Third Sunday of Easter
Years after he had read Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, C. S. Lewis saw the film version. Lewis’ most vivid memory from the book was a scene near the end in which the heroes were entombed in an underground rock chamber, surrounded by mummified kings, and slowly starving to death. The movie director didn’t think that would play well on the screen, so at that point in the film, a subterranean volcano erupted, followed by an earthquake.
If the intent was sheer excitement, Lewis reasoned, the film version was perfectly understandable. However, what Lewis missed in the movie was “the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death) – the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptered, dead…The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination, the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves” (“On Stories”).
It’s a valid question to ask whether Easter has converted our imagination or merely fluttered our nerves.
This contrast can be seen in Rembrandt’s art. His early life as an artist has been described as a triumphal procession, and his paintings from that period are described in terms such as “excited style; strong contrasts; great passions; heroic figures who are more herculean than reverent.”
His 1629 painting, “Supper at Emmaus,” silhouettes a risen Christ, whose uncanny presence causes one disciple to fall from his chair, while the other disciple recoils in bug-eyed astonishment. Rembrandt’s technique of portraying light more than color is truly amazing, but the appearance of Jesus is more spectacle than anything else, “a giant performing shocking miracles.”
His 1648 paintings of Emmaus (see title image for an example) are quite different. Jesus is the central figure of the group sitting at the table. The “ordinary” scene exudes calmness and inwardness of expression. The two disciples are pictured in their very moment of recognition of the risen Jesus. Yet, present in both paintings are persons who see but do not comprehend. There is nothing forceful or explosive that overwhelms their attention, much less their understanding.
In comparison, the later painting communicates greater depth and maturity than the earlier one, both artistically and theologically. Yet calmness must not negate intensity. How do you lower the spectacle without draining the power?
Consider some verses from Sunday’s lectionary passages:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart…
Destined before the foundation of the world but made manifest at the
end of times for your sake….born anew, not of perishable seed but of
The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold of
me. I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the
Did not our hearts burn within us…
These words are the shouts of witnesses whose radically changed world now spins on the axis of Jesus’ victory over “the deathly.” How do we give full voice to these revolutionary truths without resorting to pyrotechnics that “play well on the screen?”
The Gospel passage offers two sources of power. The first source is Scripture, as interpreted in the light of the crucified and risen Christ. “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared,” Jesus reprimands the two disciples. Followers of Jesus live with the expectation that from time to time a stranger, or friend, will chastise them because of their use or abuse of Scripture. Sometimes that stranger, or friend, is Jesus. Jesus “interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Our need for continuing correction stems from our tendency to interpret “concerning himself” as did the movie director or the young Rembrandt.
The suffering, glorified Christ has unleashed a different kind of power. Athanasius, a fourth century Christian, claims that the Lord did not come “to be put on display but to heal… One being put on display only needs to appear and dazzle the beholder; but one who heals and teaches does not simply sojourn, but is of service to those in need” (On the Incarnation).
The Body of Christ in the world is called to heal, not to dazzle. Because we want our life and our life together to be taken and blessed, but not to be broken and given, we must constantly be guided to understand Scripture through “the Christ who should suffer these things and enter into his glory.”
The second source of power is the fellowship of believers. The two disciples whose eyes were opened to recognize Jesus were then propelled into the company of the other disciples. The disciple’s moment of recognition and the structure of the church require each other. This is often forgotten or ignored.
Alas, the lectionary planners divide this week’s and next week’s Acts 2 reading between verses 41 and 42, giving the impression that the part about being baptized and the added three thousand souls (v. 41) is a separate episode from “devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v. 42). However, the RSV indicates that Acts 2:42 is in the same paragraph that begins with verse 37, indicating a seamless connection.
James McClendon articulates what he calls the perennial problem of Christian teaching: “How can religious communities that have shaped themselves to maintain and preserve Christian life be open to the hot breath of the Spirit that creates them, open to the onset of the new that comes in Christ?”
No stranger to the tradition of choreographed altar calls and decisionist notions of salvation that render discipleship and church optional or even unnecessary, McClendon agrees that communities of formation are indispensable. But, he argues, they must be about not only formation but also transformation. Without transformation, “formation becomes a lifetime of preparation for an event the community could not accommodate if it were ever to occur.” Both the unpredictable moments of transformation AND the church’s ordered life of formation (teaching, baptism, eucharist, and common discernment) are the currents of resurrection power in and through the body of believers (“Toward A Conversionist Spirituality”).
These two sources of power: cruciform Scripture and the breaking of bread – Word and Table – draw weary disciples deeper into the mystery of God’s healing, humble glory. In John Calvin’s words, the church of Jesus Christ and its history is nothing but a chain of resurrections from the dead.