Then Their Eyes Were Open (Easter 2004) (4/11/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The Apostle Paul writes, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died… As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. Prior to saying this Paul tells us that if Christ is not risen, then Christians are to be the most pitied of all people, for that would mean we live our lives with false hope and shall ultimately perish into the nothingness of eternity.
Okay, I know it’s terribly early in the morning for such talk, but the fact is, Easter is the most serious day of the year. This is the most adult of all holidays. Oh, we don’t want to leave out our children, so we leave candy eggs all over the house, and tell cute stories about the Easter Bunny; but you and me—we cannot hide behind those stories. You and me—we’ve been around.
We’ve looked the world squarely in the eye, and it has stared us down. We’ve learned that for every heartfelt laugh springing forth from the people of this world, there is a cry of anguish, ringing even louder. So we busy ourselves with the little details of day-to-day living that keep us from actually thinking about life itself; but we just can’t quite escape from a couple of simple and undeniable facts. First, we did not ask to be alive; but we are. Second, now that we are alive, we would like to keep on being alive forever; and we won’t. Like I say—we’ve been around.
Easter forces us to look at the truth. And that can be a difficult thing. It is much easier to dress up and go to the Easter parade, and hide candy eggs all over the house, and tell stories about a magical bunny whose miraculous one-night feat is topped only by that other great religious figure, Santa Claus. But the wonderful thing about Easter is this: Easter informs us that things are not what they seem. Easter reminds us that the laughter of this world is much more powerful than the tears, and that there is much much more going on here than there appears to be at first glance. In fact, Easter reminds of the great truth theologian Tielhard de Chardin revealed as he came to grips with the age of the universe and the magnificence of God: We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
We are spiritual beings. That is the nature of who and what we are. We are not atoms and molecules and cells and chemicals. If that was all we were, we would be no different from the dandelion, or the rose bush. We are much more than physical. These bodies are vessels filled with spirit, and the spirit within is not bound by these bodies. We are intimately connected to something beyond our physical beings. We are expressions of God. And we are connected to one another by the power of God’s love.
Christ is risen. Let’s not bog down on the details of how that happened—let’s just talk about what it means. The fact is that we are all a part of the one universe. Every speck of dust, every mountain, every star, every creature, every thought, every dream—everything that exists is a part of the one universe. And it has all been redeemed by God. Every tiny inch of it. Again, the words of Paul: Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died… As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
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That is the best news I’ve ever heard. As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. The story of Adam and Eve reveals an important truth: people are imperfect, and therefore do not live forever. What kind of universe would this be if things and people who were less than perfect lived forever in their imperfect states?
Many in our beloved Christian faith have turned the work of Jesus Christ into some sort of game. All you have to do is say the right things about Jesus and you’re in—you’re a part of God’s eternal kingdom. But if you don’t say the right things, and accept the right creeds, and worship the proper way; well, then you’re on the outs with God forever and ever. But listen again to Paul: As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
Yes, we all fall short of the perfection of God and therefore do not live forever—the universe is as it should be. But listen to the other half of the story: All will be made alive in Christ. There is only one universe and there is only one God. The whole universe falls short of the glory of God, but God will redeem the whole thing. All of it. Every speck of dust, every dream, every person. And that is what Easter is all about.
Later in that passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that in the end, all things will be put in subjection to God, and last of all even death itself will be defeated. And then, in Paul’s words, God will be all in all.
Easter is the sign, the symbol, of that ultimate triumph of God. Human Beings killed Jesus of Nazareth but we could not kill what he embodied—what he stood for—the very essence of who and what he was—and is. Some 800 years before Jesus lived, the prophet Isaiah dreamed of the day when God would overcome evil and redeem the world. Listen to the words of Isaiah:
On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for ALL PEOPLES a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over the peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from the earth. It will be said on that day, this is our God; this is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation.
Here at this church we do not dwell on matters that are beyond our control. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about eternity, since matters eternal are not in our hands, but rather in the hands of God, where they belong. The fact is we understand what God has done for us. We are fallen creatures and God has redeemed us.
But why? Why has God redeemed us? It’s not because we adhere to the right religion. It is not because we confess the proper religious creeds. It is not because we believe we have earned our salvation by anything we do. We believe God has redeemed us because that is the nature of God. God offers redemption to the whole world, and it is a free gift to everyone who accepts the fact they need that redemption. Theologian Robert Farrar Capon explains it best. God’s love is too strong for God to ever cast anybody off. God’s nature is love, and the cross of Jesus is a powerful symbol of that love. The only people who could possibly be set apart from God—the only people who could possibly be in hell in a universe created by God—are those who say to God, I don’t need your forgiveness and I don’t want your love.
Capon envisions God, even when confronted with the most rotten person who ever lived, loving and forgiving that person. Capon says it is simply not in God’s nature to send somebody to hell. But God gives people the right to damn themselves, by giving them the freedom to refuse to acknowledge their need for God’s love and forgiveness.
Well, it is Easter, so we need to talk about eternity; but that, dear friends, is enough eternity for another year. Eternity is in the hands of God. And we are in the hands of God. Thank God. Now, let’s move on to matters that God has placed under our control; namely, life in this world, and where we find Jesus in the world today.
I want to read a story from the Gospel of Luke. This story takes place on the first Easter—the day Jesus’ friends discover the empty tomb—and is called “The Walk to Emmaus.”
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all the things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?”
Jesus asked them, “What things?”
They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
Yes and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.
Then Jesus said to them, “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?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.
They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us, while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the disciples and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told the disciples what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Okay, how do we unpack that amazing story? This is an important story for those who confuse resurrection and resuscitation. I don’t know what happened to the body of Jesus. I don’t personally envision it floating up through the sky where it now physically resides… somewhere in the material universe. It is fine to think that way—I just don’t think that’s what resurrection is all about. God conquers death by overcoming the limitations of the material world. What was resurrected may indeed have included the physical body of Jesus, but it was something much more: it was the spiritual reality that was Jesus Christ.
In the appearances Jesus makes to his disciples following his resurrection, the authors of the gospels go to great lengths to show these appearances were more than just physical. The apostles are in a locked room with all the windows closed, and Jesus appears to them. Yes, the claim is that Jesus is physical—he is real, in that they can actually see and communicate with him. This is not a hallucination. But he does not enter the room the way a material human being would enter the room. He just appears.
Likewise, in the story of the walk to Emmaus, Jesus is walking and talking with two men. And what happens when they recognize him? He disappears. These stories are going to great lengths to tell us that what is happening with the resurrection of Jesus goes far beyond the resuscitation of his body. God is the God of all the universe—the physical and the spiritual—and the resurrection encompasses the totality of Jesus. Jesus was not a human being having a spiritual experience. Jesus is a spiritual being who had a human experience. Just like us, only much more aware of the presence of God than are you or I.
And this leads to the whole point of this Easter sermon. You and I are on the Road to Emmaus. Like those two men who walked the Emmaus Road 2000 years ago, we have more than our fair share of confusion about life in this world, let alone life eternal. And like the characters from Luke’s story, we can’t quite sort things out when it comes to Jesus.
Jesus died for our sins? What does that mean?
Jesus was resurrected? What is that all about?
Jesus is with us still? How can that be?
And so we walk this road to Emmaus, asking the questions, bumbling through our confusion, wishing there were some reliable answers to all our questions that could be measured, and proven, and explained in terms as simple as 1+1=2; therefore, Christ is risen.
But it just doesn’t happen like that. So we walk along the shore on this Road to Emmaus, and we watch the sun set on the horizon day after day, frustrated that another day’s journey seems to have led us no closer to the truth. We have our share of laughs along the way, and more than our share of tears. If we start thinking too seriously about life itself, we skip some stones across the water, hiding Easter eggs and spinning tall tales about a magical bunny.
And we learn to enjoy the walk, as well we should. After all, God would not have placed us on the Road to Emmaus if we were not meant to be walking it. And then… and then, the rare day comes, and we remember the words of Jesus, and just for a moment, we understand what those men felt when their hearts burnt within them. The scriptures come alive for us, just as they did for the men on the Road to Emmaus two thousand years ago.
It can happen at almost any time, because we are always on the Road to Emmaus. Perhaps we are sipping coffee on the patio and look into our spouses eyes… and see something there, for just a moment, that is beyond words. The physical fades away and for a moment it is Jesus who looks back at us. Perhaps we are riding on a plane, or a bus, and glance across the aisle at a stranger, and for just a moment, the material world disappears and the love of Christ is right there before our eyes. Perhaps it is at a communion celebration, when we gather with love and break the bread, and for just a moment, feel and see the love of Christ all around us.
The words of Jesus fall on our hearts from across the ages and burn within us: You have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear; I am one with the Father; Where two or more of you are gathered in my name, I am there among you.
And then we understand. That really is Jesus Christ looking back at us through the eyes of our friends and loved ones. Christ is risen. And once we understand what that means, every day on the Emmaus road is Easter.