Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 30 April, 2017.
Readings for this Sunday: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4,12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-19; Luke 24:13-35
While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24: 15-16)
As disciples go, they weren’t the well known ones, like John and Peter. In fact, one of them stays nameless through the whole story. The other, Cleopas, is only ever mentioned once in all the gospels, here in Luke 24, though a Cleophas does crop up in John, and may be the same person. So this isn’t a story about the star disciples, the A-Team. This is a story about plodding everyday people, just the ordinary faithful, like you and me. This is a story about the church.
We are never told why the two disciples left Jerusalem to spend half a day walking to Emmaus. It would have been half a day, most likely, for the distance isn’t short. Seven miles, says Luke, or somewhere between 10 to 12 kilometres. Not an inconsiderable trip, really. According to the website Biblewalks, the site believed to be Emmaus today lies in foothills on the edge of the Plain of Judea so we can imagine that the two disciples were walking uphill towards the end of their journey, and were probably feeling the journey in their bones and muscles. But Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the physical aspect of the walk.
What we do know is that disciples are tired and sore in their souls. When the risen Jesus meets them and asks them what they were discussing, Luke says that “They stood still, looking sad” (24:17). When they finally speak, it is to tell a tragic story of how Jesus, “a prophet mighty in deed”, was killed. They tell the gospel as if it had no good news, as if their faith and hope in Jesus (“we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” 24:21) had been buried with him on Good Friday. No wonder that they travel seems to be aimless.
One of the things that always seems curious about this story is why the two disciples at first fail to recognize Jesus. Perhaps grief and despair cloud their eyes. Like Mary who is weeping at the tomb and who first thinks that Jesus must be the gardener (John 20:15), it’s as if the two disciples can’t imagine any alternative to Jesus being dead. And why should they? Nothing in their experience had prepared them for this possibility. Despite veiled hints from Jesus that he might rise, the disciples lived in a world where the dead stayed dead. Easter had not yet been invented.
Of course we know better, we church people. Unlike the disciples, we know that the story of Jesus does not end tragically on Good Friday. Right? “Christ is risen!” we say in our liturgy. “The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!” But how does that work out in our lives? Does Easter really challenge us to live differently in the weeks and months that follow. We say that we are a resurrection people, and that has a nice ring to it, but I wonder sometimes.
We may not be sad or grieving like the disciples but we may be tired, complacent, or just not really convinced that Jesus is present with us. Last Thursday I sat in on a meeting of local clergy, and could see how tired they were. Holy Week was finished for another year, and now it was time to line up other clergy to cover for the Sundays when they would be on holiday this summer. And who can blame them? Easter was a slog for them, and still the work’s not over. We’re all busy. Parishes are busy preparing for their spring dinners and yard sales and perhaps planning the Vacation Bible Camp before everyone goes away for the summer. Think about the meaning of Easter? Well yeah, that would be good, if there wasn’t so much to do!
The Emmaus story reminds us that the risen Christ walks with us, accompanies us on our journeys, even when our eyes are too distracted or tired to see him. This gospel reading opens our eyes to his presence with us. In this part of the sermon I want to consider how this shows us how the risen Christ is with us, in our church and in our lives, and how that can bring us joy and hope in our life as the church. Let me be more specific. By “with us”, I don’t necessarily mean with us in spirit, our living in our hearts. I mean right here, right now, in the flesh, in this place, in our homes and workplaces, in our lives, with us, listening to us, talking and walking with us.
First, the easy one. Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it” (24:30) and in the next verse Luke tells us that “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him”. As Anglicans, we are often invited to see this moment as an account of what happens for us, Sunday by Sunday, in the eucharist, and it is true that in that moment we come together as a family and as a people, united by the gift of Jesus to us in his body and blood, forgiven our sins and invited to live with him in new life. I think the challenge here for us is to never get blasé about the eucharist or to think of it as that thing we do. It is the moment when we see Christ in a real and powerful way. But what about other times when we gather for a meal, whether around the family table or in a busy mall food court. Could our prayers of grace and thanksgiving be more heartfelt, even ore like conversations, knowing he is with us? And what about those who go hungry? Surely Jesus is present in the sharing of bread as well.
Second, the disciples say that their hearts were “burning” as they spoke to us and “while he was opening the scriptures to us” (Lk 24:32). The disciples begin to sense the presence of Jesus when he corrects their tragic vision of his death by giving them an impromptu bible story that covers all of scripture as it then existed, “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms” (23:44). I take this as a reminder that Christ is fully present in the church’s reading of scripture and in the story of creation and rescue from slavery, sin and death that scripture tells. This is why our Eucharistic prayers all tell a summary of the bible story, to remind us that Christ is the point of that story. Everytime someone goes to the lectern to read a listen, everytime we stand to hear the gospel, every time we gather for bible study or in our own devotional time, Jesus is with us. “The Word is very near you” says John’s gospel. Jesus as the word made flesh is present with us, real, in our scripture.
Besides these two fairly obvious situations, I think the Emmaus story reminds us, in ways that are both exciting and unsettling, that we are always in the presence of the risen Christ. Paul writes in Philippians 4 that “The Lord is near”. In fact, he can come and stand in our midst whenever he likes, at coffee and at corporation meetings, in our youth group and our conversations in the parking lot.
When we greet each other during the Peace and say “God’s peace be with you”, that greeting is meaningful precisely because Christ is with his church as the one who brings peace and forgiveness and who reconciles us one to another. When we are sad and despairing as the disciples are at the start of the Emmaus story, the risen Christ is with us. When we greet one another, he comes to us. When we are vexed and gossipy or sullen about something in the life of the church, the risen Christ is with us. When we are waiting in hospital, worrying about our children, stewing over finances, the risen Christ is with us. It’s ale worth remembering that when we are cross, catty, or irritated with others, the risen Christ is present with us. Our goal is a Christian community should be to speak to others in a way that is appropriate and suitable for the company we keep, the risen Christ.
This Sunday, as we leave this church and return to our daily lives, our risen lord goes with us all. My prayer is that our eyes are not blinded to his presence by whatever challenges us or fatigues us. May our spiritual fatigue give way with hearts that burn with joy, as we remember that our Lord cared so much for us that he rose from the grave to walk with us, encourage us, and rescue us. May our lives, and the life of this church, always be centered by the risen Christ who stands and walks in our midst.