The scripture readings today and in these several weeks after Easter focus on the formation of the early Christian Church out of the fairly large group of Jesus’ disciples who had been devastated by his crucifixion and then galvanized to new life as a community by experiences of his resurrection. The reading from Acts is about Peter’s sermon at the first Pentecost; we will get to the official celebration of Pentecost in a few weeks. The sermon was addressed to Jews and it argued that Jesus fulfilled prophecies regarding the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible; our text says that the sermon was extremely successful, calling forth many people to be baptized as Christians. The reading from 1 Peter, a letter ascribed to Peter but probably written about thirty years after his death by someone in Rome to rural Christian congregations in what is now Turkey, aims to define Christian obedience within an alien pagan culture.
From Peter’s sermon, probably delivered in the mid-30s of the first century, to the Letter of First Peter, probably written in the mid-90s, a vast change had taken place. The community of Jesus’ original followers and friends was most likely all Jewish. That community worshipped in the Temple with other Jewish groups, and was only one of several groups who claimed to be the continuation of the true Israel in distinction from corrupt forms of Jewish practice. Peter’s audience for his sermon included both Jesus’ followers and a large crowd of Jews who had come from all over the Empire to celebrate the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which commemorated the giving of the Law, the Torah. Judaism at that time was highly diverse, with not only different parties such as the Sadducees and Pharisees but also Jews from many parts of the world who spoke different languages. We know that among Jesus’ followers who formed the Jerusalem Christian church in its earliest years were Jews who spoke Aramaic and those who spoke Greek, the common language of the Empire. Philip and Andrew bore Greek names. The first deacons were appointed, including Stephen, whose name in Greek means “crown,” to settle disputes between Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking widows about who was getting the most benefits from the community purse.
Despite the diversity of language groups within the early Jewish Christian community, or perhaps because of that diversity, the chief theological problem was to define Christianity in relation to the rest of Judaism. The big controversy was whether Gentile converts to Christianity had to become Jews as well, which for the men meant being circumcised and for the women meant cooking kosher. Paul had converted many Gentiles to Christianity and argued that they did not have to become Jews, that Christianity was its own Way, even though for him it was the continuation of the true Israel. Peter slowly came around to Paul’s view, and both of them were opposed by James, Jesus’ brother, who had become head of the Jerusalem Church, outranking both Peter and Paul. You can imagine the church politics involved in that development! Peter sometimes wavered under James’ pressure.
The importance of the Gentiles in the early Church, and their non-Palestinian context, cannot be underestimated. The earliest writing we have in the New Testament is Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, probably written in the early 50s, less than twenty years after Peter’s Pentecost sermon. That letter is addressed to a congregation of Gentile Christians. All the texts of the New Testament were written in Greek, and the version of the Hebrew Scriptures they used was the Septuagint, a Greek translation.
In the 60s the situation of Jews in the Roman Empire changed radically. In Rome there was a persecution of Jewish groups, including the Christians whom the Romans viewed as Jews. Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome around the year 64. In Palestine the Jews rebelled against the Romans, just as the High Priests in Jesus’ time had feared. The Roman army swept them away with brutal destruction. You’ve heard of the heroic last stand of the Jewish rebels on the mountain fortress of Masada where the remaining defenders took their own lives rather than surrender. The Temple itself was destroyed in the year 70, two years before Masada.
With the destruction of the Temple, the entire priestly apparatus for the practice of the Judaism Jesus and his friends knew, was eliminated. The Sadducees, the priestly party, were gone, and the Pharisees who had adapted to synagogue worship in the Jewish Diaspora across the Empire became the leading movement toward what we now know as Judaism. James, the head of the Jerusalem Church was martyred about the time of Paul and Peter and most of the Christians fled Jerusalem, many to Antioch and beyond. Whereas all the letters of Paul were written while Judaism was oriented to Temple worship in Jerusalem, the Gospels and all the other New Testament material was written after everyone knew that kind of Judaism was gone. The problem for Christianity after the destruction of the Temple was how to live as a Holy People in the midst of a pagan environment, of the sort the Letter of 1 Peter addresses.
We live in a New Rome rather like the Old Rome, do we not? Although very much has happened since the end of the first century, and the character of the pagan environment has changed enormously, our own situation remains that of how to live as a Holy People in the midst of the hostile environment of new secular imperial economic paganism.
I have gone on so long about the first century of Christian growth because of our gospel text: the story of Jesus appearing to disciples on the road to Emmaus. The man who walked and talked with them did not look like the Jesus they had known so well, and they connected him with Jesus only at the end of the long day when he broke bread. How could they not have recognized his gait, or his speech patterns? Even the topic of their conversation, how Jesus fulfilled the prophesy beginning with Moses, was not what Jesus usually had talked about; rather, it was more typical of Peter, as in his Pentecost sermon, or of Stephen’s sermon also reported in Acts.
This road to Emmaus incident, this delayed but sudden recognition of a stranger to be Jesus, is a striking disconnect with the rest of the gospel stories about Jesus both before and after Holy Week. These two disciples were not the heroes of the earlier, or even later, stories; only Cleopas was named, and he was never mentioned again. Cleopas and his friend dashed back to the eleven Apostles in Jerusalem to tell them about meeting Jesus, when suddenly Jesus appeared in the Jerusalem room, as the continuation of our text this morning says. Then Jesus explained to the other disciples what he had already told the two on the road to Emmaus, as if the two were not there. The talk along the road and the revealing of Jesus in the breaking of bread could have happened anywhere and it made no difference to the rest of the story of the early Church.
It could just as well be set in our time, could it not, with us earnest but historically insignificant Gentile disciples walking down the road in confusion? Someone happens along whom we do not know, and yet after some instruction we recognize Jesus. And because of this, our lives are brought into the resurrection circle.
Like Cleopas and his friend, we live in a time and place where the guardians of religion and government have formed a strange and deadly alliance. Like Caiphas and Pilate conniving to keep the peace even at the price of sacrificing justice, we are told that homeland security requires aggressive attacks on countries that did not attack us, that it requires demonizing the soldiers we attacked and keeping them in prisons without due process, that it requires a drastic exploitation of our environment to make us even more independent of our neighbors than we are, and that it requires a curtailment of liberties at home that were designed in the first place to prevent government and religion from doing evil in our name without our consent. Because the religious forces backing these actions are our religion, and the government our own democratically elected leadership, we are confused in our walk.
In our situation freedom has come to mean the right to consume, economic caring has come to mean enriching the economy for the short-term benefit of the rich, and spiritual discipline has come to mean feeling good about what God has done for us lately. Our culture teaches consumerism whether we believe in it or not. Our tax system is built for increasing the distance between the rich and poor. Our spiritual culture plays to feel-good narcissism on the one hand and irrational fears of threatening neighbors on the other. These are spiritual conditions, not just government policies. No wonder we are confused! The Jesus we thought we knew, who preached peace, justice, mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, releasing the jailed, enlightening the blind, and who demanded the most astonishing spiritual discipline ever known, has disappeared from public life, entombed in a false gospel. No wonder we are confused!
Yet we have memories of the resurrection. We know that its impact grew from the transforming of Jesus’ personal friends to the building of communities of love and discipline all over the world. Our confusion is not as deep as that of Cleopas and his friend, because we are resurrection people. Let us therefore be on the look-out for the resurrected Christ as we walk to Emmaus, or Kenmore Square. Christ will not come to us looking like a Jesus we once knew. Nor will Christ speak or gesture in familiar ways. But someone will come into our lives who can remind us of the message from the Bible about what the Prince of Peace stands for. Someone will recall for us the dignity and goodness of God’s creation, and turn us from the disastrous path that is destroying our seas and cities, our forests and fields, for the sake of greed and development. Someone will force us to face the fact that as we treat the poor, the sick, the defenseless, the imprisoned, so we treat the Christ who is all of them. This Christ for us, this person we meet suddenly on the road and recognize in the breaking of bread, might be a different person each week. Surely it will be, for so many such resurrection appearances happen all around us, and we do know how to recognize them.
My friends, the point is deeper, because we ourselves are commissioned to be for the people what Jesus was to his disciples. I’m sorry to tell you that this means we need to be the resurrected Christ for one another and for the rest of the world. You might not think you are up to it. But you are. We know the Bible. We know its prophetic critique of societies such as our own. We know how to recognize the demands of spiritual discipline. We know how to tell the difference between loving enemies and demonizing them as “insurgents” against our will. We know how human economic expectations need to be scaled back to what God’s creation can support with equal opportunity for all people and without the disasters of global warming. We know how the ignorant and unskilled need education. We know how the poor need help. We know how the sick need healing, how the oppressed need justice, how the grieving need comfort. We know how the spiritual life needs exercise, with daily prayer, meditation, study, and the companionship of kindred, seeking souls. We know the joy of a life that puts down death, that knows dignity in humility, that sings God’s song in the arts, that finds God’s mind in science, that touches God’s power in the heaving of oceans, that trembles before God’s beauty in sunsets, that feels God’s depths in the starry night sky, and that embraces the light of God’s dawn like a bridegroom emerging from his pavilion. Being people of the resurrection, graced with this knowledge, it is our calling to talk to people on the road and surprise them with the living Christ.