Early this past week, I was visiting with two members of one of my congregations, discussing the plight of churches and my belief that one of the reasons churches struggle is that, as I have said before, Christians have made poor use of the major tool they have for exploring the questions of “Who is God and what does he want of me?” and “Who is Jesus and what does he mean for me?”
That “tool” is of course the Bible, and I have often said that it has been misused. Indeed, for the first 1500 years of Christianity, the Bible was largely not used, both because it was not widely available, and because many priests — not to mention their parishioners — were illiterate. (I also tend to add that the early Church leaders recognized the challenges in understanding Scripture.) But it has also been misused by so many to this very day. The Bible is not meant as a weapon with which to hit others over the head for their flaws and from which to hide our own flaws, nor is it meant to be read as a science text nor as dictated — not to be read as dictated by God as opposed to inspired by God, whatever that means; inspired by God in very fallible human beings who have done their imperfect best to try to write down what they believe God would want them to write down.
In other words, as you all know, though I am a great lover of the Bible, I not only do not worship the Bible — though I clearly worship from the Bible, — I do not believe every word I read from the Bible. I am not a biblical literalist: there is no dome above the earth to which the moon and stars are attached. I do not believe the Bible is “the Word of God” because the Bible says that Jesus is the Word of God.
So one of these very dear people asked me, “What about angels? Do you believe in angels?” Which led me into a discourse, including some personal experiences and also the Book of Jonah, but part of which discourse I hope is very relevant to making use for us of the story of “The Road to Emmaus,” a story which, as I said on Easter, becomes a challenge for me because we read it shortly after Easter every year. And every time we read it, I like to point out that the two men at the center of the story, men who knew the pre-crucifixion Jesus, did not recognize the risen Jesus. Ponder that.
They did not recognize him, yet later:
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
That aspect of the story suggested to me this wonderful passage from the seldom read — though I love some of the passages that can be pulled from it — New Testament book by an unknown writer, the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. [italics added]
Well, what do we mean by angel? Atop the new Mormon Temple I pass about two miles or so from my home, there is a gold plated figure that looks like a human with a long trumpet representing the angel Moroni, of whom I otherwise know nothing, but does that really mean anything to us? What do we mean by angel?
For some of us, we have the concept of a guardian angel, some sort of heavenly being that watches over us and keeps us from injury; for others, I dare say for most, angel invokes images of cupid like figures, human beings with wings, perhaps not chubby and cute, but more adult and clothed in robes from which wings emerge. Have you ever wondered how an angel fits the robe over those wings? Getting dressed must be a task.
And that winged-human-like image is not completely nonsensical. One of the most quoted lines from the Psalms that gave rise to that wonderful song, “On Eagles’ Wings,” is:
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
I know that is not the translation in the song, but you know to what I refer.
Psalms — specifically, the Book of “Psalms” — is Old Testament, written in the otherwise lost language of biblical Hebrew, and the Hebrew word that is translated as “angels” in Psalm 91 is the same Hebrew word, Melek, or M-L-K, since Hebrew was written without vowels, just consonants, the same word as the word for “king.” Indeed, I wonder in good faith whether the father of Martin Luther King Sr. was aware of this Hebrew word. The Hebrew word M-L-K can mean “angel,” “messenger,” “ambassador,” or “king.”
Or to put it another way, angel and messenger are the same word in the Bible, an idea that continues into the New Testament. The Greek word for “angel,” aggelos, has the more specific meaning of “messenger from God.” It is the word from which we get “evangelist,” “evangelist,” which I hope that I — and you — may be said to be.
But here is my point, and I do not want to belabor it since we have already done a great deal of reading today, and I am mindful that the mind can only absorb what the seat can withstand: We can all be angels, and, at least at times, in being such, we can indeed carry the message of the Gospel.
We do not need to be like Jesus in the story of the “Road to Emmaus,” explaining Scripture to others; indeed, most of us will be effective only if we do not presume to be preachy or evangelistic in our speech. But we can be real angels if we recall the opening of that passage from Hebrews:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers . . . not only because “some have entertained angels,” but because in showing that hospitality to strangers one is being an angel to them.
Neither mutual love nor showing hospitality is always that easy. Mutual love is another term for what I said a week ago is that leg on which a church stands of sharing fellowship with and supporting one another, and with our all being humans — and sinful, as John Calvin accurately but insensitively pointed out — with our being sinful humans, we develop disagreement with and often contempt for others; we develop prejudices — pre-judgements, — and may be downright inhospitable. I know she will not mind my pointing this out, but when a much-tattooed Heidi Lowe, whose three grand-daughters everyone in the Florence congregation knows and loves and the older two of whom are sending to summer camp, when Heidi first appeared, I am quite sure that the tattoos were a, well, a sign to many of her being different and maybe not a Christian. Yet not only did the people warm up and embrace her, but she has been an angel within our congregation, serving as an elder, editing our newsletter, and helping not only me with our website but helping with the fellowship hour . . . and being just an incredible gift to her grand-daughters. But so also those who embraced her despite their discomfort with her tattoos have been true angels.
Allow me to emphasize that concept again: by showing understanding even when one does not understand, by showing kindness and acceptance even when one is uncomfortable, if by doing so it is comforting to another, that is being an angel! We can all do it. I do not mean to highlight Florence; in Coolidge, being patient with Elizabeth even when she interrupts worship represents the same behavior — being angels!
And we do not need to intend to “be an angel”; it is simply that by loving the sojourner, the visitor, the stranger who is among us, we are intrinsically being angelic — angelic in the best sense of the word — being an angel to others. I have shared with you too often what has probably become my cliché when I discuss the woman with the screaming kids at Walmart, but sayings become clichés in no small measure because they are true. So be an angel to someone today!
Several times in the Bible we read what is commanded in Leviticus 19:18: Love your neighbor as yourself. But appearing even more times when we read the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, is: “Love the alien” — the stranger — “who is resident among you, for you were an alien” — stranger — “in Egypt.” In other words, we have all benefited from the presence of aliens, strangers, who were angels in our own lives, let us benefit others by being angels to them.
They might not know who it was that was kind or comforting or accepting or generous toward them, we might remain unidentified like the Lone Ranger, but when we are comforting or accepting or generous, perhaps those we comfort or to whom we are generous will have that sense of those two men walking the road to Emmaus, hearts burning with the feeling that they had been visited by an angel bearing the message, “Jesus loves you.”
Let us be angels. When they say, “Who was that masked man — or woman?” The answer might be, “I don’t know, but my heart burned . . . burned as though Jesus were here.”
For he was there, just as he is here, as we gather.
And in His name. Amen.