Third Sunday of Easter
April 30 2017
Acts 2.14a, 36-41; Psalm 116.1-; 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-35
Rev Anita Venter, Bethlehem Bible College
“Destruction and hope, all in one place. It’s a lot to take in.”
This is the opening line in an article published just after Easter Sunday by the Preemptive Love Coalition. It tells us that when Isis militants swept across the plains of Nineveh in Iraq in 2014, everyone in Batnaya fled. Everyone! 5,000 Chaldean Christians had to run for their lives.
Batnaya today is a ghost town, not even a stray dog on the street.
Isis tried to erase Christianity from this part of Iraq – and for a while, it looked like they had succeeded.
Last October, Kurdish forces liberated Batnaya. But reminders of Isis’s presence are still everywhere you look. Graffiti of hate still on the walls. Homes still marked with the Arabic letter N for “Nazarene.” Paintings of tanks and mortars still visible – a crude tribute to Isis bloodlust. Outside the church, a chilling message: “The cross will fall.”
It’s been six months since Batnaya was liberated. But no one has returned. No one can return. This place is still an active military zone. But on Easter Sunday two weeks ago, hundreds of families came back – not to live, but to pray. To weep at what was lost, and to celebrate the hope of new life in the face of death.
For the first time in three years Batnaya residents celebrated Easter in their own church. The sanctuary still bore the scars of Isis. The altar lay in ruins behind priests who led mass. Light poured in through broken windows. Bullet holes riddled the wall above the altar, defacing an image of the cross.
But none of this could stop women and men from singing, praying, and celebrating resurrection. Prayer and incense, bread and wine – in a place where militants once trained to kill.
I cannot but see similarities here with our reading from Luke 24.
Jesus hanging on the cross … the brutality of the Roman soldiers … the mockery of the crowd … the words he spoke from the cross … the heartbreaking sight of his mother standing nearby … the chilling legend on the cross “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews” … the earthquake and the darkness … the clear and present danger… This was enough for some of the disciples to head out to Emmaus and other places, while others hid in fear of their lives in Jerusalem.
The Roman empire tried to erase the messiah from the face of the earth, and for three days it looked as if it had succeeded.
Early that Easter Sunday, Jerusalem still witnessed the scars of the crucifixion. The bloodstains on the Via Dolorosa, Jesus’ garment in the hands of the soldier who won the lottery, the curtain torn in the temple, empty crosses on Golgotha … Yet, while Jerusalem still slumbered, the stone was rolled away: a resurrected Christ stepped out of the tomb to reveal himself first to the women, then to others.
The resurrection of Christ rates as history’s most revolutionary event. Yet for the disciples the scandal of the cross erased the power of this message. Jesus had disappointed them by allowing himself to get killed.
After all, they believed, it was their messiah, their mighty liberator and warrior, who would come and redeem Israel from Roman oppression. They never imagined that terrible Friday on a hill outside the walls of this city. For them hope was lost – game over! As they trudged onwards to Emmaus, they tried to make sense out of chaos.
And then, out of the blue, Jesus came smack dab in the middle of their sorrow. He walked with them, and he listened.
In their exchange, we hear the force of their cry “We were hoping …” Cleopas called Jesus “a prophet, powerful in word and deed” but he did not call Jesus messiah anymore. We detect a yearning and a holy hunger. They need their messiah to be alive, vibrant, and present. With downcast faces they told Jesus about their hopes and dreams that were dashed.
Shocked, confused, disappointed, blinded by anger, grief and despair, they were unable to see good news in the death, the empty tomb, or even a vision of angels in dazzling clothes (Luke 24.1-12, 23). They were unable to recognize Jesus as he walked right beside them.
As compassionate as only Jesus can be, he waited for them to pour out their hearts and to finish their story. But he had news for them too.
During his long walk with his followers, Jesus had repeatedly described his journey and told them of things to come, but they had not fully understood how messianic status could fit with suffering, humiliation and death. So Jesus begins with a rebuke: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”
And then he gave them the most important Bible study ever given. Book by book, verse by verse, beginning with Genesis and going through each prophesy of the what, because of him, we call the Old Testament, he proceeded to reinforce the foundation and rekindle the fire of faith that obviously died out in the hearts of this couple.
At the end of the day Jesus, still a stranger, entered the house of the disciples on invitation to spend the night. Then the guest became the host as Jesus took bread, broke it, blessed it, and gave it to the disciples. Only then did the scales fall from their eyes.
Instantly their broken hearts were mended, hope restored, and confidence instilled that Jesus is messiah after all. He is risen and alive.
Overwhelmed with joy they were able to head back to Jerusalem, the place of danger, to go and tell the good news to the eleven. Celebrating new life in the face of death, rejoicing and singing, prayer and incense, bread and wine in a city where Roman soldiers still walked the streets.
This is in many ways our own story.
Human hope is a fragile thing, and when it withers it is difficult to revive. The more news we hear, the more we feel that our world today is dark, divided and depressing. Blinded by disappointment and despair, we do not recognize Jesus in this world of devastation, division, oppression, immorality, and greed. Facing all kinds of personal struggles, we do not recognize Jesus in our own lives. The longest walk we ever take is away from the grave where our hope and dreams have been buried. To know that it is over, done, finished, the end, and there is nothing we can do about it.
Or maybe not! This is fake news! … It is not the end!
The message of the Emmaus story, the message of Easter, is a message of hope, of restoration, and of victory over death now and hereafter.
Jesus cares for us still today and he enters into our sorrows too. Through his Spirit he strengthens and enables us to overcome anything as he gently reminds us of the promises that when we walk through the valley of death, he is with us (Psalm 23); he will comfort us in all our troubles (2 Cor 1.4); when we cast all our troubles on him, he will give us peace (Phil 4.6-7); he will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13.5); and he came that we may have abundant life (John 10.10).
As often as we share in the eucharist we are reminded that he is the messiah who brings the hope of new life, who liberates his people from suffering and oppression.
In the world we see “destruction and hope, all in one place”: incense and prayers, bread and wine, while the defeated oppressor is still roaming the world in his own despair. If Christ really died, Christ really is alive; and so therefore are we. In this confidence we celebrate the victory of the resurrection.
Invitation to the Lord’s table
It matters that the same one who healed with his touch,
who taught in the temple, who prayed in the Garden
was hung on the cross.
It matters that the same one who was beaten by the guards,
betrayed by his disciples and crucified on the cross
descended into hell.
It matters that the same one who was buried
by our failures and sins and brokenness
is not dead, but lives!
This table matters.
It matters that Jesus is here, waiting for us
just as he was only a little over a week ago
before we failed him, before he saved us.
This table matters.
The invitation is clear:
Jesus died for us. Jesus lives for us.
We are invited to celebrate this holy feast
that reminds us that despite our differences,
despite known and unknown sin, despite unworthiness,
Jesus clears a place for us and says, “Come!”
Wherever you are, wherever you have been,
come and celebrate this feast
which Jesus has prepared for all of us –
uniting us in our salvation through him.
This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow (CH4 415)
I love the Lord, because he heard my voice and earnest plea (CH4 75, Psalm 116.1-7)
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain (CH4 417)
Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest (CH3 572, tune: Song 22) 
Christ has risen while earth slumbers (CH4 430)
Giordano Stabile, “Broken crosses and desecrated churches. What remains of Christians in Iraq”, La Stampa, March 8 2017; original, “Croci sfregiate e chiese profanate. Quel che resta dei cristiani in Iraq”, La Stampa, March 7 2017
Ben Irwin, “For this Christian community near Mosul, Easter was marked by destruction and hope”, April 19, 2017
 Inexplicably, this hymn is omitted from CH4. What were the editors thinking? [Editor]