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The Supper at Emmaus,
a painting by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, executed in 1601,
and now in the National Gallery in London.

You're a Christian community leader. Thank you!

Scripture readings,
Third Sunday of Easter, April 26.

Sunday’s scriptures were all written for people who had a sense of history and of God’s providence within history. They expected God to work over time in their communities and expected to be able to discern that work. They knew this work might reveal itself only with difficulty and over long periods. Specifically they expected God to fulfill promises made in the past, for the benefit of the people.

So Peter’s speech in Acts (first reading) holds no surprises. “Even David, the great king of a millennium ago, foresaw what I’m speaking about,” asserts Peter. But it’s worth unpacking the imagery around David and how it came to affect early understandings of Jesus. Jesus indeed fulfilled something, but not in the expected way.

The ceremony for putting an ancient Israelite king into office was not a crowning but anointing. In their language, Hebrew, the word for anointed person is “messiah.” Kings over the centuries were a mixed bag, and David was a standout. He was morally imperfect, and less wise than his son, Solomon, but his reign was successful.

Over the more troubled centuries that followed, a David-like anointed one, that is, a king/messiah, came to stand for restoration of greatness and the fulfillment of suspended promises. Hoping for a messiah came to seem natural. But Messiah was slow in coming. Syrian overlords yielded to Babylonian conquerors, followed by the Greeks and then by Roman imperialists. The people’s hopes focused more sharply on a strong king/messiah who could vanquish the occupiers. That seemed the only way God could liberate the people.

By the time of Jesus, there were plenty of Jews trying to earn the title of messiah. To the Roman forces they all looked like revolutionaries, and Rome punished them accordingly. Pilate crucified Jesus on these grounds.

The people who were moved by Jesus and who loved him had to develop a different explanation, told in the gospels we’ve inherited. They needed to disentangle ideas about Jesus from the frantic, dangerous and ultimately disappointing gossip about revolutionaries. They didn’t repress the memory that Jesus had been tempted to seek earthly political domination; we proclaim it in the gospel on the first Sunday of every Lent. They acknowledged that Jesus attracted a disciple whose epithet was “Iscariot,” a name meaning “dagger man” and suggesting connection to a terrorist group known to have flourished in the decades between Jesus’ death and the compositions of the gospels. Nor did they deny their own early, immature hopes: Saint Luke says of the disappointed ones in today’s gospel, “Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free.” (Luke 24:21, NJB) Finally, New Testament writers liberally give Jesus the very same inflammatory title that brought down the wrath of Rome on him and many others. They call him “Christ.” That’s not his last name. It’s a title. It’s the Greek word (Greek, not Hebrew, being the language of the New Testament) for “anointed one!”

Of course most of what we remember about Jesus, and most of what we think about discipleship today, is his gentle, loving, merciful teaching, his transcendence of old divisions and categorical thinking. It’s as if Jesus both is and is not a king/messiah. But our claim is that he outdid what the expected messiah was to do, conquering the occupying army; he conquered hate and vengefulness, death and the fear of death. He overcomes everything that separates us from God and from each other.

One conclusion about change: The earliest Christians had to let their categories and their hopes be transformed. Their inspired writings reveal this to the ages. So it is with us. We can’t cling uncritically to every notion we’ve inherited. That goes for individuals and for communities.

One conclusion about liturgy: Let the encounter on the way to Emmaus instruct us. Every modern breaking of the bread should be an event where teaching and ritual welcome people, even the runaways, and give them a forum where they can mature their hopes and begin to feel them fulfilled.


Introduction to this Message Series

I'm Greg Warnusz, of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, since 2005; author of Lector's Notes at since 1999; and web steward for FOSIL since about 2010.

This, the 7th message in a weekly series, aims to help you apply the Bible readings you'll hear in church (or would hear if your church weren't locked down) to the life of the parish (or other Christian community) that you hold dear.

These are not devotionals (which are everywhere). I'm offering what I learned in the seminary, this intellectually honest way to read the Bible:
  1. Learn what the writer of the Bible passage was trying to help his or her ancient community cope with (my specialty).
  2. Ask how your own community today is dealing with something like that (your specialty).
  3. Suggest the connections, craft a biblical approach to your community's mission.
  4. Remember Bible passages were composed for whole communities, not just for individuals.
  5. Then the rest is up to you (readers / listeners), your communities, and the Holy Spirit.
Step 1), above, is the hardest. I offer this because I'm grateful for the seminary education I received and the continuing education I enjoy. Step 2) is my passion because my beloved parish community faces serious demographic challenges and will soon face ecclesiastical ones.

This is a new endeavor, likely to improve with age. Next week's may be shorter. It takes 3 years for Catholic and most Protestant churches to complete their Sunday surveys of the whole bible. Stick with me. Thank you.
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