Our reading is the story called “The Walk to Emmaus.” It occurs right after the Easter narrative in the Gospel of Luke (24:1-12), and it takes place later in the day on Easter Sunday. The story is found only in Luke’s Gospel. The location of Emmaus has never been identified with certainty, but it was near the city of first-century Jerusalem, which was smaller than the city is today.
The story begins abruptly with the words “two of them” who are on the road to Emmaus. But who are those persons? There is no clear antecedent to “them” in 24:1-12. They are clearly not part of the eleven within the original circle of the Twelve, since the story ends with them going to report to “the eleven” what had happened (24:33). Yet they are part of a “group” of disciples (24:9) to which the women also belong who had gone to the tomb, and three of whose names are provided at 24:10 (“Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women”). In addition to the women, some of this “group” also visited the tomb on Easter morning (24:24) subsequently “and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him,” the risen Christ. We are given the name of one of the two on the road to Emmaus. His name is Cleopas (24:18), but he shows up nowhere else in the New Testament.
In the first part of the story (24:13-27) these two persons (presumably men) have no idea who Jesus was when he approached them. He must have had normal human features (not superhuman), and they do not even catch on to his identity when he interpreted “Moses and all the prophets” concerning himself (24:27). They are aware, however, of recent events in Jerusalem. They recite to Jesus a brief summary of his earthly career (“a prophet mighty in word and deed”), his passion, and his death (24:19-20). They also know the essential Easter story. What they say in 24:22-24 is a brief recounting of the Easter narrative in 24:1-12.
It is in the second part of the story (24:28-35) that the identity and significance of the stranger becomes known to the travelers on the road. They are gathered at the table, and their guest “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (24:30). The words are almost identical to those in 22:19 at the Last Supper (“he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them”). Their likeness is even clearer in Greek; only the tenses (imperfect or aorist) and modes (indicative or participle) of otherwise identical verbs differ. Surely the eucharistic symbolism is intentional. In fact, interpreters have often pointed out that worship practices in the early church have affected the telling of the story. The event is on a Sunday, and it involves the interpreting of Scripture, proclamation, and sacrament. It is in that event that the two disciples understand who the stranger is. They now know it is Jesus, who vanishes from them. Then too they recall that their hearts burned within them while he had been teaching them concerning the Messiah on the road to Emmaus (24:32).
The story ends with the two men going to Jerusalem to report what had happened. But before they can do that, they hear the testimony of the eleven who say that Jesus had been raised and had appeared to Simon (Peter, 24:34). The statement functions to place Peter as the first believer in the risen Christ, the first apostle.
The story has theological and homiletical significance on three levels. First, like the lesson from last Sunday, it demonstrates that belief in Jesus as risen Lord was not self-evident to his earliest followers, even after his crucifixion and resurrection. The reason why people back then came to believe in him was that he appeared to them. In other words, it took divine revelation for them to believe. That was true for Peter (24:34), and it was true for the men who traveled on the road to Emmaus.
Why is it that some believe, and others do not? Martin Luther explained it all so well in his explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed in his Small Catechism. There, he says, we cannot believe by our own reason or strength; it is by the Holy Spirit that one comes to believe.
Second, the setting for most persons to come to faith is Christian worship, which includes Scripture, proclamation, and sacrament. That is also where the faith of all is sustained. It is the place where Jesus continues to reveal himself. The Christian faith is born and nurtured where people share in worship through word, gesture, and earthly means, such as water, bread, wine, and tactile expressions of mutual care–the smile, the clasp of another’s hand, perhaps even an embrace.
And, finally, the story for today is one of movement. It contains at least nine verbs describing movement. The two men “are going” (24:13), Jesus “came near and went with them” (24:15), they “came near” Emmaus (24:28), Jesus “walked ahead of them” (24:28), “he went in to stay with them” (24:29), “he vanished from their sight” (24:31), and “they got up and returned to Jerusalem” (24:33). Some of the verbs tell of movements made by Jesus; others tell of the two men. Either way, both Jesus and his followers are on the move. But it is not movement for its own sake. The moves being made have a purpose, and that is to tell the story of Jesus, to interpret it, to have fellowship (communion) with Jesus and others, and to share it all with others. That is what it means to be the church.
Moments of recognition in film and literature almost always stir an audience.
Characters stumble into realizing whom they really love or who has committed a crime, and from those points storylines head in new directions. We know from our own lives that recognitions–those “aha!” moments we experience–create pivot points. When recognition happens, things cannot stay the same. New possibilities emerge.
This scripture passage describes a recognition that springs from an accusation. When we put ourselves in the sandals of Peter’s audience in Jerusalem, we quickly realize that there was an absence of good news in the sermon he delivered on Pentecost. As I noted in my commentary on last Sunday’s reading–which this Sunday’s deliberately recalls via the clumsy inclusion of v. 14a and v. 36–Peter’s sermon strikes a contrast between what his audience did with Jesus and what God did with him. As Peter says in v. 36, “This Jesus whom you crucified,” “God has made him both Lord and Messiah.” Although most of the sermon describes God’s exaltation of Jesus to a position of royal authority from which Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit, its function within the wider scene is accusatory. It underscores how the audience’s intentions concerning Jesus differed from God’s.
We must be clear about this accusation. Peter indicts a broad range of people in Acts 2–Jews from a variety of places. But it is hardly reasonable to assume that fifty days earlier exactly all of these men were directly complicit in handing Jesus over to the Romans and calling for his execution. Luke’s Gospel notes that many in Jerusalem lamented Jesus’ death (Luke 23:27, 48); only a limited number of influential Jerusalem elites demanded his prosecution. Peter cannot be placing primary blame for Jesus’ death on all Jews in general nor asserting that everyone in Jerusalem shares the specific guilt of the leadership. He indicts a Jewish audience simply because he is addressing a Jewish audience at this point in the narrative. At the same time, he spreads responsibility for Jesus’ death–but only partial responsibility, according to Acts 2:23–widely among his hearers. In this way, he generalizes the rejection of Jesus and Jesus’ claims to authority (compare Luke 17:25). Although there were specific instigators and executioners, the rejection of Jesus that led to his death had many dimensions, including a broad sense of ignorance (compare Acts 13:27). Humanity as a whole failed to recognize what God was doing through Jesus; his resurrection and exaltation now leave humanity without excuse.
No people in the audience dispute Peter’s claim that they bear responsibility for the Messiah’s death. Understanding the accusation that they are in conflict with God’s purposes and recognizing the implicit threat of judgment, they interrupt Peter to ask how to set things right. In response, at last, Peter provides good news. His words in vv. 38-40 recall Luke’s description of John the Baptizer, someone else who preached imminent judgment (Luke 3:3-18). The things Peter says, however, take on particular meaning in light of the story of Jesus that sits between Luke 3 and Acts 2.
What do Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation demand from Peter’s audience? First, Peter calls for repentance. Popular understandings of repentance often define it in moral categories: as reformed behavior, expressions of remorse, or the rectification of wrongs. But this is not the term’s primary meaning, and Peter hardly means this in Acts 2. The word metanoia (and the verb metanoeō, meaning “repent”) refers to a changed mind or a new understanding. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus require from ignorant humanity a new understanding of who he is and an embrace of his authority to exercise God’s rule within creation. What God has done through Christ creates a point of recognition about God and Christ. This new understanding, of course, leads to new possibilities.
Second, Peter tells his hearers to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” so that they may be delivered from their sins. (The expression rendered in many English translations as “forgiveness of sins” employs the noun aphesis, which means “release”–perhaps a more powerful and comprehensive notion than what is conveyed by “forgiveness.”) In the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, baptism symbolizes more than washing away defilement. It becomes itself an image of resurrection, of new life emerging from death. Peter does not elaborate on the significance of baptism, but the rite’s explicit connection to the name of Jesus Christ is consistent with other New Testament texts that describe baptism as a means of participating in Christ’s own death and resurrection (see, for example, Rom 6:3-11). Jesus’ “name” designates him as the source of salvation, according to Peter’s sermon (see Acts 2:21).
Third, Peter declares that the Holy Spirit is promised to all whom God calls. This is the same Spirit of power that Jesus said God promised (Luke 24:49) and would empower Jesus’ followers (Acts 1:8). The presence of the Spirit testifies that salvation is at hand, for it is the same Spirit that was so active in Jesus’ own ministry (see, for example, Luke 4:14-19).
Finally, the new order of things instituted by Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation allows for rescue from all that is debilitating about this corrupt–literally, “crooked”–generation. Jesus occasionally spoke of “this generation” to designate a general condition among humanity that cannot perceive the activity of God in its midst (see, for example, Luke 11:29-32, 50-51). The primary issue concerns humanity’s faithlessness and opposition to God. A “crooked generation” contrasts the image of a faithful God in Deut 32:4-5.
Biblical scholar Robert C. Tannehill observes that Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:14-36 “not only interprets what has happened; it causes something to happen.”1 This is how proclamation works, in the hands of the Spirit. Peter’s interpretation of the Christ event and arrival of the Holy Spirit brings the assembled crowd to a point of recognition about themselves and about God. The recognition causes something to happen, allowing for new possibilities. This is because the enthronement of God’s Messiah is not the end of the story.
Today would be a good day for a baptism to follow the sermon. Peter connects baptism with the Spirit and with the idea that God’s promise extends to those present, their children, and everyone whom God calls. Baptism is an act of recognition, because baptism declares a new identity. In some ways, baptism seems almost too common, too understated a human ceremony when considered alongside God’s spectacular work in Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation and the pouring out of the Spirit. But, nevertheless, this peculiar act makes a powerful statement about Christians’ identity as forgiven and free people, people given the capacity to live in authentic relationship with God and with one another through the power of the Holy Spirit.
1The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation (2 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 2:26.
On the Second Sunday after Easter the given text was I Peter 1.3-9 This week’s assigned text covers part of the remainder of I Peter 1, i.e. vv. 17-23. In our treatment we will consider all the remaining verses of I Peter 1, which includes vv. 10-16 and vv. 24, 25.
Many interpreters of this epistle see vv. 3-9 as the indicative of the gospel and vv. 13-25 as the imperatives of the gospel. It may be clearer to say that when Peter calls on his readers to take up the life of the baptized he majors in making the indicative known. The imperatives of Christian living are almost drowned out by his emphasis on the indicatives of grace.
Vv. 13-25 have been called “the charge to the baptized.” It is a section of I Peter where indicative and imperative are completely comingled with each other. Our first recommendation for a sermon on this text would be a sermon that unpacks this indicative/imperative reality for our hearers. “Becoming Who You Are” would be an apt title for this sermon. This sermon could begin by telling stories of the power of the indicative tense in people’s real lives. A story could be told, for example, about a couple’s experience in their wedding ceremony. The point always comes in the service where the leader says: “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” This word does what it says! The leader indicates that something new has come into being through the instrumentality of a spoken word!
A second story could be of a person who was in position to get a promotion and a hefty salary raise at her place of work. There was much consternation in the office on the day that the indication of who would receive this advancement was to be announced. The candidates filed into the bosses’ office one by one. Finally Pam went in. She was afraid. And then she heard the word announced over her: “Pam, congratulations. The promotion is yours.” This word does what it says. With the sound of a few words a big chunk of Pam’s world changed.
The indicative words of grace in the text today are in vv. 15, 18, 21, 23. We will need to explicate these powerful indicative words for our congregation. God’s speaks words over us and it is so! Our world is changed. We are new people.
And then we move to the imperatives of the gospel: 13, 14, 22. The call to neighbor love in v. 22 is probably the most important of the imperatives. Being a Christian is all about being loved by God as the empowering action that enables us to love our neighbor. New people do new things. That’s the message here. As some have put it, we are called to become who we are. The Christian doesn’t seek to live out the imperatives of the gospel to become a Christian. The Christian lives out the imperatives because she/he is a Christian. Through the living sacrifice of our lives for our neighbors we continually become who we are.
A second sermon possibility is related to the first. It would be a sermon about the nature and meaning of the Word of God. There is much debate in our churches on this matter today. The debate is usually focused on the Bible as Word of God. The emphasis in the text is that, “…that word is the good news that was announced to you.” V. 25. Theologians like Karl Barth and many others have instructed us that the phrase “Word of God” has three meanings:
1. Primarily the Word of God is God’s spoken word that has the power to create what it announces. We might think of God’s creation creating words in Genesis or the promise-keeping words addressed to Israel in Genesis 12.1-3 and II Samuel 7.11-16. God announces and it comes to pass.
2. Word of God is also word made flesh in the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. Jesus is God with skin on! As incarnation of God’s Word, Jesus could announce new realities: the blind saw, the deaf heard, the dead were raised and so forth. Jesus spoke a word and something new came into being.
3. The Bible is Word of God. People encounter God in the scriptures and new things happen in human lives. Martin Luther thought it was unfortunate that the Word of God had to be written. He called that a “quenching of the Sprit.” Luther preferred to speak of the living word rather than the word as book. The Word of God, he wrote, was to be a living and active word; a word alive in the ears of the hearer. Luther might have gotten this insight from v. 25 of today’s text where the word of God is identified with the living voice of preaching.
In v. 23-25: we hear that we have been “born anew” through the “living and enduring word of God”…. That word is the good news that was announced to you.” We are born anew through an announcement of good news! That announcement could be the heart of a sermon on God’s Word.
The good news of God’s announcement of grace could be matched with several aspects of the human condition. To give just one example we can mention our mortality. We hear challenging messages from the world around us: “You have only one life so why not live it up.” “You are a nobody in this universe and you are on a one way track to death.” “You are a nobody.” Words like these seek to define our lives. They are powerful and seductive.
But there is another word! “That word is the good news that was announced to you.” V. 25. You are born anew as a new being through the preaching of the word. You are born anew in baptism and your new life will never perish. You are born anew through the bread and wine and words of the Lord’s Supper. You are born anew through the life giving power of the words of scripture. Thanks be to God for God’s life-giving word!