Acts 2.14a, 36-41
The interesting thing about the early history of the Christian Church is the speed with which it grew, and the influence which it exerted even in the most unlikely places. We are now used to the idea that the mission to the Jewish nation, begun by Jesus himself and continued with great passion and enthusiasm by his first disciples, was a failure. The Jewish faith continued unaltered and most Jewish people rejected the Christian message that Jesus was the expected Lord and Messiah.
However, if the mission was a failure, it was a glorious failure. When they first heard the Gospel, Peter's Jewish hearers were cut to the heart and - as a result - three thousand were converted to the Christian faith on the Day of Pentecost alone.
Perhaps we expect failure too readily and perhaps we put too little confidence in the story of Jesus. If we allowed the Gospel story to speak for itself, perhaps more people would be as moved as were the visitors to Jerusalem who listened to Peter's first sermon. But then again, we must ask ourselves what it actually means to be added to the number of Jesus' followers. Does it mean becoming a member of the Church, or does it mean finding truth and meaning in Jesus' life and death?
The language of baptism and repentance suggests a radical change in the way that Peter's hearers chose to live, and this is borne out by Luke's account of how they shared their possessions, but these were very early days before formal institutions such as congregations and church services had been developed. It is not exactly clear how far people had to join in with what the circle around the apostles was doing in order to be counted as followers of Jesus. Did the Church, then and since, too easily and too hastily become an institution which lays down inflexible guidelines about how to follow Jesus instead of allowing people to be guided by the Spirit within?
1 Peter 1.17-23
This passage gathers together many different ideas from the New Testament understanding of Jesus, especially but not exclusively those found in John's Gospel. First, there is the idea of Jesus' death as a ransom - but not one paid in precious metal, which has no lasting value as Jesus himself made clear, but a ransom paid instead by Jesus' own death upon the cross. Here the writer goes on to adopt the way that John's Gospel interprets the crucified Jesus, as the Passover lamb sacrificed to save the people of God from slavery - not to Pharaoh but to the futile ways which we inherit as part of our human nature.
The writer then draws on several other ideas found in John. There is the idea that the mission of Jesus was destined to happen even before the fabric of the universe was laid down. There is the idea - derived from Jesus' own commandments - that to follow him means to love one another as he has first loved us. And finally there is the idea of a new birth, or new beginning, made possible by God's Spirit at work within us.
And our belief in all of these things depends on the resurrection of Jesus which, as both Paul and John also argue in their writings, is the essential basis of our faith and trust in God.
What is it that keeps the two disciples, perhaps Cleopas and his wife, from recognising who the stranger is? It has traditionally been assumed that God himself keeps them from recognising the truth, so that future generations may have the benefit of hearing this beautiful and engaging story. But isn't it more likely that doubt and fear, ignorance and lack of faith, were the true cause of their lack of recognition?
Then again, who is it that the two disciples actually meet? Is it a Jesus whose resurrection body is so different from his former appearance that it is difficult to recognise him without the eyes of faith? Or is it a Jesus who is shrouded in a huge and mysterious cloak like some First Century hoody? Or is it simply a true believer, someone who has seen and understood the real significance of the Easter story because of his deeper understanding of the Jewish scriptures and his greater willingness to have faith?
And when the eyes of the two disciples are finally opened, and they recognise him, is it because - as in BBC1's "The Passion" - the stranger suddenly changes into the familiar Jesus whom they knew before? Or is it because they suddenly understand the true significance of breaking and sharing bread - that, whenever his followers do this together in obedience to him - Jesus is in their midst? And does the stranger vanish as if in a puff of smoke, or does vanish from the story because he continues on his way once the disciples no longer need his reassuring presence and have decided to return to Jerusalem?
The beauty of the story is that, in a sense, it does not matter which of these interpretations is the right one. It works equally well on all of these levels. One thing is certain, whatever happened on that original journey, we can encounter the risen Jesus in the strangers we meet on our journey through life, just as he said that we would.