Under the glow of the early fall moonlight, our confirmands, mentors, and parents, gathered in a circle. It was our fall retreat at the Audubon Center in Sandstone, a time spent together, away from the busy-ness of our lives in the city, to connect with one another and with God, in the beauty of the Northern Minnesota autumn.
As we stood close to one another Jane led us in a quick prayer, and then we set out into the trees for a night hike. There was no light but the moon. No trail but a lightly trodden path that led from our starting point, down along the lakeside, and back toward our cabins.
Jane led the way, with the confirmands right behind her, and I held up the rear, with the parents and mentors. It was a really beautiful experience, walking together in the silence and the darkness, hearing only the rustling of leaves and seeing only the outlines of the trees around us.
As we hiked deeper into the woods, I started to lose the path, and I was noticing those in front of me were losing it as well. Jill was wondering off to the right with her hands out in front of her hoping not to hit a tree. And I think Vicki headed to the left trying not to stumble over fallen branches. I looked farther ahead and couldn’t see Jane or the confirmands anywhere and heard Sarah start laughing as the four of us staggered through the darkness of the dense forest, honestly with no clue where we were going, or where anyone else was going.
Somehow, through the laughter and the confusion, someone noticed one of the kids up ahead and as we made our way toward them, we could see off in the distance the campfire Tim had started back at our cabins. We made it back, no broken bones or anything like that, just the confusion and humor of a journey through the dark together.
Our moonlit voyage through the forest sounds like good a description for our lives of faith and discipleship sometimes. There isn’t much light to guide our way, the path before us is hard to see, we’re stretching our arms out and feeling around for some support—and if we aren’t careful fear and dread can overtake us. Yet on this journey we have companions, often times as confused as we are, who walk the narrow path with us, look ahead for signs of others, and make sure we all get back to the campfire together.
Throughout the weeks of Lent and now Easter, here at First Church we have walked the path of Jesus and the disciples—from Galilee to Jerusalem, from the upper room to the garden of Gethsemane, from the cross to the empty tomb. It has been a journey of celebration, of remembrance, of sadness, and of new life, and now, like the disciples after the resurrection, we find ourselves wondering where our journey with Christ will lead us next.
Well thankfully, our Gospel reading from Luke today is another step on the journey of discipleship. In fact, the Gospel of Luke is filled with journey stories, the pregnant Mary traveling to visit her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth, the Holy Spirit leading Jesus out into the wilderness, Jesus calling on his disciples not to worship him but to follow him, and of course, the journey of Jesus and his disciples to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to the empty tomb.
These journey stories do more than just function as a literary device. They have a theological purpose as well. New Testament scholar Dennis Sweetland writes that Luke uses the journey motif as a growth and development model for Christian discipleship. Discipleship in the Gospel of Luke isn’t about mastering things on your first try. Nor is it about staying at home and learning in solitude.
Walking in the way of Jesus is literally about walking. It’s about the process. It’s about learning things as you go along, journeying with one another, encouraging each other as we experience the world in all of its complexities and respond as best we can in a spirit of love and justice. It’s like that famous Arthur Ashe quotation about success: “Discipleship is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”
Today’s story of the Risen Jesus and his appearance to the disciples marks the end of one journey, and the beginning of another. By this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has already appeared to two of the disciples as they walked the road to Emmaus. But it isn’t until they sit down for a meal and break bread together that these disciples recognize that it is Jesus. But before they can ask him anything, he vanishes from their sight.
By now, these two disciples have gathered with the other nine, and are telling them about their brief encounter with the Risen Christ. And again, Jesus appears and wishes them peace, but they don’t believe it’s really him. So he extends his hands and then his feet, so they can see his wounds. He sits and eats fish with them and explains to them the meaning of his death and resurrection, of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Luke packs a lot into only 36 verses, but I think there are two major pieces that are helpful as we try and discern where this new journey with Jesus is leading us today.
The first is where Jesus decides to reveal himself: at the dinner table. As in the journey stories, Luke’s Gospel is filled with tales of Jesus sitting down for a meal with his disciples and friends. The disciples know this must be Jesus because he sits and eats with them. They’ve seen him do it a hundred times before. As they’ve traveled throughout the Judean countryside, ministering to the people, how often have they watched him sit down at a table, break bread, and bless the people who gather around him?
Our own journeys of faith and discipleship need to start at the dinner table as well. They need to start in the company of friends, in hospitality with one another. And we must call ourselves back to this company time and time again for rest and renewal.
Though a life lived as Christ’s disciple is not easy, though it calls us to the difficult witness of justice and love in a world of violence and hate, though the path is narrow and the road is hard, we gather strength and encouragement for the journey ahead from one another, as we commune around all the proverbial dinner tables of our lives.
The second piece of wisdom for our journey is that Jesus is kind enough to leave with us with something.
Now I have a confession to make. Our Gospel reading for today was supposed to end at Verse 48. But when I read all of Chapter 24 of Luke, I couldn’t understand why the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary would leave out verse 49. Not only does verse 49 tie together Luke’s story of the resurrected Jesus and his appearance to the disciples, it also ties together the story of Luke’s entire Gospel!
Luke 24:49: “And see, I am sending upon you what God has promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Most scholars agree Jesus is talking about sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which happens in Acts Chapter 2. And I think Jesus uses three keys words in this verse that show us what discipleship looks like as we walk our Easter journey: sending, promised, and power.
The Greek word for sending is “apostello,” which has the same root as the word “apostle” and means “to leave prepared.” Christ has been walking with his disciples for their entire ministry, preparing them for the day when he will no longer be able to lead them and is sending them out now with the Spirit as their guide, a sort of passing of the baton. With the Spirit they will continue their process of discipleship.
The Greek word for promised is “ep-angelia,” which has the same root as angel, message, and gospel. Luke uses “ep-angelia” throughout his Gospel and the book of Acts to describe the covenant between God and Israel, and the new covenant between God and the church in Christ.
And the Greek word for power is “dynamis,” from which we get our word dynamic. This kind of power is a personal power, used to describe strength and ability.
Jesus is leaving the disciples, and they must venture out on this new journey without him. But Jesus is also giving the disciples, and all of us, help for our journey. As we walk this path of discipleship, Jesus assures us that we are not alone. The ever-prepared Spirit is with us, keeping God’s covenant promise, a promise to strengthen us as we do the tough work of discipleship, as we walk the narrow path of Christ.
This last Saturday, I attended two funerals. The first was for noted Twin Cities educator Bruce Kramer, whose journey through ALS was documented by Minnesota Public Radio’s Kathy Wurzer. The second was for Louise Huebner, a beloved member of this community and a fierce advocate for the gospel of justice in the world.
Though I didn’t know either very well, I learned a lot about them at their funerals, and I learned a lot about the journey of discipleship.
From Bruce I learned that our journeys of life take unexpected, often tragic, turns, yet in this pain, we have the opportunity to travel beside each another, share our pain with one another, see the common humanity in our fellow travelers, and support each other on the road. In an interview with Krista Tippett just before his death, Bruce said, “What I found as I told people about ALS, was they began to tell me about ALS, they began to tell me about the ALS they carried, they began to tell me about the struggles they were working through, and I think they told me not because it was a way of cleansing, but it was a way of saying, we carry these things and I want you to know that I am carrying something just like you are.”
And from Louise, I learned that discipleship isn’t always about walking alongside, but about being pushed along, and sometimes pushing others along. As her Godson Josh said in his eulogy of Louise, those who come before us are like the electrons in an electric current; the only way the electrons in front can move is if those behind push them forward. Louise was like the electricity in a current, always pushing the younger generations forward, toward a better, brighter future.
This journey of life, faith, and discipleship can be dark, it can be narrow, it can be littered with branches on the ground, but we have one another, and we have the power and the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide our way. Discipleship is the journey, it is the path, it is the steady pace of those behind us, in front of us, and beside us, and the promise of God always nearby.