Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10th
We know that most of the followers of Jesus were still in hiding that Sunday morning. Their leader had been executed only two days earlier, and for known associates of a convicted blasphemer and rebel against the state, there was much to fear from the Jewish and Roman authorities. It was wise for them to keep their heads down. But two of His disciples were on the road, walking toward the village of Emmaus. Perhaps Cleopas and his friend just couldn’t take being cooped up any longer. Maybe they thought it was smarter to make a run for it than to sit still waiting for a bunch of thugs to break down the door and drag them off. Or maybe what had happened earlier that Sunday morning had just been too much for them to take.
In the last three days they had seen their hopes dashed in the cruelest and most comprehensive way possible. Jesus, a prophet mighty in word and deed, was supposed to restore God’s kingdom in Israel. The Romans would be booted out, the religious leadership reformed, and a just government created to replace the Roman lackeys now running the show. But that dream had come crashing down on Friday afternoon. Jesus had been killed before the revolution had even begun. Pontius Pilate still gloated over the Temple of God from the Antonia fortress. The High Priest was still little more than a Roman stooge. And the Twelve, who were supposed to sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, were cowering behind locked doors. The dream was dead, and it had been buried in a borrowed tomb.
Then there were the bizarre events of Sunday morning. A group of Jesus’ female followers had gone to tend to their master’s corpse but returned reporting that His body was gone. Any sensible person would have concluded it was a grave robbery. But these women claimed to have seen a vision of angels, who told them Jesus was actually alive. Some men with calmer heads and better sense checked out the tomb, but they had seen nothing—just an empty vault and discarded grave clothes. How could it have been otherwise? Nothing is more final than death. The fantasies of a few hysterical women were no match for reality. The state-sponsored murder of Jesus was a fact. He was gone. It was all over. And it was time to leave.
When I first became a Christian fifteen years ago, I must admit that I found the Easter stories in the Gospels deeply puzzling. I had no problem believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. My conversion experience had thoroughly convinced me that Jesus Christ is truly alive today. What troubled me was why Christ’s disciples had not expected His resurrection. Jesus had expressly told his inner circle three times that He would rise again on the third day after His crucifixion. Why had they doubted Him? These same disciples had seen Christ raise three other people from the dead. After Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son, and Lazarus, shouldn’t the disciples have been standing at the tomb on Sunday morning eagerly awaiting the Resurrection? If I had been there, I would have pulled an all-nighter, ready to burst into songs of praise as soon as the stone starting rolling away. Or so I thought in 1990.
But that was before I watched my oldest sister, Sandy, waste away and die of cancer. It was my first real encounter with death—the first death that really wounded me in the heart. After that, death was no longer an abstract concept for me. Like Martha of Bethany, I had an “intellectual understanding” that my sister would “rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But as I stood at Sandy’s graveside death was certainly not an intellectual construct. Death was an incontrovertible fact—very real and utterly final. I could now relate to those broken-hearted disciples drearily trudging toward Emmaus. I understood why the apostles were hiding that Easter morning instead of exulting, and why a tearful Mary Magdalene had implored the “gardener” for the broken body of her Master. They had seen their Lord tortured to within an inch of His life and nailed to a cross. They heard His gut-wrenching cry as He breathed His last. They saw the blood and water flow from the spear wound in His side and felt the cold and stiffness of His limbs as they wrapped Him in a shroud. The death of Jesus was a cold, hard fact—as cold and hard as the stone of His tomb.
That Sunday, as they made their way to Emmaus, the hearts and minds of Cleopas and his friend were enthralled by death. The entire experience of the human race, from the Fall in the Garden of Eden until that very morning, had taught them death’s power was invincible and its dominion total. Even if Christ, as he walked by their side, was aglow with resurrection power and the light of glory was beaming from His precious wounds, these disciples could not have seen it. Cleopas and his friend didn’t recognize Christ in the stranger who walked with them because their eyes were still blinded by the darkness of the tomb. Their hearts were still bound too tightly by Christ’s burial shroud for them to behold His triumph.
Yet Christ opened these disciples’ eyes as surely as He had opened those of Bartimeus, and He unbound their grave wrappings as certainly as he had those of Lazarus. How did Christ release Cleopas and his friend from their slavery? He showed them how to recognize the light of the Resurrection piercing through the darkness of sin and death. Or more precisely, they learned how to see Christ as He truly was--the Incarnate Word of God, “in whom was Life, and that Life was the Light of men.” Christ had been destined from the foundation of the world for precisely this: to trample down death by His own death, and to proclaim release for death’s captives through His glorious resurrection. Christ’s ultimate victory over death runs through the pages of the Old Testament like a silver providential thread. From Jonah in the belly of the whale to the Passover Lamb, from the brazen serpent in the Wilderness to Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones, from the 22nd Psalm to the Servant Song of Isaiah, God told His people that one day the grave would lose its terror. Now that day of liberation had come. Christ’s empty tomb meant the universe had changed.
Our Lord, the Word of God made flesh, first began to free the hearts of His disciples by means of the written Word of God. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Christ laid open the Good News of redemption and everlasting life which is built into the DNA of the Old Testament. The hearts of these disciples began to burn within their chests as the icy grip of death melted away. Cleopas and his companion were being primed, through an inspired encounter with Holy Scripture, to meet their risen Lord face to face. And by God’s grace, you and I may meet our Savior in the same way here today—and every day. St. Luke tells us that throughout the forty days the risen Christ appeared to his disciples, “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” The wisdom our risen Lord conveyed to the apostolic age has been passed down to us through Sacred Tradition for almost 2000 years. When the world looks at a Bible, it sees paper and ink. But when you and I read the Holy Book in the midst of the great cloud of witnesses, the light of the Resurrection radiates from every page. In the hands of Christ’s Body, the Church, these are the words of eternal life.
God our Savior has given us the Scriptures that we might draw near to Him, but there is much more to come. That first Easter, when Christ was at table with those two disciples, “He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.” It is in the breaking of the bread that the one whom Scripture has brought near becomes fully manifest. In the Holy Eucharist Christ is really present with us in His fullness—Christ’s Body and Soul and Spirit, His Humanity and His Divinity. When our Reverend Fathers hold up the Lamb of God for us to adore a few minutes from now, the Spirit empowers you and I to recognize our risen Lord in the broken host as surely as Cleopas did. And just as Christ disappeared from the disciples’ sight when the bread was broken on that first Easter Sunday, so He will disappear from our sight this morning. But Christ isn’t leaving us. He is becoming a part of us! You and I will soon have His resurrection life pumping through our veins.
Death has no share in the One who is Life itself, but you and I do. As we are infused by the Blessed Sacrament with Christ’s perfected human nature, death loses its grasp on us. This is the revolution Christ truly accomplished. When Father Moore fractures the host in a few moments, the gates of Hades will quake. One drop of that consecrated wine has enough genuine Life in it to empty every grave on this planet. And Christ longs to share that Life with us. From the instant our Savior rose from the grave, the vaunted power of death became an illusion. The kingdom of Hades now teeters on the brink of annihilation. Every time you and I share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with another person, every time we baptize another baby into Christ’s Body, the Church, we kick another brick out of its crumbling wall. In Christ is Life, and that Life is the light of men. O Sleepers, awake!! O Death, where is thy sting?!? Alleluia, Christ is risen! … Amen.