William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian

Salvation on the Road to Emmaus

[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]

LUKE 24:13-35

Really there are two main ideas from the Emmaus story that struck me right off the bat. One, we’re not in control of receiving salvation. Of seeing the risen Christ. God has to open our eyes. But secondly, God isn’t going to open our eyes until we let go of that attempt to be in control, and let him become our host. Only then will we be able to see the saving nature of his suffering.

It tells us right at the beginning of the story in vs. 15 that:

As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along  with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

Now, this last line, “They were kept from recognizing him,” is not a very comforting line. It almost sounds like God was playing tricks on them or trying to deceive them and manipulate things. But I think it’s very important for us to note that neither God nor Jesus is mentioned in this verse as the agent, or as the subject, the one who is preventing them from recognizing Jesus. This is no small detail. Because Jesus doesn’t force his way in. It’s just not his style!

Because we know what this is like — to be in a state when we’re just not open, we’re just not receptive or ready to hear certain things, or to learn something new. We’re just closed off, and no matter what we hear, or how many times something is explained, we’re not going to understand or change our thinking.

And when we’re in this place, it’s funny, no one is forcing us to stay that way, or to stay stuck or closed off, or tunnel-visioned, and yet, it certainly feels like we’re trapped and we cannot help the state that we’re in. We’re powerless to change it. We’re not in control.

And what was the particular fixation of these travelers, these disciples (not of the 12, but a wider circle of Jesus-followers). What was “blocking their view” of Jesus?  They have met the resurrected Jesus at this point in verse 21, but they say, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” That had their own idea and assumption about what salvation was supposed to look like.

Many of the Israelites in Jesus’s day were wanting their group, their nation, their religion, to get back on top  — that was their idea of salvation — economic and political liberation! –because they were controlled by a pagan Roman regime.

And to make this expectation more complicated and confusing, they weren’t wrong to think this. If you just go back and read the Old Testament prophecies, it’s perfectly reasonable to interpret them as saying that, this is exactly what the Messiah was supposed to do! To overthrow Israel’s enemies once and for all.

These two disciples were staring at Jesus in the face, and they were incapable of realizing it. They he opened the Scriptures to them, and they still didn’t get it. And by “opened,” they didn’t mean that literally — they didn’t actually have a Bible with them. The word “open” is metaphorical. Jesus had to show them the heart of the meaning of the Scriptures! And how they were pointing to him all along.

This has been a crucial lesson for me. It’s much easier that you’d think to make Scripture say what we want it to. And it’s easy to miss the big picture, to lose sight of the forest and get lost in the trees. And many times, the way people read the Bible tends to simply be a reflection of their own hearts rather than God’s.

The Bible doesn’t just interpret itself. It takes a community, it takes the Spirit, and it takes wise and studied counsel. Unfortunately, sometimes we’re so insulated in a particular group’s way for thinking — a group whose thinking is a lot like us — that our assumptions almost never get challenged, or our way of seeing the world is constantly being reinforced by an echo chamber, so that when anything oppositional view is put forward, we dismiss it — we block it out.

People who want a violent, revolutionary Jesus, tend to read about a violent, revolutionary Jesus. People who want a strictly inclusive, passive, tolerant Jesus that never calls out anyone’s sin or threatens people with judgment — that’s the Jesus they see in their Scriptures. Sometimes our beliefs about Jesus say more about us than they do about Jesus.

But remember what Jesus himself say to these two followers:

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”

No matter how many times we hear this, no matter how many times I hear this, it challenges me. It challenges us. Because it totally goes against our nature. Is this not why these two disciples think that Jesus’s whole mission had failed? Because he had been defeated by Rome, and crucified? … The enemy state of the Jews? Because he wasn’t strong enough? Wasn’t powerful enough?

And yet, we also know it wasn’t really the Roman’s idea to crucify Jesus. As the travelers say, some of our rulers handed him over…Yes, the Romans killed him, but they we weren’t particularly worried about Jesus. They would kill anyone. and Pilate, the Roman governor, recognized that Jesus wasn’t a real threat.

It was the religious leaders that really hated Jesus and conspired against him.. The reading from the book of Acts a moment ago made this clear:

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you [Israel!] crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

And it’s not necessarily because they were Jews. They could just as easily have been modern-day Christians.

The point is, Jesus didn’t meet their expectations about salvation either! Because salvation for the religious leaders was what? Keep the law! (And this is based on a fairly straightforward or surface-level reading of many parts of Scripture as well!)

And abiding by a moral code in order to be saved is not a uniquely Jewish tendency. Legalism is legalism.  And all human beings tend toward it – we just do!

But it goes deeper than legalism. Legalism is only one way of trying to stay in control. There are lots of ways of trying to control things.. You can throw the rules out the window, and write your own, in order to be control, or you can try as hard as you can to follow them.

The lesson regardless is this: As long as we think our well-being, our happiness, our security or our worth is something that’s ultimately in our own hands, we’re never going to be in a place to recognize Jesus and to receive salvation. To experience and enter fully into it. Because it calls us to a posture of letting go, accepting the reality of suffering, and our lack of control of that reality.

And it feels like loss when we do this! It feels like dying, like giving something up, like losing, like weakness. And the cross is the great metaphor for this.

But it doesn’t have to be something so terrible as the cross. The cross is indeed terrible, on one level. To give up control itself is a kind of suffering — a necessary suffering that is indeed the road, or at least the beginning of the road to salvation.

And there’s another layer to this: giving up control doesn’t just mean giving up on trying to be good enough. It also means that we have to give up our desire to fully understand. And this was is really hard for me. But the reason I need to give this up is because, even if you think you understand this, or believe it, as a doctrine, let’s say, the moment that you move into a place of merely conceptualizing it, you’re already in danger of missing it.

Because it’s not first and foremost an idea or belief. It’s a way to be entered into. A lived experience, a posture of the heart to assume. And we are so quick to separate our mind from our minds, our thinking from how we live. We do this all the time, and we especially do this when it comes to faith. We think that just because we believe something, we’ve somehow mastered it, or that’s it has sunk into our being and our lives.

But salvation, losing control, surrendering to the mystery of the redempive nature of Christ’s suffering — and our own participation in that same suffering! — is a practice, not a belief. It has to be lived, not thought.  It’s a mystery to be welcomed into to, not a theology to be explained.

But again, at the same time, it’s not a practice that we control. It’s God’s initiative. The only thing we can do — and I hesitate to say it’s something we do, it’s really something we don’t do — is to let God in — to stop resisting God! — and to allow ourselves, to let ourselves get put in God’s way..

The two travelers in the story are not in control of when and whether they’re able to perceive who Jesus really is. And yet, there is this subtle lure and invitation that we can respond to.

There was something about Jesus, before they even realized who he was, that made them want to ask him to stay longer with them. They didn’t understand yet, but they were being drawn in by Christ’s lure. Their hearts were burning! They say, “Were not our hearts burning inside of us when he was talking to us on the road?”

There’s a strikingly similar statement to this one made by these followers in the writings of John Wesley some 1700 years later:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley

Why does Wesley say that his heart was strangely warmed? What prompted this sensation and this deep feeling of conviction? He says it came from an assurance that he’d be given by God, an assurance, that God had indeed taken away his sins, even his, and saved him from the law of sin and death.

In a word, he was assured of God’s love for him, and of God’s forgiveness. Y’all know this feeling. when someone important to you, who you really care about, loves you, gives you the assurance of their life — It just sort of makes everything else not matter very much!

The other worries of your life, they just kind of fade. They no longer weigh you down. They don’t go away completely, but they’re no longer sources of anxiety. Parents, I know you have experienced this. I’m already experiencing it as a young parent.

But on an even greater level, when the Creator God himself, gives us the assurance of his love, personally, we’re not afraid anymore! Even death, which is scary, and suffering, they just don’t have the power over us that they once did. They don’t threaten us.

Which is what these two disciples are feeling. It’s what leads them to run back to the city where Jesus had just been killed. Probably not a very safe place, but they were no longer afraid.

I read something this week that I hadn’t ever heard before: when we love someone, we’re actually letting something inside of us die a little bit. Because we’re forgetting about ourselves and our own ego, and focusing on the well-being and value of another. To love is to suffer.  Which is why God’s love for us led to such great suffering.

Great love suffers greatly, and both great love, and great suffering, have the power to prompt surrender in our lives, which is precisely the attitude and the posture of the heart that is required for transformation and salvation.

It’s not our version of salvation. It’s not the one we would pick. We’d prefer something safer and less painful. But it is the only true path of salvation. The only one that works.

Just a final quote that really captures this for me:

 “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.” – Julian of Norwich

Letting go of our own preferred versions of salvation: Giving those up — It’s going to feel like death at first, but the great mystery is that that’s precisely the gateway to being kept in God’s love, which is the safest place that anyone could ever be. It’s the only safe place, and you don’t have to do anything to get there! We just have to stop resisting. We just have to receive it. And let ourselves fall into.

For the two disciples traveling the road to Emmaus, being kept in this same precious love just mean letting Jesus become the host. Inviting him to stay for dinner. They didn’t know yet what he would do, but he came in and met them, and revealed himself to them, through the breaking of the bread and through the communion table. Let’s pray.

Good Friday, Psalm 22, and the Comfort of the Cry of Dereliction

Matthew 27:27-66

This week we’ve especially been talking about and looking at the way Jesus’s journey to the cross reveals our sin and the weight of it, the cost and consequences of it — just how devastating and serious it really is. And this is really important. It’s something we can’t lose sight of and that we should indeed focus on and remember during Holy Week. Our violence, our selfishness, our fear, our anger, leads Jesus to the Cross.

And somehow, because Jesus is both human and God, he stands in for us. He’s our representative suffer. He takes on what we would otherwise have to bear for ourselves, and takes it away — sets us free of it. This is central to the gospel and to the hope that we have as Christians.

But of all the words that were just read from Matthew’s gospel, maybe none of them so much as Jesus’ last words have struck Christians and baffled them throughout the Centuries as the ones that Jesus uttered from the cross in his dying breathe: (v. 46) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

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Palm Sunday: Choosing Barabbas

[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]

Matthew 21:1-11; 27:11-26

Last Sunday we begin to take a turn in a slightly different direction in our sermons as we are preparing for Holy week. And we talked about the story of the golden calf, and about God’s mercy and justice in response to that sin, and then specifically this idea of generational sin — sin that gets inherited, in a sense or passed down, because it’s in our family or environment — it’s just around us, and we may not even realize it.

Sometimes we’re perpetuating it, it’s sin that we’re committing and we’re caught up in, but other times it’s sin that’s been perpetrated against us, and we’re the victim of it. So we’re wounded, and there needs to be awareness, first of all. Because if it isn’t acknowledged, then it can’t be healed, and there can’t be reconciliation in our relationships.

But in the story this morning for Palm Sunday, a different kind of sin is highlighted. It isn’t so much generational sin, and it isn’t necessarily even just individual sin — though it certainly includes those two. What we see in the Palm Sunday episode, and then in the passage I read a moment ago, which takes place only a few days later, is the showcasing of what I think we can just call social sin.

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Defending the Shack (sort of…)

[This review originally appeared on the Mockingbird blog.]

It will perhaps be no surprise to many readers here to learn that, overall, The Shack is simply not a high quality film. It has already received scathing reviews by critics, and for very understandable reasons, even if the popular viewership has been moderately receptive.

A movie like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, for example, is arguably superior to The Shack, and it’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that more people will likely see the latter than the former. But unlike Silence, and this isn’t unimportant, The Shack is a film that is especially suited for older children — much more so than adults. It’s only rated PG-13, I would presume, because of the heavy thematic content: innocent suffering, murder, the problem of evil, etc.

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Invitation to Silence and Solitude

[The following is from the sermon I preached on March 12, 2017 at Saint Peter’s Church. It is based on Mark 1:29-39, and the audio can be found here.]

For the whole year of 2017 so far, and now in the season of Lent, we’ve basically been talking about following Jesus: how to be with him, do what he did, and, as a result, become like him. Moreover, we follow him in community with others, and this following and community happens in the presence and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

For the first Sunday in Lent, we heard about Jesus’s most basic requirement for following him, which was this: if anyone wants to be my disciple, he or she must deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow me. It’s a discipline of self-denial and self- renunciation. It’s requires a certain kind of self-imposed suffering, in other words — suffering on purpose, you could say, so that suffering on accident doesn’t overtake us. So that we can remain who we are in Christ, and live like him, even when life becomes overwhelming.

And the Christian way of doing this and preparing ourselves for this is through the regular practice of various spiritual disciplines. And not surprisingly, to learn what those disciplines are, again — we look to Jesus and ask how we can do what he did. So this morning we’re getting very specific and asking about one particular practice Jesus observed.

It tells us in Mark 1 that

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

In other words, Jesus had a regularly rhythm not only of prayer in his life — it does say he went to pray, of course, and we could talk about prayer — but prayer is something we do talk about fairly often.

It also tells us that Jesus had a regular rhythm of moving into silence and solitude. Two things we don’t tend to talk about as much.

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The Politics of Jesus or the Politics of Jesús?

The Politics of Jesus remains a landmark book that has inspired much of neo-Anabaptist thought. I read it for the first time in seminary alongside several other seminal works by Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Reinhold Neibuhr and others. It’s represents a movement that I’ve been impressed by in recent years, particularly with its critique of how power often gets used in our culture and in the church to reinforce hierarchies and antagonisms, rather than to advance God’s kingdom.

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Christian Community as a World-Changing Social Experiment

[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]

Well if you’ve been around all in 2017, you know that we’ve been in a series on Sunday mornings on discipleship: how to be with Jesus, do what he did, and become like him — and in the last couple of weeks, we focused on two key essential ingredients for doing exactly: what does it take to become like Jesus? First of all, we have to know his message and his teachings, and then we have put that message and teaching into practice — because what we do with our lives, and the habits we form and practice determine where we end up and who we become.

What we do and the habits we form literally, actually changes our desires themselves, from what they naturally are, which is very self-serving, to what they could be, in the service of God and others.

And you can be sure that, if you go on this journey of doing the things the Jesus did, your life is going to look different from the rest of people’s lives in the society and culture us. It’s safe to say that we will actually be living a counter-cultural lifestyle if we’re imitating Jesus, and he has authority over what we do.

But there’s one aspect to this counter-cultural life that may actually be the most unnatural and counter-cultural of all in our present age. And it’s this: community.

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Learning about the Gospel from Self-Help, AA and Tony Robbins

[This post originally appeared on the Mockingbird blog.]

The kind of religion many people in America grew up with went something like this: do or believe these things in order to be “right with God.” But as experience will show, following either of these directives tends to lead to greater frustration, disillusionment and anxiety. “Am I really good enough?” “Am I really saved?” This encounter with church or Christianity for many did not enable a more joyful, tranquil and abundant life. It did the opposite. Sometimes it told folks they had to vote Republican. In other instances, it made them feel like they couldn’t trust science or enjoy the arts.

This is not to say there aren’t more thoughtful and grace-centered versions of Christianity out there. There are. But examples of bad faith still abound, and these lead many people to doubt, despair, or simply accept that they’re just not very “religious.”

The self-help industry, popular psychology and new age spirituality all have something of a stigma in most Christian circles, and for some good reasons. I too have tended to be a skeptic, but I’ve also been fairly ignorant about these movements. And in light of the sort of religion I’ve just described, is it really any wonder that we’ve seen the growth of such “unorthodox” spiritual schools of thought in recent decades?

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Abortion, The Women’s March, and other Uncontroversial Things: A Couple’s Perspective

main_900On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, there is quite a convergence right now with this past Saturday’s Women’s March, Trump’s Inauguration the day before, and the March for Life this coming Friday. I don’t think I’ve ever written about abortion, mainly because it’s a conversation I’d rather have in person, and I’m certainly not an expert. Not to mention, it tends to get people up in arms, and often for good reason. But today I felt compelled to say something.

Though my theological orientation has tended to be broadly evangelical, I hold fairly “progressive” views on many social issues. But not when it comes to abortion. I have a son now, and there’s no question in my mind about the sanctity of his life in the womb. I can only speak as a man, which  is insufficient (my wife Whitney speaks for herself below), but even in the exceptional cases that make abortion necessary or justified (rape, incest, risk to maternal life, etc.), I believe it remains tragic. And the reality is that the majority of abortions do not occur as a result of these terrible circumstances.

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Silence Plumbs the Depths of Suffering, Priesthood and Apostasy

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog.]

In his work, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a distinction between the spiritual posture of what he calls the “sick soul,” on the one hand, and “healthy-mindedness,” on the other. Neither label is necessarily positive or negative.silence-banner-e1483736562537

By “sick soul,” James means someone for whom human suffering and injustice tend to be an inescapable and overwhelming problem. There are no answers for it, and finding a state of “rest in God” can be very difficult for those with this disposition. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” person of faith is able to cultivate a deep sense of peace and trust that God is good, and all manner of things will be well. Evil for the healthy-minded is like a lie that poses no serious threat.

Of course, many of us probably oscillate between these two places from time to time, and certainly the latter is ultimately more desirable from a Christian point of view. But rush too quickly to healthy-minded religion, and we are sure to lose the prophetic heart of the biblical narrative. We see examples of both throughout Scripture, each one given legitimacy as a earnest stance before God — e.g., “How long Oh Lord?” (Psalm 13) vs. “I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Psalm 131). But the movie Silence, much like the book, does not make the still and quiet of healthy-mindedness very easy to come by.

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