He Vanished From Their Sight

This morning I will be the guest preacher at First Presbyterian Church in Neenah, Wisconsin.  I couldn’t ask for a better Gospel to offer a reflection on: the appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus recorded in the Gospel of Luke.

I plan to make the case that the most important line in that beautiful text (one of my favorite of the post-resurrection appearances) is the five word line that follows the disciples’ recognition that it is Jesus they have been walking with.  After Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, the disciples’ eyes were opened and they recognized him.  And at the moment their eyes were opened and they recognized him, “he vanished from their sight.”

He vanished from their sight. Just at the point where they recognized him. Just at the moment when his words erupt into an explosion of understanding. Just at the moment they discover he is risen – risen and present and sitting close enough at table for them to reach out and touch him. At that very moment, he vanishes.

It is interesting to me that the disciples don’t seem to be dismayed by the sudden disappearance. From a human perspective, you’d expect a “hey, where’d he go?” “What happened.” (Maybe a peak under the table to see if Jesus is hiding there, playing a joke on them.) But there is none of that. Simply the acknowledgement of their realization – “Then they said to each other ‘were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road.’”

Jesus vanishes from their sight and the two disciples take it in stride.

What is Luke trying to convey to us here?

I think a simple, but very profound message: The community of faith that grows out of the experience of those who encountered the historical Jesus – the Jesus who people followed before his death and the resurrected Christ they encountered before the Ascension – that community of faith (the community we are part of) will not have the physical presence of Christ. But that doesn’t mean they (we) will not have him as a companion on the journey.

That is the message I will unpack in my remarks this morning.

First Presbyterian records their services; when the link to my sermon is on their website, I will add it here.

Feast of St. Mark

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Mark the Evangelist.  Mark’s Gospel is thought to be the first of the four written (he is generally thought to be one of the sources used by Matthew and Luke) and his Gospel is the shortest of the four.

Mark records very few of the spoken words of Jesus, putting our focus on Jesus’ actions: calming the storm, walking on the waves, feeding the multitudes, curing the ill and raising the dead. Perhaps because there is less emphasis on words, we find in Mark vivid descriptions, with small details not found in the other two synoptic Gospels.

On the one hand, Mark is quite clear in his emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah. On the other, in the words of Fr. Joseph Mindling,

With an eye for detail not always recorded by the other gospels, Mark shows fascinating aspects of the human side of the Messiah as well: That Jesus liked to eat with his friends, that he used a litte pillow to sleep on in the boat, that he hugged little children and enjoyed being with them, that he did not always hide strong emotions, that he used mud in the performance of a miracle, that he listened carefully to the parents of a little girl who had died, and that he was fearful before he himself died. Individually, many of these observations may not catch our attention, but collectively they deepen our understanding of what it meant for the Son of God to take on our human nature and share our everyday life.

Fully divine, yes. But also fully human. And Mark gives us a vehicle through which to explore that humanity.

The Communal Life

Today’s first Mass reading is one I love: the description that comes at the end of Chapter 2 of Acts describing the communal life of the members of the early Church:

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life,  to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.

They held all things in common.

They gave to people in accordance with their need.

Every day they gathered together to learn and pray.

They ate meals with a sense of praise and gratitude.

They behaved toward others in ways that inspired love.

I’m not suggesting we give up all of our possessions, but I do think this passage offers us a good checklist against which to test our own behavior.

Do we give to people in accordance with their need, or with our assessment of their desert?

Do we gather together to learn and pray? The members of the early church did so daily: Do we do more than come together on a Sunday? Do we find other opportunities to nourish our faith?

Do we take our meals with praise and gratitude, or thoughtlessly (or worse, with a sense of entitlement)?

Do we behave toward others as Christ would? Or do we see the face of Christ in others.

With respect to giving to people in accordance with their need, let me remind you of something Pope Francis said around the beginning of Lent.  He addressed the fear many have about giving money to the poor – the fear they will not use it well.  Pope Francis had a simple response to this concern: Give money anyway.  Giving money to someone in need, said the Pope, “is always right.”  If one is able to help, we ought to recognize our blessing and be generous in meeting others’ needs.

More importantly, he reminded us that how we give matters.  Look people in the eyes, touch their hands, show interest in them, he encourages. Essentially – remember their human dignity and perhaps remind them of it as well.  This is perhaps the bigger challenge.  It is so easy to avert one’s eyes while feeling good about oneself for dropping a few coins in a cup.  Not really seeing the person in front of us, and certainly not making eye contact.

How we encounter a person in need makes an enormous difference.  “One can look at a homeless person and see him as a person or else as if he were a dog, and they notice this different way of looking” at them, said the Pope.

We could all do a better job, I think, in emulating the early church in its dealings with God, each other, and all those in need.

What Does it Mean to Say Jesus’ Yoke is Easy and His Burden Light?

I have been reflecting during my daily prayer over the last several weeks on Brendan Byrne’s commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, titled Lifting the Burden.

I sat the other morning with a passage that has always given me great comfort: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Byrne asks the question: how can we reconcile Jesus’ claim that his yoke is easy and his burden light with the Sermon on the Mount?  If we take seriously the teaching of that Sermon, the demands Jesus places on that are more burdensome than what was taught by the scribes and Pharisees.   Think of how many times he says, “you have heard x, but I say to you 2x.”  You’ve heard don’t kill; I say don’t be angry.  You’ve heard don’t commit adultery; I say do not look at a woman with lust.  And so forth.

Byrne suggests that the apparent inconsistency is not one that can be reconciled in theory, but “only in the personal life of believers” and the personal presence that radiates from “come to meI will give you rest.”  He writes

The quality of “ease” and the “lightness” cannot consist in a lesser level of virtue or ethical demand. It must have something to do with the sense that all fulfillment in practice is preceded and facilitated by an intense relationship with Jesus and a sense of being grasped by his love. His claim to be “gentle and humble of heart” is ultimately a claim to personal attractiveness and an invitation to enter into an exchange of love. Such love, which is ultimately an extension of the love of the Father, is what can make even the most difficult requirements “easy” and “light.”

Ignatian Spirituality places heavy emphasis on our personal encounter with Christ.  The effect of that encounter not only deepens our conversion to Christ, but strengthens us to live in accordance with his teachings.

Where Do We Find the Resurrected Christ in our Midst?

As we continue our Easter celebration, we might ask ourselves where we discover the resurrected Christ.  Marina McCoy says this in reflecting on that question:

The stories of Jesus’ first appearances suggest that finding the Resurrected Christ requires attentiveness and patience. Moreover, by staying with our longing, we are more likely to encounter the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus because she had a deep and holy longing for him. She stayed present to her desires. Instead of walking away from her unfulfilled hopes and desires, the way the men on the road to Emmaus were walking away from Jerusalem, Mary remained faithful to her desire to be close to the Lord.

Referring to Jesus’ instruction to Mary Magdalene to not cling to him, but rather to go and share the news of his resurrection with his disciples, McCoy observes

For us, too, the meaning of the Resurrection is not as simple as just seeing “all at once.” For example, we can easily fall into the belief that we can find God in only one place—one that is familiar to us. Perhaps a particular kind of experience, like spending time in nature, or mothering one’s children, or a particular relationship or vocational call seems like “the” place where Christ is. But over time, our sense of God’s presence in the world becomes wider, and we can recognize God in other people and places, or experience the same old people and places in new ways. Mary had to let go of knowing and loving Jesus in one way, in order to know and love him in another. Indeed, she had to discover a new identity about herself as an evangelist in order to relate to Jesus anew in the Resurrection.

McCoy ends her reflection (which you can read in its entirety here) with these questions: What are the deepest longings of your heart? What signs of God’s presence might be a first glimpse of the Resurrected Christ? In what new experiences might the Resurrected Christ be discovered?

He Is Risen!

We celebrate on this day the Resurrection of Christ.  Last night, at the Easter Vigil at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, we began in darkness as we listened to the story of our salvation history, beginning with the story of creation.  Then, lights ablaze, we sang out our Alleluias.

The Resurrection of Jesus, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “the crowning truth of our faith in Christ, as faith believed and lived as the central truth by the first Christian community; handed on as fundamental by Tradition; established by the documents of the new Testament; and preached as an essential part of the Paschal mystery along with the cross. Christ’s resurrection is the fulfillment of the promises both of the Old Testament and of Jesus himself during his earthly life.”

As important as Jesus’ passion and death are to who we are as Christians, it is the Resurrection that is the crowning truth of our faith.  Jesus is risen!  There is not one aspect of life that is not drenched in the resurrection – even when it appears to be hidden.

Let us re-commit this day to live our lives as resurrection people, as people who know that the victory over death has already been won.

Happy Easter!

God is On The Cross

Today is Good Friday, the day on which we contemplate Christ on the cross.

To one way of thinking, the cross is a symbol of failure.  (“If you are really God,” people jeer, “then save yourself.”)  Yet for Christians, the cross is a symbol of triumph.

For your contemplation of that triumph I share these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Christ goes through the cross, only through the cross, to life, to the resurrection, to victory? That, indeed, is the marvelous – and yet for many people so repulsive – theme of the Bible, that the only visible sign of God in the world is the cross. Christ is not gloriously transported from earth into heaven. He must instead go to the cross. And precisely there, where the cross stands, the resurrection is near. Precisely here, where all lose faith in God, where all despair about the power of God, God is fully there, and Christ is alive and near. Where one stands on a razor’s edge of becoming an apostate or remaining true, God and Christ are fully there. Where the power of darkness wants to overcome the light of God, there God triumphs and judges the darkness.