Much more than just what happened...
The Text: Luke 24:13-35
13 Now on that same day (ie, the first day of the week, the day of resurrection) two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognising him. 17 And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad.
18 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?" 19 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, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 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. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 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. 24 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."
25 Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay (Μεῖνον cf Gospel of John's abide with me) with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay (μεῖναι) with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, (we are meant to see the Eucharist) and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, (ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ) while he was opening the scriptures to us?"
33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they told what had happened on the road (ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ), and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Some people give their sermons a title. That's not my habit, but if I were going to give this morning's bible reading and sermon a title, I would call it this: I would call it Much More Than Just What Happened.
That's because this is not just a story of something that happened. It is what we might call a curated story. That is, the text is not simply aiming to tell us what happened on the road to Emmaus. The story is carefully constructed after decades of reflection about the events in the story. It's much more than just what happened. It's about what can happen.
Yes, it's a story we can read as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus. The two people saw him and, in the culture of their time, two people count as a legal witness in court. But that's only the surface of the story. There is a "whole other level." And that other level is about how we can live with Jesus now, and recognise him with us.
On the surface we have a story of two ordinary followers of Jesus. So ordinary we don't even have a name for one of them. They could be anybody. They could even be us, and maybe that's the point: We are invited to enter into this story.
These two have heard that Jesus has risen from the dead, but they haven't seen him. That's just like us, too. They tell the stranger on the road that they had thought Jesus was the one who would "redeem Israel." That is, he was the one who would fix life, make it better, give it deeper meaning. Yet on the day they were travelling, life felt like the same old same old. It was the kind of day where you could despair and just give up on life.
We can relate to that as well. So often, life seems unchanged, except we get older with more aches and pains, we worry about our kids, how we'll balance the church budget, how we can stick it out at work—all that stuff. Where's Jesus in that!?
As they are walking along, a stranger catches up with them and asks what they are talking about, and why the long faces. So tell him the story of Jesus' death and the reports of his resurrection—but no one has actually seen him. It's just a story.
Then the stranger brings the whole story of Jesus alive. He makes sense of it for them. He shows them how this was always going to happen. Perhaps he says something like this: In his death and resurrection Jesus has conquered death. He has shown us death need not control us as human beings. We are free to live fully because death is only a corner in our life; it's not the end of our life. We go on despite death.
Of course, we know it's Jesus—the story tells us that. It emphasises the reality of this. It says: Jesus himself. But it also says their eyes were kept from recognising him.
Do you notice that phase? It doesn't say they didn't recognise him. It says their eyes … were kept … from recognising him. What's that about? Is God playing tricks? Or is it that they are not yet ready to see Jesus—not yet able to see him? I think Luke is asking us to consider whether the way we are living, and the things we are focussed upon, might have a very great effect on what we are able to see in life. And even affect our ability to see Jesus the risen Lord.
This is where we begin to see there is much more going on here than just what happens on the surface of the story.
The two very ordinary followers of Jesus almost accidentally do one of the key things which enables our eyes to be open to seeing Jesus. It's near the end of the day, so they invite this stranger into their house to spend the night. They are hospitable to the stranger.
There is a logic here: If, as this story suggests, Jesus comes to us in the stranger, then being welcoming of strangers might be a really good way to meet Jesus. Our culture encourages us to be hospitable to the people like us, not the strangers. We tend hold them at arm's length—at best—which might be to hold Jesus at arm's length, too.
At the tea table, something strange happens. The guest takes over managing the table. The guest suddenly becomes the Host! He takes charge of the meal. And as we see him breaking and blessing the bread, we suddenly realise that in this story... Luke is giving us a picture of Communion, the Eucharist! And the two followers of Jesus realise it's him! Their eyes are opened.
We might want to think about this for a while. You know how it goes when we have a guest. We organise the meal. We show them where to sit. We check if they can eat the food we have. What would they like to drink? We are the host. How would we feel if the guest took over and told us where to sit, or when to eat, or how to run our house… or church!?
Luke is inviting us to remember the mystery of Communion, that thing we absolutely struggle to put into words, that thing where on the surface it can seem we are just sharing wine and bread with ancient words, but something much deeper than we can put into words seems to be happening.
"Do you want to see Jesus," Luke asks us? Then celebrate Eucharist. Be in communion with each other...
How can that possibly do anything? How can it open our eyes to recognise Jesus? It's just a little cup... and a tiny piece of bread.
Well, here's the hidden treasure of the story.
Luke's first readers didn't call themselves Christians. They called themselves The People of the Way. We see that in his second book, which we call The Acts Of The Apostles, which is about living as the very early church. And in Luke's Greek language there is a word, ὁδός, which can mean the way or, the road. We do something similar in English: you can be on the way to Melbourne, or you can be on the road to Melbourne.
But in the story, before they recognise Jesus, his two followers are just going to Emmaus. There's nothing about the road. It's only when they realise it's Jesus who has been sitting at the table with them, that they say, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, which in the Greek is, on the way. And back in Jerusalem, they tell the others what happened to them on the road… on the Way.
Luke is suggesting that we will recognise Jesus when we are on the way; that is, when we are living out The Way of the Faith.
Do you see that in the very careful story telling of the New Testament era, Luke does not begin with the two followers of Jesus telling their friends what happened at the table? He begins with the story of the road, the way, and what happened on the way because that's where the real Table of the Lord is. The Lord's table is on the way. It's where we live out the faith. If we don't live out the faith, that table behind me is just… wood...
It's 48 years since I first came to this church. A friend brought me. It's when I started coming here, and met people I didn't know, that I began to meet Jesus. This church called me—prodded me—into working with First Nations people. I recognised Jesus working with them. And later, as a minister, I met Jesus perhaps most of all in the people who were not like me; people who discomforted me and challenged me. I was like the two people travelling to Emmaus: I almost accidentally began to do the things that let my eyes recognise Jesus. And there he was… all the time.
We meet Jesus on the road. Recognising the resurrected Jesus is not about having our theology just right, or knowing big words, or even having lots of people in our church. It's about doing faith, about living faith, meeting together, looking after each other, treating everyone as equal, even the strangers. And then we will recognise Jesus unexpectedly at the table with us.
Live the faith. Be on the road. That's when we get glimpses of our risen Lord.
Andrew Prior (April 2023)
Easter Eggs :)
In my first draft, I said
There's a little treasure hidden in this story, a little puzzle.
Funnily enough, today, little puzzles hidden in computers and computer games, are called Easter Eggs!
Let me show you Luke's Easter Egg. In his second book, which we call The Acts Of The Apostles, the followers of Jesus, the early church, are called The Way, or The People of the Way. In Greek the word for the way is ὁδός.
So, when we go on a journey we go on the way, or as English puts it, we go on the road, don't we? (In New Testament Greek, way and road are that same word ὁδός.) ...
I then went on with the detail that is in the sermon above.
There is another "Easter Egg."
"Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him." This recalls the first meal in the book of Genesis—the one where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. In that case, "their eyes were opened" and they knew that they were naked. In this instance, "their eyes were opened" and they recognized Jesus.
This meal—the eucharist—redresses an ancient problem. The long exile of the human race—the long journey out of Eden—is over. The new creation has begun. This is the 8th meal in Luke's gospel—thus, the meal of "the new creation." (John Petty, quoted here.)
Reflecting upon resurrection:
I say here that
In their despair Jesus approaches them and is unrecognised. "Are you the only one who doesn't know what has happened?" they ask. (Luke 24:18) The irony is, of course, that he is the only one who does know what has happened.
James Alison fleshes out for us something of what might be happening in Jesus' resurrection. You can find an excerpt from his book Faith Beyond Resentment, fragments catholic and gay (pp41-44) at the Girardian Lectionary. He says, and my quotation is even more fragmentary, that Luke 24 is...
A basic text for the understanding of the Eucharist: the presence of the Lord who interprets scripture, making it possible for the hearers to restructure their own imagination, and, duly fired up, go out to reconstruct the world…
What is odd about the Emmaus story is that it is a dead man who is talking. I think it very important that we don’t make the separation which we are accustomed to when talking about the risen Jesus, imagining that he is alive, and for that reason, not dead. No, what is fascinating about the doctrine of the resurrection is that it is the whole human life of Jesus, including his death, which is risen. The life of God, since it is totally outside the order of human life and human death, doesn’t cancel death, as if it were a sickness which is to be cured, but takes it up, assumes it. Luke offers us a vision of a risen Jesus who has not ceased to be a dead man, and who, starting from his living-out-being-a-crucified-man, teaches and empowers his disciples by his presence…
When we speak of the risen Jesus speaking to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we are talking about a dead man, totally free from resentment. For this reason he is not present as an accusation, seeking to avenge himself on his executioners, but as one who begins to make of the story of his life and death a way of opening the imagination of his disciples, offering a new interpretation of texts which they already knew, so that they, not yet dead, might begin to live from then on with the same lack of resentment, free as he is from being bound in by laws and sacrificial customs, aiming for the construction of a human way of being together not marked by the powers of death. …
Resentment, which is typically incarnate in our world as a seeking to protect oneself against death, and, because of that, in considering oneself a victim, is exactly the opposite of grace. A resentful presence is exactly the reverse of a gratuitous presence. A gratuitous presence isn’t trying to protect itself against anything, isn’t insisting on anything for itself, nor is there as part of the give and take of resentful reciprocity. It is not seeking to establish itself, because it does not fear disappearing, ending, or being destroyed. Well, what I’d like to do now is to suggest some hints of an imagination of a catholic moral theology which starts from this place of the one who, as a dead man, has no need to establish himself, and is for that reason capable of offering an anti-sacrificial, Eucharistic constructive critique which aims at the bringing about of a fraternity not marked by death.
I find these insights electrifying. In the follow up book to Faith Beyond Resentment, Alison notes "My sense of who I was was very much dependent on being rejected, since I knew, or thought I knew, that that was what the Gospel demanded, and I had managed to fool myself that my search for being marginalised was of God." He began to wonder if he was walking around "with a large label pinned to [his] back saying 'Kick me.' (On Being Liked pp66-7) I could have written these words myself. Resentment becomes a kind of justification. In fact, it is an idolatry, because we use it to establish ourselves ourselves rather than live established by God. My own sense is that
The Persecuted Hero [that's me] always has to be wronged. All of life, all of their mental landscape, all of their inner talk, is centred around this. This is their being, their identity. Kind, loving, responsible—they may be all these, and honest and ethical to a fault, but that is all lived within the mental landscape of the persecuted hero. Not visible today? Wait until the pressures of tomorrow, and a reversion to their basic self, and we will see. Their internal dialogue will shift back to the language of the persecuted one… Despite all their good qualities, the persecuted hero is living for themselves. Wronged, persecuted, they are nonetheless the hero. They will persist despite the pressures that seek to destroy them. They are the hero who, in the end, is right and true.
This mental landscape allows them to survive. It is the reason they are alive, why they survived childhood or some other trauma. But it is also burden. It has to be maintained. There has to be a struggle. Happiness can only be fleeting, for happiness delegitimises their reality if it lasts too long. If they are happy, much less peaceful, it means their whole world is wrong. So, they are always tired. Always on the edges of things. Never quite able to trust, or be loved. Always sabotaging themselves at some level, and reshaping reality back to the perception that they are being persecuted.
The beginning of conversion is to recognise this selfishness. All of us must see that our illness, whatever it is, is some kind of misplacing of ourselves as the centre of Creation, as the Hero. (Here.)
Meeting the dead-risen One who can live without resentment, and learning to live without resentment—being discipled to that, to Him—is the place of my own resurrection, which is only beginning.
The People of the Way:
Acts 9:2... Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Acts 19:9... 8 [Paul] entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
Acts 19:23, the riot in Ephesus... About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way.
Acts 22:4; 3‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. 4I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me.
Acts 24:14, 22 Paul before Felix... 14But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. 15I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous… But Felix, who was rather well informed about the Way, adjourned the hearing with the comment, ‘When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.’ 23Then he ordered the centurion to keep him in custody, but to let him have some liberty and not to prevent any of his friends from taking care of his needs.
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