(Luke 24:13-35; 1 Peter 1:17-25 )
Naomi lived in a really tough neighbourhood. Garbage littered the streets; there were boarded up windows; many of the people carried knives and other weapons. It seemed like someone got beaten and robbed just about every day. Graffiti messed up many of the walls and doors. She was scared every day when she went to and from school.
One day, a strange young man moved into a boarding house two doors down. He first cleaned up the area around the boarding house. He talked the landlord into providing him with paint for the boarding house, and he started painting it. As he was painting, Naomi asked him why he was painting the boarding house. He answered with a story. As he was telling the story, another person stopped to listen. While he painted, he told more stories. The people listening to him, started helping clean up while he talked. Over the next few weeks, he would start cleaning up, and more and more people would join him, listening to his stories and helping clean up. Other people started getting paint for their houses, and a person who worked for a glass company got a special deal for window glass.
A visitor who had not been around for a few months saw the people listening and working. He asked Naomi why people were listening and working. She answered, “His stories tell us about the kind of world we could have, and how to get it. He gives us hope, and makes us feel good about ourselves. The better we feel about ourselves, and about each other, the more we want the place we live to look good too.”
A new hymn has the lines, ” Go make a dff’rence, we can make a diff’rence. Go make a diff’rence in the world.” Anybody can make a difference. Let’s make a difference.
Alexander was invited by a co-worker to join his cycle group for a tour in the Kananaskis, beginning at the Barrier Lake Information Centre. The co-worker seemed to have fancy stuff, so Alexander bought a new cycling outfit in Spandex, a new helmet, and cycling shoes with matching toe clip, along with a larger water bottle and panniers with a rack for carrying his food and bike repair kit. He arrived at the information centre and his friend is standing beside a Honda Goldwing and the other bikes are a mix of Yamahas and Suzukis.
Jesus called his followers to join him on a new road. They came with the wrong ideas and expectations, and his execution devastated them. They thought they were part of a God movement used to get rid of the Romans and establish God’s rule on earth through force. The crucifixion ended that belief. Then his resurrection shocked and confused them. They were so disoriented they could walk with him and not recognize him. The post resurrection stories started a new road for the followers of Jesus. Their first steps required believing Jesus was risen and that his work was not ended. There was still a point to being part of this community and they had the opportunity to discover how to be part of opening the world to the empire of God. They also had to learn how to live as a community with an unexpected purpose and mandate.
Historically church leaders wanted to return to the road expected by his first followers, a road focused on God intervening with force to fix the world, and provide them with privileged places as loyal followers. Some churches today and many Christians still cling to the illusion of that road, even though it was not one that Jesus walked.
They did not understand the story about the mustard plant. Mustard, like canola and dandelions, happily scatters its seeds wherever it can. The kingdom of God spreads randomly, often in spite of the efforts of leaders to contain it. The community pointed to by the teachings and life of Jesus is one with contagious love, not one that is imposed. The empire of God is a community where we are able to love the unlovable, seek healing of relationships instead of revenge or punishment, sing with joyful hope in the midst of terrifying conditions, like Black slaves in the southern US. And the empire of God is one where we feel loved, important, belonging, autonomous, and filled with purpose, no matter who we are, or what we have done. The old road, then and now, is a road paved with power and privilege for those in leadership.
Jesus called his followers to a new road paved with self-giving love and servant leadership. This new road has lanes painted by satisfaction gained by helping make life better for others and from living in unity with one’s values and beliefs. Outside rewards do not provide vital motivation on this new road. On the old road outside rewards such as avoiding punishment, earning praise, and gaining privileges, status, and wealth were, and are, the main source of motivation. And this makes the new life described by the author of the first letter of Peter special.
The old road manipulates us by a system of rewards and punishments. The new road frees us to be the people we are created to be. We are invited to love one another as though our lives depended on it, and they do. As much as we are able to free ourselves from the chains of the powers of this world and immerse ourselves in a spiritual unity with God, we gain profound inner joy and freedom from control by fear. Fear is important for mindfulness and alertness: it is a terrible master.
This freedom applies to almost all parts of our lives. No matter what happens, we are free to move to a helpful and healthy place, to choose responses that provide better outcomes.
If disease strikes, we are free to ditch any fears attached to that disease and to focus on what can be done about the disease and how to adapt to any losses caused by that disease. If we are hurt by events or left with feeling exploited, we are free to develop responses that help instead of getting stuck with feelings of anger or hurt that persist. We can work for healing instead of picking at scabs.
The two followers from Emmaus described feeling as though on fire while in conversation with Jesus. Life on this new road liberates a burning excitement for living. Life on this new road has potential for experiences that have us feeling incredibly alive.
What do we need for this new road?
The first thing we need is an understanding that we are not on an upgraded or improved road. This road is a different road. For me, one of the sad failures of the church has been trying to make journeying with Jesus sound like an upgrade to the life found elsewhere in society. Jesus stood in opposition to the dominant values and beliefs of his time, and the church still needs to be prepared to oppose values and beliefs that are contradictory to his life and teachings.
We need trust in God. Free agents are resisted by society, and we need trust in God to endure that resistance.
We need partners for our journey. We are designed to respond to the messages of our environment. If we are alone, the messages that contradict our experience of God and our commitment to this new road will wear us down or reshape us, detouring us back to the old road. Our partnerships need to include exercises that help everyone to stick to this new road, exercises including prayer, worship, and faith study along with acts of service to others. An important exercise for everyone in this partnership is to continue engaging society without being controlled by society—to be in the world without being of the world.
Since this new road wanders through territory new to us, we need to draw on a wide variety of experiences of others as resources, tests, and guides for our journey. It is an exciting time right now as we are able to examine ideas and knowledge from the sciences and a variety of other faiths and cultures. Science helps us understand a great deal about the world, and through that, learn more about the character of God as reflected in creation. The spiritual journeys of aboriginal peoples retain knowledge we lost about our humanity as imperialism and intellectualism suppressed, oppressed and twisted memories of what it is to be human. The spiritual journeys of people in other faith traditions developed practices that can be helpful to our journey. As we look and listen, we find ways to recognize when cultural attitudes are shaping our views instead of Jesus.
The hearts of the disciples burned as Jesus opened up the meaning of scripture passages for them. But it was in the breaking and sharing of bread that they recognized the presence of Jesus. We need to share, to accept the gifts of others and to let go of what we have as needed for life on this new road.
We are now in the process of recognizing the new road that lies ahead, and learning how to walk on that road. The first community, even though it was growing, experienced conflict and division as reported by Paul in his letters. We too will experience conflict and division as we learn how to walk in new ways on this new road. At times it will feel as scary as my attempts to learn to use roller blades I had won. Fortunately for me, I gave up the roller blades before sustaining any injuries.
I don’t believe churches have that option. If we do not learn to walk on the road of following Jesus, we will not have any road left. Now that science and voodoo economics have replaced religion as the primary authorities in society, people hungry for power and control no longer need the church. If we are not serving the ones we are called to serve, and are not needed by those with power, there is no need for the church to exist.
As we venture forth in a new life on a new road, a life that will come with bumps and potholes, God is with us. Thanks be to God!