Memories of Easters past. 1972—schoolgirls at Matopo Secondary dressed in white, singing “Namhla Uvukile” [Today He has risen!] before the African Autumn dawn. 1991—my parents shaking Lois and me awake with the news that Dad Heise has just died; the cancer had finished its work.
Resurrection Sunday! The central day of the church’s year, and the event that stands at the centre of our lives. We have walked the way of the cross with Jesus, and now we walk in the resurrection of Jesus.
In our own congregation we have experienced the loss and grief that is basic to human existence. Loved family members have died. Jobs have come to an end. Dreams have failed. Relationships that we thought would last until Heaven have been torn apart. As we heard the story of Jesus’ crucifixion retold on Thursday and Friday, I felt that it was speaking my own grief.
We have walked paths of loss this past year that we never thought we would see, and the grief is still fresh. For all of us. Like the two nameless disciples in our text, we are processing what has happened to us, and we can feel our own losses as we walk again through the events of Good Friday. We are seeking direction for our future, just as these disciples were trying to figure out what they would do now that the Messiah had been executed.
Listen to the Text Again
Two disciples walked the seven miles home from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Presumably they had been in Jerusalem for the trial and execution of Jesus. In any case, that is what they were talking about. On Friday they saw the Messiah killed, and then the sun set. Today we refer to the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday as Holy Saturday, a time of waiting for the celebration to begin. The first “Holy Saturday” was the Sabbath Day, a time of waiting in God’s presence for renewal through hearing God’s Law, the Torah.
That Sabbath was a strange day of resting. Because it was the Sabbath, they were unable to go to the tomb, unable to return to their home in Emmaus, unable to do anything in response to the terrible events they had witnessed. Finally on the first day of the week, they can go home. They headed off about the middle of the afternoon, talking over all that had happened as they walked.
Jesus joined them on the way. They didn’t recognize him, even when he asked what they were talking about. Why were they “kept from recognizing him”? Perhaps they wanted to move on to resolution too quickly; we often do so. Perhaps they needed to remain in a time of questioning and searching longer, so that they could deal fully with their grief. It is often so.
Ironically, talking to the man who was in the middle of those events, they said, “You’re not from around here, are you!” Then they told him what had happened to him—the humour of God at work. The interaction that follows is vitally important for us to grasp this morning.
“He was a prophet. We thought he was the Messiah! But the religious leaders had him killed. We don’t know what to do!
“He did say something about the third day, and today is the third day.
“We heard something this morning. Some women [you can almost hear the doubt in their voices: women will say anything …] said that they found his tomb empty. Some of his close friends [this was more promising] say that they have seen him. (A point in all of these accounts is the place of the women—unreliable witnesses in Jewish tradition, but last at the cross, and first at the empty tomb.)
After they finished, hear Jesus’ response:
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
They reached their home and invited Jesus in. he sat down at the table with them, and picked up the bread. Then he broke it [just like at the Last Supper], and they recognized him. They hurried back to Jerusalem, never mind the onset of night. They hurried through the dark to find the Eleven and tell them that the light of their lives was alive!
I have wondered what Scriptures he quoted to them in this process of reinterpretation.
- Certainly the Gospel writers apply Psalm 22 (verses 1 and 18) and Psalm 110 to Jesus. So also Luke applies Psalm 2 to Jesus (the disciples’ prayer in Acts 4:25-26).
- Probably the most important passage was Isaiah 53: see John 12:37-38 (John’s comment on the ministry of Jesus); Acts 8:32-35 (Philip applies the prophecy to Jesus); 1 Peter 2:22-23 (Peter identifies the suffering servant with Jesus); Luke 22:37 (Jesus applies the prophecy to himself).
The Basic Point of this whole passage is this truth: That Jesus re-interpreted their Scriptures so that they could know the truth about God and about God’s Messiah, and he re-structured their lives so that what they had experienced as loss and death became the source of life and eternal hope.
A Small Word Game
I first studied this material systematically 37 years ago. I had to preach eight sermons over a period of two semesters for my homiletics course at AMBS. Easter 1980 I preached the last of these sermons on this passage. I was an eager young seminarian, so I translated the passage from the Greek myself before writing my sermon. In the process, I made found something about verses 22-24: “In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” They went to the tomb [expecting to find death] … they went to the tomb [and found evidence of life].
The discovery was this: The word for tomb in Greek is mnēmeion, from which we get the English word “mnemonic”. A mnemonic is something that helps you remember something else—a memory aid. So the word for tomb means “a remembrance”. We have the same link in English between the grave and a memorial stone that sits on the grave. The discovery echoes the basic idea in Luke’s passage: As we remember the events of our lives, they become either a place of death (a tomb with the stone rolled in front of it) or a place of life (an empty tomb with the covering stone rolled away).
Let me tell you a story of a life-giving memory of an event filled with death. This story should come with the kind of warning you find before TV shows that are filled with explicit violence.
Several weeks ago we had a special guest at Providence. Sokreaksa Himm is a survivor of the Killing Fields in Cambodia. His father was a teacher when the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government in 1975. They were particularly brutal to anyone who was part of the intellectual class, so his family was relocated to a village where they were forced to work in the fields as part of being re-educated. The “Forgiveness Project” website tells his story thus:
In 1977 at the age of 14, Sokreaksa “Reaksa” Himm saw 13 members of his family murdered by Khmer Rouge soldiers in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Miraculously surviving the massacre, Reaksa swore revenge against the men responsible for the loss of his family. Years later, after surviving the horrors of refugee camps and roving death squads, Reaksa had a life-changing conversion to Christianity that gave him a whole new reason to seek the murderers: to forgive them. … Reaksa authored two books on the tragedy and his journey to forgiveness: ‘The Tears of My Soul’ and ‘After the Heavy Rain’. There is also currently a film in production called ‘Reaksa: A True Story of Forgiveness’ www.reaksafilm.com.
After years of surviving the “Killing Fields”, I, along with my father and brothers were dragged to the edge of a mass grave and slashed with machetes and clubbed with hoes. Minutes later, I awoke in the grave in a pile of my dead and dying relatives. I was able to climb out and hide in nearby weeds when the killers left to round up my female relatives and complete their macabre mission.
When they returned, they murdered my mother and sister. As the soldiers threw dirt on the people who were my entire life, I swore revenge. I was alone, hungry and scared and in the coming weeks I made my way across the jungle, avoiding soldiers by day and sleeping in trees by night to escape roaming tigers. I eventually found my way to the “safety” of a succession of refugee camps all the while planning and plotting the deaths of the men who murdered my loved ones.
I fled to Thailand and spent five horrific years in refugee camps, including Khao-I-Dang, before immigrating to Canada. There, I would come to an even greater moment of truth when I eventually came to know Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. Through years of Bible study and communion with God, I started a new life in the west but could not release myself from the prison of hatred, anger and vengeance. I discovered that forgiveness truly is divine and that as the years passed, my blood oath and all consuming ire were in direct conflict with my new nature. [DC: In our chapel Reaksa described their vows in this blood oath—to find his family’s killers and take revenge; if he could not, to become a Buddhist monk; if he could do neither of these, to leave Cambodia forever.]
The anger against the killers was as great as the grief for my family and it burned inside me like a great ball of fire. For years I cultivated elaborate fantasies in which I tortured and murdered the killers again and again, projecting all my rage and pain I bottled inside myself in my plans for what I would do to the men when I found them. I realized that I would never know true peace until I had dealt with this as well. I had to find a way of forgiving them, before the bitterness inside destroyed me. …
I began to meditate on the Bible, and I found in the book of Psalms a wonderful source of support and comfort. Here was someone like me, David, who had known despair and who was not afraid to cry out to God in pain and anguish. Across the centuries I heard the voice of a man who wept and cried to his God, and yet who always reaffirmed the reality of God’s ability to keep him safe.
Forgiveness doesn’t come through vengeance, and neither does forgetting: no amount of violence could erase my memories. So I gave up my urge to inflict pain on those who had hurt me and killed my family. I knew it wouldn’t help, and nursing those desires was only damaging me; my emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological being.
In time I discovered that forgiveness opens a channel for real spiritual power to work in my life; a power which brings healing and wholeness.
In the years that followed, I began a new mission: one that still included finding the men responsible for the deaths of my loved ones but for a new purpose. I no longer wanted to seek their deaths, but to tell them of the life and hope that I found.
I eventually found two of the men involved in my family’s deaths, in the very village and among the very people they terrorized over two decades before. Initially on hearing that I wanted to meet the men to forgive them, many people thought that my plan was just another attempt to locate the men so that I could take my revenge. To the surprise of the men and most of the villagers, I shook hands with the two men and forgave them. [http://theforgivenessproject.com/stories/sokreaksa-himm-cambodia/]
In our chapel Reaksa told how he had come to Providence after his conversion to do an MA in counselling. He went on to finish a doctoral degree in Psychology, but it was this act of forgiveness that set him and his enemies free from the power of hatred and fear. He showed us pictures of him giving the men three gifts—a scarf, a Bible, and a new shirt—as symbols of his forgiveness. He told us how they trembled when he embraced them. He talked of the fear they had felt when ordered to do the executions, or face the loss of their own families.
Another part of the story, a wonderful piece of the absurd and overflowing grace of God, is the beginning of “Hockey Night in Cambodia”. Reaksa began two schools—one for younger children, and a high school. Since the young people had nothing to do after school, he introduced them to hockey, which became a passion while he was here. Somehow, I don’t know how, he connected with some NHL players who have helped to promote hockey in Cambodia. God’s overflowing grace brings life into places we could never predict! (I found some YouTube videos about the work done in Reaksa’s village, as well as a Vancouver Sun story from 2011 on this phenomenon. I also found evidence of a Hockey Night in Cambodia league in the capital, Phnom Penh, but I don’t know if these are at all connected to each other.)
We come to Easter Sunday through the quiet Sabbath of Holy Saturday. Like the two disciples walking to Emmaus, we are trying to make sense of our lives. We have experienced loss—the death of a spouse or a parent, the loss of relationships, a miscarriage so that an anticipated child never arrives, dreams that have died, hopes that have failed. As we walk through life we wonder what has happened to us, and where God is to be found.
Then we notice Jesus walking with us. He begins to re-interpret and re-structure our lives and our losses. I don’t mean that we understand why someone died or why someone broke relationship with is, but God acts so that our loss becomes a place where the tomb brings forth life. Life himself walks with us. As Reaksa’s example shows, God brings life out of death—if we ask God to!
We meet Jesus again as (in C.S. Lewis’ words) “the One who was so full of life that, when he wished to die, he had to borrow death from others.” We realize that Jesus borrowed our own death, our sins, our losses, our pains, our very self; and he gives us back our selves alive with the resurrection. We learn what the Friday prayer in the Anglican Prayer Book means:
Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Having learned the prayer of the cross, we then can pray the Resurrection Sunday prayer of victory:
Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
16 April 2017
On the Road to Emmaus
13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.
17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
19 “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.