The greed and injustice we see in Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Hitler’s annexation of countries in Europe and the division of Kashmir are not new to history. For native Americans the Trail of Tears recalls a dark time in American history, a time of nationally sanctioned ethnic cleansing and the theft of the territories of five sovereign nations: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations. Many died during that early 1800’s forced migration. Some of us have also lived lives or parts of lives that were a trail of tears. The road to heaven is not always a nice chat while strolling along the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Remember, that though the road to Emmaus may sometimes be a trail of tears, even through the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us (Psalm 23).
An original and ancient definition of the word sacrament was simple. It meant “a visible sign of an invisible grace" (Augustine of Hippo) or as Quakers still teach today, “all of life is a sacrament.” Western Christians tend to limit sacraments to seven or two rites of the church. Eastern Christians do not limit the number but refer to the seven as the major sacraments or mysteries of God’s grace in the church. When Protestants object to the seven of the Catholic Church, they are not objecting to the original definition but later, narrower definitions claiming that Jesus personally instituted all seven. If explained using the original definition, most Protestants would certainly not object. Unlike the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), let us pray to see God’s invisible grace in the visible things around us.
A road once led west out of Jerusalem for seven miles through an idyllic landscape of trees and fields to a warm spring and a town called Emmaus, pronounced ‘mmah-OOSS. Today a freeway takes us west of Jerusalem to a place called Emmaus Nicopolis. We take the exit called Latrun Interchange. The ruins of what Eusebius identified as Emmaus are right at the exit inside Canada Park, a national park maintained by a Canadian Jewish fund. Times have changed dramatically but many beautiful trees and fields still exist. It was along the ancient road that Jesus met with two disciples (Luke 24:13-35) and it was in that ancient town that he broke bread and their eyes were opened to recognize him. How can we recognize Jesus as we travel through life? How does Jesus challenge us on our journey?
How much of the time is our daily walk similar to the Emmaus walk of two of the disciples? Their journey is described in Luke 24:13-49. They walked the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus and Jesus walked with them part of the way, but they did not recognize him. He asked the disciples questions and challenged their lack of faith. As they walked their hearts burned but they did not know why until later. How much of the time is Jesus walking with us and we don’t perceive him? How often does he challenge our faith so that it will increase? Why do we not recognize him as he talks to us and opens the scriptures to our understanding? How often is it that we do not see Jesus in our lives until the communion bread is broken?
The journey to Emmaus could be seen as a metaphor for life between now and eternity with God (Luke 24:13-35). Just as Jesus was with those disciples, even though they didn’t know it, so is Jesus with us now. We don’t yet fully see him as we will then, but he is talking to us every day through his Creation, through his Word and through his Spirit. How foolish are we and slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken? Don’t our hearts burn within us as God speaks to us every day? Will Jesus not also say to us, Peace be with you? Can we take a moment on our journey to be aware of who is with us, to recognize that it is him speaking? Let’s relax and learn to experience the joy of the journey?
Why is it that Jesus seems so secretive about his involvement in our lives? He speaks to us softly on the wind that rustles in the leaves. He talks with our hearts as hear the Holy Scriptures read. He discusses issues with our consciences as we go about our daily tasks. So much of the time, just like the two disciples on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-49), we don’t recognize him. Why were those disciples kept from recognizing Jesus? Why are we kept from recognizing him today? Why does it seem as if he is an unrecognized Jesus? Perhaps the answer lies in the question of faith. Seeing is not believing. Believing is believing. Perhaps also Jesus is only fully perceived in communion with fellow believers. Perhaps until then all we have is a burning in our hearts.
Have we ever been spoken to by a friend who simply does not recognize us? I was once served at a convenience store by a former colleague, who did not recognize me and simply addressed me as sir. We’ve all had similar experiences. A friend greeted us somewhere in public and yet one was totally oblivious to recognizing the other. Perhaps someone was distracted, deep in thought or simply did not focus enough. So, it was with Jesus’ two disciples on the way to the village of Warm Springs (Emmaus) in Luke 24:13-35. What could it be that distracts us so readily from acknowledging Jesus in our daily lives? Why do we so often miss the most important things of life, distracted by the mundane? God is always present even in our daily bread, yet we do not notice.
Can humans forgive on behalf of God (John 20:23)? This verse does not support going into a booth and confessing to a priest who would forgive. That practice only grew in popularity from 7th to 11th centuries. It also does not say that a priest would have apostolic succession. There is not one Scripture to indicate that this verse was then understood to be a priest-confessor act. What it does say is that as the Father sent Jesus, so he sent them. Who were they? They were the 11 apostles specifically. Does this then apply to us? We might conclude that anyone who is sent and receives the Holy Spirit has this call. Verse 23 literally says in Greek, If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have already been forgiven. They were already forgiven at the cross.
Jesus did and said important things after his resurrection (John 20:19-31)? Appearing through locked doors to fearful disciples, he stood among them. 1) Both spirit and flesh, he showed them his wounds. 2) Jesus came to their fears and spoke. 3) He stood with them and stands with us. Jesus spoke of peace, and mission and the Holy Spirit. 1) He spoke of peace first, before mission, before power. Jesus is our peace, through the cross: peace between us and our triune God, between us and other Christians, in our own souls (purifying our consciences) and peace in the world. 2) I send you 3) in power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). Receive him when he comes. If people reject God’s messengers, they also reject God, because he will give them power to lead people into forgiveness.
Doubt is normal in a skeptical world. We demand proof. But faith is evidence of things without visible proof, a mystery. John 20:19-31 records some physical proof shown to Thomas. It is written that we might believe and that believing we might have life through his name. Thomas’ doubt is our doubt. We want a genuine faith. If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is useless (1 Corinthians 15:14). We proclaim real victory over death. Faith is neither wishful thinking, nor based on what we see. How can we find this faith? Only the risen Christ can help as he lives in us. Faith has never been easy. We find faith by having faith given to us by God. If we have doubts then let’s not be afraid to ask Jesus to show us his scars.
The law about no other gods (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5) is wonderful. Why is it so impossible to keep? The Sermon on the Mount reveals that if we have thought wrongfully in our hearts, it is the same as if we have done wrong. With that being the criteria we all fail. We have all had other gods before God. We have all put money ahead of God. We have worshiped celebrities as Saviors before Jesus. We have thought, “There ought to be a law against ...!” But, the real answer is a change of heart, repentance. The answer lies in what Thomas realized in John 20:19-31. When we see Jesus as “My Lord and my God” and that nothing else comes close, then we will understand salvation. Let us worship our triune God because no other deserves the honor.
At the cross all the disciples of Jesus abandoned him. However, after his resurrection Jesus appeared to them and offered his peace. After seeing the scars Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:19-31). This was a very personal expression of faith. He did not say OUR Lord or even THE Lord, but MY Lord AND MY God. This is what is meant when people speak of a personal relationship with God. Jesus then went on to bless those of us who would believe even though we, unlike Thomas, have not seen, at least not with our physical eyes. There is a seeing that is not with the eyes. When we see Jesus with that insight, then we like they will believe. And as Jesus revealed himself to those disciples, so he reveals himself to each of us.
What changed the Apostles from a fearful band of fleeing cowards to men of faith and action? Certainly, the coming of the Holy Spirit caused dramatic changes at Pentecost, but the changes in the Apostles began seven weeks before that after the resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Spirit gives power, but only to those who are prepared. Three times in John 20:19-31 Jesus proclaimed peace to his disciples. Could peace be a necessary preparation for the Holy Spirit? First came the resurrection, then blessings of peace and a commissioning followed weeks later with the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of their cowardice we can imagine that the disciples had no peace. Yet, Jesus blessed them with peace. Could it be that peace from God is an important first step on the way to the Church fulfilling its purpose?
Thomas doubted the resurrection (John 20:19-31) and some Christians doubt Easter. Does the Friday-Sunday tradition equal three days? In the ancient world three days and three nights was colloquial for sometimes parts of three days and not a scientific expression for exactly 72 hours. They also counted differently than we do. To them if today was Friday, it was day 1 and Sunday day 3. If today was Friday, we could count Saturday as day 1 and Monday as day 3. It’s called inclusive versus exclusive counting. Is the word Easter pagan? Most languages still call Easter Passover. Whether or not the English word is of pagan origin is irrelevant. Historians and theologians are well aware of counter Easter theories, but reject them as ignoring all the facts. The overwhelming majority honestly agree that Friday-Sunday makes the most sense.
The thing that most of us remember about the Apostle Thomas is the epithet “doubting Thomas” from his initial doubt at Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:25). Was he then a failure? Thomas went on to Persia, Parthia and India and established several great churches. Though severely persecuted by overzealous Portuguese Catholics in the 1500’s, Indian descendants of early Jewish Christians still exist as various churches today. Despite the shameful persecution by those who claim to be successors of Peter and Paul some of these Thomas Christians still observe elements of their Jewish heritage. Today, various groups of them either adhere to the younger western Catholic Church or are attached to the older eastern Orthodox Church. Historians consider these to be the oldest Christian churches after the Assyrian Church. So, what can a doubter accomplish in Jesus? — a great legacy.
In the gospel account of Jesus’ meeting with his disciples after his resurrection (John 20:19-31), we are perhaps surprised to see that Thomas doubts. Yet his weak faith is not unique. It is rather the sometime condition of all of Christ’s disciples, including us. What is more remarkable is the incredible authority that Jesus entrusts to such faulty disciples, the power to forgive sins or not. This is not a contradiction to Jesus’ instructions after giving the Lord’s prayer regarding forgiveness. It relates directly to the gospel message. It is a message of forgiveness of sin to those who accept it. It also contains the message that those who refuse it will not be forgiven. Those who do not accept the message of Jesus, delivered by ordinary people, cannot be forgiven until they do. We have that authority today.
Probably thinking that Jesus’ body had been stolen by grave robbers Mary began to cry (John 20:1-18). First a couple of angels and then later Jesus asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” Then Jesus simply spoke her name and she seems to have immediately recognized his voice. After that encounter she exclaimed to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” John saw the empty tomb and believed. Peter saw it too but did not believe. Mary saw the empty tomb but did not believe. Then she heard and believed. Belief often comes by hearing the word of Christ. That’s the literal meaning behind Romans 10:17. Why do we sorrow. Let us read the scriptures and hear them read every week at church. Just listen and you will hear the words of Jesus and you too will believe.
Catholics have used John 20:1-18 to point out that Peter was the first into the tomb and thus deserving of being first Pope. Protestants have used it to show John’s greater faith than Peter’s and thus Peter did not deserve the title of first Pope. Women’s movements have used the same passage to show that Mary Magdalene was the first with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and thus a woman was the first evangelist. Quite frankly these ideas are disgusting. The political domination of Rome over the western Church, the Protestant rebellion against Rome and the social ambitions of modern women have little to do with the real story. How dare we trivialize or taint the resurrection of our Lord with human politics! Jesus is alive and in him we Catholics, Protestants, men and women are alive too.
In the Old Testament, the most important season was Passover. And during that eight day period, the significant celebration was Passover evening. Since the earliest days in Christian history, Passover has also remained as the most important Christian celebration. English speakers call it Easter, but most languages still call it Passover. The observation has changed dramatically. Whereas many Christians observe a Passover-like celebration of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, Easter Sunday has taken on a significance not found during the Old Testament Passover festival. As Jesus observed Passover eve a day early, so too do Christians modify the time of observance and also include the far more significant remembrance of the Resurrection (John 20:1-18). Resurrection Sunday has become the chief celebration of the year. Every Sunday is a reminder that he is alive and in him we live.
We are all tempted by immediate gratification. We want pain to go away, now! We are drunk on sugary, fatty, unhealthy foods. When we want satisfaction we may also be tempted to do other things the wrong way. Life delivers frequent tests as to whether or not we want to endure short-term pain for long-term gain. We may be tempted to lie, cheat or steal to avoid that short-term pain, because we want immediate gratification. However, short-cuts can harm us in the long term. Jesus prayed that he would not have to endure the cross, but in the end chose to suffer. Easter Sunday is not about avoidance of suffering but about victory through suffering (John 20:1-18). The natural human desire to avoid short-term suffering can cause long-term pain for ourselves and others. Victory through suffering is sweet forever.
Is the resurrection (John 20:1-18) relevant to our lives now? It was not an Old Testament observance and the Sadducees doubted it. Resurrection Day is part of Christian Passover season, Easter in English. It is a greater celebration than days which more directly picture Passover, like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It is our hope after this life, but also something we can live every day. How do we live the resurrection now? One example Jesus gave was that when we have a celebration we ought to invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:13-15), people not often represented at parties of the rich and famous. By loving our neighbors, we live Easter all year and will be rewarded wonderfully at our own resurrection. Let’s give new life away and live the resurrection today.
This dog-eat-dog world is called a jungle, where people walk all over each other. Just to survive, we become tough and and bitter inside. Yet, Jesus came to save us from ourselves and the world around us. That’s what the resurrection is about (John 20:1-18). Romans 5:10 says that we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son and saved by his life. When everything in this world seems to be out to destroy us, God is there to rebuild. Have our marriages been dying? God is there to give them life. Have our dreams shriveled up and died? God is there to resurrect them. Have our spirits shrunk and withered with discouragement? God is there to revive our spirits. He is on our side and wants to save us. All we need do is ask.
Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt (Matthew 21:1-11) would have been seen as a mockery of Pontius Pilate’s proud tradition as a cavalry officer. History records accounts of Pilate as a Roman equestrian, a knight of the Pontii family from the central Italian region of Samnium. His name Pontius comes from his family name. He was a cavalry commander appointed prefect of Roman Judaea, a military ruler of several provinces (Judea proper, Samaria and Idumea) and his duties would have included policing and collecting taxes. Pilate insulted the Jews by hanging worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem and minting coins with both pagan and Jewish religious symbols. Jewish criticism of Pilate made him vulnerable to discipline from Rome, and the Jews capitalized on this and Jesus’ insulting parade to obtain a death sentence on our Lord.
There is historic evidence that Pilate was marching in parade into west Jerusalem with his army to police the large Passover crowds as Christ entered from the north. Jesus’ procession was a counter-cultural challenge to and a mockery of the government of the day. Experts believe that this is a deeper reason behind Pilate’s inaction regarding Jesus before the crucifixion. The world believes that the solution to human problems is a war horse instead of a peace donkey, using the word “donkey” as an insult instead. A world that more than ever disparages the Gospel, is more than ever in need of it. If we have suffered at all at the hands of our fellow human beings, we can rejoice with a Palm Sunday parade in our hearts (Matthew 21:1-11) that heaven’s king is coming to set things right.
The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem on a colt should be contrasted with the dignitaries of this world. One monarch has over 100 coaches and carriages in the royal collection. One is covered with gold leaf, weighs four tons and requires eight horses to pull it, decorated with cherubs, crowns, palm trees, lions' heads, faces, tritons and dolphins. Most countries’ leaders use something like the US President when flying. Contrast that with Jesus’ royal entry into Jerusalem on a colt with its mother trailing behind (Matthew 21:1-11). The old world order is over. The new kingdom is already here preparing a people. Old world leadership was self-aggrandizing and arrogant. New world leadership is self-effacing and humble. The colt symbolizes a new day for humanity, a change in leadership style and those who change will join Jesus at his return.
For Christians, Easter is not merely about bunnies, eggs and resurrection. It is about a change in world power. Jesus has conquered the powers of this world. Death, sin and evil forces have had control over our lives too long. Jesus triumphed over death and it is worth celebrating, the beginning of a new creation. Jesus’ new world order has put an end to a world run amok. Palm Sunday remembers a parade celebrating that victory (Matthew 21:1-11). Forgiveness of sin is now a way of life. Jesus offers both us and our neighbors the freedom of life without condemnation. This evil world only had the power to put Christ on the cross. He willingly allowed it because he has power beyond the grave. Our dead lives have been raised with Christ as a new creation where love prevails.
Jesus approached Jerusalem with bands of Passover pilgrims chanting "Hosanna" (“save” Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 118:25). His entry portrayed him as the King of Peace, not a worldly king with great wealth seeking vengeance but bringing peace between people and between all humanity and God, a peace that passes all understanding. Worldly business, worldly government, worldly entertainment are not there to give but to get. They are there to get our money and to get power over us. We retire to become hermits because we are tired of people because people hurt us. Palm Sunday is to remind us that there is need for a new king, a king who will bring reconciliation between people and between people and God. Let us welcome Jesus into our lives as the peacemaker between ourselves and between all of us and God.
A colt is an untrained animal. It is symbolic that Jesus rode an untrained colt into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11). As he calmed the storm, he calmed the unbroken animal. Our lives can be like a wild colt, untamed and unpredictable. But, if we let Jesus take the reigns, he’ll calm things down. People often try to steer a church like a business, but it fails miserably, because a church is made up of volunteers. In business, if a person does not want to help, bosses yell and blackmail workers with their pay check. Churches cannot be yelled at unpleasantly or blackmailed. People just leave. So, in church work, as in all volunteer work, we are grateful for those who help, but we do not browbeat those who do not. We look to Jesus the colt whisperer, to change hearts.
Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was symbolic of a new world order challenging today’s corrupt world. A younger generation once expressed it as “rage against the machine.” Christianity is a protest. It is a protest against all the corruption and greed that has destroyed human life as we know it. The good news is that Jesus’ triumphal entry was a real success. It was not a success as the world views it. The world does not see triumph in the cross, but self-sacrifice is the ultimate victory. It is the victory over self-centeredness. It is a victory over all the forces of evil in our world and worthy of a parade (Matthew 21:1-11). Overcoming is our triumph and must also be like that of Jesus, refusing to win by worldly means with violence but by godly means with self-sacrifice.
Jesus taught to pray in private (Matthew 6:6)? Why then do others pray in God's house (Matthew 21:13), with others in a small group (Acts 1:14), by a river (Acts 16:13), on the seashore (Acts 21:5) and everywhere (1 Timothy 2:8)? The context of Jesus’ instructions regarding private prayer and these other examples show that he did not teach us about one exclusive place for prayer, but rather to highlight what our motive ought to be in prayer. If we are uncertain that our motive may be to show off spiritually or promote ourselves as super-spiritual, then it would be better to pray in private. In fact Jesus himself prayed in public but from a different attitude of heart. His motive was for the benefit of others, that they may believe (John 11:1-45).
What a great claim to divinity (John 11:1-45) that Jesus has the power over resurrection and life! Notice that he said “am” and not “will be.” He personalizes resurrection in himself. That could have been a clue about what was to take place. Jesus demonstrated his authority over life and death by raising Lazarus. The one who believes in Jesus, even though dying like all human beings, will live. He will never die. The body may die, but the spirit lives on received into heavenly places. The resurrection of Lazarus is a mere temporary sample of what Jesus will do for all believers after death of the body. We may seem dead at times. Our hopes and dreams may seem to be dashed. Jesus promises life to all who put their trust, not in this world, but in him.
Before Lazarus’ resurrection (John 11:1-45) several things happened, perhaps serving as clues as to what we might expect before God intervenes. Delay: God may not always intervene immediately. Jesus stayed several more days after hearing of Lazarus’ death. Opposition: When Jesus finally decided to go, the disciples tried to dissuade him. Negativity: Thomas tried to disparage Jesus’ plans by suggesting they may as well all go and die. Blame: Martha and later Mary told Jesus that if he had been there her brother would not have died. Doubt: Martha also doubted that anyone could do anything after her brother had been dead four days. God may choose to bless us with a temporary miracle, and our faith may be tried by delay, opposition, negativity, blame and doubt. But that miracle is insignificant compared to the permanent resurrection of salvation.