A Sermon for the Senior Cross Service
Imagine that the world as you have known it has ceased to be. Imagine that the logic with which you approached your life now no longer seems to hold. Imagine that a hope in a bright future is now called acutely into question, if not seemingly demolished altogether.
You don’t really have to imagine this. For many, this is the reality in which so many and we ourselves are living.
This is the reality in which the disciples in the text of Luke 24 were living. Their whole world had fallen apart. All their hopes and dreams of a new world order, of Israel’s restoration, of redemption, and all their expectations of a hopeful future were devastated three days earlier with the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross.
These two disciples in our text today had just been in Jerusalem, and they were leaving Jerusalem. They had given up. There was no reason to stay. Indeed, just prior to this, they had just heard the testimony of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James who told them that Jesus’ body was missing at the tomb. These women had testified that two angels had appeared to them and told them that Jesus is risen. And what was the disciples’ response to these women’s testimony? Verse 11 says, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
The world as they knew it had ended. They had come to the end of the road. The end of that road was a cross in Jerusalem, and it was time to pick up the broken pieces and journey on. These years of discipleship had ended with the death of their Lord on the cross. It was the end of the road, and they had determined to move on, take a different road, the road to Emmaus, and try to leave behind their broken dreams.
As they were on the road, they talked about all the things that had happened, burdened with sadness. Their sadness was so palpable that some versions of this Gospel text state that when a fellow traveler joined them on the journey, he asked them, “What are you talking about while you walk along looking so terribly sad?”
We miss the power of this story, if we forget just how aggrieved, how disillusioned, how devastated these disciples were.
The disciples recounted to the stranger all the events of the past few days concerning the person and works of Jesus of Nazareth and how he had been crucified. They recounted their dashed hopes and pointed out it was already the third day and though the women testified to an empty tomb and some disciples had indeed gone to the tomb and found it empty, the fact of the matter was that they had not actually seen Jesus. The women had not seen him; none of the disciples had seen him.
At the end of the road was a crucifixion on a cross, and for them in that moment that cross meant loss, death, grief, and disillusionment.
But here is the good news.
All this time, Jesus has been walking with them. All this time, Jesus has been right beside them. All this time, Jesus has been intently listening. All this time, Jesus has been at work. All along the road, Jesus has been bearing their sorrows, their grief, their fear, their disillusionment, their broken hopes.
Here is even more good news.
All this time, unbeknownst to them as they have been walking along the road conversing with a seeming stranger, Jesus has been opening up the Scriptures to them.
Imagine this: Jesus begins with Moses and all the prophets and unfolds how they reveal the very hope of God—Jesus Christ—the very restoration and redemption of God that so often appears in surprising and unexpected ways, the mystery of God’s surprising acts. You see, says Jesus, there have been many times in the story of God’s people that they thought they had reached the end of the road. They thought they would live their whole existence enslaved to the Egyptians, and Moses came with the booming words of God, “Let my people go.”
They thought the Egyptians would overtake them as they fled, and then the seas were parted. They ran out of food in the wilderness, and God provided manna and quail. They thought they would never enter the Promised Land, and God provided a way.
There were many Goliaths in their history, but David’s words consistently rang true: “That all the earth may know that there is a God and that the Lord does not save by sword and spear, for the battle is the Lord’s.” Oh yes, many giants were slain with the courage and faith of the weak and oppressed.
And when the people were taken in captivity by Babylon and then Assyria, when they were sent into exile, when they became strangers and foreigners and outcasts, when they had lost everything—their land, their welfare, their livelihood, their friends, family and loved ones—the God of the oppressed, the God of the widow and the orphan, the God who is intimate with suffering, who is the one of sorrows, that God delivered them from captivity and restored their fortunes and well-being. As Psalm 126 exclaims, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”
And when they ran out of food on that day on the mount near the Sea of Galilee, five loaves and two fish fed a multitude, for God provided. When a storm rose up suddenly on the sea and the disciples feared that they would perish, Jesus stilled the storm in both their hearts and the sea. And now, when the story has seemingly ended in death, a criminal’s death on the cross, Jesus asks them, “Is it the end of the road?”
Here is the mystery. The cross is not the end of the road. At the end of the road is an empty tomb. At the end of the road is new and renewed life. At the end of the road is new creation.
At the end of the road, there is the body of Jesus broken for us, as one who knows suffering, walks beside us, goes before us, provides a way, nourishes and sustains us, brings redemption and restoration.
At the end of the road, there is illumination and enlightenment, the ability to see what we did not see in the moment, did not see when we were in the middle of it all. Our eyes are opened and we suddenly recognize all the ways Jesus has been present all along, all the ways God sustained us, all the ways the Spirit provided comfort, healing, and wise counsel. Our eyes are opened and our hearts burn within us, when all seemed lost, it was not. There is strength to journey on. There is the promise of God that so often surprises and seems to come too late and ultimately never fails and is exactly on time.
At the end of the road, there is fellowship—the fellowship of friends, of family, of community. The fellowship of a shared meal—a holy meal—that invites us into the very life and communion of the Triune God.
At the end of the road, we discover to our amazement that it is not the end of the road at all. For the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they circled back and rediscovered—reclaimed—their calling, their vocation. They returned to Jerusalem. They returned to the community of disciples that they had left. They rediscovered Jesus; they rediscovered life in Christ. They returned to a recovery of the gifts of God.
They encountered resurrection. In the encounter of the resurrected Christ, Christ restored their lives. Christ renewed their faith. Christ transformed their view of the world—giving them eyes of faith, eyes of hope. But even more than new eyes to see the world, Jesus gave them eyes to see the ways Christ’s resurrection permeates all life, all being, renews and restores and brings about new creation in small, daily moments, as well as in a radical reframing of ways of seeing and being.
This is what it means to be a Christian. This is why being Christian matters. Christians begin with the end. Not because we hang on to some other-worldly vision. No, we begin with the end because we hold the conviction that ultimately God has appointed goodness, blessedness, and wholeness for all created existence. The end---in the sovereignty and lovingkindness of the one holy God—is a profound reality of wholeness, of shalom, of holy and complete justice that infuses all existence with peace and the mercy and love of God, where justice and peace kiss because in the Triune God they united without conflict.
The cross is not the end of the road, yet it is inextricable; the cross is the journey itself. We walk the way of the cross. We are called to daily take up our cross and follow Christ. But we misunderstand if we think the cross is the glorification of suffering or if we think the whole point of the cross is to give meaning to suffering, to make suffering somehow meaningful. God takes no delight in suffering. Rather, the cross is about God’s call for a particular way of being in the world. It is a way of being that defies the vices of pride, greed, covetousness, violence, and self-indulgence. In their stead, it is a way that glories in humility, generosity, peace, love that authentically desires the good of others, and joy that genuinely celebrates another’s good fortune. It is, indeed, a transformative, radical way of being in the world. It is a way of being, that if we in fact lived true to it, it sets us apart as a holy priesthood, as a people of radical love, radical justice, radical peace and the gentleness and humility to hold and embody all of these simultaneously.
So, what words do I leave to you, our beloved seniors?
I imagine your year or years at Duke Divinity School has been a time of struggle, discovery, growth, challenge, pain, joy, loss, renewal, sometimes just getting by, sometimes exuberant celebration. Anything worth doing or having are usually all of these things.
The road for some may have been a kind of cross that you had to bear. The road for others may be likened to the Emmaus road, where Jesus has met you in your conversations with fellow students, friends, staff, faculty, family, and pastoral and personal mentors—in these Divinity halls, in the library, in a field ed placement, in a classroom—and unfolded teaching and wisdom from Scripture, from the stories of the churches across the ages, and from the lived-experiences of faithful communities today.
You may not feel ready for the next leg of your journey. As this chapter of your vocational journey closes, you may not know what is next, or you may know and wonder if you are ready. We—the faculty, staff, and administrators of this school—we have loved you. We have prayed for you. We have wept and grieved for you. We have celebrated with you. We have sometimes felt like shaking some sense into you. We have always hoped for God’s best for you, for the fulfillment of God’s calling on your lives, and that you might be a blessing to others in the sharing of your many gifts.
Whether you feel ready or not, God calls, and the world needs you. But more than needing all the lofty knowledge that you may have gained from your time here, the world needs your heart for justice, your eyes of faith, your vision of hope and wholeness. More than the eloquent words you may have learned to speak or write, the world needs the witness of your Christian character—a character that begins with the end and views all existence in the light of the Risen Christ who renews and restores all created beings, a character of radical humility, justice, peace, love, and mercy, where justice and peace are not in conflict, but enact and bring into being the shalom of God.
You are ready because ultimately it does not depend on you. The risen Christ walks with you, beside you, before you—on the road to Emmaus, on the road back to Jerusalem, on the path of the cross, on the only journey truly worth giving your whole self and life to—the journey into the very life of God, who is and was and is to come. Amen.