Sermon for Easter +3A, May 4, 2014 on Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 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 same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Brokenness and Meaning
We just read one of the stories of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. It is clear to me* that the gospel writers, like Luke, wanted us to look beneath the surface of these stories to meanings that are true, in the deepest sense, and desperately needed. So, we will walk through this story trying to hear from it what Luke wanted us to hear. *[For a brief explanation of why, see below.]
The setting is a journey. The risen Jesus meets the disciples on their journey; on the way. Even though they are not expecting him and unaware of him, he meets them where they are, on their journey.
The idea that life is a journey is an old one. We leave home as adulthood begins, and journey into an unknown future. Now, today, most of us here are quite far along on the journey. Looking back, it feels short. Time has flown. How are you feeling about where you have come to at this stage of your journey? Are you where you want to be?
Disappointment and Expectations
The two disciples are admittedly, disappointed with where their journey has taken them. They had high hopes, but now are left with dashed expectations. Does that sound familiar? Disappointment with how things turned out is not simply a shallow emotion. Below the surface, it is also disappointment with God.
Disappointment has to do with expectations. What were you/we expecting life to be like? Did it include suffering?
These two disciples in the story reveal that they had a firm, fixed notion about what to expect from God. They had defined a job description and had a clear plan for how God would fulfill it.
“But we had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel.”
– meaning, redeem Israel from the grip of the Roman occupiers.
It was not necessarily an evil plan; it involved God doing things they thought they could expect God to do – like removing the bad guys and making life wonderful.
Only, the bad guys appeared to have won. Jesus, who was supposed to be God’s man of the hour, was crucified – as Rome did to all of its potential problem-causers. It was not supposed to happen that way.
Living on Plan B
I heard a radio program about people living out plan B or C or D of their lives. Nobody seemed to be living out their first Plan A life. Life is way more complicated, fragile, and vulnerable than that. Wars come up, economic catastrophes happen, families are subject to a host of crises, relationships fail, illness, death, even career crises happen. Everybody knows loss and suffering.
Psychiatrist Scott Peck began his famous book “The Road Less Traveled” with the words,
“Life is difficult.”
That simple fact is quite hard to accept as completely true. Peck says that attempting to avoid the simple truth that life is difficult is the cause of most mental illness. And none of us is completely healthy in this respect, he claims.
God’s Job Description
If we expect that God’s job description is to step into our lives to make them not difficult, we will be disappointed. It is odd of us to be like this. You would think we would know better.
None of us, who are parents, thought our job was to remove every difficulty from our children’s lives. We knew that they had to encounter and learn to overcome difficulties if they were to develop impulse control, learn to delay gratification, and grow into resilient adults. Nevertheless, we have a hard time when God does not step in and fight our battles for us, and remove the pain.
Mis-Reading the Bible
How did we get into this condition of wrong-headedness about God? Probably for the same reason those two disciples got it wrong; because we were reading the story of God incompletely. I mean, the Biblical story of God. We call it the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.
We have parts of the story we like to read and other parts we tend to ignore. We like the bits about Moses besting Pharaoh with plagues, Joshua conquering the promised land from the Philistines, and David felling giant Goliath. We like the miraculous birth of Isaac to aged Abraham and Sarah and Daniel’s survival in the lion’s den.
Reading with eyes open only to the triumphal parts of the story may lead to the conclusion that God’s job is to lead us to victory and bliss. This may be one paradigm, one frame in which to put the picture, but not the right one. This is a distorted picture – perhaps even an upside down and backwards picture.
A Truer Perspective
There is a pattern in the biblical story that should be clear as a crystal, if we are open to seeing it. It is the pattern that barrenness comes before the miraculous baby is born. It is that slavery comes before the Red Sea crossing to freedom. It is that there are humiliating giants in the land before there is a day of triumph. That death precedes resurrection; that suffering is the path to redemption.
So, in this story, Jesus opens their eyes. How?
“Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
He opened their eyes to their own scripture. He provided a new paradigm for reading scripture. What had they missed?
The answer stares us in the face:
Suffering Precedes Transformation
The path to transformation is through suffering. It always has been; it always will be. Suffering is the only experience that awakens us to our lack of control. Suffering exposes the sham of our infantile grandiosity. It brings us to the moment of utter helplessness that may, if we let it, lead us to understand what it means to trust.
This is the path Jesus took, on the cross. He first suffered the absence of God, saying,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But finally, fell into God’s waiting arms, saying,
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
This is the lesson learned and taught by the 14th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich who said,
“First, there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!”
“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer?”
Yes, and so too, it is necessary for all of us to journey down his path, suffering included. As Paula D’Arcy says,
“God comes to you disguised as your life.” (in Rohr’s Falling Upwards, p. 65)
Learning to trust God to be there with us, in suffering, is the Jesus path.
So, in this story, after Jesus changes their biblical paradigm so that they are awakened to necessary suffering, two other details are important to notice.
First, the turn around. Why were they going to unknown-for-anything Emmaus, anyway? Maybe it was a place of escape; withdrawal. Some people, faced with disappointment, take this path. They try to hide in plain sight under a cloud of routine and habit, leaving the TV on; asking nothing, expecting nothing, contributing nothing, risking nothing.
But something happened in this story, that made them want to change their location. By the end of the story, they have left invisible Emmaus and are back in Jerusalem, back with the others. What turned them around from isolation back to the community?
The Eucharistic Moment of Seeing
This is the second detail to notice. It is when they are inside with Jesus – whom as yet they do not recognize – as he performed the eucharistic actions, as Luke describes:
“he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”
This was the crucial moment. This was the moment that everything changed for them. This was when their eyes were opened. Listen to what they told the other disciples when the got back to Jerusalem:
“Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Their eyes were not opened by the bread alone, but by the breaking of the bread. It is broken bread that opened their eyes to Jesus.
At the last supper, on the night of his arrest, at the table, Luke reports:
“Then [Jesus] took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In broken bread we see Jesus, as he taught us to see him, embracing the path of suffering, fully trusting his Heavenly Father. Yes, there will be moments of doubt ahead; this is not a children’s story. But finally, he will be able to say the words of ultimate trust:
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
This is what Luke has been trying to tell us: Jesus comes to us, today – the risen Jesus – not in the same form as before. But when we see the bread of his body willingly broken for his people, our eyes are opened.
Now our eyes are opened, not only to the presence of the risen Christ, but also to all who are broken, all who are suffering. We no longer try to escape and avoid suffering, but we notice it, pay attention to it, and respond, as Jesus did.
We move, like those disciples did, from self-pity and isolation, back to the city, back to the community, back to where we are participants in Jesus’ mission. Back to where soon the Spirit will empower a world-wide mission of mercy and compassion in Jesus’ name.
So, where are you on the journey? Is this where you expected to be? Probably not. Are you experiencing disappointment?
This is the time to examine our expectations. God’s job is not to save us from suffering, but to be there with us, to allow it to be our teacher, and to lead us to the second half of life in which we let go of our ego and finally learn to trust.
And then, having our eyes opened, we look at all forms brokenness in a new way. We look at our own brokenness in a new way, and we look at the brokenness of the world with newly opened eyes. We join the eucharistic community, and we take up the compassionate mission of the suffering messiah.
Why read appearance stories as parables: a brief explanation.
For a fuller study see Borg and Crossan’s “The Last Week of Jesus.”
If we read this story about Jesus appearing to the two of Jesus’ followers on the road to Emmaus simply on the surface, what do we have? We have an odd miracle story about a resurrection appearance of the past. It was nearly a private affair. Only two people, whom we do not otherwise know were involved, in a place famous for nothing.
But did Luke want us to read this on the surface level only? Did he expect us to read this like the way children read Little Red Riding Hood? Children think it is really only about a girl, a grandma and a wolf – not noticing the details of leaving the path her mother ordered here to keep to, or the gender and violence issues, not to mention the color codes of the story? Children miss the real meanings.
The text we read from Luke’s gospel is an appearance-of-the-risen-Jesus story. New Testament scholars have known for a long time that there is a sharp difference between how the gospels describe the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, on the one hand, and how they describe the appearances of the risen Jesus, on the other.
The gospels all agree about the outline of the arrest, trial and crucifixion stories, the sequence of events, the characters involved, and the outcome. They all involve the arrest of Jesus in the garden, his trial before Caiaphas the high priest, then King Herod, then governor Pilate, then the crucifixion.
But they all tell different appearance stories. The risen Jesus appears in different places to different groupings of people. No two gospels tell any of the appearance stories found in any other gospel. Each is unique. Only Luke tells of this story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus.
New Testament scholars almost all agree that the disciples believed they saw Jesus alive on and/or after Easter. They experienced the risen Christ, which is why there is something called Christianity today. The experience of the risen Jesus changed them. Most of them died for the faith they proclaimed. The message is clear: Jesus is still alive, active, and present. Do not seek him among the dead; he is not there, for he has risen. Jesus continues to be crucially significant in the present.
But the appearances stories are so odd and so unique that we scratch our heads to try to understand what to do with them. Sometimes the risen Jesus is recognized, but other times not. Even his voice is surprisingly unrecognized by those who loved him and spent such significant parts of their lives with him. In these stories, Jesus can appear and disappear. Locked rooms did not keep him out. He is almost ghostly.
On the other hand, he is very real. He has crucifixion scars and eats fish, even cooks breakfast on the beach.
One gospel has him ascending to heaven on Easter evening in Bethany, near Jerusalem (Luke); another has him appearing periodically for a period of forty days, ascending from a mountain in Galilee (Matthew).
It seems necessary, then, to read these appearance stories as parables of the disciples’ continued experience of the risen Jesus. His presence was real to them, but hard to define and harder to describe. Each gospel tried to tell the story in his own way (except Mark who has no appearance stories). Clearly, they concluded that God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, so that he continues to exist and to be present to his followers in powerful, personal ways. He is not a ghost. But neither is he bound by calendar time nor by map locations.
And if he does exist, then the kingdom he came to announce and inaugurate is at hand. The new age has begun. The general resurrection of all the faithful at the end of time has begun with the resurrection of the first one: Jesus. The rest of us will follow when the time has been finally fulfilled.