5/25/2014 Sermon: Out of the Box #4 – “Out of Your Comfort Zone”

DSC_3393This weekend is one of those times when it’s appropriate to be proud of your country.  The United States still has a reputation around the world as a country of opportunity, a place to make a new start if you need one.  If you live in another place, another country, and you need to leave for some reason, the United States is where you want to end up, if you can make it happen.  In the United States, you are free to create a future for yourself and your family.  Memorial Day weekend is the time when we honor those who gave their lives to protect those freedoms, and it’s not light stuff.  I’ve found myself explaining to Europeans what makes us different:  in the United States, our families are mostly from some other country. We’ve had to learn to live together.  Real freedom requires a kind of openness and flexibility and tolerance that simply doesn’t exist in other places.  The diversity makes us stronger.

1886 - Halderson, Albert & Rachel family & farmhouse
Albert & Rosalia Halderson & family (Romance, Wisconsin, 1886). Great-grandparents of C. Nichols.

A couple of weeks ago at a Manheim (PA) Historical Society dinner, I learned why there are so many Germans in Pennsylvania.  Maybe you learned this in school, but I had to ask.  Why so many Germans?  The first wave of immigrants was invited by William Penn about 300 years ago to a place where there was more religious freedom and better farming.  He went to Germany to recruit!   My family includes Norwegian farmers (above) who came to Wisconsin – as indentured servants in the 1850’s – for mostly the same reasons.

1929 - Theodosion, LouisKathy’s family came from very poor Greek islands for a better life.  When her father (right) was born in Cleveland, the city clerk’s office had trouble with his name: Elias (Elijah).  “Say it again?”  Elias. “Okay, we’ll call him Louis.”  So he grew up with two names, Elias and Louis.  Greek and American.  I’ve known people from other countries who have done the same thing intentionally.  Same person, two names.

The Apostle Paul came out of that kind of world.  His mother was Jewish and his father was a Roman. He was Saul and Paul.  Saul got a solid Jewish education in Jerusalem, but Paul was from Galatia (Turkey).  Saul knew Hebrew, but Paul’s first language was Greek.  His Jewish name was Saul, but his Roman name was Paul.  He lived in two worlds, which was why God was a genius to pick him to spread the Good News of Jesus.

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece.  CN - 2000
The Acropolis, Athens, Greece. CN – 2000

To give a little background for our scripture today, we are in Greece. We are in Athens.  It’s maybe 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus, and this is the story of how the Christian faith came to that place.

In Athens, you can’t go anywhere without seeing the Acropolis – the hilltop with the temple to Athena called the Parthenon and several other temples.  The glory days of Athens had pretty much gone by, but none of these buildings, these temples to pagan gods, none of them were the ruins we think of.

The Acropolis, by Leo von Klenze (19th cent.)
The Acropolis, by Leo von Klenze (19th cent.)

It was much more beautiful.  A little like walking around Washington DC for the average American tourist. No doubt, Paul the tourist went walking around up there.

Across a valley from the Acropolis is a shorter, rocky hill called the Areopagus.  This word actually refers to something like Congress, and it was an ancient meeting of Athenian lawmakers, but by Paul’s time this group had no power and the word also referred to the place where they would meet, next to this big rock.

At the Areopagus, you could debate issues, something Greeks love to do.  And when somebody found out that Paul was a public speaker, they might have said, “Hey, come on over to the Areopagus and let’s debate these things you talk about.”  And an invitation to talk in front of people is a temptation a preacher like Paul can’t resist.  Given his track record, somebody should have warned the local authorities that trouble might start.  With the Acropolis and the Parthenon as his backdrop, he speaks…

Acts 17:22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.26From one ancestor* he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,27so that they would search for God* and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.”

29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

 32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’33At that point Paul left them.34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

This month’s series is called “Out of the Box.”  In a couple of weeks, we will remember the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to believers, just as Jesus predicted.  “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)  …including Athens, and Manheim, and wherever you are.

Believers in Jesus began to understand that together they were the new Temple, that through the Holy Spirit, they were the place where God had chosen to live.  They were living stones being built into a spiritual house.  A radical thought!  Followers of Jesus don’t actually need a building!  They can be out of the box!  God is in us.  We are portable church buildings.  We can take God with us, we can take worship with us anywhere in the world.  And God needs us to be out in that world.  These days, the foreign country may be just the other side of our walls.

Today, Paul is more or less on vacation after a few of his usual weeks in ministry.  He really is being a tourist.  Or maybe a refugee.  He had stirred up trouble in a Jewish synagogue in northern Greece and had to leave town.  He had been preaching about Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the Jewish savior.  There was a riot and some of Paul’s friends were arrested.  But Paul escaped at night and the main reason he is in Athens is to “lay low” while he waits for his other missionary friends to meet him there.  Let’s walk with Paul as he gets Out of the Box.

First, 1. We mix into the community.  Paul is not the kind of person who can lay low for very long.  Paul explores – he had never been to Athens before.  He is willing to put aside his own identity for a while and integrate.  Paul takes a walk.  He meets Athenians on their own turf and interacts.  He speaks their language.  He doesn’t hide, and he doesn’t go looking for people who are only like him.  He intentionally steps outside his comfort zone.  He goes walking.

He’s walking along, probably got lunch at a local market…  some nice Greek food, maybe a gyro or some spanikopita.    He makes mental notes on what he sees.  He’s about to preach, but not until he understands the Athenians.  He gets to know them.  God needs the church to know the community around them (get out of the box!).

Now, most lists of influential preachers start with the apostle Paul.  So, Paul would seem to be one of those great Christian success stories. We picture him in a toga and sandals out on a hillside or a stage.  In our minds, he out-argues, out-debates, out-converts everyone else; we picture coliseums full of people responding, like an ancient Billy Graham Crusade.

Here in Athens, he preaches his heart out — and flops (by our standards). “Some scoffed, but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ ” But there were two who did join him and became believers. Not a stadium full, just a phone booth full.

2.  Our success does not have to be numerically huge.  God is not impressed by big numbers.  God is more concerned with what we do and where we do it.  If we openly have faith in the risen Jesus, God will do the rest.  In this little chapter of Paul’s ministry, his big success, in God’s eyes, was the small group who became believers and the opportunity to have another conversation about Jesus with a few more.

As Paul speaks, the Parthenon – the Temple to Athena – and the whole rest of the Acropolis is looming right behind him when he says, “24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.”  (in a later conversation, he will help the Athenians understand that our God lives in us, but he is just opening the door for now…)

These weren’t the only temples in Athens; the Athenians had a temple for every god and a god for every purpose.  And just to be on the safe side, they have an altar for an “unknown god,” just in case there’s one out there somewhere who might be angry because he or she is being ignored.  I think this is one of the most basic of human fears: there is a supernatural being out there somewhere who is angry with me and I have to find some way to appease this god, or whatever it is.  The ancient Greeks had a huge collection of gods, who mostly represented forces of nature. Lightning bolts, storms at sea, and human passion.  The Greek gods were to be worshipped out of fear for what they could do to you if you didn’t.  The Roman Caesars of Paul’s time wanted everyone to worship them, out of fear.  But Paul paints a completely different picture.

jesus_silhouette_crossPaul tells this crowd about the God of the universe who chose to live among humans, among us, in the person of Jesus Christ, who was crucified.  Maybe you can hear the rumble in the crowd.  The God of the universe was crucified?  On a Roman cross?  And he rose from the dead?  You want us to believe this?  That’s it?  God loves us?  Where’s the fear in that?

As we watch Paul at work, we learn 3. The conversation may be challenging.  But don’t run!  The Athenian debate team is a tough crowd.  They are a textbook lesson in doubt: You don’t learn anything unless you want to.  You don’t hear anything unless you want to.  You don’t have faith in anything unless you want to.  And they don’t want to.  And some might have been thinking, “My family’s been worshipping at the temple of Athena for generations.  We like our religion.  Why should we change?

An altar… to an unknown god – I believe that’s called “touching all the bases.”  We have this inner desire to worship and are prone to latch onto something, even though we might not know what to call it.  Honestly, we worship a bunch of unknown gods, don’t we.  Until we meet Christ, we are seriously stuck in an unhelpful “comfort zone.”  Even what we call “religion” can actually lead us away from God if all we’re doing is following a system of behavior.  As a church, we can be stuck in a comfort zone until we find ways to stretch what’s “normal.” The beauty of who we are is that….

Our faith has less to do with being religious than it does with having faith in a person.  How do we make a difference through the love of Christ?  We get out of the box, we open our doors to invite the community to know the name of that unknown God.  We invite them to know that God is alive and would love to be in their lives, a part of them forever.  But you have you recognize your need before God can do anything.  So Paul says, “Repent (be willing and open to change)… believe in the one God raised from the dead.”  (vv. 30, 31)

What we offer is so simple it’s hard.  This is an invitation to accept the simple, unadorned, uncomplicated presence of God in Jesus.

Who is he to you?  What does it mean that he is alive?  What does it mean to you?  He’d love to know.  I’ll invite you to tell him as we pray.

Prayer

Each of us, God, comes to you with needs that only you can meet.  And in the silence of this prayer, instead of praying for others, for a moment, we pray for ourselves.  Help us to relax and to leave our burdens with you.  Help us live with confidence, with an inner strength only you can give.  Give us each peace of mind and forgive us for our lack of faith, which causes us so much misery and which exaggerates all our problems. Help us remember each day that in Jesus, you overcame the worst the world can offer.  We trust in him.  Through your Spirit, give us the peace that only you can give.  Give us the kind of life that never ends.  Then take us out of our comfort zone for the sake our friends and family and neighbors who need to know you.  We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

5/18/2014 Sermon: Out of the Box #3 – “God at Work”

First Congregational Church, Guilford, CT
First Congregational Church, Guilford, CT

John 14:1-7. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me.2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?*3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’*5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.7If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

1 Peter 2:4-6.  Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built* into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.6For it stands in scripture: ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him* will not be put to shame.’

I know that many of you have had a conversation that’s gone something like this:  You meet someone new, or you’re talking with someone you don’t know very well, and the subject turns to church.  They tell you where they go to church, and you say… what?

SPUCC 2 - steeple“Well, when you get to the Subway shop on Market Square, you turn up North Main (Rt. 72), and it will be the brick church building on the left, across from the Bickel Potato Chip building (where I have never seen anybody).”  Maybe they’ll say, “Oh, the one near the Brick House.”  And I’ll say, “That’s the one.  Brick Church.”

Chances are, whomever you were talking to did the same sort of thing when they described their church – you gave each other a little geography lesson.  Now, if Jesus said, “…where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them…” (Matthew 18:20), where is the church?  It’s in the midst of the faith of those two people sharing Christ.  It’s right there, and not in the box of their church buildings.  God cannot be contained in a box.  And when we try to do that, when we try to keep God in this box, as beautiful as it might be, the amazing work that God wants to do with us and among us is seriously diminished.  God needs to be Out of the Box.  We need to be Out of the Box.

We are very seriously attached to our boxes.  I think that if Jesus were to visit us, and I mean all of us who gather in his name, we would probably comment about our need to fix his ministry to specific locations all the time.

But we love our buildings.  Many of them are awe-inspiring works of art.  Truly.  I’m sure that many of you can think of at least one church building that blew you away, with its architecture, sculpture or painting, and probably the sound.

We have loved them so much that many churches with European roots put cemeteries next to church buildings, to bury loved ones “close to God.”  If you were a wealthy benefactor, or a famous, powerful person, you could actually be buried in the church building. Some of you who have been in European cathedrals know what I’m talking about.

In England, under the Bath Abbey cathedral, there are many crypt/tombs from ancient times.  There are so many of these empty spaces that they have created a very unstable foundation, so that parts of this building are beginning to collapse.  They are having to carefully remove bodies where they can and fill in the graves so that the church building doesn’t fall.

20140517_105903We have our own crypt – those stones are underneath us right now, but the graves are actually under the parking lot.  I counted 50 of them. As I understand it, this was a controversial thing.  Maybe for some folks, that’s an understatement.

But this brings me back to the question – Where is the church?  Let’s get Out of the Box.  Let’s get our minds off of the building.  While Jesus talks to us, let’s take a walk down Main Street.

In that passage from John, it sounds like Jesus is talking about a building.  Jesus goes to prepare dwelling places, or rooms, or “mansions,” as the King James Version of the Bible puts it.  And the room is ready.  You’ve got a custom-made space with God.  But he’s not talking about a building.

God has a special love for each one of us, and enormous love for all of us.  Everybody. Everybody who drives up and down Main Street.  And God has a way to help each of us feel secure.  His name is Jesus.  That was his voice you heard in the Gospel lesson calling each of us into God’s family.  God’s purpose, in Jesus, is to give us a way to come together, with God and with each other, to give us a place in the kingdom, in relationship.

But to give those words more meaning for you, I’d like to start with the very first verse of that chapter.  (14:1) ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Have you ever had a troubled heart?  In this gospel story of John, Jesus is saying this to his closest followers during the Last Supper.  If you’ve got your New Revised Standard Version Bible open, look at the section headings right before the 14th chapter.

“Jesus Foretells His Betrayal.”  He predicts that Judas will sell him out; then Judas leaves to go do just that.

“The New Commandment.”  Jesus’ response to what Judas is doing is to tell them to love one another.  Just as I have loved you, love one another, he says.  How did Jesus love us?  He went to a cross.  Sacrifice yourselves for each other.

“Jesus Foretells Peter’s Denial.”  Peter says he would never be like Judas.  We know how that turns out – Peter denies knowing Jesus three times.

Jesus, with love in his heart, love in his eyes, with the deepest sense of compassion, looks around the room, knowing that his closest friends and followers are less than perfect, knowing that they are betraying him as he speaks and will all turn their backs as he is killed, says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Judas, you will betray me.  Peter, you will deny me.  But if you love each other and believe in God, if you believe in Jesus, he will prepare a place for you.  There will be lots of places.  Lots of places for people you might not expect.  Any Judas, or any Peter, or you, or me, or anybody out on Main Street right now –if we believe, we have our place.  Not our space, our place.  So, Jesus is also giving a picture of amazing grace and forgiveness for those who believe.  And we simply can’t keep that to ourselves.

An ice-breaking discussion starter I’ve used sometimes goes like this: If Jesus were to walk into the room right now and sit down beside you, what would your reaction be?  Somehow, you know who this is.   Maybe he has to step in front of someone to get to the seat next to yours.  And he sits.  Next to you.

Many years ago, I remember seeing poster in a college chaplain’s office – a room full of church pews like this.  Respectable, nicely dressed people like you sitting in them. Jesus is sitting in the front row (beard, long hair, white robe; typical Jesus).  His head is on the shoulder of the man next to him and he’s fast asleep.  Subconsciously, one of my motivations is to keep Jesus awake!

But here he comes, he sits next to you.  Your response might be a sense of awe – here is God sitting next to you.  Wow.  Then maybe gratitude – Jesus chose to sit next to you.  Then maybe a sense of discomfort – what does he know about me?  Maybe you’d start to realize that in the presence of the Son of God, you’re no better than Peter.  I’m no better than Judas.  Jesus, if you only knew what goes on in my head and heart, in my life, you’d be sitting next to someone else.

That is precisely when Jesus turns to you and says, “Do not let your heart be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me.2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?*” Especially you.

Rooms, dwelling places, mansions.  It’s too bad that the words get in the way, because this is an invitation to live together with God in God’s home, and we don’t even have to move.  When you believe, you’re home.  Jesus isn’t inviting you to go somewhere else to be with God, to the perfect great beyond, where everything is blissful.  You don’t have to walk to the light at the end of the tunnel.  When you believe in Jesus, you’re home.  You are in the place he prepared for you.

You don’t have to go to God; in Jesus, God comes to you.   God knows we need God, so God sent Jesus.  “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'”  (14:6)

It sounds exclusive, but just the opposite is true.  It’s part of God’s invitation to come into the family.  Faith in Jesus is the way.  Being in God’s house, God’s family, doesn’t mean you have a great location to go to when you die, it means you have a great way to live right now.  Jesus goes to the cross to prepare a place for you.  The eternal life Jesus gives begins the moment you believe.  You don’t get a mansion when you die; you get life right now, and Jesus is the way.  Jesus completes the connection to God.

Peter turns the image around.  He says, “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” (1 Peter 2:5)  The place, the room, the mansion Jesus goes to prepare is you!  You be the dwelling place!  In the construction of that spiritual house, Jesus is the corner stone.  Let yourself be joined to him and everybody else.  When God uses us as stones to build a spiritual house, do you have an image of what that looks like?  A spiritual house?  That’s a place where people are worshiping.

DSC_5483But in this spiritual house, you do more than just sit in a pew.  You are a priest!  You are a “…holy priesthood; a royal priesthood.”  (v. 5)  Priests are ordained by God to bring sacrifices to God on behalf of the people, to serve God by bringing God’s word to the people.

Can you handle the idea of being a priest?  Priests bring the things of God to people, and represent people to God.  As a believer in Christ, that’s what you are.  And in the lives of some of your family, your friends, the people you work with, the people you go to school with, the only connection they have with God is you.  Their priest.  Priests bring forgiveness, reconciliation with God.

What are the ways we can do that?  The community breakfasts we just started are wonderful, and they are a great start.  I actually saw some church members step out onto the sidewalk and invite people to come in for a meal.  And they came in!  I started to wonder… maybe a team of people going down the streets with invitations.  How else can we make connections with the community?  With all those people walking by?   Breakfast is just a little step.  How do we invite them to worship Jesus with us?  Let’s get Out of the Box in the name of Jesus.

 Prayer

God, your love for us is more powerful than we will ever understand.  You have done more to care for us than we realize, and you reach out to us more than we know.  You give us life and take away the fear of death.

Thank you for the love you have for us in Jesus.  Help us find our way to you through him.  Through your spirit, help us be the kind of family you intended; working and playing together in the strength of your Spirit.  Deepen our faith in Christ and help us follow him in healing others, bringing peace to your world, and giving away the good news about him.  Amen.

5/4/2014 Sermon – Out of the Box #1 “Jesus on the Loose”

Tulip 3Easter Sunday was only a couple of weeks ago, so hopefully, it’s still a little fresh in our minds.  Something happened, and it was pretty important.  We have ritualized it over the centuries, but the resurrection of Jesus is maybe the most significant event in human history.  It changes how we all think about life and death.  That’s the moment when God was thinking completely outside the box, doing something no one expected, something no one thought possible.  If the resurrection of Jesus had not happened, if Jesus had not come out of the tomb alive after a brutal death, the New Testament would not have been written and I promise you, we would not be here gathered like this.

Jesus is alive.  Right now.  And he is on the loose!  What does that mean to you?  Jesus was a great healer, or so the stories go.  He was an amazing teacher, among many teachers who have lived throughout history.  Except for Jesus, there are no great healers or amazing teachers who rose from the dead.

In the gospel stories, there are 10-12 times that Jesus appeared to people after his death, depending on how you count them. Sometimes, it was just to one person.  Sometimes he appeared to a group like the one we heard about last week – the disciples hiding behind a locked door.  There is one story of him appearing to hundreds of people.

When you think of Jesus alive outside the tomb, when you think “resurrection,” there are a few images that come to mind.  You might think of Jesus by the side of the road talking with Mary Magdalene, the first person to see him.  She didn’t recognize him at first – she thought he was the cemetery gardener.  On Easter Sunday morning, that’s the story – from the Gospel John – that I think we hear most often.  Or you might think of him with his disciples when he appeared to “doubting” Thomas.  But Luke has a different story altogether…

Luke 24:13-35.  Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then 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 there in these days?’ 19He 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, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But 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. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some 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.’ 

25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But 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. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They 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?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

"Supper at Emmaus" by Caravaggio (1601)
“Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio (1601)

1.  Jesus comes as a stranger.  Jesus always starts out as a stranger, an unknown person.  There’s casual conversation and he doesn’t want to be intrusive.  He comes up to these two as they walk along and says, “Hey, what are you talking about?”  It was good therapy – they talked about how Jesus had been crucified.  It was still fresh in their minds and I imagine that they were pretty upset about it – as I think any of us would be, and Jesus wanted to listen.

In your conversation with Jesus, you could substitute your own concerns. If Jesus were to come and sit with you right now, if Jesus were to walk alongside you, what would you want to talk about?

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.  (v. 27)

2.  Jesus opens up scripture. That’s one way major Jesus comes to us, especially for those of us who didn’t have a chance to meet him in the flesh.  This book is called “God’s Word” for a reason.  Jesus is called the “living word” for a reason. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” as John puts it. I’ve heard many people say that it was a moment of faith in the living, resurrected Christ that opened up the Bible to them, when they were able to say, “Oh, now I get it!”

You will always have questions, and there is so much to absorb.  There is so much God wants to say to us in the Bible.  So much more than the little bits we get in church from week to week.  And as this story shows, God will help you understand.  And as you understand, God is at work.  I believe it’s something you can even feel sometimes.  ‘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?’” (v.32)  But, notice that Jesus didn’t start the conversation with scripture; he asked them what they were talking about.  He wanted to listen.

3.  Jesus becomes a guest.  Now, who were these guys walking along with Jesus?  One of them is named Cleopas, but this is the only time he is mentioned in the Bible, with no details, and the other one is anonymous.   They could have been anybody.  What do we know about them?  Nothing.  What were they like?  Did they have families?  Did they have struggles?  Issues?  Gifts?  Talents? Could they have been like you and me?  I think probably so.  One thing is for sure – at that point in the story, they still didn’t know they were walking with Jesus.  Jesus had come to them as a stranger, and stayed a stranger until he became their guest.  After walking and talking, they invited him to hang around. They “urged him strongly”!

In that story, Jesus was walking on, until they insisted that he stay.  This is a huge thing.  It might seem like some small point in the story, but the bells and whistles don’t go off for these guys until they made the stranger welcome.  Nothing happens in any ministry without the presence of Jesus, and he will wait to be invited.  What God needs from all of us is an attitude of welcome to the stranger.  Studies have shown, by the way, that most people new to a church come because someone invited them; they don’t just walk in off the street.

4.  Jesus becomes our host.  The main desire of Jesus is to become the host to people who were strangers not too long ago.  When that happens, when Jesus the stranger is welcome, when he opens up scripture to us, when becomes our guest, suddenly we realize who he is – the host of this party!  The host gives himself to us.

Jesus used scripture to describe himself to these two people, and accepted their invitation to be a guest, but they didn’t really see who he was until when?  It was when they ate a meal together.  For them, it wasn’t the marks in his hands or feet, or his side where he was stabbed by the Roman soldier.  That’s how Jesus identified himself in the Gospel of John.  For these two, it all became clear when the host served the food.

Some would say that through this story, Luke is trying to show us how important the communion meal is, and I think that’s true.  In the bread and drink there’s a physical reminder of the presence of Jesus.  You take God inside yourself when you have that meal.  You invite God inside and allow God to mix with your self.  When we say yes to this food, it’s a physical expression of faith, a physical yes to God.  When you think about it, it’s very mystical; beyond comprehension.

IN a broader way, especially outside these walls, I believe Jesus still comes to us at mealtime, through the friends, family and strangers we meet there. Think of every place where you sit down to eat a meal.  I don’t mean consuming food, which is something you can do by yourself in a car (as you drive safely!).  I mean eating a meal where “two or more are gathered together.”  This is why I think church meals are so important.  The more we eat together, the stronger we are, the more love we share, and the less we are strangers to each other.

The next time we have a meal in the Fellowship Hall (or wherever your Christian community gathers to eat), sit with somebody you don’t know. Any time somebody says, “thank you, God, for this meal,” Jesus will be there.  It’s such a simple thing that we can miss it.  We look for bells and whistles and lightning bolts from God.  But where is God?  In the “still, small voice” Elijah heard in the cave, and in a simple meal when somebody acknowledges God’s presence through the sharing of food.

When Jesus reveals himself, we get a little picture of how to do ministry.  The theme is hospitality.  That is how our movement works.  This is how disciples are made – hospitality. We move from meeting the stranger, to welcoming the guest, to opening scripture – where we find Jesus.

With Jesus at the core of who we are, through our faith in his resurrection, we allow him to be the host of our party.  We open the doors and invite everyone to enjoy being with him.  It begins for each of us when Jesus breaks the bread, our eyes are opened and we recognize who he is.

Prayer

O God, settle us down, open our eyes, especially to strangers, because we know that you are among them.  Give us a strong gift of hospitality.  Help us extend our time of worship into our time on the road, our time with family, and especially our time at the table.  Help us see you. Warm our hearts as we have faith in the living Jesus, We believe in him, Lord.  He is our guest today, and it’s in whose name we pray.  Amen.