Belief
by Jack Wald | March 31st, 2013

Luke 23:39-47, 24:13-36

In the Lord of the Rings, which perhaps you have seen as a movie and/or read as a book, there is a character named Strider. He is a bit mysterious, as are many of the friends of Gandalf the wizard. He comes alongside the hobbits and the band of men, dwarves and elves who join together to destroy the ring of power. At the end of the trilogy, Strider is revealed to be the heir of Isildur and the three part book and movie end with his coronation as king, a wonderful climatic scene.

Throughout the books and movies, whenever he rides, he sits astride a great horse, either Hasufel sent to him by the elves, or his own horse, Roheryn. The movie conflates these two horses into one, Brego, but his horses are always magnificent creatures befitting a great king.

I grew up with horses. When I was eight years old my grandmother bought me a pony. Later my parents bought a horse and sitting on my pony and later on our horse made me feel powerful. Many times I rode bareback, without a saddle, and with my legs wrapped around the side of the horse I felt that I was part of the horse and we would race across the fields feeling the wind against my face.

From my Western eyes, one of the silliest things to see is a full-grown man sitting sideways on a small donkey, being carried down the street. A donkey is great for pulling a cart and carrying things, but it is not the most dignified mount for a man.

I understand that I am viewing all this as a foreigner to Palestinian culture but even within that culture a donkey is not an esteemed animal. Here in Morocco, which has a culture very similar to Palestinian culture, a donkey is the symbol for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The donkey is a disrespected and abused animal. One year I wanted to have someone ride a donkey into the church for a Palm Sunday service and was talked out of the idea because Muslims would consider it such a sacrilege to have a donkey enter a holy building.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last week of his earthly life, he rode a donkey. It would have been far more dignified for him to ride a horse. Sitting on a regal steed, surrounded by adoring crowds, that would have spoken of a man of worth and power, a king.

But Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and that was the high point of his week. It was all downhill from there. He went into a rage at the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneylenders. Everywhere he went there was confrontation and then after his last meal with his disciples, he was arrested, beaten, tortured, crucified, and buried.

Then came the triumph we celebrate today. Jesus broke the power of death and rose to new life. He rose from the dead as the risen, eternal, King of kings and Lord of lords.

And how did the King of kings and Lord of lords move about now? Yes he seemed to be able to transport himself from place to place, but when he appeared to two very discouraged disciples walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus, he came along, walking on the road.

He did not appear in a blaze of glory; he came up behind them, walking. This is the Jesus whose resurrection we celebrate especially today, a Jesus who rode a donkey, a Jesus who walked along a dusty road, a Jesus whose greatness comes from who he is, not the external trappings.

When you have a ten year reunion for your school someone who has been very successful will show up in their new BMW sports car wearing an expensive suit and watch. The success of this person is revealed in what he or she wears and who comes with them.

After Jesus rose from the dead he was mistaken for a gardener by Mary. He was just another traveler to the two disciples walking toward Emmaus. Jesus knew who he was, who he eternally is. Jesus did not need to show external marks of greatness but was able to come in humility to those he loved.

Over the period of Lent we have looked at some of the various responses people had to Jesus. Some were delighted, others amazed. Some could not contain themselves and had to share their experience with Jesus. Some were fearful, others gave praise. This morning we will look at some people whose response to Jesus was belief.

On Easter morning, the day of resurrection, two of the disciples of Jesus, Cleopas and one other, were walking out of Jerusalem. They had heard the reports that Jesus’s body was not in the tomb and that angels had said he had risen from the dead. They knew that the disciples had gone to the tomb and seen for themselves that the tomb was empty, but they had not seen Jesus.

So with all this news, why were they walking away from Jerusalem? Why not stay where the news was happening and see what unfolded? When there is big news, it is difficult to drag me away from the television and live reports. Why did they walk away from the news? Maybe they had pressing business. Maybe they came to Jerusalem for the Passover feast but now had to go back home to their responsibilities. For whatever reason, they were walking away from Jerusalem, three days after Jesus had been crucified and the day they had heard these early morning reports.

As they walked, Jesus came up to them and joined them. As with Mary in the garden, he was not recognized. They talked. They shared with him the reports of what had happened, surprised he did not know about it. And then Jesus began his first class: Post-resurrection 101 (Luke 24:25–27)
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ 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.

As they came to the village where Cleopas and his companion were headed, they urged Jesus to stay with them and share a meal. (Luke 24:30–31)
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.

Whatever important responsibilities were taking them away from Jerusalem that morning were forgotten. They turned around and raced back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what they had experienced. (Luke 24:33–35)
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.

When they returned and while they were giving their report, Jesus appeared to them: Luke 24:36–49
36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

This is a post-resurrection story of belief. Let me go back in time to an earlier expression of belief that took place on the day we celebrate as Good Friday.

Luke 23:32–43
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

We talk about the pain and agony suffered by Jesus as he was beaten and then crucified, but the criminals on either side of him suffered the same physical agony. They were beaten and most likely flogged, just like Jesus. They had nails driven through their wrists and ankles. They suffered the humiliation of hanging naked in front of all who passed by. They suffered the excruciating pain of crucifixion.

It is not apparent that either of them had seen Jesus before. Perhaps they had heard about him but now they met him and had a close-up view of who he was. It was not the most shining moment in the life of Jesus. He was not delivering teaching with authority. He was not casting out demons. He was not performing great miracles. He was not walking on water or quieting a storm. He was hanging naked, suffering great pain, physical and spiritual.

Some people around the cross mocked him and one of the criminal joined in the mockery.
“Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
This was a tough man, spitting in the face of death. He had not feared in life and he was not fearing in death.

But the second criminal looked at Jesus as he suffered and saw something remarkable. What did he see?

He heard Jesus say to those who mocked him: (Luke 23:34)
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
He watched Jesus as he suffered. He saw how Jesus handled his pain. He saw how Jesus continued to care about those who were watching him even while all his strength was required to deal with the pain he was experiencing.

He saw who Jesus was and repented. He rebuked the criminal who was mocking Jesus:
“Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This is a second story of belief.

We have friends and family who are not followers of Jesus and we want them to respond to the love of God. We marvel at how Jesus was able to share who he was. What can we learn from him from these two storiews so others can learn about Jesus through us?

First, Jesus comes to us. Jesus rose from the dead and immediately began making appearances to those he loved. Jesus did not rise from the dead and sit under a tree, waiting for people to come to him. He did not sit at a café hoping someone would sit down next to him. Jesus went out to meet with those who were grieving his death and needed to understand who he was and what had happened. Jesus appeared to Mary in the garden. Jesus walked with Cleopas and the other disciple. Jesus appeared to Peter and the other disciples in the room where they were hiding. Jesus appeared to the larger group of his disciples. Jesus appeared to his half-brother James and maybe others.

Throughout history Jesus has continue to come. In each generation Jesus is at work encouraging people who are lost to reach out to him. He is constantly at work to rescue the lost. Many people in this part of the world report having dreams of Jesus who is present with them, encouraging them to come to him. Jesus never stops coming to us.

Likewise, we need to make the effort to reach out to others. We need to engage with people. It is not for us to sit back and watch the world go by. We need to enter into the lives of those around us and share the treasure we have received.

Second, as we reach out, we need to meet with people where they are. Notice that when Jesus came up to Cleopas and his friend, he did not impose himself or his message. Jesus did not come along with a plan of salvation he could share. He asked them,  “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” He entered into their conversation, starting where they were, starting with what they were concerned about, and then began to share his insights.

When we meet with people we need to listen and enter into their lives, their conversation. When the conversation offers the opportunity, we can share our perspective, but if our message is imposed, it will come across as programmed and unappealing. We need to enter into relationships and then allow who we are and what we believe to arise naturally in those relationships.

Third, Jesus is made known in our fellowship. Cleopas and his friend heard Jesus explain the scriptures that made sense out of the early morning reports they had heard. But it was not until they sat down to a meal and Jesus gave thanks and broke the bread that they recognized him.

This was not a communion meal. This was not the first Lord’s Supper of the church. There was no wine. This was a simple meal and it was in this meal that their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus.

Sitting down and sharing a meal together is a spiritual act. Think about meals in the Bible. When Abraham received his visitors from heaven, they shared a meal together. When God told Israel to remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, he told them to remember this at a meal, the Seder, which some of us celebrated last Thursday night. When God gave instructions to Israel about their tithe, part of the tithe was to be used each year to come to Jerusalem and celebrate with food and drink at the three annual festivals. Meals together were a central part of their worship.

It may not be surprising, given that Jesus lived in a culture that valued hospitality, but there are ten meals Jesus shared with others recorded in the gospels. Jesus took the Passover Seder and used it to institute the sacrament of communion which is an anticipation of the wedding feast we will share together in heaven. And when Jesus resurrected, he ate in their presence to prove he was not a ghost. In John’s gospel it is recorded that he cooked breakfast for them.

It is not simply the food that is important. Going to McDonalds and taking out a sandwich and eating as you drive in the car is not particularly spiritual, nor safe. A family going into the kitchen and grabbing something to eat and then each person going back to their computer or TV to eat is not particularly spiritual.  And if the family or friends are sitting around the table, each one talking into their phone or listening to their own music, that is not particularly helpful or spiritual.

It is the community aspect of a meal that is important and it begins with the preparation of the meal. If you can, pick your vegetables from the garden. If you cannot do that, then buy the vegetables from the market. Resist buying food already prepared. Part of the spirituality of the meal is the community that is formed as you work together in the kitchen peeling the vegetables and preparing the meal. Then the whole community gathers and the food is brought out to the table and everyone sits down and shares together. Conversations flow, sometimes everyone listens to one person, other times there are three or four or more conversations going on at the same time. There is news and thoughts and laughter being shared.

This kind of meal brings us together and in this kind of meal there is a spiritual presence we are able to share. A hundred of us experienced this the other night at our Passover Seder. There was a wonderful spirit as we shared our food with each other, chatted with old friends and made new friends.

I think this is why it is important to say grace before we eat. We remember, with gratitude, that all we have, all we share, comes from God and we give him thanks. This places us with God at the table as we share together. Jesus makes himself known to us when we share together around the table. Jesus saves us and brings us into a community. When we open ourselves to that community around the table at a meal, we are blessed and Jesus is made known.

Fourth, Jesus is made known in scripture. Jesus explained what the scriptures had to say about the resurrection of the Messiah and after Cleopas and his friend recognized who it was that had been talking and eating with them, they said to each other,
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

When Jesus appeared to the disciples as Cleopas and his friend were giving their report, Luke writes: ( Luke 24:44–45)
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

The Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, bear witness to Jesus and as we read this precious gift to the church, Jesus is made known.

But notice that while the scriptures proclaim the truth of Jesus, the message is not apparent to everyone. Jesus opened the minds of his disciples so they could understand the scriptures.  Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:14
The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

We need to share the scriptures with others but pray that the Holy Spirit will open their minds and help them see the truth contained in them.

Fifth, our best witness for Jesus is when we die well.

As I said, Jesus was not at his best when he was hanging on the cross. He was in great pain. His body was demanding to be the center of his focus. In addition Jesus was suffering the spiritual pain of being separated from God. For the first time in his eternal existence he was cut off from fellowship with God. But in all his pain and agony, Jesus was made known to the thief on the cross and to the Roman centurion who was in charge of this execution. As they watched Jesus suffer, as the thief suffered alongside of Jesus, it became clear that Jesus was no ordinary mortal.
47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”

When is it we shine most brightly for Jesus? Our best witness for Jesus does not come when we proclaim how well we live. When someone stands up to testify, “I gave my life to Jesus and then got a raise,” Jesus is not glorified. Testimonies that share how Jesus brought prosperity and health bring glory to the world and increase our attachment to the world.

I have a friend who is battling a cancerous brain tumor and his witness for Jesus has never been more powerful. He holds on to Jesus with hope, enjoying the life he is given. He delights in the love and affection of his community of family and friends. He holds on to Jesus confident of being victorious over death and disease. In his weakness Jesus is shining.

Our best witness for Jesus comes when we die to ourselves, when we forgive someone who has offended, hurt or betrayed us. Our best witness for Jesus comes when we chose to hold on to hope when circumstances are working against us.  Our best witness for Jesus comes when we hold on to Jesus through discouragement, grief and pain. Jesus is not seen best in our success. Jesus is best seen in our weakness, in our suffering.

This was my experience when I was in business. The employees knew I had been a pastor and some of them watched me very closely to see how I lived. Anyone can be a follower of Jesus when money is pouring in and all is going well. But when there is a financial crisis or a personnel crisis, that is when it becomes most clear that we are followers of Jesus. I have seen this in organizations here in Morocco. I have seen this over and over again. When we are suffering, going through great difficulties and we hang on to Jesus, refusing to let go, that is when Jesus shines brightly in our lives. We may think we are stumbling, awash in our imperfection. We may think we are showing our warts to the world, but the way we work through the difficult times reveals Jesus in us.

Jesus comes to us and enters into our lives. He uses the events and circumstances of our lives to speak to us. He encourages us to join in community so he can be seen in our fellowship. He speaks to us through his living word. He speaks powerfully when we are weak. And he wants us to have the privilege of working with him. He wants us to take the glorious truth that he loves us and died for us and share it with all those he wants to rescue.

Jesus is at work this Easter morning as he is in every day of the year. He is constantly coming to us, offering us his hand that will pull us into eternal life. Are you reaching out to him? Will you accept his proposal?

Let me share with you this creative presentation of the offer Jesus is making to us. Falling Plates