Wandering Disciples

by Dwight Nelson

From a homily delivered at the annual Pietisten picnic on Vashon Island, Wash., August 17, 2014.

Text: Luke 24, John 20, John 21

This year at Easter, I ran across a statement that said after the resurrection, the community of Jesus began to unravel. I found that interesting, and I began to pursue it a bit. The disciples react to the death of Jesus as grieving people normally do. They stayed together, huddled closer to each other. When the reports of the empty tomb begin to come to them, they started to wander. They walked away from each other. The reports of the resurrection caused them to lose faith and hope, to leave the community.

We see this in three passages: the disciples wandering on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24; Thomas, who goes missing from the disciples in John 20; and Peter who goes fishing in John 21. This wandering of the disciples is also expressed in Matthew 28:17: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”

Luke 24:12,13 — “Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.”

So here are two disciples, on the first day of the week, who have heard the report of the empty tomb from the women, and they are walking out of town, away from Jerusalem, to a village no one has been able to find. They are walking to nowhere, they are wandering, they are leaving the community of Jesus.

John 20:18 — “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her. On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you.’”

v.24 — “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus) one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.”

So Thomas, who hears the news from Mary, goes out for a smoke, leaves the disciples, even when they have the door locked and are huddled together. He wanders from the community of Jesus.

John 21 – “‘I’m going out to fish’ Simon Peter told them, and they said, ‘We’ll go with you.’ So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.”

After the resurrection of Jesus, the community does not stay together. Some go back to Galilee and go fishing. They wander. They spend the night drifting on the lake, catching nothing.

These things happen not after the cross; not in their grief because of the death of Jesus, but after the resurrection; not after they hear the good news; not even after some of them see the risen Lord. They wander away, they drift – the community begins to unravel. People who know Jesus wander away from the community of Jesus.

Gregory Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School, writes that between 1973 and 2008 a little more than half of the people who had grown up in mainline Protestant Churches in America left those churches. Sixty percent of whites who grew up as Catholics in the U.S. have left their childhood faith. In the last two decades, evangelicals have also experienced losses. I think we see a similar pattern in churches with a pietistic background.

Those who have heard the good news are wandering. Those who know of the resurrection of the Lord are drifting. As I have been thinking about the numbers of Christians who are leaving the church and often leaving the faith, the first question that comes to mind in a familiar cultural question: “What should I do about this?” It is a valid question. I must confess that at this point in my life I do not find it to be a life-giving question. Yet, I agree there is a place for it. I am not resigned to passivity or isolation from problems in the community.

I began to wonder if there might be another question, a pietistic question that could be applied to this state of wandering disciples and unraveling community.

One such question might be: “What does the risen Lord Jesus do when his followers leave the community?”

What I mean is, how does the Lord respond to those who are on the way to Emmaus? How does he respond to those who miss the important meeting? How does he react to those who go fishing? Or to those who see him, and yet doubt?

There is a place on Camano Island called Juniper Beach, where the tide goes out for several miles. When the tide is out, you cannot see the water, it is just a great expanse of mud baking in the sun. One day we were at Juniper Beach and the tide was out. We were sitting on the beach looking out at this great mud flat. Then, in the late afternoon, a group of children came running onto the beach and out into the mud. They were dressed for swimming. They carried snorkels and inflated rings and eye goggles. They climbed up on a wooden float that sat in the mud. This must have looked very foolish to a person who did not understand the tides – children sitting on a float stuck in the mud, as if they were going to go swimming, but there was no water. Yet very soon the water began to flow inward. It spread over the warm mud, and soon became like bath water. As the float was lifted, these children were the first to enjoy a warm swim. They trusted the tide charts, and were the first to greet this great, unexpected event. They were children of hope, in a time when the anticipated result could not be seen.

So what does Jesus do in response to his wandering disciples? To the two who wander on the road, deep in puzzled conversation – “As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.”

He walks beside them on the road. How long does he walk with them before they see him? How long has he been present to their conversation, and they did not know he was there?

To Peter and the fishermen, he stands on the beach at sunrise, waiting for them. How long had he been there in the darkness, and they could not see him? He was cooking fish for them. He had been on the beach long enough to build a fire. Where did he get the fish in the pre-dawn? Had he in fact been on the lake with them, fishing that night and they did not know it? Was he closer to them on the water than they could imagine?

I wonder if we live in a time when Jesus is with us and we don’t know it. I wonder if he walks with us and we are so intent on our conversations that we do not realize it. I wonder if we live in a time when our absence from church is not absence from the Lord.

Finally, we notice that as he talks to the disciples on the road, he draws out their hope, even while they are kept from recognizing him.

We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (verse 21)

And so we say – “we had hoped…”

…that the church would stay like it used to be

…that our children and grandchildren would sit with us

…that our labors would bring meaningful reform

…that the scripture would be true to our culture and learning

We had hoped…

Then verse 27: “And beginning with Moses and the prophets he explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself.”

And in verse 32, they asked each other: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us?”

And I thought of the old Swedish Mission Friend story of Matilda Foy, the woman who in a time of long sickness and recovery, one day experienced an insight, an assurance that the savior had done all that was needed for her, that her striving was unnecessary. She said she opened the Bible to Romans and read it all in one sitting and “the cage was opened and the bird was set free.”

I look for the day when the scripture comes alive in hearts and is understood. There is a kind of reading that opens the scripture and lights a fire in your heart. Jesus drew out their hope and then he explained the scripture. And they rejoined the community.

What will the risen Lord Jesus do among his wandering community? For Thomas, he showed his hands and side. This was an intimate experience, an experience that came with emotion and tears. The restoring of the community of Jesus will come with feeling, with emotion, with tears.

Next, with Peter, he asked after breakfast, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter, nourished by Jesus, finds joy in his presence. And then there is a call to love Jesus, or to affirm a love that is still there. Wandering always comes back to the question, “who do you love?” As Peter answers that question he comes back into the community.

Then, with the disciples on the road, Jesus broke bread and gave it to them. This is remembrance. And they recognized him. Jesus broke the bread, and they lifted the empty cup of their hearts to be filled with the wine of new gladness. May that be the experience of our wandering generation.