April 30, 2017
Year A Easter 3
Lissa Wray Beal
The Emmaus Road narrative is, I think, an Easter story for the rest of us.
Last week, we heard the story of Thomas from John’s gospel —Doubting Thomas, he’s often called. In John’s gospel, Thomas meets Jesus after others had already encountered the risen Lord. Jesus had already appeared to Mary, and then the disciples (hidden behind closed door). Hearing that they’d seen Jesus, Thomas – big and bold! – wanted proof beyond the witness of others. So we heard the story of his finger placed in Jesus’ side. His astounded proclamation of faith, “My Lord and my God!”
But Luke’s gospel – our gospel today – relates Jesus’ first appearance along a stretch of road. It is very ordinary: 2 otherwise unknown disciples walking home after the Passover festival. A dusty road 7 miles long (and if googlemaps is correct, that is like walking from St. Peter's to Polo Park. . . and back again). A stranger who comes along and talks with them. A meal. All very ordinary. This is Luke’s first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.
I think it is this narrative – rather than Thomas’s finger-in-the-wound encounter – that speaks more to the ordinary lives that you and I live, this side of Easter. I think these Emmaus-road disciples help us grapple with the post-Easter let-down: at Easter, we’ve celebrated something quite astounding. The church (rightly!) pulls out all the stops. It is an intense week. And now, just 2 weeks later, life goes on. What does Easter mean? Has life really changed? How?
These disciples walk along, and they know of the Easter events. They’ve heard of the women’s account of an angel, they’ve heard reports of people seeing Jesus. They know of the empty tomb. As they walk along, we hear their perplexity and the range of emotions they are experiencing:
- They are “talking with each other” – conversing back and forth. Perhaps holding forth on different theories of what had happened. Where the body had gone. What to make of the women’s story (which the disciples earlier had called “an idle report; foolishness” (24:11).
- They are “discussing” with other another – the word is that of dispute, debate. There is vigorousness to their conversation. Challenge. Wonderment, even, at one another’s theories
- They’ve been “astounded” by the women’s report – after all – how often do you hear accounts of empty tombs and risen bodies? The tomb was indeed, empty. That had been verified.
- When Jesus appears, their eyes are “kept from recognizing him.” Kept by what? Their grief? Their conclusions about how to explain the empty tomb? Their fear? Or by Jesus himself – something of the Spirit of God preventing their recognition?
- Not only are they puzzled, fearful, confused, they are “sad” (v. 17). When Jesus asks “what up?” they stop. And their long faces tell the truth: they are sad.
- They can’t believe Jesus doesn’t know of the events. Cleopas concludes that Jesus must be a “stranger.” That is the only way he can account for the man’s ignorance of the events. Perhaps there is even sarcasm – or anger – in his question to Jesus: “Are you the only one who doesn’t know?”
But underneath all this emotional range, there is a pervading undertone: disappointment.
- Jesus “had been a prophet mighty in deed and word.” Mighty in healings. Mighty in teaching. Mighty in saying God’s truth. Mighty in helping people believe the kingdom of God was in their midst.
- We “had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped. Now we don’t.
For all the discussion, for all the astonishment at the women’s report, this is the concluding emotion: disappointment. A sour little, sad little lump, somewhere here in their chest that won’t go away. That thinks only of “what might have been.” What they’d thought God was up to. . . wasn’t. What they’d hoped would happen. . . hadn’t. Instead, they were left holding the bag. Perhaps feeling a little foolish that they’d been taken in by talk of hope. And utterly devastated that – without anything they could do to change things – life was as it always had been.
- they were still waiting for God’s kingdom
- they were still living with sin, and sickness, and longing for God’s presence.
And I wonder – doesn’t that in some way describe us (even this side of Easter)? Walking along a long journey, wondering what has happened in Easter (if anything). Trying to figure out how to believe – or even consider – someone raised bodily from the dead. Wondering what to do about the things that just don’t seem to have changed, despite Easter:
- that sickness that still persists
- that marriage that still goes south
- that job that still will be lost Monday morning
- that world that still teeters on the brink.
With these two unknown (and therefore perhaps so easily identified-with) disciples, we might be saying, “we had hoped.”
So we come to church. Maybe each Sunday. But somewhere deep down, we are like these two disciples. Sad. Disappointed. Wondering. . . what is this whole Christ-thing all about, really? What has changed? Anything??
I love how Jesus responds to these disciples who “had hoped,” in the one “mighty in deed and word.” His response is a response of word and deed, and it quickens hope in those whose hope is gone.
- Jesus walks along with the 2 disciples, explaining the long story of God’s salvation. He picks up on several key texts: the promise of blessing for all people through Abraham. Isaiah’s servant, who would suffer for the sins of many. The hope for the return of the king. Through his words, the disciples come to understand something new: that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory.
- Jesus eats with the disciples. With the story of scripture ringing in their ears, Jesus takes bread. He blesses it. He breaks it. He gives it to them.
And all unanticipated, their eyes are opened. They realize that Jesus has been in their midst all along the way. They have this incredible “aha!” moment, when the pieces of the story fall into place. They understand, as Jesus leads them in a meal reminiscent of the Last Supper when Christ, the bread of life, was broken; when the cup of salvation was poured out and given to the disciples. They understand that Jesus came among them as God in the flesh. They understand that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer for the sins of many. They see the living proof before them that sin and death are no match for God – that in Jesus, these things are overcome. He is risen!
In the giving of the bread – the shared meal at which Christ presides – they recognize that the word has been powerful – “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” and they recognize that the deeds have indeed been mighty –the living Christ shares fellowship with them around the table.
And their disappointment turns to joy. What they had hoped has come to pass. Jesus the Christ is indeed the one mighty in word, and deed. And as he shares with them his words; as he shares with them in a Eucharistic meal, they see him. Living. Real. Powerful in word and deed.
And in their amazement, in that same hour, they took to that 7-mile road again. Rushing back to the disciples in Jerusalem to tell what they have heard and seen. And affirming what the Jerusalem disciples have also experienced: “The Lord has risen indeed!”
This is an interesting story, this “Easter story for the rest of us.” Why did Luke write it? And why put it here in the account? There were many things he could have written; many ways even this story could have been stated or placed. But the Spirit directs this story, as it is told, here. Why? I suspect it was because, as Luke wrote to the fledging Christian community, they were asking the same questions we might have post-Easter: who are we now? How is Christ present with us? What difference does Easter make? I suspect those kinds of questions were on their minds as they came together as Church.
And so, we come to Church. At times, post-Easter, we have the same emotions as the Emmaus Road disciples: fear, doubt, wonder, amazement, confusion. With them, we may struggle to discern where – and who – Christ is. Life this side of Easter might seem like the same-old, same-old. What difference has Easter made?
We gather, and the word is read; is preached. And this word is not simply words on a page. It is the living word. God’s word.
I’ll always remember a story a professor told us when I was doing my undergrad work: Imagine yourself at High Park, London, at the Preacher’s Corner. It is a sunny afternoon and people gather to “preach.” Not just Christians! But whatever “faith” people hold to: politics, science, wizardry. But also, Christian faith. One day, people gathered. A man standing by a box on the ground started shouting out that “it is alive!” When an appropriate-sized crowd had gathered, he opened the box. And took out a Bible – “It is alive! It is the living Word of God!”
The word is living; something of power. When we gather in Church, and scripture is read, we gather to hear Christ. For when scripture speaks, Christ speaks. Yes, he speaks differently in different parts of scripture. Sometimes, we hear him more clearly than others. But he speaks in all parts of scripture – yes, even those parts you turn to at 2 a.m. and you can’t sleep (be honest: haven’t you used Leviticus as a sleep-inducer?!); even those parts that deeply trouble us (like parts of Joshua); even in the bizarre parts (like Revelation!). In all these, Christ speaks to his church, and the Spirit makes him known to us.
At some level, we recognize this power, for “our hearts burn within us.” We hear it as Truth. Truth that calls us. And our hearts are lifted up from the dusty roadway; comforted, encouraged; challenged to believe. The word calls us to live daringly – believing that God is real and his love more than we can ask or imagine. To live as if we know that death is overcome. To live daringly because we are part of God’s story communicated through the word.
And so, we come to Church. And we gather around the Table (moving to stand at Table). The bread is taken. Blessed. Broken. Given – using the same words and the actions as when Christ shared bread with the Emmaus Disciples. This Table is not just a Table of remembrance, for Christ himself is present at it. He is the host.
When the priest stands at the Table, the idea of Christ as host is not just a nice picture. Priests are there to remind everyone (the priest included), that Christ is here – really here – as we worship. And especially present in the bread and wine consecrated and shared with us.
In the Table, we see him – however fleetingly – clearly. We see his power. We see his love for us; his hope for us; his life in us. It is as we come to this Table (with much faith or little), that over time, meeting Christ here changes us. It is not magic. But as we come in faith, the mystery of Christ is active as he meets us here. And in the meeting, we are changed.
Every church has its strengths and weaknesses. When I became an Anglican, I knew some of each of those. But what I hadn’t anticipated was this reality: Christ present among us as we gather around the Table. It was probably about one year after I’d been coming weekly to the Table that I realized something: the Table and word had changed me. Week by week, we gathered. Listened to the Word. Received from the Table. It wasn’t loud and flashy. It wasn’t “trendy.” Not at all – it was old and simple. But that year changed me in profound ways: discipleship in ways I’d not seen before. Confrontation of my sin in unexpected ways. A call to come closer and love Christ and his people more deeply. Each Sunday, Word and Table was a time of sitting in Christ’s Real Presence. And I was changed – unexpectedly. Something other than me had been at work. And by Christ’s power and presence, I was made a different person.
We come to church because it is here that Christ is made known in word and deed. We catch a glimpse of him on our journey. Through word and deed Christ meets us and we know that the impossible has happened: death is overcome because He is Risen!
That is the difference Easter makes. The impossible has happened. And who can live without hope when the impossible has happened?
He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!