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  • Writer's pictureBishop Peter F. Hansen

Didn't Our Hearts Burn?

St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church

Bishop Peter F. Hansen

Sermon for Easter Day, April 21, 2019

“And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?”

TWO FIGURES are running as the sun sinks below the Mediterranean at their backs, still lighting the road before them and turning the holy city to gold. They have run all the way. Their intention to stay in the tiny village of Emmaus tonight suddenly changed at the dinner table. Something about their extraordinary guest made them turn around and cover the seven miles on foot, again, this night, and uphill. The Apostles were going to have to hear this.

One is a woman, cloaked and veiled as Israeli women are when upon the road. The other, her husband Alpheus, also known as Cleopas, holds her hand as they speed their way back to join their friends. What they’ve seen of this stranger, and the words He’s spoken this afternoon, spur them on, though they’re exhausted from the journey and the events of the weekend.

“All He told us,” pants Cleopas to his wife, Mary, “it fits. It’s clear to me. I never heard anyone tell it like that before, no rabbi ever opened the way of God by all the scrolls and sacred words of the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, the Psalms. How could we have missed it?”

Mary replies, “Didn’t your heart burn inside you, as did mine, every time He took those familiar passages and made it so clear that this was written about Messiah? That He had to come and fulfill those very words, and that this was all done for us, for us, Cleopas! And we were witnesses. I was right there! There at the cross, as He sighed His last breath. There when Joseph and Nicodemus, John and the African man carried His lifeless form to the rock chamber and laid Him to rest in death. I was there this morning early with the Magdalene and Joanna, thinking we might find someone to roll back the stone door and let us properly tend to His body with herbs and dressings. I saw the stone already rolled away and angels standing at our side, looking like men, but were they men? Not at all. They were glowing from inside! We fell to earth before them, but they told us to rise. “Why are you looking for the Living One here, among the dead?” they asked. “He is not here. He has risen! Do you remember He told you, in Galilee, that the Son of Man must fall into the hands of sinful men, that he would be crucified, and on the third day He would rise again? Do you remember? He told you of this day.” And we did remember, though we were so shocked it would not register. So, we rushed back to tell the twelve… no, the eleven… eleven now. They thought we were speaking nonsense, but Peter and John found out we were right. They saw what I saw: a tomb and no one there, the grave clothes lying, folded and a head wrapping set to one side.”

“I must admit it,” said her husband as they continued to rush toward Jerusalem and the evenings colors began to turn the orange to coral, then to purple, “I did not believe your story either. I feel ashamed to admit it. I’ve been a coward while you were brave. You stood by Him at the cross. You went to the tomb. I was so afraid, I couldn’t move. I just stayed with Peter and the others in hiding. But now I know the truth, and it must be spoken.”

“The truth,” she answered. “And who will believe us?”

“The truth,” he echoed. “Yes, He told us truth today. Can you remember it all? For more than two hours we were taught scriptures at the side of God’s own Son, and we didn’t even know who was teaching us! How could we not know Him?”

“I think He held our minds from knowing, in order that He might weigh our belief and challenge us to accept the truth on its own merit. Do you remember how He kept his hood over His eyes, and He changed His voice a little, so it wouldn’t be familiar to us, who knew Him so well? I don’t know how He managed to keep us from knowing Him, but my heart burned with every truth revealed to us. We were just walking along, talking like a hive of bees, and we thought we were alone…”

“Where are you traveling?” said the stranger.

“Emmaus,” said the man Cleopas, startled to find another walking alongside him and his wife. He was suddenly protective of her, fearing this to be a highwayman.

“May I walk with you? I’m going by there myself. And what is it you are so furiously discussing? What has made you so upset?”

Cleopas answered, setting his wife on the other side from the hooded stranger, “Are you new to Jerusalem? Haven’t you heard what’s happened there?”

The stranger only said, “What things?”

“Jesus of Nazareth!” Cleopas almost shouted in his frustration. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed. God was in Him and He did great miracles among us. The chief priests and Sanhedrin arrested Him, condemned Him, and turned Him over to be crucified by the Romans! We were so confident that He might save Israel, but He died.”

The stranger stayed quiet. Cleopas continued, “And now, today is the third day since then and some of our women…” Cleopas glanced over at his wife, but didn’t point her out, still protecting her from any attack against her story, “these women returned from His tomb early this morning and amazed us with their report that they couldn’t find His body, but saw two angels instead who told them He lives!”

The man received his account in silence, their footfalls the only sound along the road down to Emmaus. Finally He spoke, but gently: “You’ve been foolish, don’t you know, and so slow in your hearts to believe all that the prophets before you have written in the Law. Should Messiah never suffer these things, after it has been clearly written that He would? Must He not, by this very path He’s walked, enter into His glory?”

Cleopas looked over at this strange figure, wondering how He might know the meaning of all that troubled his heart today. “Well, do you know the mystery, sir? We have some distance to walk yet and you appear to understand things that are still pretty dark to us.”

The stranger cleared His throat and, starting with the earliest writings of Moses, showed what each verse meant.

“God said to Satan, ‘I will make the woman your worst enemy, her seed will surely crush your head, though you will injure His foot.’ The woman’s seed is Messiah. The woman, I think you know.” Here the stranger stopped speaking as Cleopas and Mary thought of Mary of Nazareth, her sister, and the virgin mother of the Lord. Could He mean…?

Following their unspoken thoughts, He continued, “Yes, it was at Bethlehem. She went there with Joseph and there the child was born. It was written by the Prophet Micah, that out of that city would come the ruler of Israel who is heralded from everlasting. She was indeed a virgin, and Isaiah foretold that too. ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and call Him God with us.’ He is God with us, is He not?”

The two were silent, as the stranger spoke to their very thoughts before they expressed them.

“Abraham was promised the same seed when he obeyed God and was willing to sacrifice his own son, his son of promise, on this mountain we’re coming away from. God’s covenant with Abraham’s seed was to bless every family of all time and of all lands everywhere. Later, God used Balaam to tell of a star over Jacob’s people that would mark the birth of God’s ruler. You know the account she’s given, that of the magi summoned by the new star they saw?” Again, He challenged them to speak, and once more they walked in silent amazement.

“She is descended from King David, and her husband was of David’s line in his throne. The prophecy to David of a line that would last forever—that was never before possible, not until her line was met with his, and the birth was not mingled with his blood, only his title. It is fulfilled. Her son is the king of Israel. Do you see that now?”

Their eyes were wide open. How could they have missed that?

“Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, and upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order and establish it with justice forever,” continued the man. “He is the stone that falls on the feet of the image of empires dreamed by Nebuchadnezzar, a stone explained by Daniel that crushed it to dust and then rose up a mountain, filling the earth. He fled with His family to Egypt, so Hosea saw it correctly, ‘I loved him and called my son out of Egypt. The baby boys…’” and here the stranger showed the deepest emotion they had heard in His voice as yet, “those babies were remembered centuries before by Jeremiah, ‘Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted, for they were dead.’ Rachel is buried at Bethlehem, you know. And you know that Herod killed them, looking for … the new born king.”

Astonishment filled them. Their lives for years, the strange happenings in the family, rumors and suspicions, tales wound around the Nazarene family that suddenly became clear.

“John was the messenger Isaiah said would prepare His way. John was Elijah to Him, as foretold by Malachi. Messiah became Israel’s one true prophet when John was arrest and beheading, as Moses told Israel’s children, ‘God will raise up to you a Prophet like I am.’ A lawgiver. A bringer of a new covenant. He was also a priest, as was Melchizedek, not in the line of Levi, but consecrated by God Himself: ‘a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’

“You’re troubled by what He has suffered. Understand: this all had to come to pass. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a warhorse, as wrote the prophet Zechariah. That marked him as the true king. It also marked Him for assassination. Didn’t Isaiah also say, ‘He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not’? Shall I go on? Do you know these scriptures? They must of course all be fulfilled.

“He was falsely accused. He was silent in the face of His accusers. They spit on Him and pulled His beard, and hated Him without a cause. He was set between two criminals. He was given vinegar to drink. As King David wrote, ‘they pierced my hands and my feet,’ and ‘they gambled for my clothes.’ They also did not break His bones, as it is written. And even God forsook Him. And He prayed for those who were killing Him. It’s all there in the writings. ‘and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn … one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.’ My friends, it’s not over. The day comes when many, sadly not all of our people, shall mourn and decry their part in killing their Messiah. But it was destined from before the earth ever was made.”

Cleopas and Mary walked in stunned silence still. How could this all be true? And yet, it was true. The scriptures had come alive and the words of ancient prophets, always dark to their minds, were suddenly being fulfilled before their minds’ eyes, right in the midst of their family, in this forgotten country in the farthest reaches of a foreign power.

“He must be buried in a rich man’s tomb,” the man continued, citing Isaiah again. “And there you thought the story would end. But it goes on. David wrote, ‘Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption… God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave.’ So long ago, even Job saw it: ‘I know that my Redeemer lives and will stand on the earth. Even after my body is dead and my skin decayed away, I will also stand and with my own eyes shall see Him: I, and not another but me.’”

“But why?” cried Mary, speaking to the stranger for the first time. “What was it all for?”

He smiled at her. “Isaiah knew that. Remember? He was pierced through for our sins. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment to correct us fell on Him, and by the stripes of His scourging...” and here the stranger breathed a moment, pained by what He was saying, “by His stripes are we healed … for the transgressions of my people was He cut off from the living.’ He was the lamb of God. He had to be sacrificed, for there was none other who could die and, while remaining holy, be made sin for all mankind. ‘It pleased God to put Him to grief,’ a guilt offering but one who had no guilt. ‘My servant will justify many and bear their iniquities.’ Do you see? You ask Why. The answer is, God loves you. He bore the sin of many as the intercession for sinners. It had to be, or all mankind would remain forever lost.”

“I never imagined…” said Cleopas. “And yet, it was always there. He told us, what is it Mary, three times? He said He must go to Jerusalem and would there be killed. But on the third day… This is that day! He said it, and He is alive! I know it! But where is He? I have to find Him! Oh, thank you, sir, for showing us these things! How could we not have known?”

Now they approach the village of Emmaus. “Here is our lodging sir.”

“Then I will bid you a good night,” says the stranger.

“No!” cries Mary. “You must come in with us and break bread. You have shared with us a great treasure. Let us return the favor and, at the very least, give you a meal. And perhaps a place to rest tonight. You are a wonderful teacher, sir,” she says, now becoming more modest in her manner.

“I will join you for bread, that much I can, and will, receive with thanks for your company on the road.”

So they pass into the roadhouse and, after ordering a table and some food, they all sit down. Still they have trouble seeing His face clearly in the shadowy room. They do, however, see that He is smiling. Bread is set before them, and they ask their new friend to bless it for the meal.

Baruch atah Adonai Elohaynu melekh ha-olam,” he says. As He does so His face rises and the hood falls back from His head. And His face is the face of Jesus, their Master, their teacher on the road and the very One He has been telling them of. He holds the bread aloft, as they gape at Him, finally with full recognition. And as He breaks the bread, and as He gives them each a half of the loaf, like a vision that breaks, His physical form dissolves and they are alone. Mary and Cleopas stare at the empty place at their table, then at each other. And they cry. Tears, whatever they mean – joy, amazement, hope, sorrow, fear – tears streak down their faces and their breathing heaves and their hearts beat wildly. What have they just seen? What have they heard?

“I think we need to return,” says Cleopas. “To the brethren, in Jerusalem. We have seen Him. He is alive! And what He told us—they need to hear. Do you have the strength, my wife? Can you make that journey with me?”

“I will try. I must!” says Mary. And so they rise and pay the innkeeper, taking the blessed bread with them to eat along the way. And as they run, and walk, and run again, Mary keeps saying, “My heart burned inside me, every word He spoke, how He opened my understanding of the scriptures, how He fulfilled it all. Didn’t yours?”

As they arrive at the upper room, the door opens slowly at their insistent knocking. Everyone is frightened by the news and the sightings of Messiah, but as yet He has not appeared to them all. The couple quickly recounts their breathless story. Some say, “Yes, the Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon Peter.” Cleopas finishes telling a summary of what was done to them, and finally, with tears still running down his face, says, “Yes, and when He was seated with us there, after all those hours in our ignorance, we knew Him, for who He is, we knew Him in the breaking of the bread.”

The Lord is risen! Christ is risen!


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