A sermon preached on April 4th, 2010, Easter Sunday, based upon Luke 24:13-35.
(Al Booth playing the part of the Jesus breaking bread and opening eyes.)
If you had asked the two disciples on the road to Emmaus at the beginning of the day what they would have wanted if they could ask for anything, I am sure they would have asked to be given Jesus back just as before — to have him there with the same familiar body, to guide them, comfort them, heal them. Jesus to touch, to lean on — that’s what they wanted.
It is important to note that this is NOT what they got.
What they got was a stranger who joined them as they walked down the road to a place called Emmaus. Initially, all this stranger did was to ask them what was making them look so sad, and then to listen as they went on and on about their grief over the death of Jesus and their crushed hopes.
Having spent considerable time listening, the stranger proceeded to challenge them, going so far as to call them “foolish.” Leading them back into their scriptures, he points out to them the larger context of the suffering of their master and of themselves in the redemption of the world. The suffering they have endured is not meaningless; it is part of the birth pangs of the new creation.
Later the disciples will refer back to the experience of hearing the stranger speak as being one in which their hearts burned within them.
Then, for one brief moment, they got what they wanted. They are reclined at table and the stranger breaks the bread and suddenly their eyes are openned and they finally recognize him — he is Jesus! But just as soon as they have what theyhad longed for — just as soon as they assuredly leaned forward to clutch his body — he vanished.
The disciples do not get the same old life back. What they get is a new life — one in which they have the assurance that they have not been abandoned, that their lives with all the suffering they are called to bear has a purpose greater than they could have imagined. They have a mission — to reach out to others who have been stricken by grief and despair by this world.
Reynolds Price is a great southern author who teaches at Duke University. One day he woke up to find himself paralyzed from the waist down and suffering from tremendous pain. Tests determined a malignant tumor in his spinal column. He was taken into the operating table to undergo surgery for several hours. The next day his surgeon came to see him. He told Reynolds that the spinal tumor was ten inches long — the longest ever recorded in the annals of the Duke University Hospital. Reynolds wondered whether he was supposed to take pride in such a remarkable tumor. He asked the surgeon, “How much of it did you get?” About an inch, he was told. He would receive radiation therapy, and that the best that he could hope for was that the tumor would not grow any larger. The doctor made no promises about the pain; they would do what they could.
Devastated to say the least, Reynolds was released from the hospital. Very early on his first morning home, he awoke, lying in his bed, when out of the blue he experienced himself as transported to an altogether different place. Here I quote Reynolds:
I was suddenly not propped in my brass bed or even contained in my familiar house. By the dim new, thoroughly credible light that rose around me, it was barely dawn; and I was lying fully dressed in modern street clothes on a slope by a lake I knew at once. It was the big lake of Kinnereth, the Sea of Galilee, in the north of Israel, green Galilee, the scene of Jesus’ first teaching and healing. I’d paid the lake a second visit the previous October, a twelve-mile-long body of fish-stocked water in beautiful hills of grass, trees and small family farms.
Still sleeping around me on the misty ground were a number of men in the tunics and cloaks of first century Palestine. I soon understood with no sense of surprise that the men were Jesus’ twelve disciples and that he was nearby asleep among them. So I lay on a while in the early chill, looking west across the lake to Tiberias, a small low town, and north to the fishing villages of Capernaum and Bethsaida. I saw them as they were in the first century–stone huts with thatch-and-mud roofs, occasional low towers, the rising smoke of breakfast fires. The early light was fine mix of tan and rose. It would be a fair day.
Then one of the sleeping men woke and stood.
I saw it was Jesus, bound toward me. He looked much like the lean Jesus of Flemish paintings — tall with dar hair, unblemished skin and a self-possession both natural and imposing.
Again I felt no shock or fear. All this was normal human event; it was utterly clear to my normal eyes and was happening as surely as any event of my previous life. I lay and watched him walk on nearer.
Jesus bent and silently beckoned me to follow.
I knew to shuck off my trousers and jacket, then my shirt and shorts. Bare, I followed him.
He was wearing a twisted white cloth round his loins; otherwise he was bare and the color of ivory. We waded out into cool lake water twenty feet from shore till we stood waist-deep.
I was in my body but was also watching my body from slightly upward and behind. I could see teh purple dye on my back, the long rectangle that boxed my thriving tumor.
Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back till water ran down my puckered scar. Then he spoke once– “Your sins are forgiven” — and turned to shore again, done with me.
I came on behind him, thinking in standard greedy fashion, ‘It’s not my sins I’m worried about.’ So to Jesus’ receding back, I had the gall to say “Am I also cured?”
He turned to face me, no sign of a smaile, and finally said two words — “That too.” Then he climbed from the water, not looking around, really done with me.
I followed him out and them, with no palpable seam in the texture of time or place, I was home again in my wide bed.
Was it a dream I gave myself in the midst of a catnap, thinking I was awake? Was it a vision of the sort accorded from a maybe external source to mystics of differing degrees of sanity through human history? From the moment my mind was back in my own room, no more than seconds after I’d left it, I’ve believed that the even was an external gift, hwoever brief, of an alternate time and space in which to live through a crucial act.” (Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing, pp. 42-44)
Having received such a dramatic vision of Jesus in which his healing was claimed, you might think that Reynolds would subsequently have a story of being restored to his original health, but it was not so. Reynolds continues to live and work today, 26 years later, but he remains a paraplegic. He struggled with pain in the years to come, finding his greatest help in dealing with the pain through counseling that taught how to redirect his concentraton away from the pain.
In the memoir in which he describes his experience with the tumor, Reynolds talks about how friends in the early years were constantly encouraging him in various ways to hold onto his old life. He came to realize that was a great mistake. His old life was dead, gone. What he needed now was to reach out to the new life that was being offered him.
Here’s a quote from the end of his book:
“Your chance of rescue from any despair lies, if it lies anywhere, in your eventual decision to abandon the deathwatch by the corpse of your old self and to search out a new inhabitable body. The old Theological Germanica* knew that “nothing burns in Hell burn the self” — above all, the old self broiling in the fat of its endless self-pity.” (p. 188)
To have our sins forgiven is to be set free from the past. We don’t need to clutch in the hopes of finally getting it right.
There is a fascinating detail in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. For several hours the risen Jesus is in the company of the two disciples without them recognizing who he really is. As they reach the village of Emmaus as night is falling, the stranger appears to be heading on down the road. Apparently he would have continued on down the road, unrecognized by the two had they not insisted that the stranger come in and stay as their guest over night. Only then, as the stranger blesses and breaks the bread of their shared meal, are their eyes openned to recognize Jesus.
It is in the act of extending hospitality to a stranger that Jesus reveals himself. We live in a world of strangers — more so than any other time in human history. It is so easy to live our lives cut off from others. It is in hospitality to strangers, whether it be the stranger who bags our groceries at the Shop Rite, or the stranger who sits across from us at our dinner table night after night, that glimpses of Christ are given. It is in creating a safe and welcoming space for the other to be known that the presence of Christ is discovered. Watch for him, in all your human encounters.
Jesus is revealed in the breaking of bread — a communal act, a shared meal laced with forgiveness — not a meal consumed alone. It is in such as this that the new life found.
*14th century treatise from annonymous German Christian mystic.