Sermon, April 26

This morning, I’m taking the opportunity of our online worship to do something that’s harder to do in church – look at some art together. I mentioned last week in the evening gathering that there are wonderful paintings of some of these Easter Gospel stories by the artist Caravaggio, who lived in Italy from 1571 to 1610. Caravaggio’s work represents some rich and wonderful visual exegesis – reflecting on a Scriptural story and drawing meaning out of it by rendering it artistically. 

Here is his painting of our Gospel story from last week – The Incredulity of St. Thomas.

Remember, when the other disciples told him that they had seen Jesus, risen from the dead, while he was not with them, Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” In Caravaggio’s image, Jesus is guiding Thomas’s finger into the wound in his side. As much as to say, “If this is what you need, Thomas… let it be so.”

How would you describe the look on Jesus’ face? Unmute & share what you’re seeing, if you’d like – just a word or two. You can do it in Chat, too. How would you describe the feelings on Thomas’s face?….

When you’re looking at a Caravaggio painting, always notice the hands. He paints very expressive hands. Notice Thomas’s left hand. Does that add to how you read his feelings, in this moment? 

All right. Let’s move to this Sunday’s Gospel – another beautiful story of followers of Jesus meeting the risen Christ. Two of the disciples, Jesus’ friends and followers, are leaving Jerusalem – burdened with sadness and disappointment. They had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel – to free their nation and people from the degradation of Roman rule, to a new era of freedom and holy strength, like the remembered time of King David. 

But that’s not what happened. Jesus didn’t call the people to him and start a righteous revolution. Instead, the imperial powers and the local powers, Pilate, Herod, and the chief priests, worked it out among themselves to dispose of him. It wasn’t even especially difficult. And now, the great moment of hope and possibility has passed. They’ve heard about the empty tomb and the rumors that maybe Jesus is alive; but still, it feels like everything is over. They might as well go home, and return to the normal lives they abandoned when they joined the Jesus movement. 

We know both their names, by the way, though Luke only names Cleopas. John, in his Gospel, names the women who were standing near the cross – one of them is Mary, the wife of Clopas. 

Clopas and Cleopas are very likely the same name. And it makes all the sense in the world that this was a married couple traveling together, since we know there were women among Jesus’ disciples, and since the story ends at a home they share. 

So, Mary and Cleopas are headed home, sad and weary.  But then a stranger approaches and falls into step with them. He asks them, What are you talking about? And when they tell him, he says, Wait, have you even READ the Scriptures? It was necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things! And as they walk on, the stranger re-interprets Scripture to them, texts of liberation like Exodus and texts of judgment and promise like the Prophets, to show them that passing through death to new life is a story God tells in the world, over and over and over again. 

And then they reach Emmaus. And Mary – I’m sure it was Mary – says, Oh, please stop here with us. It’s getting dark. We don’t have much in the cupboard, but I’ll borrow from a neighbor. Stay. And the stranger agrees to stay. And over their simple shared meal, he takes bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to them. And the words and the voice, the way he lifts his hands, the way he meets their eyes when he holds out the bread – suddenly, they see. They recognize. They know. 

Here is Caravaggio’s image of the supper at Emmaus.

You’ll notice that Caravaggio thought both of the disciples on the road to Emmaus were men. What else do you notice?…

A couple of notes: The servant is a self-portrait of Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s Jesus here doesn’t look like a conventional Jesus – he is young and androgynous or even feminine. This is how Caravaggio has interpreted the fact that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus – he must have looked different in some way. Compare the Jesus in Caravaggio’s painting “The Taking of Christ,” who looks a lot more like “normal” depictions of Jesus.

Then Jesus – disappears. (While he does have a real human body, the Risen Jesus seems to be able to pop in and out of our reality in a new way!) And Cleopas and Mary stare at each other, with understanding and hope dawning on their faces. And they RUSH back to Jerusalem – seven miles by night! – to tell the other disciples what has happened. How Jesus walked with them and talked with them, and was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

That phrase may sound familiar! It’s used in one of our Eucharistic prayers, Prayer C. The congregation says it: Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread. It’s also in a beautiful prayer we use in the evenings sometimes, a prayer based on this story: Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.

Sharing the Eucharist, breaking bread that is the Body of Christ and sharing it among the fellowship of believers that is also the Body of Christ, is central to our church’s practice. We are fasting from it now, for a season, for the sake of human wellbeing – for one another and for our wider community. I know that fast is really hard for some folks. I’m sorry. We will return to the Eucharistic table, when we have discerned that it’s safe enough, and how to do so with minimal risk. 

The breaking of the bread is a really important moment when we can see and feel and touch the Divine. But it’s far from the only such moment. I love what Mary and Cleopas say to one another: Were not our hearts burning within us, while he was speaking to us on the road? Hours before they recognized their mysterious traveling companion as Jesus Christ, God incarnate, hours before this eucharistic meal, they had the sense that they were hearing something powerful and important and true. I think that’s why they begged the stranger to stay with them. Not just kindness or politeness, but also a sense of connection, possibility, urgency. 

Were not our hearts burning within us? I know what that feels like. That sense of hearing important truth, truth that will change how I think and how I live. Or hearing something that has a call on me. I know the feeling of a deep-down nudge that says, Pay attention. There’s something here. Something that kindles your heart and awakens hope. You’re close to one of the cracks in everything, where the light gets in. I am more or less attuned to those nudges, that strange inner warmth, depending on how well I’ve been sleeping, how hard I’ve been working, how open and present I’m able to be. But I do know that feeling. 

We love gathering at our church building – but we know God doesn’t live there. We love sharing the Body of Christ in Eucharist – but we know that’s not the only place to meet Jesus. We may be all shut up in our homes, but the risen Jesus walks right through locked doors, friends. 

Where is the Holy showing up for you, in these days? Where might the Holy show up for you, if you look, and listen? If you open your heart to expect that even here, even now, God has a word to speak to you, or a gift to offer you, or a mission of love to invite you into? Listen to your heart, friends… notice when it burns within you. 

Response question: Where have you seen or sensed God’s presence, gotten a glimpse or whiff of the Holy, in these days? …