They ran the six miles back. Ran. Back to the dark place.
They ran past the hill outside the walls, where only two days before it had all ended. They ran past the Temple, standing inert, its interior dark in the moonlight. They ran down narrow, winding streets, past groups of soldiers, laughing in the night. Ahead, they could see a flickering lamp in the open window.
They ran up the stairs, stumbling over each other to reach the top first. They beat on the door. The hushed whispers inside stopped suddenly. They hit the door again, with both fists. “Open up!”
From inside, someone said, “Open it quickly, before someone hears them.” The bolt drew back, and the heavy wooden door swung inward. “Cleopas! Are you crazy? Get in here, man, and be quiet. The police are everywhere. After what happened on Friday, we’ve got to be quiet.” They fastened the bolt tightly.
Cleopas bent over, his chest heaving, trying to catch his breath. His companion leaned against the wall. “We saw him,” said Cleopas finally. “We saw him.” And the story tumbled out, between deep gasps, of the stranger they met on Emmaus road. “He talked to us. He told us the whole thing. About how Moses and the prophets foretold it all. All the time, we just kept thinking, ‘there’s something about him,’ but we just couldn’t figure it out.”
“Wait a minute,” said Peter. He was thinking about Magdalene’s strange story of the gardener, the men dressed in white and the tomb with the cloths neatly rolled up in a corner. He put his hands on Cleopas’ shoulders and shook him. “Who? Who did you see?”
Cleopas looked him in the eye. Peter, for whom the cock crowed. Peter, who promised all of them that, no matter what, he would stay to the end. Peter dropped his hands. Cleopas stood up, and looked at all of them. “Jesus. We saw Jesus. And, we sat down to eat with him, and he broke the loaf in two, just like he always used to do, and when he gave it to us, he just vanished.”
They all started talking at once. “He is alive.” “That’s impossible.” “First the women, now this?”
The room seemed to tilt just then, the sweetness of roses filling their nostrils. They turned towards the window. And there he was, grinning like he always did.
“Shalom, my friends. The peace of the Lord be with you.” They just stared, then moved as one, back towards the wall. A ghost. His smile never wavered. “What are you afraid of? Is it so hard to believe that what I told you would happen happened?”
He walked over to Peter, and touched him softly on the cheek. The rough scab in the middle of his palm scraped against Peter’s skin. “Go ahead, touch me. I’m not a ghost. It’s me.”
He turned towards the others, “Go ahead, touch me.” He held up his palms towards them, “See, it’s for real.” And he pulled pack his robe, and there, on his side, was the still raw hole where a Roman spear had plunged.
Still, no one moved, but him. He hovered over the table, looking at the remnants of their supper. Half empty goblets, scraps of pita, little bowls with the remnants of hummus, olives and cheese. “Man, that looks good. You have anything left?”
In the middle of the table, on a brown clay dish, lay the last piece of broiled tilapia. He pointed toward it. “I haven’t eaten since Thursday,” he laughed. “Do you mind?” He munched on it, chewing and swallowing. They waited for the fish to drop through the ghostly body and on to the floor. He licked his fingers clean. “Not bad, John. You always could broil a mean filet.”
“Sit down, boys. Let’s talk.” And they sat around him, in a circle, just like they had a hundred times before. He just talked, through the night. Telling them the story again, only this time it all made sense. This time, they finally got it. This time they knew what Messiah meant. What death was. What grace meant. What power lies in forgiveness.
He never mentioned what happened in the garden, or in the palace. He only talked about what happened on the cross. As the sun began to rise, he said to them, “You have to get out of this room. There’s a whole world that’s afraid out there. They are afraid of the Empire and the devil. They are afraid of ghosts, and afraid of death. They are afraid of sin and afraid of righteousness. They are afraid to forgive and afraid to live. You have to get out of here, and tell them, right here, where it all seemed to end, that the end was only a beginning. That people, no matter what they’ve done, or who they are, can be forgiven. You are the witnesses.”
And then he was gone again. Only he really wasn’t. They could see his face in every flower, his smile in every ray of sun. Suddenly, life really was eternal, and they knew, just as surely as they knew they were alive, that he was too.
A few weeks later, Peter and John went to Temple one fine, late spring afternoon. They climbed up the steps, under the portico that Herod named after Solomon, as if that old fake was really the great Son of David. There, sitting by the gate named Beautiful, was a decidedly un-beautiful sight. A beggar, his shriveled legs tucked up underneath his scrawny body, held out a dirty, chipped cup. “Alms,” he cried, “remember the poor on your way to prayer.”
Peter looked down at him. “Sorry, friend, we don’t have any money. But, tell you what, we’ll give you what do we have.” And just as if he did it every day, just as Jesus used to do, he reached out and took his hand. “In the name of Jesus, get up and walk.”
He pulled the beggar toward him, as the man’s legs unfolded. The beggar stood for a moment, swaying, unsure if this was really happening. And then he jumped, straight into the air, and shook his clothes all around. The three of them linked arms, and walked, beaming, towards the front of the Temple.
The crowd stirred in utter amazement. What had just happened? Wasn’t that the crippled beggar? Who were these guys? Aren’t they the dead Nazarene’s men?
The crowd pressed in around them, a chorus of applause and cheers rising like the smoke from the altar. The trio tried to push their way through, but the crowd refused to move. Peter, just as if he did it every day, just as Jesus used to do, began to preach. The old turncoat was gone. The old doubts, erased. His voice was firm and loud.
“What are you staring at? Do you think John and I did this? Do you think we’re some kind of magicians or gods who walk the earth? We’re just like you. It was the God of the Patriarchs who did this. He is the One who glorified his servant Jesus. Remember him? You let the Empire have him and traded his life for the life of a murderer. He was the very Author of life and you,” his eyes were prophet’s eyes, Moses eyes, Elijah eyes, John the Baptizer eyes. They bore through every soul in the courtyard. “You killed him! But God wasn’t defeated—God raised him up. We are witnesses of that.
“And now you are witnesses of Jesus’ power to heal and forgive. He knows that you didn’t understand who he is, that you didn’t understand what you were doing when you let the enemies of our people destroy the Messiah we’ve all been waiting for. My friends, now, you can make it all right again. Turn your lives over to God and your sin will be forever wiped away.”
It’s all about Jesus.
Easter that is. This joyous season that is the reason for our very existence. It’s all about Jesus. It’s not about powerful preaching or powerful works. It’s not about whether or not there’s a gay Bishop in New Hampshire or a Windsor process to develop a new Anglican creed. It’s not about some artificial standard of holiness or whether or not the priest elevates the Host. It’s not about doctrines or duties, building funds or basketball courts. It’s not about soaring anthems or rubrics or vestments or crossing yourself properly during the Sanctus. It’s about Jesus.
Jesus, who came, not preaching religion, but practicing love. Jesus, who came bearing gifts, not of wealth, power or prestige, but of forgiveness. Jesus, wounded, crushed, stuffed into a cold, dark tomb. Jesus who stands in our midst with a smile and says, “Shalom, the peace of the Lord be with you.”
We ourselves are gathered in that upper room. Everything we have grown to rely on has been shattered. The freedoms promised by a Constitution, ripped apart in the name of fear. The wealth of nations, vaporized in a hailstorm of greed. Military might, powerless to stop hate. Justice hoisted upon a petard of our own forging. An empire of the sun, setting before our very eyes. We trusted in our own vain glory and have been rewarded with the vanity of vanities.
We acted out of ignorance, chasing false Messiahs and Gods with an uncanny resemblance to ourselves. When God called us to do justice to the poor, we sought lower oil prices and cheaper underwear. When God called us to guard creation, we poured poison into the seas. When God called us to be peacemakers, we chose war. But Easter changes all that. Easter reminds us that God is not deterred by our foolishness, undone by our fear. Easter reminds us that one man has come in the name of love, to justify, to overthrow, to undo our ignorance, to heal our brokenness. Easter is all about Jesus.
We are, in fact, suddenly aware of how meaningless all this has been. How wounded we are, how scared. Like the disciples in the garden, we are tempted to scatter, to save our own skin, to seek warmth from a fire which can only burn our very souls. Into a global dark night, comes a familiar voice saying, “Shalom, the peace of the Lord be with you.”
We are witnesses of this. Witnesses of the reality that Jesus is alive, no matter how much death may rule. Witnesses that the God of justice will prevail, no matter how unjustly we have acted. Witnesses that God will heal, no matter how disabled or tortured we may be.
We are called this morning to be witnesses. To remind each other and the world beyond that there is a greater reality than the reality of this present darkness. To welcome into our midst the stranger, the beggar, the immigrant, the enemy, and give them what we do have: the love God has given us.
Beloved, we are children of God now. If the world doesn’t know that yet, it’s because we haven’t told them. We haven’t shared with them that they, too are God’s children. We have not yet opened the doors of our church, the doors of our homes, the doors of our hearts to proclaim this glorious truth. Little children, let no one deceive you. Our hope is not in a world that has perished, in the temporal, fleeting cares or controversies of the day. Easter, this glorious season, is about Jesus, who is Risen.
We are witnesses of these things. And it’s high time we started shouting Alleluias at the top of our lungs. He is Risen. We are forgiven. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!