What had happened on the road
(the Road to Emmaus -- Luke 24)
The gospel text set for Sunday 8 May (Easter 3) is a very rich text. We are taking it as the focus for our sermon and presenting it in dialogue form. We hope that our reflections on this very familiar passage might be of interest to readers of this blog.
Elizabeth: It starts with two demoralized disciples walking to Emmaus. They don't recognize the traveller who joins them, but they welcome him and engage in conversation. To their surprise, it is this stranger who explains to them the meaning of what has just happened in Jerusalem, and he does so by making use of the whole of scripture. He appears to offer a new and unheard of interpretation of scripture. He is hoping that they might find a new meaning in their lives and be empowered by this interpretation, until the moment when they recognize their companion in the breaking of the bread, and he vanishes.
John: Well, yes, I know this story well; and I know it has been used to help individuals reflect on their own individual faith journey. But I think it also has something important to offer, to help understand the way that we look at the world as a whole. It is the presence of the Lord who interprets scripture, which makes it possible for the hearers to think about what has happened to them; and they restructure their understanding of these things; and then, fired up with enthusiasm, they go out to reconstruct the world.
Yes, I can see how the story reflects this. But I also think that this story, one of encounter, listening, response, recognition, fellowship over a meal, and mission, is also a Uniting Church story. It is a story about being on the way, about going forward together with Jesus; about being a pilgrim people, on the way towards…well, if not the promised goal, as the Basis of Union says, then at least the next village, as Luke reports.
I agree with you. And not only is this a Uniting Church story that sums up the whole denomination; this, in fact, is a Uniting Church story that encompasses every local Uniting Church, rural, urban, regional, big, small, clergy or lay led. For this story is full of the essential elements of life that are at the very heart of the Uniting Church—starting, of course, with the most common activity of all: conversation, dialogue, discussion, even debate. Surely this symbolises all of our journeys, for without conversation, we are probably not going to get very far along the road.
Indeed. I would like to explore this idea further. Let us begin with the elements of what is being discussed. I mentioned encounter, listening, response, recognition, fellowship over a meal, and mission as the essential elements of the story. And the story begins with a pastoral encounter, the first tentative steps of making some connections between the two travellers and their one unknown companion.
The first thing that Jesus, the unknown companion, does in this encounter is listen. The recent experience of the two travellers is seared into their hearts; they must speak about it, even to a stranger, even though they do not know whether that stranger is interested, or has the pastoral skills to give them some gentle guidance through their distress.
I see the point you are making. As congregations, we are called to listen to those we meet along the way. We need to understand where the people we meet are at. We need to learn something of their context. The unknown companion of the two travellers does not respond immediately; instead, he listens to their words as they talk about their experience of loss, and their disappointment. It is clear that they couldn’t make sense of what has happened.
I think they are trying to make sense of it – they are drawing on their own traditions and history to try and understand. Isn’t that what we all do? We rely on our experience and traditions to inform us about the present. The two disciples are blunt: “we thought he was a prophet, we hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel; but he didn’t fit this historical and scriptural understanding of ours, we expected him to save us, not go to his death on the cross.”
Well traditionally, I guess we might have judged them too harshly for not recognizing Jesus. I can see how their experience was one of grief and despair; all their hopes had been dashed, they had lost their friend and leader. It would have been important to understand their context.
Yes, this is a good lesson for us. On the road of faith we take as congregations in our communities, how many disillusioned Christ-followers do we find along the way? Where have they seen Christ crucified? Have they seen him crucified again in the church as congregations fight various battles, and wondered if they or the church were living a delusion as Christians? It is a good point the story makes.
Is it significant then, that, on the first occasion that the unknown stranger opens his mouth to respond to them, he speaks not gentle words of comfort, but confronting words of challenge? “Oh, how foolish you are!”
Well, it does seem rather harsh. Are you saying that is how we should be acting? What is the right response in this pastoral encounter?
To us it may seem like an odd line of approach, berating one’s fellow-travellers in regard to how slow they were to believe. But think of this ancient, first century context. The stranger presented as a prophet, a prophet quoting scripture. We assume that everyone then, would listen to a prophet.
This unknown stranger addresses the questions of the two by turning to scripture. (Here my bias is clearly displayed.) And not just a limited selection of scripture passages; no, here a full curriculum of biblical study is indicated: “he interpreted to them…all the scriptures”. Ah, the luxury of a completely comprehensive bible study!
So the stranger has become a biblical scholar and a prophet.
Yes. The key word that is used here, is important—it identifies the heart of scripture: the issue of interpretation. The stranger does not respond by reading or reciting the scripture to the two companions; he interprets it. Knowing the text is one thing; but understanding the text is another matter.
So on this learning journey, it seems that this part of it, the study of scripture, was so important as to occupy the remainder of the journey, right up until they drew near to the village.
But let’s not be slow to recognize that their impromptu study of scripture is not isolated from their experience, their understanding of history, or their theological explorations. All of these things feed into the biblical analysis that the stranger now offers them. Otherwise, how could it have made sense?
So: Another question for us as congregations is, just how ready are we to come alongside the disillusioned ones we meet and show them God's truth about Christ as revealed in scripture, cover to cover? How great an emphasis do we put on understanding and interpreting scripture? Do we encourage our members to learn more about scripture so they are well equipped for this task?
Of course, referring to the scripture alone won't work when we're talking to people for whom scripture or the church has no particular authority. These people will need to see the truth of the resurrection revealed in the life of our worshiping communities—how we live in response to the truth that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again. When they come to trust us, then maybe they'll come to trust the scriptures as they see what we do to live them out, or at least striving to do so.
Well, that is encounter, listening and response taken care of – what about recognition and then fellowship?
I am getting to that! I think it is important that we recognize what happens next. Despite the prophetic encounter, these disciples are still grieving and unhappy. But they do something amazing. They reach out in hospitality, although their hearts are breaking, and they are emotionally tired and worn. As Jesus prepares to walk on to his next destination, they invite him to supper. And mysteriously, they are rewarded. Suddenly they recognize Jesus as the one who was with them.
Ah, but I can see there is more to this than recognizing Jesus. You are suggesting that it is especially important that they recognised him in the breaking of the bread. It is quite poetic really:
In the moment of pause, recognition takes place.
It is a significant a step forward in the formation of the travellers.
In the moment of pause, comes the mystery of God’s presence,
sensed in a new, more intense, more compelling way,
even in the midst of the familiar routines,
the predictable patterns of table and bread,
blessing and offering, eating and drinking.
It was the breaking of bread which was the transforming event; it was
“then their eyes were opened”. In the ordinary and mundane world,
suddenly they were aware they were in the presence of God.
Do you think congregations have ever stopped to wonder why it is that the central act we perform to remember Jesus, namely the Eucharist, is a meal? In theory, it could have been anything -- a special dance, a song, erecting booths, you name it. Heck, it could have been a sporting tournament (which no doubt would boost church attendance in some circles!). But it isn't. It's a meal.
Yes, it is a meal, and every time we break bread in this way, we are invited to do so in remembrance of Jesus. But it is more than that, especially in Luke’s gospel. At Jesus' table, all are invited to join the feast. Jesus ate with prostitutes and Pharisees, treating them with equal dignity, and we are called to do the same. One of the reasons I really like this gospel is that Jesus is always eating with someone. Luke 7:34 is one of my favourite verses, I could even adopt it as an epitaph – “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend to tax collectors and sinners.”
Mmmm. I can see why that appeals to you. I guess Jesus had this reputation because he was known for dining with everyone who asked -- even to the point of sitting down with over five thousand people spontaneously for a meal. It would be great if the Uniting Church’s practice of table fellowship gave us the same kind of reputation.
And at Jesus' table, the walls between people come down. When Jesus sat down with five thousand strangers for a meal, slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female sat down together, in one place, to eat it was unheard of in the ancient world. Indeed, how common is it for us to have people from many different socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities gathered around the table in our congregations? Shouldn’t we be encouraging this sort of practice?
Well, I would like to know whether you think it is significant that it is at this moment that Jesus disappears? Why does it happen at this precise point? Why did Jesus ‘vanish from their sight’? How disturbing for the disciples!
Sooner or later they were going to have to press on and discover the way ahead for themselves. They needed this boost to be confident of Jesus’ calling, but they also needed to go on alone themselves. He couldn’t be around forever, you know.
I know, but I empathise with them. I take your point they need to keep going, and that it was impossible for them to hold onto the Jesus they knew. For all of us, mystical experiences come and go. Moments of assurance are often fleeting. Inspiration is short lived. But despite this, God invites us to remember, and by remembering we create new memories and new possibilities. As this story notes, hospitality is the open door to creative transformation and an expanded vision of what is possible.
We are almost at the end of our journey. We must be up to mission.
Yes we are. The experience of sharing scripture and breaking bread has reoriented the travellers. From their experience at table, in the presence of God, they can review their experience on the road and the events that led them there, and put them into a new framework.
I bet they especially recalled the comprehensive, stimulating, invigorating, exhilarating time when they immersed themselves in the scriptural texts.
“Were not our hearts burning …while he was opening the scriptures?”
This was no dry intellectual exercise; this was a life-transforming experience.
Your bias is showing! But now I can see that the process has turned full circle; earlier on, scripture has illuminated experience; now, experience further illuminates scripture. The events in Jerusalem needed explanation; scripture provides resources to grapple with them.
What you said about a new framework is right. The experience at table has opened new perspectives, so the texts need reconsideration, re-viewing, re-reading; most importantly, I can see how this scrutiny and analysis
must have led them to action. “So they got up and returned to Jerusalem.”
And so, at last, the moment we’ve been waiting for;
returning back home, approaching their congregation, ready to go.
Hey people, look at us; we’ve been changed!!
Remember what we were like when we left you??
Now we are back, and look what has happened to us!!!
Yes, now it was time to put that excitement into a mission plan for those communities the disciples had left behind. It was time to be identifying with the needy, proclaiming the gospel, being on mission, doing “real” ministry… do you think we are still good at this in our congregations?
Good question – what does the story say? It says that when they approached their congregation, the disciples find they are listening to the stories of the crowd who stayed home – and they too have experienced the missio dei…
the actions of God in the ordinary places of the church…and they want to tell it out for all to hear!
As we ponder the end of the journey for us,
let us be open to the important pastoral moment, the moment of true mission:
when the story of the people draws us into a pastoral encounter,
when we can listen with due attention to the context of the story,
where we can respond with an awareness of history and tradition,
where we can offer biblical understanding,
a theological awareness of the Eucharistic meal,
and missionary leadership,
we create a moment where we can share our understanding,
nurture people’s faith, build up the church, and serve God in the world.
So go, journey,
travel onwards as the people of the risen one;
In the midst of the ordinary,
be attentive to the mystery;
To the opportunity of the moment,
bring gifts and resources ;
At the time of encounter,
be open to the story;
And may the stranger that is Jesus
guide you, confront you,
serve you, equip you;
to go forth with God’s blessing, to love and to serve.
In the name of Christ: Amen.