Imagine that little wayside inn on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Three people finding a table – perhaps in the back corner. The stranger on the road had suddenly become strangely intimate. The sad atmosphere hovering over them as they left Jerusalem turned electrifying as the mysterious traveller opened their minds to see the scriptures in a new light. They sit down, their eyes on this man who then picks up some bread, blesses it, and then breaks it. Their minds flash back to four nights ago when their friend Jesus did the very same thing, taking a Passover meal and changing its meaning forever! In that moment – BAM – they realise that this mysterious traveller is the same man! It’s Jesus! Before they can get any words out, Jesus vanishes! Amazingly, they don’t sit there arguing with each over whether or not this whole episode happened! They don’t dissect it. Their minds opened to the scriptures – stories they had learned by heart as children – now given a new meaning. Their sad little party of two plus one stranger becomes a little community of three. All this leads to the two individuals getting up and running back to Jerusalem. Their entire worldview has been changed. They see everything in a different light because of their encounter with the risen Jesus. The world around them tells them they have no hope, but small glimpse of the one who had defeated death changed everything for them. Their only response can be to get up, and go and tell this great news they want to share!
Everything in a moment changes. Great events can make us see things differently. Only this week, I was looking at old holiday photos when I saw one of the places where April and I stopped. On the wall above a microwave was a magnet strip with two very sharp knives held there. I saw the photo and thought, ‘Wow, that looks dangerous.’ Then I thought, why didn’t I notice that before? Then it hit me. I was a father now and saw anything like that through the eyes of one who is always on the lookout for anything that will hurt my daughter! For those two disciples – whose story after their return to Jerusalem is lost to us – everything changed with the resurrection of Jesus. They began to see God’s choosing and rescuing Israel as a testimony to Jesus’ death and resurrection. God’s plan had been there from the beginning, and Israel’s story prepared the world for God to come and reign as king through Jesus. They understood why Jesus had gathered a group of people to be around him. They weren’t to be a movement to overthrow Rome through military might, but to be witnesses as a community that testified to the death and resurrection, and to continue the work he began in his years of ministry. While John Calvin often gets a bad rap in the Methodist Church, he gave us an analogy that I really like. He said that we can’t see the world rightly with our own eyes, but the resurrection gives us a pair of spectacles that enables us to see the world as God sees it. It’s like one of those paintings that contain a hidden image that to see it you have to tilt your head or squint your eyes. Everyone who can see it begin trying to show those who can’t how they can see it, too. The gospel – the good news that in Jesus is the world’s true king and has defeated sin and death through the death and resurrection – is a message much more important than any image in a painting. Jesus has forever changed how we view the world, and we want to go and tell everyone about it. This is good news that’s going to change people’s lives!
There are two things we can hear from this. The first is that the spectacles Calvin talks about are not ‘rose-coloured glasses’. We are not saying that you put on the glasses and pretend that everything is OK. Paul makes no bones about it in the passage we read. Paul writes, ‘…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…’ Sin abounds everywhere and it has built upon centuries and centuries of people turning against God and his plan so it looks as if the world is headed to hell in a handbasket. We do not deny that war, poverty, disease, oppression, and all other evils are there. What we are saying is that we see even in those things God working to overturn them. This is much deeper than a Pollyanna-ish worldview that tries to find the good in everything. God allows us to see in creation the original God design and shows us God’s plan for creation when Jesus will be revealed to the entire world as the world’s true king. Remember who Paul is writing to – a little community in Rome, the capital of the entire known world. This might be like writing to a church in Washington, DC, today. The emperor’s justice – or righteousness – has been on display – he has given the world the Pax Romana and has declared himself ‘lord’ and ‘saviour’ and ‘son of god’. The emperor’s justice has been achieved through military power, through death, through corruption. Into this world comes Paul’s letter that declares that in Jesus, God has revealed his justice, his righteousness. Not in military might, not in oppression, but in the disgraceful death on a cross. The cross – the stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles – was a shameful, horrendous way to die, but it is the means through which God saved the world. This, Paul cries out, is nothing to be ashamed of.
This leads me to the second thing we need to hear about this gospel. For good news to be truly as good as what Paul says – a stand against the world’s way of doing righteousness, a stand against sin and oppression, then spreading this good news – evangelism – must be more than a call to come on a Sunday morning. Imagine this rewrite of Romans 1:16, ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God to bring people to an hour on a Sunday morning, to have a biscuit and cup of tea afterwards, and to sit on Church Councils and talk about 7-pin locks.’ I think I would have stopped reading. I would hate to hear how it ended. If we reduce our message to figuring out how to get bums on seats and how to get people here on Sunday morning, then we have lost the plot. What Paul is really talking about is salvation for the world – saving people from the tyranny that Caesar provides and giving them the vision for a world that God is already working toward now. This is more than getting people to say a prayer so that one can go to heaven when he or she dies. This is living now the life that God envisions for all when Jesus returns. Our lives as individuals and communities of Christians witness to that day by how we live today. We do this when we call people to live new lives of love for each other. We do this when take a stand against the government and any unjust policies. We do this when we fight against poverty. We do this when we stand beside those abused by other people or by governments. This is even more than giving money in the offering plate. This is actually doing what Jesus did when he formed relationships with people, at big meals with others, and gathered them into a small group.
All this means we need to get rid of our ‘Come and join us’ mentality. We may have been able to do that in the past when the church was still at the centre of the towns and villages, but as we read the stories we have in scripture, we find that asking people to come to us has never been the way God has worked. In fact, we read that even God did not stay where he was. Instead, we read the God who came from heaven, took on flesh, and walked among us. God is the first missionary and he created us to be a missionary community. Early on, Paul left Israel and went around the Mediterranean to spread this good news. None of the first disciples set up a place where people were supposed to come. In Acts we read the story of Paul doing as Jesus did – going to where people needed to know about God. His message was that Caesar was not the lord, saviour, or son of god. Jesus – the Jewish Messiah – is the world’s true lord, saviour, and Son of God. Jesus is a different king, and that is definitely good news! Anyone who listened to his message, Paul set them up in churches. Perhaps the word church has too much baggage. Paul set them up in Jesus-groups. Little communities that would then testify to the hope that God will one day reveal himself as the world’s true lord and all false lords will be taken down. A new world order will one day be in place, and we can start living that way now. Paul was almost like a secret agent, setting up pockets of resistance. Sin and death may reign over the world, but there are Jesus-groups all over the world giving a counter message. Bit-by-bit, Jesus-groups work within the world to witness and to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. We call others to hear this message and then give their lives to the one who gave his life for all of us.
Before I make this sound like everything rests on us, I want to remind you that our role is witness and telling. God does the saving. It’s God’s Spirit that works in us and in the world. When we give our lives to Jesus, we are transformed. We do not work harder to be better people. Right after Paul says we have all sinned, he tells us that we ‘are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…’ God’s loving grace comes into our lives and lifts us up from not only our sins, but from those sins done to us. The reminder that all have sinned is a reminder not only of our guilt, but that we, too, have been hurt and misshaped by sins done against us. God’s grace transforms us and then keeps working through us so that we can be to the world signs of what God will do – what God is doing as we encounter the risen Christ who defeated sin and death and all other false lords who use sin and death as weapons. We are not left to do the work on our own. Remember Acts again: when Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul and anyone else stood up to the rulers or worked among the people, Luke wrote that they were full of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit worked in them to stand up for the power that had transformed their lives and is transforming the world.
Going back to our Emmaus story: the only one who was invited to come anywhere was Jesus. The two travellers didn’t wait for anyone to come to them before they told the story. It was the encounter with the risen Jesus that threw them out of their chairs, out of the inn and back over the road they had just travelled. This is the power of the good news that transforms lives and creation. This is the message God gives us – that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, a whole new world is beginning and he wants everyone to be a part of it. The missionary God is still out in mission, working through his Spirit to transform the world by his grace – and he is inviting us as Jesus-groups to be a part of it by telling the stories of his love, of his world-transforming grace that will one day be revealed to all. And on that day, the world will be made new completely and thoroughly!