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On the road to Emmaus

May 23, 2011


Easter 3, Cycle A

St. Luke 24:13-35


St. Luke’s story of what happened on the road to Emmaus is one of my favorites in the Bible, one of seven post-resurrection stories in the gospels. I have tried to come up with a word to describe it and the only word I can use is “ghostly.”  


Think about it: the stranger whom the disciples do not recognize at first turns out to be the Messiah and then vanishes from their sight – poof – as soon as they know who he is. It’s ghostly. The crucifixion stories are not like this. They are one hundred percent solid. Jesus is nailed to the cross with a nameplate tacked above his head, where he dies in front of scores of eyewitnesses. No case of mistaken identity here. No sudden appearance and disappearance. His death is real.


His resurrection, on the other hand, is largely rumor. Someone said that someone said his tomb was empty, but that could mean anything. Maybe his body was stolen. Maybe he revived and walked away. Even those who saw him in the flesh had a hard time convincing anyone else it was true. Seven post-resurrection stories do not go very far. Jesus did not appear to everyone before he ascended to heaven, which left plenty of people to weigh the evidence for themselves, to listen to the testimony of those who were there and to decide if and what they would believe.


That’s pretty much our situation in the post-Easter church. None of us was there, for the real death or the rumored resurrection. All of us have a decision to make about the truth of what we have heard. But if it is all true, then we have more than hearsay to make up our minds. If Christ is risen indeed, then we may base our decision on our own encounter with the living God. The question is, what is the address?


For St. Luke, the answer is: Somewhere on the road between here and Emmaus. Luke is the only gospel writer who tells us the story of what happened on that road, but everyone has walked it at one time or another. It is the road you walk when your team has lost, your candidate has been defeated, your loved one has died – the long road back to the empty house, the piles of unopened mail, to life as usual, if life can ever be usual again.


It is the road of deep disappointment, diminishing numbers, fear and scarcity, illness and disconnect. Walking it is the living definition of sad, and many in this assembly have been walking it just like the two disciples in today’s story. It takes two hours or so to walk seven miles, and that is how long they have to talk-over the roller coaster events of the past three days. The trial, the crucifixion, the silent procession to the tomb for burial. And then the women’s vision of angels, the empty grave. Real death. Rumored resurrection. Even the disciples thought it was an idle tale.


Cleopas and the other disciple are talking it all over when the stranger comes up behind them and asks them what they are talking about so that they stop in their tracks to look at him. Who is he? Rip van Winkle? “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” Cleopas asks him. But the truth is they are both glad for his company and so they walk with him, matching their stride to his as they tell him everything they know. They tell him how things had looked so promising at first, when Jesus impressed everyone with his eloquence and mighty acts, when they had hope. And then they tell him how things had gone wrong, bad wrong, so that there was finally nothing left for them to do but to go back home, dragging their feet in the dust.


“We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say to him, admitting their defeat. “We had hoped.” Hope in the past tense is one of the saddest sounds a human being can make. We had hoped he was the one. We believed things might really change, but we were wrong. He died. It is over now. No more idle tales. No more illusions. Back to business as usual.


And that is when their walking partner explodes at them. “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart!” he says to them. If you had read your Bibles, none of this would come as a surprise to you. Listen, Cleopas and all of you walking with him, hearing now, the other disciples walking the road, listen. It is right there: The Christ is not the one who wins the power struggle; he is the one who loses it. The Christ is not the undefeated champion; he is the suffering servant, the broken one, who comes into his glory with his wounds still visible. Those hurt places are the proof that he is who he says he is, because the way you recognize the Christ – and his followers – is not by their muscles but by their scars.


Which means that they are not to despise the painful parts of their lives anymore. Which means that they are not to interpret their defeats as failures anymore, not even death itself. Contrary to all good common sense, they are to follow their leaders into the ghostly, scary, most dangerous places in the world armed with nothing but a first-aid kit, because they, like him, are not fighters but physicians – wounded healers – whose credentials are their own hurt places.


Starting with Moses and working his way through the prophets, the stranger opens the scriptures to them and they hang on his words. He is a gifted preacher, but it is more than that. They are wounded. And what he is telling them is good, good news.


Maybe they aren’t losers after all. Maybe the rumors are true. Maybe there is reason to resurrect their crucified hope. So when they arrive at their village and he shakes their hands goodbye, they will not let him go. They have not gotten enough of him yet, so they invite him to stay with them and he does. He is an odd guest, though. It is their house, their food, their table, but when the three of them sit down together, it is he, the guest, who acts as host, who reaches out, takes the bread, blesses God for it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Maybe it is the oddness of the act that makes the blinders fall from their eyes, or maybe it is the familiarity of it – something they have seen him do before on a green hillside with five loaves and two fish, in an upper room the night before it all came crashing down. He takes, blesses, breaks, gives – and through the torn, fragrant edges of the loaf he holds out to them, they look at him and know who he is…one moment before he vanishes from their sight.


Their blindness does not prevent his coming to them. He does not limit his post-resurrection appearances to those with full confidence in him. He comes to the disappointed, the doubtful, the disconsolate. He comes to those who do not know their Bibles, who do not recognize him even when they are walking right beside him. He comes to those who have given up and are headed back home, which makes this whole story a story about the blessed-ness of broken-ness.


Maybe that is only good news if you happen to be broken. If you are not, then I guess it would be better news to hear a story about how those who believe in God may skip right over the broken part and go straight to the wholeness part, but that does not seem to be the case. Jesus seems to prefer working with broken people, with broken dreams, in a broken world. And for us, too. Jesus shows us how to take what we have been given, whether we like it or not, and to bless it – to say thank you to God for it – whether it is the sweet, satisfying bread of success or the tear-soaked bread of sorrow. To say thank you and to break it because that is the only way it can be shared, and to hand it around not to eat it all by ourselves but to find someone to eat it with, so that the broken loaf may bring all of us broken ones together into one body, where we may recognize the risen Lord in our midst.


What a story this is, showing us where we can see the living God. In the closeness of the two disciples on the road. In their kindness to a stranger. In the way their hearts burned within them when he opened the scriptures to them. In the way they knew him in the breaking of the bread. These are all the ways Christ has promised to be present with us, which also happen to be the everyday activities of the church, the people of God, who attend to one another, to strangers, to God’s word and sacraments as a way of life.


A lot of it happens in other places, but the breaking of the bread at Holy Communion can break me right open. Sometimes I can be right in the middle of it when suddenly the tears well up. It is like the gates to my heart open and everything I have ever loved comes tumbling out to be missed and praised and mourned and loved some more. It is like being known all the way down to the tips of my toes. It is being in the presence of God. One moment I see Christ and the next he’s gone. One moment my eyes are opened and I recognize the risen Savior and the next he vanishes from my sight.


If you are anything like me, and I suspect you are, then take heart. This is no ghost. Do not fear. You can never lose him for good. This is the place he has promised to be, in his own body and blood, and this is the place he returns to meet us again and again.


Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo


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