what they were looking for they were not going to run anymore. That in the civil rights movement african americans were going to stay rooted where they were, they were not going to fight with violence, they were going fight by flourishing. They were going to live and bear the violence on their bodies and look at their oppressors in the eye and force them to see that they were human beings who deserved to be free and equal.
The civil rights movement you see was deeply rooted in the ways and teachings of Jesus, and for Dr. King… this was not some set of beliefs or something he did occasionally… it was a deep communal way of existing on this planet from birth to death. It was obedience and action. And they killed him for it.
And I believe in this text you can see the seeds of Dr. King’s thoughts about how to lead the civil rights movement. And how to find the freedom and equality he was looking for.
32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem.
These men go back.
You know I was talking about this sermon with a lot of people this week and a constant theme that I noticed as I shared it with people is that… most white christians that I shared it with were surprised and even shocked that the story has the two people going back into jerusalem… they remembered the story as them going to emmaus and staying there.
Here is why i find that significant.
I think it’s an interesting thought. Have Christians… have you… has the white church possibly had a run in with Jesus… heard the story… and kept walking to Emmaus. They somewhere long ago… the reason we can’t connect with this story is because we are not in Jerusalem.
Is it possible that at times… we refuse to go back to Jerusalem to be with all of our brothers and sisters who are suffering. Is it possible that in Jerusalem Jesus is at work redeeming the world… and we have decided to confess with our mouths but place our bodies far from the places that Jesus is at work? That the mission of God is in Jerusalem… and we are sitting in emmaus with a cheap and hollow “belief” that has not been tried and tested through the fires of suffering?
What if Jesus is at work in jerusalem? And he is inviting you to go all in?
These two guys are with Jesus, they hear the story, and share in communion and their hearts burn for the mission of God.
They stop running. They go back in the fight.
They turn around and head back to Jerusalem… and they are not blind to the fact that they are risking their lives to do so. They are not blind that Jerusalem is a painful and dangerous place to be in right now for a Jesus loving Israelite.
But for them… the presence of Jesus, telling of the story, and worship through communion re narrated their lives.
What was the center of their pain has become the center of hope.
For these men they decide that in order to find the hope of freedom they are looking for… They had to go back to Jerusalem to be with their fellow brothers and sisters. To continue trying to carve out a life together as a people. And wait for the hope to resurrect.
What was the center of pain has become the center of hope.
There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
Look at this… these men of YHWH latched on to the remembering process of presence, story, and communion and they repeated it with their brothers and sisters in jerusalem… They were present to each other… and… they told their story of what happened while they were on the road... and when they did this… check out the communion part:
36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
The peace that they were seeking. The freedom and equality they were seeking only came in Jerusalem. When they stayed together in faithfulness. When they shared the story of God… and they broke bread together in worship.
That is our faith.
That is our hope.
And for Valerie and I and for the youth group the African American church is a living example of this fidelity. They believe in this hope in their bodies… and it infiltrates their actions, their music, their lives.
Look they aren’t perfect…
But despite the continued struggle of african american people in this country our black brothers and sisters in christ have not given up hope… when they have every right to do so.
The church still remains faithful. They still sing… they still dance… they still tell the story… they still break bread in worship. And people are still being set free.
African American Author Richard Wright says, “ “Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in cool springs of hope, where we retain our wholeness and humanity despite the blows.”
And listen to this. These faithful acts of presence, telling the story, and worship through communion are not to make us holy and make God happy with us and get rid of our guilt… That’s emmaus theology… NO they are intentional practices that shape our character so that WHEN WE experience the pain of the world we do not react in violence, but we react in love. We don’t run from the pain… we are equipped to navigate it.
Cornel West says, “You know, after hundreds of years of slavery and oppression… you would think there would be a black al-queda… a black isis. Instead you got Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King. Now that’s a message for the world.”
And I believe that is a message for you and me this morning. Have you lost faith? Have you lost hope. Are you wondering if peace is ever going to come? Do you want to run?
Stay here.. And do the work of remembering who Jesus is and what Jesus is about… and be shaped into the kind of man, woman, and teenager who has the power to respond to the darkness of this world not in revenge, escapism, or more violence… but in love, justice, and grace. This is the power of the resurrection. This is the hope of a future that has broke into the present.
Let us dip our tired bodies in cool springs of hope. Let us retain our wholeness and humanity despite the blows.