Sermon for 3rd Sunday of Easter - April 30 2017

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 30, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

How many of you have heard the expression: “God helps those who help themselves”?

It’s not in the Bible.  Just saying.  But what is in the Bible? 

I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him. The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow.  Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray you, save my life.” 

We read this much from Psalm 116, but we left out the next verses:

Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion.  The Lord watches over the innocent; I was brought very low, and he helped me.  For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.  I believed, even when I said, “I have been brought very low.” In my distress I said, “No one can be trusted.” 

And then we’re back in what’s printed before us:  How shall I repay?

From this, I take the message: God helps those who cannot help themselves.

I’ll come back to the psalm in a little bit.

On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his … friend? Brother?  Wife?  Well, anyway, they were sad and confused.  And then a third person joined them that they did not recognize, who asked what they were discussing.  They were surprised he did not know, but they filled him in on the basics:  we hoped this man Jesus of Galilee would redeem Israel but he was killed; and now even his body is gone, and we don’t know what to make of it.

Their new companion … laughs? … sympathizes? … sighs? … “Oh how foolish you are!”

I can just see some teacher in a classroom who has spent the last three months trying to explain how weather and climate are related but not the same, and the students are still not able to make the connection – as so many of us might be in similar trouble.

Oh, how foolish – look, it’s really just this simple: The messiah had to suffer for the prophecies to be fulfilled.  God is all about creating life from death, and this is just the latest in a long list…

Note: when Luke says “beginning with Moses…” he is echoing the belief that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. 

So Jesus is going all the way back to the beginning of Genesis, and it might have been something like this:  Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, but still given a new life on the outside.

Jacob was sold into slavery in Egypt, and thereby was enabled to save his people from famine.

Later, God acting through Moses and Aaron rescued the people from slavery in Egypt.

God also brought the people home from exile in Babylon, this time acting through a Persian king.

And now, Jesus has gone the last step needed to secure salvation for all time, by facing death on the cross and rising again.

There is no possibility of new life without the death of the old.  This is how God has acted to make it available to all.  Time and time again.

No wonder their hearts were burning – all the stories they learned growing up were placed in context, and the whole arc of God’s saving actions in history was clear to them at last.

But even then, they still did not recognize who their traveling companion was, but in an act of risky hospitality, they invited him to eat with them in their home.

And he did what he had done just a few days earlier – and what we will do in just a few minutes: took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread, and in that moment, they saw their risen Lord – and then he vanished!  

Their eyes were opened, their hearts were not just burning but consumed in light, and the first thing they did was return to the city they had left in confusion – seven miles away! – in absolute empowering joy!

Now, about the psalm.  It also traces a tale of life renewed when all seemed lost.  Three times the psalmist reiterates the progression – I was in the throes of death, but the Lord rescued me and saved my life; therefore I give thanks and will always be faithful. 

And in verse 13, we read: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his servants.”

That verse really stands out, when all the others speak of God’s life-saving action.  Our death is precious?  That’s really uncomfortable.

And I was struck by the efforts that biblical scholars have made to explain it.  There seem to be basically two ways to look at it. 

My Jewish Study Bible translates the verse as follows:  “The death of his faithful ones is grievous in the Lord’s sight.”  

Grievous, not precious.  We think of the word “precious” as describing something desirable – but the Hebrew word, yakar, can also mean expensive, costly, heavy (as in more gold is heavier than less), and burdensome – and one can extend that thought metaphorically as weighing down our spirit, and in this way, “costly” becomes undesirable and something to be avoided; too heavy to bear – even for God.

This view is not limited only to Jewish scholars, but there is another approach that seems more common among Christians, that focuses on the opposition between death as precious and death as something to be avoided: the dichotomy, the duality of these terms.

When we die, this view says, we here who have lost those we love will mourn, and God will understand our pain.  But we may also rejoice, because the person whom we loved is now face to face with God, in paradise. 

And for us and for our salvation, Jesus’ death has done precisely that for us. 

At Christmas we sing the ancient hymn In dulci jubilo, “Good Christians friends, rejoice:”   “He hath opened heaven’s door, and we are blest forevermore.”

Which will not ever take away the idea that death is grievous for us, but still offers us hope that it is not the end, and there is the potential for joy in the meeting of it.



  January 2018  
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