Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, May 4, 2014
Who Is Listening?
[Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Luke 24:13-35]
Active listening is one of the most exhausting tasks a Christian can do, but it is also one of the most powerful ways to love someone. I am not talking about “Listening to a Sermon,” as you are doing today; however, I do appreciate when you listen. I am speaking about listening to a human being when he or she is speaking to you, one-on-one. People pay big money for someone to “listen” without judging.
Active listening… is a learned behavior. I imagine you can think of people in your life who truly “listen” when you are talking to them. They are not waiting for you to take a breath so they can jump in to compare their life experience with yours. A good listener looks at you when you are talking, holds your words respectfully and waits until you are finished speaking. Sometimes a good listener tilts their head slightly and reflects on what you are saying and what may be hidden between the lines. A good listener observes your body language as well as your words and gives you their undivided attention. A good listener does not change the subject. When someone listens to me like that, I feel heard… and I feel loved.
That’s what Jesus did when he came upon two disciples walking to Emmaus, 7 miles from Jerusalem. They were talking about everything that had happened during Holy Week. Have you ever walked into a conversation where two people are talking intensely about a shared experience? It’s difficult to get a word in. Those two act “interrupted” when they have to pause & update a third party who has missed the earlier part of the conversation.
Jesus asked what they were talking about. They look at him with great sadness. Cleopas finally says, with clear annoyance: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?
Caught up in their own conversation, they failed to recognize WHO they are talking to. When Jesus says: “What things,” Cleopas answers: “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people…” Cleopas rattles off breathlessly all they had seen, experienced, and heard from others. He doesn’t even take a breath for about 5 verses: At any point, Jesus could have interrupted… and said: “Hey, look, I’m Jesus!” But he didn’t. He listened. When Cleopas finally paused, Jesus entered the conversation not to reveal himself but to explain how the events Cleopas was describing were a fulfillment of the words of the Old Testament prophets and Scriptures. Jesus was basically giving a “commentary” on who HE WAS and how the Scriptures were fulfilled from the time of Moses to the present, but he did not identify himself… and they did not recognize him.
When they reached Emmaus, Jesus continued walking, but the two disciples urged him to “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” Without such hospitality, the disciples might have MISSED their encounter with the risen Lord. Jesus waited for an invitation. Jesus NEVER forces himself on anyone, even though he’s the Savior of the world. Jesus waits to be invited into our homes… and into our churches. Some churches are too overly scheduled & caught up in their own agendas to realize Jesus is waiting for an invitation to enter.
Why did the disciples invite Jesus to stay? To a certain extent Middle Eastern hospitality requires someone to welcome the stranger, because there were no Days Inns in Emmaus. But people then, as now, still don’t always want to be bothered by having a guest. It changes the dynamics of our own “chill time” – to use modern language. If we invite a guest, we may have to be more polite & share our food. We may not be able to completely let our hair down, because we have to offer the guest a better seat, or go to extra trouble in fixing the meal.
AND YET, it was in their act of hospitality… that the disciples SLOWED THEMSELVES DOWN ENOUGH… to spend time with Jesus, to LISTEN to his voice by giving him their full, undivided attention. When he took bread, blessed and broke it, their eyes were opened and they recognized their crucified Messiah, Jesus Christ.
What was it that opened their eyes? Did he still have nail prints on his hands, or was it the act of breaking bread which reminded them of their last supper with Jesus? Or was it just the fact they finally gave him their 100% undivided attention? As soon as they recognized him, he vanished from their sight. They were left dumb-founded, but changed.
In fact, they pondered their walk on the road: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was taking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?” Their hearts were burning, but not until they sat down in Jesus’ company around a table, and turned their attention to Jesus’ words & mannerisms did it sink in. The One they were talking about, was also the One they were talking TO.
Instead of lying down for a night of restful sleep, the two disciples GOT UP from the table and returned 7 miles on foot to Jerusalem, where they found the eleven. They witnessed to them about the Lord appearing to them on the road and breaking bread with them.
What do we notice about this encounter? The disciples were fleeing Jerusalem when Jesus met them. They were depressed & deflated; their expectations of how Jesus would be received in Jerusalem were dashed. Most of us, when we are in a very sad place, want to depart from it. We can’t bear the load of disappointment, broken dreams and heavy hearts, so we look for the most convenient way out. Cynthia Jarvis describes the two disciples like this: “These two sorry disciples had bet their lives on the wrong savior [so]….They were headed back to fishing nets, tax offices, missed appointments and merciful routine.” She also quotes T. S. Eliot… who describes the human condition as one where we learn to avoid excessive expectation by falling back on our common routines.
Jesus patiently listened to their disappointments as they talked on the road and patiently interpreted the Scriptures for them. And yet, it was not until they gathered in fellowship around the table that the truth trickled in… watching, listening and being in the company of Jesus Christ transformed their disappointment into a victory dance. No longer were they dejected, defeated and in need of sleep.
Their hearts burned. They wanted to go back to Jerusalem, to be with the other disciples, to tell someone about their amazing conversation with Jesus. They had a story and needed an audience to hear what they had to say. When we truly experience the good news of Jesus Christ, it’s difficult to be quiet about it. We can’t fall asleep when our minds are racing & energized by the presence of the risen Lord. We become a little manic! That’s what happened to those two disciples.
That’s also what happened to Peter on that first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on a bunch of fearful men and women who were locked up in an upper room trying to avoid the authorities…
The Holy Spirit was poured out with rushing winds and tongues of fire. Not only were their hearts burning, they were speaking in other languages and filled with bold excitement.
The reading from Acts is the final portion of Peter’s Pentecost Sermon. When the disciples were speaking in other languages, it drew a crowd. And people heard the message of Good News in their native tongues, from a group of relatively uneducated Galilean Jews who were in the process of becoming Christians. That draws a crowd!
The people who gathered HEARD the message in the language they could best understand and in that diverse crowd of people, as Peter winds down his sermon… the crowd is listening to Peter so attentively you could hear a pin drop.
Peter’s summary statement at the end of the sermon is this: “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)
The people were “cut to the heart” and said to the apostles: “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter had an answer ready: “Repent & be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.
This, friends, is the Good News… the core belief we hold dear. It’s why we gather every Sunday. You might say: “Do I need to repent? I was not alive in the generation that crucified Christ. I’ve been a good church-goer all my life. Isn’t that good enough?”
My answer is “No.” That’s not good enough. We’ve grown “lukewarm” & “complacent” – having cut our teeth on the good news of unmerited grace, we’ve taken Jesus for granted, and ignored the cross. We are profoundly inattentive to what the Good News is all about. The Good News CHANGES US. It turned a fearful, Jesus-denying disciple like Peter into a passionate preacher. It turned a vengeful persecutor of Christians, Saul, into the greatest missionary of all time, the Apostle Paul. Those disciples on their way to Emmaus… did a 180 degree turn and headed straight back into Jerusalem, where God’s Spirit was on the move.
God wants us to listen attentively. “Who is Listening?” is another way of asking: “Who is Praying?” because the least practiced form of prayer in most churches today is the prayer which allows God to be the speaker and us to be the listeners. “Apophatic Prayer” gives God time and space to guide us. It is a form of prayer that goes beyond our own reasoning ability, our own words, & our own agendas. It is a listening-waiting-responsive-attentive-to-God-kind-of-prayer that is open to hearing God’s voice in silence or in a random comment by a stranger, in nature, or even in sermon. At the end of Peter’s sermon 3,000 people were baptized and added to their faith community. They got the message! What is God saying today? What should we do about it? Let us pray.
Cynthia Jarvis, “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 24:13-35,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, p. 419-421.