A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
April 15, 2018
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
In the Price family, Friday night is pizza night. I didn’t invent that tradition. In fact, it was my Mother-in-Law, Marie, parent to 11 grown children who decided that once her flock had gone out on their own it was a pretty good idea to skip fancy Sunday dinners and instead, order pizza and open her house to whatever family could drop by after work or school on Friday evenings. The Price family in St. Louis shared many moments of life together over those slices of sauce, bread and cheese. Case in point: I learned years later that it wasn’t actually my hand-mashed, organic pears that were my daughter’s first food but instead, chunks of pizza crust that her Dad and Aunties would break off and give her to chew on! But, as these kind of traditions take on a life of their own, even after Michael, Cassandra and I moved away from St. Louis to Richmond and even after Marie’s nurturing presence was no longer with us on this earth, Friday night is still Price family pizza night. It’s become one of the ways that we are family together.
I had a bit of a chuckle a few weeks ago when I went to pick up our usual order, at our usual pizza place. I had just opened the door when the manager called back into the kitchen and said, “It’s Friday…Mrs. Price is here for her pizza!” At the same time as I felt a little embarrassed by my own predictability, I also felt all of that rush of family history and tradition washing over me, thinking how my mother-in-law Marie would love to know how this family tradition has carried on. It was a very sweet memory, ushered in by the simple words of a restaurant worker who recognized me, who knew who I was and why I was there, and who anticipated all of that with good humor and unexpected kindness, even though he barely even knows me.
And so our Easter story unfolds today, also in a very ordinary gathering of people who held in common the memory of their beloved friend, Jesus. In these subsequent Sundays after we celebrate the day of Christ’s resurrection, we hear the stories of Christ’s appearing to those he knows, and loves, and cares about. These are personal stories, retold across generations, that reveal to us something about how Jesus and his followers were family together: Mary recognizes Jesus from the way He speaks her name name; Jesus knows Thomas and anticipates his predictable need for physical proof to assuage his human doubts. As today’s Gospel lesson unfolds, two of Jesus’ followers who have had an encounter with the risen Christ on the road between Emmaus and Jerusalem have rushed back to tell the rest of their friends and family about this siting. Just as they are all about to eat some bread and fish together Jesus appears in their midst.
Jesus knows his friends. He knows their state of mind, their grief, their hopes, and their fears. He knows how they are family together. In anticipation, he greets them as known and beloved by saying, “Peace be with you.”
We might think that would be enough for them to immediately recognize and rejoice. But immediately after Jesus extends peace, the Gospel lesson reports that Jesus’ followers were started and frightened. Actually, that second word is a bit stronger than “frightened”; they were ἔμφοβος (emphobos); “filled with fear.” The Greek root is something we have carried over into a psychological: “phobia,” a deep and unsettling fear that cuts across our layers of consciousness and hits us at the core of our being. These friends were not just caught off guard and surprised. Even though they had already heard of the risen Lord; even though they now heard his voice speaking peace to them, they were terrified.
I think this portion of Luke’s gospel may be the most accurate representation in the Holy Scriptures for what most of us experience when Christ’s presence is made known in our lives. In fact, I did a little informal research this week among people I know…seminarians, clergy, lay leaders and others who would acknowledge having heard and responded to a call from the risen Christ. I asked them, “What word or emotion best describes what you felt when you first realized God had called you to new ministry?”
I made this graphic of these responses, which as you can see highlight “scared”; “fear”; “terror”; “disbelief”; “crazy”; “angry”; “anxiety”; “overwhelmed”; “gobsmacked”; “unsettled” and “shocked.” Others shared with me that what was most vivid was their experience of “clarity”; “peace”; “calm”; and “heightened awareness” after the fact. Deep peace seemed to emerge within the chaos of our very human emotions.
I vividly remember my own response to the sudden and unanticipated awareness of the presence of Christ in my life, shocking me through tears into awareness of something new and incomprehensible and emergent that would completely alter how my life was being shaped and formed. I also remember that once I gave voice to that recognition, the priest who saw me off on my journey of discernment said to me: All I know is that you don’t need to be afraid. I’m not entirely sure I believed her in that moment, but those words have become the truth of my journey.
‘Don’t be afraid’ is what Jesus tells his followers, too. Jesus knew them, and Jesus knows us. We still are…and I know I still am…afraid sometimes. Jesus Christ who knows us and loves us anticipates that. “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at me…Touch me…see that it’s me!” These words from their friend and teacher reassure them, and remind them of how they are family together. They break bread together; Jesus eats with his friends, and opens their minds to understand the scriptures and his role in the ancient stories and prophecies that ground them as community. Fear, shock and terror are transformed into peace, understanding, and relationship.
Christ reveals himself to his friends, and his friends eventually come to understand, as subsequent generations of Christian will hear in our Epistle reading, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” That revealing comes when we step into our human fears and allow ourselves to see, to touch, to be transformed in the ways that each and every one of us are called to be. In the breaking of bread, we are reminded of the ways in which we are family, together. Jesus calls us into communion not just to open our minds to know him, but to open our hearts to who we are together, the family of God.
In this Eastertide, the stories of how Christ is made known to us remind us of the ways that we are family together. Our encounters with the risen Christ prepare us to be called to do the work that we are meant to do, to move us beyond our human fear and anxiety so that we can be witnesses of this love to the world. Whether we serve lunch to people who hunger, polish brass, arrange flowers, travel to other countries and communities to share God’s love, preach the Gospel, teach the children, or sing the songs of worship and praise: we are all God’s children now, and we are called to be family together.
Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.