I recently read an inspiring book called Glimpses of Eternity by Raymond Moody, MD. Glimpses of Eternity is about 'shared death experiences' - stories of deathbed moments when entire families may see a surreal light or watch as the room shape shifts. Others tell of seeing a film like review of a loved one's life and learning things that they could never have known otherwise.
One of the book's stories is about a shared death experience of twins. Over their lives they had shared some physic experiences. But what happened when his brother died went beyond anything the surviving twin had ever known.
He and his brother were identical twins and always felt linked. They did things like call their parents at the same time from different locations, and more than once they selected the same card for their mother on her birthday or Mother's Day. Sometimes they even sensed when something had happened to the other, whether it was good or bad. They were very close.
One weekend his twin brother drove with friends to another state for a high-school football game. On the day he was returning, the other twin was lying on the couch watching sports when he suddenly had the sensation of leaving his body and moving toward a bright light. As this happened he flashed back on events that had taken place with his twin brother. He relived several events from their childhood, including some things that were so insignificant that he had forgotten them. These were all memory images, but none of them were daydreams or the same as sleeping dreams. They were so vivid that he really thought he was reliving them.
The young man had no idea how long the episode lasted, but when it was over he found himself back in his body and deeply disturbed. He immediately told his mother what had taken place and sat upon the couch trying to relax. About an hour later, he said, his mother received a telephone call from the police in the other state that her son had been killed in an automobile accident.
Such stories would have met with resistance and doubt from me when I was younger and wiser. Now, I'm more open minded, although I try not to be so open minded that my brains fall out. So now I wonder if we may call the resurrection experience of Peter and the women on Easter day as a shared resurrection story. You remember how it went. The women went to Jesus tomb on Easter Sunday and his dead body was not in the tomb. An angel appeared to them and said Jesus had arisen. Another shared resurrection experience happened with several of the disciples when Jesus appeared on the shore of the Sea of Galilee cooking breakfast for his disciples over an open fire. According to the Gospels, this happened after Jesus resurrection.
Such strange and wonderful stories stretch our scientific view of reality and so does our gospel reading this morning. This story takes place on the first Easter Sunday, three days after Jesus had been crucified. Like Moody's stories of shared death experiences, these Gospel stories are about a spiritual reality beyond physical existence.
Our story today from Luke's Gospel tells about another shared resurrection experience. Here is how Eugene Peterson translates the story in The Message.
Two disciples were walking to the village Emmaus, about seven miles out of Jerusalem. In the middle of their talk and questions, Jesus came up and walked along with them. But they were not able to recognize who he was.
He asked, "What's this you're discussing so intently as you walk along?"
They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend. Then one of them, his name was Cleopas, said, "Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn't heard what's happened during the last few days?"
He said, "What has happened?"
They said, "The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene. He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him. And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel. And it is now the third day since it happened. But now some of our women have completely confused us. Early this morning they were at the tomb and couldn't find his body. They came back with the story that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. Some of our friends went off to the tomb to check and found it empty just as the women said, but they didn't see Jesus."
Then he said to them, "So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can't you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don't you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?" Then he started at the beginning, with the Books of Moses, and went on through all the Prophets, pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to him.
They came to the edge of the village where they were headed. He acted as if he were going on but they pressed him: "Stay and have supper with us. It's nearly evening; the day is done." So he went in with them. And here is what happened: He sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him. And then he disappeared.
Back and forth they talked. "Didn't we feel on fire as he conversed with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us?"
They didn't waste a minute. They were up and on their way back to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and their friends gathered together, talking away: "It's really happened! The Master has been raised up—Simon saw him!"
Then the two went over everything that happened on the road and how they recognized him when he broke the bread. (Luke 24:13-31, The Message)
This is a story about Jesus after he had died. It is a post resurrection story. It challenges our usually depressive attitude toward death. Henry Van Dyke has a pointed poem about the dying experience. It too challenges our depressive view of death. Here is how Van Dyke views death.
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says: "There, she is gone!"
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says:
"There, she is gone!" There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: "Here she comes!"
And that is dying.
So dying is a good bye and also a hello. We say good bye to those left behind on earth and we say hello to those who have preceded us into the next life. According to Moody, our deceased family members come to get us and take us home when we die. We are no more alone in death than we are at birth. The Apostle Paul put it another way: "Whether we live or whether we die we belong to the Lord." Let's bear that in mind on Easter Sunday and throughout this Easter season. Some of you have shared with me your own near death experience or a shared death experience and I invite any others who like to share their stories with me. I'll keep it confidential if you wish.
The great relief we experience in our Reformed Theology is a belief that God will take care of us after this life. Knowing that our afterlife is secure, we freely respond to God's love by living a new life now, during this life. And that is where we return to our text for the rest of the story.
Jesus had revealed himself to the disciples he accompanied on the road to Emmaus. When they were breaking bread with him their eyes were opened and they recognized this was Jesus. Then Jesus disappeared. The disciples had to process this experience. Back and forth they talked. "Didn't we feel on fire as he conversed with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us?"
Then they took action. They didn't waste a minute. They were up and on their way back to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and their friends gathered together, talking away: "It's really happened! The Master has been raised up—Simon saw him!"
Then the two went over everything that happened on the road and how they recognized him when he broke the bread. (Luke 24:32-35, The Message)
The question for us this Easter morning is whether we will recognize Jesus when he appears to us. He may appear in any number of ways. Jesus may appear to us in the breaking of the bread as he did to these disciples, or through a song on the radio, a YouTube video, a conversation with a friend or family member, a hymn, a sermon, or the sound of a birdsong in the morning. Our challenge and opportunity this Easter season is to attune our spiritual eyes to perceive the risen Christ when he appears to us and to attune our spiritual ears to such a spiritual frequency that when Christ speaks to us we hear what he is saying. Don't expect to see or hear Christ in his resurrected body. That is not likely to happen. But then again, according to our text today, we never know how Christ may appear to us. Sometimes, he comes as a stranger and reveals himself as a friend.
The deepest meaning behind the Easter text is that it's not about there and then but it's about here and now. Every soul will eventually burst through the tomb of an earthly body and soar to new life with God. That is the meaning of Jesus' words to the thief: "Today you will be with me in paradise." We have within us the door to translate into a new realm of being within this lifetime. Eternity begins now. Now is the only time it may ever possibility begin. "Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has it entered into the heart of man the glory that is about to be revealed." (2 Timothy 4:11)
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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011.