What Brings People Back to Church
Back door losses. That's been a big concern of churches for at least 20 years. Back door losses refers to those who join the church through the front door only to disappear out the back one. Back door losses is what our text opens with. Two people leaving the Church of Jerusalem disappointed, discouraged, and maybe even a bit disgusted. Well what brings these 2 back to Church?
A suffering Jesus does. This is a paradox because what leads them out of the back door of the church is a suffering Jesus. They are upset because, "The chief priests and our rulers handed Him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified Him." They had hoped that He would be the one to redeem Israel, but now He was dead. O sure some of the women said angels told them that Jesus was alive, but 2 of their companions had gone to the tomb and did not see Jesus. The suffering of Jesus completely eclipsed any hope of their redemption and His resurrection on the third day.
Now if I were the pastor of the First Church of Jerusalem, I'll tell you what I wouldn't do. I wouldn't talk to these weary, down and out disciples about the suffering Jesus. Nope, I'd talk to them about a mighty, powerful, winning Jesus. I sure wouldn't depict Jesus on the cross. Nope, I'd make sure that cross was empty. Christ on the cross was a message of defeat to these 2 back door losses. And I wouldn't invite them to hear about the death of Christ; no sir-re; I'd invite them to hear about the life of Christ.
It's plain to see that a suffering and dying Jesus drove these 2 out of the Church, so we would think a happy, winning, living Jesus would be needed to bring them back. Yet, what does Jesus do? He starts talking about the necessity of a suffering Jesus. He goes through the whole Old Testament and shows them how it pointed to a suffering Jesus. How negative! What a downer! But surely this must be where St. Paul got the teaching that the purpose of the Church is to preach Christ and Him crucified rather than Christ and Him risen. Surely, this must be where St. Paul got the teaching that as often as we eat Christ's Body and drink His Blood we proclaim not Christ's life but His death. Surely this is why the symbol of the holy Christian Church since at least the 5th century has been the crucifix not the empty cross or tomb.
But this makes no earthly sense, does it? The message of the Church ought to be positive, upbeat, triumphal. Yet, this is not what Jesus uses to bring these back door loses back to Church. He uses a suffering Jesus, Christ and Him crucified; He proclaims the death of Christ to them. And that's what we do here, isn't it? If you want a happy, clappy Jesus, you'll have to go somewhere else. If you want to hear only about an empty grave, a vacant cross and a mighty Jesus, you'll have to go where sin, death, and the devil aren't really a problem.
People who know they are sinners; people who are chased by death; people who are plagued by the devil, are comforted by a suffering, crucified Jesus. You see, they know that's what they deserve for their sins; that's what the Law requires for sinners. Nothing less than suffering and eternal death are required of real sinners. I can't chase my sins away by singing happy songs. I don't deal with death by ignoring it and thinking about living instead, and I certainly don't defeat the devil by pretending to feel upbeat. If I can't show my sins paid for, the Laws of God that I broke kept, and my death died already by the suffering and crucified Christ, then sin, death, and the devil howl at me till I go insane. But with Christ and Him crucified, sin, death and the devil are muzzled. What can they say? My sins have been paid for; my death has been died; my devils have been crushed.
This was the fact that the back door losses were missing. They didn't realize until Jesus showed them that His suffering and death weren't a defeat for Him but a necessity for their victory. Their hearts burned within them because all of the evidence they had taken as proof that Jesus had lost was shown by Scripture to be proof that they had won over sin, death, the devil. All the evidence proved the opposite of what they had thought.
A suffering Jesus brings back door loses back to Church. He speaks to their greatest needs: forgiveness not friends; eternal life not a happier earthly life; victory over the devil not over bad feelings. A suffering Jesus brings real sinners back to Church, so does a present Jesus. Believe it or not, Jesus is not thought of as being present in all churches. In many churches, Jesus is a historical figure. Don't believe me? A supervising chaplain I had use to regularly begin sentences with: "If Jesus were alive today..." Other people say, "When Jesus walked this earth..." as if Jesus didn't walk this earth today. Or, "If Jesus were here," as if Jesus wasn't really here.
It is a present Jesus, not an absent one that brings back door losses back to Church, and Jesus is very much present here and now in this Church. We believe the voice of Jesus speaks today in our Church. When the Absolution is spoken, the lessons read, the sermon preached, or the Communion celebrated, we believe it is none other than Jesus Himself forgiving, speaking, preaching, and celebrating.
Jesus not only speaks to us today, He intercedes for us. Scripture says that Jesus is our Advocate before the Father when we sin; Scripture says that He ever lives to make intercession for us. He is present in Baptism covering us with His righteousness; He is present in the Absolution sending our sins away right then and there, and He is present in Communion joining His holy, living Body and Blood to our unholy, dying body and blood.
Jesus not only speaks and intercedes for us today in our Church, He rules here too. During His visible ministry, Jesus ruled over sin, sickness, and Satan. Jesus still does that today. He calls sinners forgiven and they are. He says to the sick, "Though they die, yet they will live," and they do. He uses and directs Satan and the evil he does to the good and glory of His holy people like a king ruling over his servants.
A present Jesus, speaking, interceding, and ruling brings back people to Church. We show Jesus is a present reality to us here; that's why we stand, bow, and kneel when we do. We stand when the Gospel is read to show that Jesus is especially speaking there. Notice that the hymnal doesn't say after the Gospel what I do. I wrongly say, "Here ends the Gospel reading." The hymnal has, "Here ends the Gospel." Our hymnal doesn't regard the Gospel as a reading of something that happened in the past but as a present reality Jesus speaks right now . We stand for liturgy and for prayer because we are in the presence of the Lord Jesus. When the "Gloria Patri" is sung in the Introit or in the Nunc Dimittis some Christians bow the head as an indication that they stand before Father, Son, and Holy Ghost right here. Likewise, the bowing and kneeling that goes on in Communion are signs of respect and honor we show to Jesus who is no less present to us than the person in the pew next to us.
What brings people back to Church? A suffering Jesus; a present Jesus; a Jesus who stays with us. Many people have noticed that after Jesus shows the Emmaus disciples the necessity of His suffering for their redemption, and after He shows them that He is indeed alive, He disappears. And this takes place after they have "urged Him strongly, "Stay with us." Now, you know this incident is where the hymn, "Abide with me," comes from. The King James Version translates the disciples saying, "Abide with us." When you sing that hymn are you expecting that Jesus would just pop in and then pop back out? So how come in this terribly tense moment Jesus just pops back out of the lives of these 2 back door losses?
You know what all back door losses believe? That they can have Jesus apart, without, separate from the Church. They can remain outside the Church, not going, not being absolved for their sins, not eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ for forgiveness, not hearing His Word, and still have Jesus. Faith in Jesus to them exists apart from the Word of God striking their hearts, but faith can no more exist apart from the Word striking the heart than sound can come from a drum that is not struck. The hearts of these 2 back door losses did not burn until Jesus preached the Word to them. They knew all of the facts of Good Friday and even Easter. They thought about them. They dwelled on them. But it took Jesus explaining the Scriptures to them before faith could spring up in their hearts.
However, Jesus didn't want them to stay away from Church. His revealing Himself to them in the Words of the Old Testament was not to be an end in itself. They weren't to be content with a memory of how their hearts burned within them the one time Jesus preached to them. No, they were to go back to the Church where they had been hearing Jesus. Their hearts burned from the hearing of Jesus, so they were driven at once to make a somewhat dangerous nighttime journey back to Church.
What are we to make of the fact that these 2 back door losses told the Jerusalem Church that they recognized Jesus when he Broke the Bread? Early church fathers believed this refers to Communion. It is true that St. Luke in Acts 2:42 uses this identical Greek phrase in what most take to be a reference to Holy Communion, "They continued in the teaching of the Apostles, the Fellowship, the Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers." This seems to describe the Jerusalem's Church Divine Service.
The Catholic Church, however, used these passages to defend their practice of only giving, the Bread, the Body of Christ, to communicants and reserving the Wine, the Blood of Christ for the priest. The Lutheran confessions responded, "Although we do not seriously object if some of these passages are understood as referring to the sacrament, still it does not follow that only one element was given, because according to the common usage of language, the naming of one element also includes the other."
So, is this a reference to Communion? It's true; we recognize Jesus in this Meal here, and Communion is referred to simply as The Breaking of Bread. The words used to describe what Jesus did, took bread, gave thanks, broke it do remind us of the Lord's Supper. What decides it for me, however, is if it's not the Lord's Supper, Jesus doesn't abide with these 2 disciples long at all. He leaves not long after going into the house with them. But if this is the Lord's Supper, than the Holy Spirit is showing us how the Lord Jesus abides with us now: Not in visible flesh and blood, but invisibly in Bread and Wine. Isn't this the point of the last verses? The Jerusalem Church tells the Emmaus disciples that they know that Jesus had really risen because He had appeared to Peter. They respond how they had recognized Jesus when He broke the bread. They don't feel cheated by this. On the contrary, they are saying in effect, that Jesus' making Himself known this way was just as good as His appearing to Peter.
If you don't believe this is a reference to the Lord's Supper, that's okay, but do believe that it's unbelief that leads a person out the Church's back door and only a suffering, present, abiding Jesus in Word and Sacrament can lead them back again. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter III (4-14-02), Luke 24:13-35