- Acts 2:14a, 36-41 & Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
- 1 Peter 1:17-23
- Luke 24:13-35
First Reading: The response of the crowd
In this week’s excerpt from Peter’s great Pentecost sermon, we are given a description of how the crowd responds to Peter’s proclamation of the resurrection:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.” (Acts 2:37–41 NRSV)
There is, of course, no evidence for such a massive religious revolution in Jerusalem just a few weeks after Easter, but this is how Luke (writing almost 100 years later) would like his pagan readers to imagine the unfolding story of Christianity’s beginnings.
The idea that Christianity exploded in size through a series of mass conversions is popular in many circles, but has been soundly dismissed by social scientists such as Roger Stark. When summarising his earlier work in a 2000 essay, On theory-driven methods, Stark (p. 191) observes:
… the ‘facts’ justifying the miraculous assumption were wrong. The only reason people believed that there was an arithmetic need for mass conversion, was because no one ever bothered to do the actual arithmetic. I have done it in considerable detail, taking care to verify my results with the pertinent literature (Stark 1996).
A brief summary suffices here.
There is general agreement among scholars that Christians in the Greco-Roman world numbered somewhere between 5 and 7 million in the year 300 CE. How this total was reached from a tiny starting point of, say, 1000 Christians in the year 40 CE is the arithmetic challenge. At first glance, growth of this magnitude might seem a miraculous achievement. But suppose we assume that the Christian growth rate during this period was similar to that of the Mormon growth rate over the past century, which has been apporoximately 40 perent per decade (Stark 1984 and 1994). If the early Christians were able to match the Mormon growth rate, then their ‘miracle’ is fully acccomplished in the time history allows. That is, from a starting point of 1000 Christians in the year 40 CE, a growth rate of 40 percent per decade (or 3.4 percent per year) results in a total of 6 299 832 Christians in the year 300 CE. Moreover, because compounded rates result in exponential growth, there is a huge numerical increase from slightly more than 1 million Christians in the year 250 CE to more than 6 million in 300 CE.
Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:17-23
The second of our series of readings from 1 Peter during Easter is as follows:
If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was 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, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
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. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1Peter 1:17–23 NRSV)
To the modern ear such a discourse sounds familiar, if a little traditional. However, that reflects the influence of 2,000 years of traditional Christian theology, and masks the significant theological developments that must be presumed to lie between the first generation of Christians and the writer of 1 Peter.
- Far from living with a sense of the imminent return of the risen Lord, the recipients think of themselves as living in exile – a metaphor that evokes a sense of time passing without a resolution to the hardships being experienced.
- The timeline is not one of a single generation, but of a great cosmic story stretching back to the distant past and through to the “end of the ages.”
- Faith has come to be trusting in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to glory.
- “Souls” are being purified and saved, rather than people set free from the power of evil.
- Salvation is equated with a process of rebirth and divinization, effected by the imperishable seed of God’s living and enduring word.
In this second century Christian sermon we hear some echoes of the Johannine tradition, but barely a hint of Paul; and nothing of Jesus.
Gospel: On the road to Emmaus
This week’s Gospel is the much-loved story of Jesus discoursing anonymously with two disciples as they waked from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and then revealing himself in the breaking of the bread.
The following excerpt from one of the longer endings to Mark’s Gospel provides early attestation for the Lukan story of Emmaus even if it was not originally part of Mark’s text:
After this he appeared in another form to two of them,
as they were walking into the country.
And they went back and told the rest,
but they did not believe them. [Mark 16:12-13]
The identity of Cleopas and his partner (his wife, perhaps?) has attracted considerable interest over the centuries. Who is this otherwise unknown pair of disciples? Are they examples of the settled householders who were disciples of Jesus, and perhaps provided safe houses and other practical support while not becoming itinerant preachers and healers?
Certainly Luke-Acts seems to have such a constituency as its audience, and it would not be a surprise if Luke went to the trouble of providing them with the honour of the first Easter apperance. They were, after all, the future of the Church—not the itinerant charismatics whose freedoms were already being curtailed around the end of the first century.
Even more powerful than the image of Jesus appearing to a householding couple in the intimacy of their kitchen is the classic scene of Jesus instructing the disciples “from the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms” as they walk the road to Emmaus. How many Christians have wished they could be blessed with such a “master class” in biblical interpretation? And what better claim for Luke to make than this? He claimed to have access not simply to the apostolic teaching, but to the divine instructor, none less than the Risen Lord himself.
Searching for Emmaus
Four different sites lay claim to be the original location of Emmaus. The following summary provides the basic information relevant to each site:
l. At Amwas near Latrun. I Maccabees 3:40, 57; 4:3 mentions an Emmaus “in the plain” where Judas attacked the forces of Syria and Philistia. Josephus reports that a few years later Bacchides fortified Emmaus and half-dozen other places around Jerusalem (I Macc 9:50; Ant. 13.1,3 §15). [Bacchides was the governor of West Euphrates sent in 161 by the Seleucid king Demetrius I to quell the Maccabean revolt and install Alcimus as high priest. After the death of Nicanor, he returned and Judas died in a battle against him at Elasa in 160.] Josephus also refers to this Emmaus as a village burned to the ground by Quintilius Varus (legate in Syria from 6-4 BCE) in revenge for the slaying of some Romans (Wars 2.4,3 §63; 2.5,1 §71; Ant. 17.10,7 §282; 17.10,9 §291). The rebuilt town appears in a list of Roman toparchies in 66 CE (Wars 3.3,5 §55)–The Fifth Legion camped here for two years before the final attack on Jerusalem in 70 CE (Wars 4.8,1 S444-5) The town is mentioned in the Mishnah as a place frequented by Jews in the early 2nd C. CE (Kerithoth 3:7). In the 3rd C. a soldier-diplomat Julius Africanus got permission to change the town’s name to Nicopolis in 223. Both Eusebius and Jerome identify this place as the site of the Lukan scene with Cleopas and it became the undisputed Byzantine site. The fact that this site is nearly 20 miles from Jerusalem probably gave rise to the textual variant of 160 stadia. It would be very difficult and unlikely to walk from Jerusalem to this Emmaus and back in one day. This Emmaus suffered a severe plague in 639. By the time the Crusaders arrived, there was no memory of the identification with Emmaus. The Crusader fortress here was for military purposes, even though they built a church over the remians of the Byzantine one, but apparently without knowing the tradition.
2. At Abu Ghosh. On the hill is the site of Kiriathjearim, where the Ark of the Covenant rested for 20 years. The town moved down into the valley by the 2nd C. CE, for a detachment of the Tenth Legion was stationed here at the site of a spring. The Crusaders apparently sought to identify Emmaus merely by measuring about 60 stadia from Jerusalem. The closest town was Riryat el-Enab. Here they built a fine church. [The town name changed in the early 19th C. when a powerful Arab sheik Abu Ghosh levied taxes on travellers to Jerusalem.]
3. At Qubeiba. After Saladin defeated the Crusaders at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, the main route to Jerusalem changed and Riryat el-Enab lost its importance. Along the new route that went a little farther north and followed an old Roman road was a village called Parva Mahomeria that was built by the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre and became a way station for Christian travellers. It had a small castle and a church. Toward the end of the Mamluk period (about 1500), Christians began to venerate the site (Arabic name: Qubeiba) as Emmaus. Probably they thought the Crusader church must commemorate some event in Jesus’ life and the distance from Jerusalem (about 7 miles) brought to mind Emmaus.
4. At Moza. Jospehus mentions another Emmaus that was much closer to Jerusalem. In Wars 7.6,6 §217 Josephus says Vespasian settled 800 veterans of the Roman army at a place called Emmaus, 30 stadia from Jerusalem. This must be a different place from the Emmaus Nicopolis site. This new military colony soon dominated the site and the name was changed to Colonia, which has survived until recent times as the Arabic Qoloniyeh. This place is below Moza (Motza) at a sharp curve in the main road from Jerusalem.
[SOURCE: Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies]
Eating and drinking with the Lord Jesus
At the heart of the Easter faith lies the conviction among the earliest Christians that, as they gathered for meals, Jesus himself continued to be present with his followers. A number of the Easter appearance stories revolve around this experience of Jesus revealing himself when the disciples had gathered for a meal:
Luke 5:1-12 is sometimes thought to be a post-Easter story –
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Luke 24:28-31 has Jesus reveal himself and then vanish during a meal –
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
Luke 24:41-43 has Jesus accepting the hospitality of his disciples –
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
John 21:9,12-13 has Jesus offering food to his disciples –
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.
As Luke describes the primitive Christan community in Jerusalem, gathering for the breaking of the bread, was one of the hallmarks of the first Christians:
So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. [Acts 2:41-42]
We know from 1 Corinthians 11:17-33 that some early Christians considered Jesus to be so truly present when they gathered for the Supper that any inappropriate conduct on their part was a failure to discern the Body of Christ and could result in sickness and death:
Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined11 so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.
- In our celebration of the Eucharist, how can we move beyond a medieval fascination with the objectivity of the sacramental elements to a deep appreciation of the dynamic reality of Christ present in and among the gathered community?
- What does it mean to “discern the body” of the Risen Lord in the people gathered around the Table?
- To what extent are we able to affirm that the Christian Church is the resurrected Jesus?
- How do we emphasise Eucharist as a sacrament of Jesus risen into and among the gathered Body of Christ, rather than limiting its significance mostly to a celebration of his death understood as an atoning sacrifice?
- 003 Bread and Fish: (1?) 1 Cor 15:6; (2) John 6:1-15; (3a) Mark 6:33-44 =Matt 9:36; 14:13b-21 = Luke 9:11-17; (3b) Mark 8:1-10 = Matt 15:32-39; (4) Luke 24:13-33,35; (5) Luke 24:41-43; (6) John 21:9,12-13.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: