Putting Together the Pieces, Luke 24:36-49 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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One of the things we enjoy when we get together for holidays is putting together jigsaw puzzles. We dump the pieces out for people to work on whenever they feel like it, and over the course of a few days it’s really fun to watch the picture begin to take shape. We always sort out the edge pieces first, so we can put together the whole frame, and then each person tends to focus on a particular part of the whole, sorting out all the sky blues or all the leaf greens or all the furry shades of brown, depending on what kind of picture we’re making.
It’s a fun thing to do, but sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. Sometimes there are so many pieces, or it is so hard to distinguish one color from another, that it is more stressful than fun. One year we received a puzzle for a Christmas present that was a photograph of lions resting in the dry yellowed grass of the African savannah. Fifteen hundred teeny-tiny puzzle pieces, and every one of them was yellowish-brown. That puzzle sat out on our table for weeks, maybe months, until the cats started carrying off the pieces and I finally gave up and threw the whole thing away.
And I think sometimes reading the Bible feels a little bit like that overwhelming puzzle. Over the last five or six months, our morning Bible study has been studying the life of King David. Beginning with his anointing as a boy, we’ve been putting together the pieces, bit by bit, to form a picture of this very complex man, the one God himself called a “man after his own heart.” We still have a very long way to go. But when we’ve finished assembling our picture of David, we’ll just have a piece of the whole tableau of the Scriptures, and how do we know how to fit that into the whole framework of the Bible, the stories we remember from our Sunday school days, the poetry of the Psalms, the weird visions of Ezekiel and John, the history and the prophecies, the life of Jesus, the letters of Paul and Peter? Do they fit together? Is there one whole picture?
The specifically Christian understanding of the Bible, including the Hebrew Scriptures, is that the Bible comprises one whole, harmonious picture, and that the framework and the completed picture have one object – and that is Jesus. We see in the gospel reading this morning that that is exactly what Jesus himself says. We also see that even his disciples, raised as good Jewish children to know God’s word, even they couldn’t put the whole picture together until Jesus showed them how it worked.
It was the night of the first Easter Sunday. Rumors were flying thick and fast about what various people had claimed to see – or not see – at Joseph’s tomb, where the body of Jesus had been laid to rest. The frightened disciples, except for Thomas, were huddled together in the locked room, when Jesus appeared among them. And after he had convinced them that he really wasn’t a ghost, he did something we might not have expected. He gave them a sort of crash course in systematic theology, only it wasn’t dull and tedious and pedantic at all. It was more like he turned on the light, and suddenly, like a kind of magic, he revealed to them how all the pieces, all the writings and prophecies and histories, all the stories and all the laws, how they all fit together to make one whole picture. And more than that, he showed them how all the things they had just experienced – all the healings and all his teachings, his arrest, his rejection, his death – were the last pieces they needed to bring the whole picture together in perfect unity. He opened their minds, Luke says, and suddenly they could see it.
When Jesus came upon the two disciples, Cleopas and his wife, or his friend, walking along the road to Emmaus that same night, he did the same thing. The two disciples were traveling home from Jerusalem, seven long weary miles home after the terrible events of those last days, and Jesus joined them, walking alongside them. And as they walked, he began to explain how things all worked together, beginning way back, with Moses and the Prophets. And when Jesus left them, they turned to one another in amazement, saying, “weren’t our hearts burning inside us while he talked with us along the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
And the same thing happened again, when our very own St. Philip found himself riding in a chariot with an Ethiopian man, a eunuch who was an important official in the court of the Queen of Ethiopia. This story is pictured on our St. Philip’s banner, hanging in the Parish Hall. The eunuch was what was called a “God-fearer,” someone who wasn’t a descendant of Abraham, or a convert to Judaism, but who had come to believe in the God of Jews, attending worship at the Temple in Jerusalem and studying the Hebrew Scriptures.
And on the day the Holy Spirit introduced him to Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch was poring over a passage in Isaiah the prophet, but he was having a hard time understanding. He was reading Isaiah 53, where it is written, ““Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” He was reading out loud to himself, as his chariot rolled along, and Philip heard him and asked him if he understood what he was reading. “How can I,” the man answered him, “unless someone guides me? Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about – himself, or some other person?” So Philip swung himself up into the chariot beside the Ethiopian man, and, beginning with this passage from Isaiah, he put the whole picture together for him. And just like the disciples in the locked room, just like the two on the road to Emmaus, the light came on for him and he saw the whole picture. And what the eunuch saw was Jesus. He looked up from the scroll and there was a body of water, some river or pond or stream, and at once he begged Philip to baptize him, and Philip baptized him, in the name of Jesus.
I don’t mean to imply that there is some kind of secret method to make the whole Bible simple, boiling it all down to one basic message like the Golden Rule or the Four Spiritual Laws and ignoring everything else. The picture is still wonderfully and maddeningly intricate and complex. There will always be parts that we have to wrestle with. But it makes all the difference to know that all the people and stories and scenes and ideas are fragments of one whole, that it is only when they come together that we can fully understand them, and that when they all come together the image is Him.
My feeling, when I read these passages where Jesus, or Philip, opens the Scriptures for people, is that I just wish so much that I could have been there. If only I could have heard what Jesus said in that locked room, or walking along the dusty road to Emmaus. If only I could have sat beside Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch as that chariot rattled along. Because how can I understand, as the eunuch said to Philip, unless I have someone to guide me? And the answer to that, dear ones, is that we do.
I’d like to make three suggestions about learning how to see the big picture of the Scriptures, and the first and most important, I think, is that we don’t have to figure it all out on our own. I can’t think of anything less fun, personally, than dumping out a thousand-piece puzzle on my dining-room table, and putting it together all by myself, with no help from anybody. The disciples didn’t understand until he sat down and explained it to them. The Ethiopian eunuch didn’t understand until Philip hopped into his chariot and shared what Jesus had taught him. Whenever we sit down to read the Bible, Old Testament or New Testament, whether it’s a hard passage or one we’ve read a thousand times, the first thing we need to do is to ask for help. And when we ask, the Holy Spirit will always be right there as our guide. At the last supper, when Jesus was telling his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit, he told them, “The Counselor, the one I’m sending in my Name, he will teach you everything, and remind you of everything I’ve said to you.” That’s a pretty big promise, “everything,” but it’s one we can be sure of.
My second suggestion, especially as we wrestle with things that are hard for us to understand, maybe even things that disturb or frighten us, is to always, always, keep looking back at the big picture. When we’re working on a puzzle, we always keep referring back to the picture on the lid of the box over and over again, so we don’t get lost in the chaos of colors and shapes that seem to have no relation to each other. Looking at the big picture, we suddenly see where our little piece belongs. And it is much the same as we read the Bible. Eyes on Jesus. When we feel confused or lost or troubled, eyes on Jesus. When things just don’t seem to fit, eyes on Jesus.
Which brings me to my last suggestion, and that is, “Be patient.” If puzzle-making is an exercise in anything at all, it’s patience. Putting a thousand tiny pieces of cardboard together to make a beautiful landscape can take days, and any number of failures and frustrations as we try piece after piece after piece, only to find that they’re all the wrong color or shape or size. In the same way, only so much more so, it takes time to come to an understanding of God’s revelation of Himself in Holy Scripture. It takes, in fact, a whole lifetime. But in our day-to-day relationship with the Bible, we should expect it to take time. We sit down for our devotional time. We pray that the Spirit will be our guide. We open our Bible to the days’ reading. But then we need to do more than give it a quick once-over. I’m a fast reader, personally, so I have to work hard to make myself slow down, to stop and let the words sink in, to go back and read them over. Maybe I only read two or three verses, when what I’d really like to do is to zip through the whole chapter and check “Bible reading” off my to-do list. But it is only by letting the Word sink from our heads down to our hearts that we can begin to see His image coming into focus.
I’d like to close with a Collect from the Prayer Book, slightly edited. Let us pray:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. As we read, open our eyes to see his image more clearly day by day; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.