The Preacher’s Study
First Thoughts on Next Sunday’s Sermon
3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A
John W.B. Hill
Acts 2: 14a, 36-41;
Psalm 116: 1-3, 10-17 (NRSV: 1-4, 12-19);
1 Peter 1: 17-23;
Luke 24: 13-35
During the Great Three Days the Church throughout the world was busy making disciples, baptizing them into the mystery of Christ dead and risen. We all participated in this mystery, renewing our own baptismal identity, our calling to “remember his death, proclaim his resurrection, and share in his eternal priesthood.” In the first reading (which brings to a climax last Sunday’s first reading) we are reminded of the original purpose of the sacrament of baptism: “Repent, and be baptized . . . so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you . . . and for all . . . whom the Lord our God calls . . . Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Baptism was the way to enter the Reign of God, the realm of mercy and forgiveness, the experience of communion in the Spirit: it meant inheriting the ancient promise, and disentangling from a culture of delusion and violence. “The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow. Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray you, save my life.’” (Psalm 116: 2-3).
It is essential to note the context of this first celebration of Christian Baptism: Simon Peter, speaking on behalf of the company of Jesus’ disciples, is addressing the festival crowd on the Day of Pentecost who are flummoxed by the suddenly spirited behaviour of these disciples. So Peter, emboldened by the Spirit, dares to name the ‘elephant in the room’: just fifty days ago, this people had officially rejected their own long-awaited Messiah! Yet, in a final apocalyptic act of divine judgement and faithful mercy, God raised up the crucified victim, making him both Lord and Messiah, and pouring out his Spirit on all flesh. These are indeed the “last days” that Joel foresaw.
We today must never again make the categorical mistake of holding ‘the Jews’ responsible for the death of Jesus. But, as Gil Baillie has written, “The Cross became the revelation it is largely because it occurred in a Jewish setting . . . It was Jews who rejected and reviled Jesus; it was Jews whose lives were transformed by him; and it was a Jew who was reviled and revered in each case.” And, we might add, it was as the Jewish Messiah that Jesus became the Saviour of the world. Today’s gospel reading (Luke 24: 13-35) makes clear that the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection can only be recognized for what it is in the light of “Moses and all the prophets”. So Peter’s speech positions the story of Jesus in the context of God’s messianic promises to Israel and offers repentance and baptism even to those who rejected him so that they too can know forgiveness and inherit those promises.
However, the context in which we celebrate baptism today is vastly different. We no longer think of ourselves as grafted onto the vine God brought out of Egypt (Psalm 80:8ff; cf. Romans 11: 17ff). We tend to see baptism as a blessing bestowed by a religious institution, and a mark of identity distinguishing us from Hindus, Jews, Muslims, etc.
It should come as no surprise, then, that adults or older children who have been baptized at Easter in a rich and daunting ceremony, enacted with such lavish and powerful symbols, should experience something of an anti-climax by this point in time. So much was promised; so little has changed. They may even recognize themselves in the two disciples wending their way home to Emmaus: people who had spent time listening to the prophet from Nazareth, “mighty in deed and in word before God and all the people”; people who were dumbfounded by his shameful execution; people who had even heard the implausible report about an empty tomb and an angel saying he was alive. But what was it all about? “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
However, their state of disillusionment was not a bad place to be. Although they didn’t know it, the dead and risen Christ was humbly walking beside them, hearing their agonized recollections of all that they had seen. But they had seen it only through the lens of their limited expectations. They could not recognize him because he was so far beyond the scope of their expectations. So that is what he began to address, with infinite patience, “interpreting to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” And their hearts burned within them!
That is the kind of humble encouragement and deeper perspective that we need to provide for the newly baptized. The Sunday liturgy was designed to do this, but we need to open it up for them, aware of their limited expectations, until they begin to long for an ever deeper experience of Christ’s sufferings and an ever clearer vision of his glory (see Philippians 3: 10-11). Then their eyes too will be opened, and he will be made known to them, Sunday by Sunday, in the breaking of the bread. “How shall I repay the Lord for all the good things he has done for me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord; I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” (Psalm 116: 10-12)
If we can learn to preach in this way, new Christians will be able to hear themselves addressed in the words of the second reading (1 Peter 1: 17-23): “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors . . . with the precious blood of Christ . . . revealed at the end of the ages for your sake . . . Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory . . . Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart..."
APLM Council member John Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice.
'The Road to Emmaus,' by Daniel Bonnell.
'On the Road to Emmaus,' by Carole Foret.
'Road to Emmaus,' by John Dunne.