Out Of The Dungeon!
In Sholem Asch's great novel, "The Apostle," the closing scene is set in a dungeon in Rome. Hundreds of Christians have been lowered into a pit through a little trap door, and they know that they will never come out except to die in the arena. Many of them die in the dungeon. The scene as described by the author is one of darkness and horror. Suddenly the trap door opens and there is a shaft of light for a brief moment as a man is lowered. And as the man descends into this place of indescribable darkness, death and despair, he is singing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. The word spreads like wildfire among the people in the dungeon: "It's Paul! It's Paul! Paul has come!" And Paul's joy is so contagious that before long he has all the people in the dungeon singing songs of praise and thanksgiving -- and a whole new spirit is burning within them. In this, the author has given us an accurate description of the New Testament spirit. Even in the darkest corners of life, God gives his people joy -- and through his people, he gives joy to the world.
In times like ours it is so easy to get bogged down in a mood of despair. Problems all around us are so great – mankind’s inhumanity is so shocking. And it is easy to see only the bad side of things -- allowing ourselves to be pulled down into a whirlpool of complaints and grief and hopelessness and despair. So many of our conversations, no matter where they start, seem to end up in this kind of mood. That is why it is so important for us to remind ourselves that the people of God are a people of joy. We are a people of joy because we know that God gives himself to us even in the midst of our darkest situations. And as he gives himself to us, he gives us joy.
The entire New Testament is a collection of books of joy. Remember, the word "Gospel" itself means "Good News." The Gospel begins with "news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people." And the Gospel ends with the disciples returning to Jerusalem "full of joy!" The New Testament message is a message of joy because God is God, and God is good -- and there is nothing we can do that will ultimately defeat him.
That is why the New Testament Christians, in their own particular set of circumstances, could sing songs of joy to God. That is why they could live as a joy-filled people in spite of the fact that the problems facing them were, in many ways, far worse than ours! And so, as Christians, whatever else we are, we are a joyful people.
In today's Gospel lesson, it is the Sunday after Good Friday. Two of Jesus' disciples are making their way to a village called Emmaus. Jesus approaches and begins to walk along with them. At first the disciples do not realize it is the Risen Lord -- "something prevented them from recognizing him," Luke tells us. Jesus talks to them about the Messiah's role as it had been revealed in the scriptures. "Beginning with Moses and all the prophets," he interprets every Old Testament passage about his coming. When they reach Emmaus, Jesus accepts the disciples' invitation to stay with them. When he has seated himself with them to eat, he takes bread, pronounces the blessing, then breaks the bread and begins to distribute it to them. Suddenly, the disciples’ eyes are opened, they recognize the Risen Christ, and he vanishes from their sight. The disciples then say to one another, "Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?" From that time on, as we know, the lives of those first disciples of Jesus were at risk. Consumed with the spirit of love, they went forth and "preached everywhere," and "the Lord continued to work with them throughout and confirm the message through the signs which accompanied it." What are the signs? We read that…
... They healed the sick: "People even came crowding in from towns round about Jerusalem, bringing with them their sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and all of them were cured."
... They forgave their enemies and prayed for their persecutors: As Stephen was being stoned, he could be heard praying, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’"
... They defined love, in the lives they lived and in the Gospel they preached: "Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offense, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people's sins, but delights in truth; is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. There are three things that last: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.”
... They were men and women for others: "... they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed."
... They were evangelists: "Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.” "They preached every day both in the Temple and in private houses, and their proclamation of the Good News of Christ Jesus was never interrupted.”
... They were a worshipping community: "As they prayed, the house where they were assembled rocked; they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to proclaim the word of God boldly."
In other words, their hearts were burning with the Christ Spirit: The spirit of love! They were not merely wishful thinkers. They were not merely "almost" Christians -- they were not playing it safe. They were not trying to see how skillful they could become at avoiding the risk of being consumed by the spirit of love. They were not merely Jesus' torch-bearers: NO! They were the torches!
In an essay entitled "Overtaken By Joy,” the author writes of a beautiful moment when she was completely overtaken by the miracle of God's creation:
"I had been working all night on a manuscript. It would not come right, and I felt I could never finish it. But as the clock struck five, the last sentence fell into place, and I put down my pen, opened the door, and stepped out onto the lawn. The stars were thinning out and the sky in the east had that "light-is-coming" look. A few birds began to sing, tentatively trying out their voices, each seemingly waking the next. The trees, dark shapes on the horizon, began now to take on form and configuration. A stream of light caught the weeping willow across the street and sharply etched one branch of our birch tree. The sky lightened all along the eastern horizon. More trees appeared one-by-one. The great maple lighted with brilliance like a candelabra in the dark. The sun was up! There was a golden blaze behind the dark trees, a quickened freshness in the air. Twig by twig the sun set fire to every branch and leaf. The birds were now singing wildly as though they had just been created by the morning itself; and I, too, felt newly created, so full of joy that it seemed I could not contain it."
Overtaken by joy...
Let us rejoice in the faith of God -- a God who will never abandon us.
Let us rejoice in the hope of God, who promises our ultimate fulfillment in the coming Kingdom.
Let us rejoice in the love of God -- a love that cannot be contained, for there are three things that last: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love!
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