Sermon on Luke 24:13-35 for Easter 3A, April 30, 2017
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.
Eyes Broken Open
In one of Irish theologian Peter Rollin’s talks he tells the story of the man who came to the pastor’s house one evening with a big concern. He said there was a family that was going to be evicted from their apartment. They had always been faithful to pay their rent, but this month they were late. They were only a day late, but the landlord’s rules were strict, and they were going to be evicted. The family included children, and an elderly parent, and being winter, he said, it was urgent that the church help them. The pastor said she would find some money in the church’s funds to stop this cruel eviction from happening. Then she asked, “By they way, how do you know this family?” The man said, “I’m the landlord.”
Rollins was using this story to ask the question: what do we really believe? Not what do we say we believe, but what do we actually believe? The landlord thought he believed that the Christian thing to do was to help the family. But he did not believe that he, personally, should help them.
They say “seeing is believing”. I want to ask the question, what did that landlord see when he looked at that family? What did he see them “as”? What did he not see? The story is about seeing, and not seeing, at the same time.
The story in Luke’s gospel of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is also about seeing and not seeing at the same time. But it is also a story of transformed seeing. My hope is that as we look at this story, which I take to be a parable, we too will have our eyes opened in transformative ways.
The Journey Begins
So, the story opens with these two people on a journey. That is a perfect parable for all of us. They are on a journey to Emmaus. No such place in that location is known; it is anyplace and everyplace.
The are joined in this story by Jesus, yet they do not recognize him for who he is. To them, he is a stranger. They had some familiarity with him. They had enough awareness to have their hopes pinned on Jesus that he would the one to set Israel free from their Roman oppressors. That was not what he was about, but that was how they saw it.
They are not the first nor the last people to confuse Jesus’ purpose.
The Jesus they do not recognize feigns ignorance of what has just happened, so they explain it to him. They conclude by reporting what the women who went to Jesus’ tomb said – and how they did not see Jesus. Not seeing Jesus is becoming a theme here.
Suffering in the Scriptures
So then Jesus explains to them from scripture,
“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
They had not at all, up to that moment, seen that suffering was part of the mission of Messiah. They should not be faulted – the witness of the Hebrew bible is mixed and vague. But most people probably wanted a triumphant, conquering Messiah, so that is what they saw.
But Jesus saw it differently. He understood that the path to true spiritual redemption, true liberation, was the path that embraced suffering. He embraced suffering in two ways: he embraced suffering people, and he embraced the call to suffer, if need be, in his ministry to suffering people.
Here is where the creeds that the church developed in the centuries after Jesus let us down. They mention that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate” but leave out all he did for suffering people. In his life, Jesus was famous for finding suffering people and addressing their suffering.
I wish the creeds had lines like:
“I believe that when Jesus healed the sick he was showing us God’s care for sick people.
I believe that when Jesus fed the hungry he was showing us God’s care for hungry people.”
In fact the reason Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate” was that his ministry to suffering people brought him into conflict with the people causing much of their suffering.
When Jesus shut down the whole temple, which scholars believe is, more than anything else, what make the local elite decide to have him killed, he was symbolically attacking the very heart of a system of domination that caused great suffering to so many people. He, most likely, knew that his action could risk his own life, but he did it on behalf of suffering people.
So, on the way to Emmaus, Jesus opens the eyes of people who were blind to the role of suffering for Messiah in scripture. He turned their spiritual lights on, and made their hearts burn for joy in the process. Still, however, they do not see Jesus. He remains a stranger.
Hospitality and an Open Table
So then, they get to their destination, and Jesus makes as if he is continuing on. He will not stay, unless invited; another parabolic message. Hospitality, welcoming strangers to the table, is quintessentially what followers of Jesus do. This is what Jesus established in his ministry: the practice of open table fellowship.
In radical break with convention, Jesus instituted the practice of an open table. Men and women, together. Rich and poor, together. Jew and gentile, together. Pure people, and and people whose conditions or experiences made them “impure” according to religious custom, together.
Open table fellowship itself was another way of addressing another kind of suffering: the kind we cause each other, with our practices of discrimination and exclusion. But in this parable, these disciples have learned that much, and they welcome the stranger to the table.
When Jesus and the couple sit at table, Luke uses four verbs to describe Jesus’ actions – actions that will finally break open the eyes of these disciples. First he takes bread, as any host would do, and then he blesses it, again, as any male host would do in a Jewish household. We notice that as a guest, Jesus has assumed the role of host.
But then Jesus does the unexpected. The next two verbs are surprising. He breaks the bread, as you would think either a woman or a servant to do, and then he gave it to them – he served them – again, as only a woman or a servant would do.
As New Testament Scholar John Croassan says,
“Far from reclining and being served, Jesus himself serves, like any housewife, the same meal to all, including himself.”
(from Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (p. 203). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
This is the Jesus who, according to the story, in the upper room, on the night of his arrest, similarly, using the same four verbs, “took a loaf of bread” and when he had “given thanks” or blessed it (they are synonyms), as a host, he broke it, and gave it to them, like a servant, saying
“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Seeing Christ in the Breaking of the Bread
Jesus did not say “this is my body” when he had simply taken the bread, like a host. He said, “this is my body” only after the bread was broken. It is broken bread that shows us Jesus: the one who embraced brokenness and suffering, on behalf of others.
The breaking of the bread is what finally broke open their eyes. Luke tells the story in such a way as to make this moment explicit:
“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.”
In this year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is worth remembering that John Calvin, the leading theologian of the Reformed (Presbyterian) church wanted to celebrate the Lord’s supper, Communion, each Sunday. For him, it was clear that Christ is made known to the Christian community “in the breaking of the bread.”
Of course that is how we see Christ risen and active among us: when we break bread and remember that he was broken for us, for broken people.
The landlord in the story at the beginning saw the suffering of the people he was evicting, but his heart was not broken for them. He did not see them with compassion. He saw them as a problem – as somebody else’s problem. The solution he was looking for was one that would cost him nothing personally. He would not suffer if the church paid their rent – to him.
The essential Christian emotion is compassion. When we see suffering with eyes of compassion, it breaks our hearts. Brokenness is the essential shape of the body of Christ. That is why we show what we believe when together, we take bread, bless it and break it, then give it to each other to share.
This is where we come to understand our mission as followers of Jesus today; to be people who have eyes open to suffering, and hence, broken hearts, and consequently, to be willing to embrace suffering, if need be, on behalf of others.
All causes of suffering are heart-breaking for people of compassion:
Are there still people suffering from hunger today? Yes there are. According to “Feeding America”, “42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children.” (source: FeedingAmerica.org)
How can that not break our hearts?
Are there people who suffer physically and mentally and need health care? Of course.
Are there homeless people? Every major city in our country has thousands.
Are there still people discriminated against? Only people of privilege believe that the problem has been solved. For those with compassion, it is heart-breaking.
Would it cause us to suffer anything to be part of the solution, to be people “for others” as Jesus was? If so, so be it. We embrace it.
Suffering and Joy
Or could it be that what looks like suffering, if embraced, is actually a path to joy?
Think of how it must have looked like social suffering, in Jesus’ day, for a person of honor and status, to consider sitting at table with peasants and eating the same meal they were having. But having embraced Jesus, who is seen in the breaking of the bread, that person finds the deep joys of community.
Think of how it must have seemed like suffering to people like the tax collector Zacchaeus, to relinquish his wealth. But, having met Jesus, he divested himself on behalf of the people he had caused to suffer, and he experienced profound happiness.
Maybe it seemed, to that little boy, for a moment, like it would cause suffering to give up your little lunch of loaves and fishes to Jesus. But when the multitude was fed, he too experienced abundance. Even leftovers.
The Christian insight here is that a life lived in the quest to avoid suffering is a fool’s errand at best, and, in the end, becomes a cause of suffering for others.
But the life lived embracing suffering people, and one’s own suffering, leads to a profound peace and joy; in fact, it is, to experience the presence of the risen Christ, who is known, in the breaking of the bread.