A sermon preached on April 6, 2008 based upon Luke 24:13 – 35, entitled, “The Quest.”
For decades now I’ve been reading and re-reading this delightful story of the stranger who comes to walk with two depressed disciples along the road to Emmaus for several hours on Easter afternoon. Only at the end of the day do they finally recognize the stranger: It is Jesus! At which point he vanishes. This week, however, it occurred to me there was a basic question I had never asked of the story. Once I asked the question, it struck me that it was an obvious question to ask, and I wondered why I had never asked it before. (Which in turn gave me some appreciation for how those disciples could have spent all that time in Jesus’ company without recognizing him. We get stuck inside ways of looking at things in a manner that leads us to lose the capacity to see the obvious.)
The question I found myself asking this week was this: Why didn’t Jesus simply say to the two grief-stricken disciples at the outset, “It’s me, bozos! Open your eyes, for God’s sake!”? Clearly, Jesus could have if he had wanted to, but he didn’t. Why didn’t he?
Further questions follow: The story indicates that when they reached the village of Emmaus, where the disciples had planned to sleep that night, Jesus made like he planned to simply continue on down the road, and presumably would have, if the disciples hadn’t taken the initiative to say, “It’s getting late, buddy, come, be our guest for the night.” Why was Jesus willing to pass on down the road, having never been recognized? And finally, why, once their eyes were finally opened as he broke the bread at their supper table, did he vanish the very moment they recognized him?
In asking these questions, the answer seems obvious: The journey, the quest itself, matters. If Jesus had simply revealed himself at the outset, the journey would have been cut short; the quest aborted. Although Jesus first reaches out to them in the stranger walking beside them, they bear responsibility in this quest as well. And likewise, Jesus vanishes at the end because even here, the disciples would have been quick to believe that the quest was now over.
Realizing this, I thought about the variety of ways that the metaphor of a geographic journey is used in the Gospels to call attention to the underling spiritual journey we are all called to embrace.
Jesus’ ministry was not stationary; he walked from town to town, making his final journey to Jerusalem and his death. He spoke of journeys in his teaching: A man journeyed on the road to Jericho and ends up beaten by robbers, left half dead at the side of the road. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan were on journeys down that same road… A father had two sons. The elder son stays home and never embarks on a quest. The younger son leaves home on a quest, and although much of the journey is misguided to say the least, his quest finally brings him home to a new, far deeper awareness of grace.
Jesus alluded to this quest and his confidence of its ultimate fulfillment when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…”
Whenever Jesus affirmed people for living out “faith”, their story always involves a quest; they take initiative over against much resistance to reach out to the grace of God revealed in Jesus. For instance, a woman with a flow of blood for 18 years, having been to several doctors who could not help her, overcomes several religious laws that require her to avoid being in public, to be in the presence of men, and especially to touch a rabbi. A Gentile woman with a very sick daughter persists in coming to see Jesus the Jew, despite his obvious desire to be left alone, saying, “Even the dogs receive the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.”
Jesus said that unless we adults turn and become like children we will never enter the kingdom of God, and the thing about children is that they are inherently curious, anxious to learn, to discover, to be surprised.
The quest truly matters, and it isn’t so much where we end up on this journey that matters as what happens to us — within us along the way.
This is analogous, I think, to what scientists are about. If you were to ask a scientist why he or she puts so much time and energy into their work, I think their answer would be something like this: “I do it in order to attain new knowledge — to extend the frontiers of human knowledge.”
And although there is truth in this, I think it leaves something out. Imagine — and I know that what I am asking you to imagine may well be impossible in and of itself — but imagine that some where far down the road, scientists were to reach a point where everything that could possibly be known about the material world was finally known, and there are no new frontiers left to explore. How would they react? Would they rejoice? I think not. I suspect they would all go into a collective depression. And the reason for this is that it was the quest for knowledge, the thrill of making a breakthrough after endless hours of inquiry, that has sustained them along the way.
Why do the fox hunters hunt the fox? Is it because of their insatiable love of the taste of fox meat? No, of course not. It is the thrill of the hunt itself.
One of the obstacles to faith that we can sometimes encounter is the notion that if there really is a good and loving God, why doesn’t this God just make it evident? But if there is some essential value in the quest itself, then this is the very thing God can’t do.
There are these math text books that have all the correct answers printed in the back. The purpose, of course, is that after students work through a problem to a solution, they can turn to the back of the book to find out whether they worked through the problem successfully. The possibility exists, of course, that students could simply skip to the answers without ever putting in the necessary work.
There is an important distinction between religion and spirituality. They are related, but they are not the same. Spirituality speaks of the common quest all persons are on, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we embrace it willingly or resist it with every fiber of our being — the quest to find meaning, purpose, direction, balance, and hope in our lives, particularly in the face of the fact that one day we will all die.
Religion, in contrast, is the inheritance we have received from the spiritual lives of those who have gone before us. Obviously religion is very important, and can be very helpful, providing us with invaluable assistance on our own quest. But religion can also easily serve a sinister purpose, which is to provide people with a means by which to avoid the quest for themselves.
Religion can be the answers in the back of the math book, which the student never bothers to work through for his or herself.
Religion can become, “MY answers at the back of MY book are better than YOUR answers.”
Religion can become a major barrier to the quest: “Don’t ask these fundamental questions for yourself, just accept what we tell you are the questions to ask and the answers to those questions.”
If this life is a quest, a spiritual quest, where will we look for direction on this journey? Our story suggests a number of sources.
The two disciples had just had their world rocked. The times of greatest disturbance can also be times for the greatest breakthrough in the course of the journey. Though this is not a source any of us particularly welcomes, the places where our lives are turned upside down are ripe with potential for insight and direction. The places where we feel overwhelmed, where we can’t cope, may actually be settings for the holy spirit to move in powerful ways in our lives.
When our world is rocked, time is required, of course, for the insights to grow into their fullness. This resurrection story is unique insofar as it covers several hours, emphasizing the need for patience.
The story suggests that surprises are to be welcomed.
It also implies that other people — in particular, encounters with strangers — can be sources of insight on the journey. The stranger invites us to see things differently, to divert from our pre-existing path. In so far as it is easy for us to assume that we know all there is to know about the people we live closest to, it is people such as these who sometimes can surprise us as the stranger inviting us to awaken.
When we say here in our church that “we believe newcomers in our midst are Jesus in disguise”, we are not referring only to the importance of practicing hospitality on behalf of the stranger, as important as this may be. There is also the recognition that we need the stranger to keep us from becoming overly insular. The stranger helps save us from the delusion that our journey is over and we have already arrived.
The stranger in our story led the two disciples through a process of reflection on the scriptures. God speaks to us in the present through the insights of those who have gone before us. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel, spiritually speaking. And the scriptures give us Jesus, the north star in our journey.
I don’t think its a stretch to say that the story points to walks in the out-of-doors as a source of insight in our journey; that in the encounter with the earth, the natural rhythms of the rising and setting sun, of the birds of the air, the seasons, God’s spirit is present.
After Jesus vanishes, the disciples say to one another, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” The suggestion here is that their hearts had been saying something to them to which they had not fully paid attention. On the journey, we are to pay attention to what our hearts — our emotions and intuitions — are saying to us in dialogue with our intellects.
Jesus finally is recognized by the two disciples at the moment of table fellowship, when the stranger takes bread, blesses, and breaks it. We have here a clear allusion to Christian communion and the blessing of the sacrament as an essential source in our journey.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper calls our attention once more to the fact of death in the midst of our lives. Our quest in this life continues right up to the moment we draw our last breath. There is a long tradition, often neglected in our modern era, of honoring those who are drawing near to death as persons of profound insight and grace. Nowadays the dying tend to be isolated in hospitals, with a preoccupation in regards to their physical being diverting attention to the spiritual meaning of the finale of a person’s life on earth. In ages past, loved ones would sit at their feet in an awareness that they were witnessing something holy, ripe with the potential for providing a glimpse of the light to come.