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Emmaus Always

Sermon – 4/10/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 24:13-35

The first thing you will notice is that I’ve given this sermon a different title from the one printed in the bulletin.  That’s the trouble with inspiration, what little I may have—it doesn’t always meet print deadlines.  A few here will also notice that my title is borrowed from a dictum from my favorite Biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan .  More on that later: 

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then 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?’ 19He 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, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But 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. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and 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. 24Some 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.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

First a story from Kathleen Norris.  A good member here gave me her book, Amazing Grace, after I made a disparaging comment on the notion of “wretch” in Christian theology last week.  Norris has a different take on what being a “wretch” means, historically and linguistically more accurate than my own perspective without question.  It was very enlightening to read.  Didn’t change my mind, but at least gives me some new insight into Newton’s use of the term in his popular hymn.  But that has nothing to do with this sermon so I’ll say no more for now and leave that for another day.

The story from Norris that does relate to my topic is in her chapter on revelation, though the story is neither about the text from Luke nor the book of Revelation, rather it alludes to a story in the first book of the Bible when Jacob has a vision of the Divine.  The story is short, so I’ll share it in her words in the entirety:

Once a little boy came up to me and said, “I saw the ladder that goes up to God.”  I closed the book that I was reading, which happened to be The Ladder of Divine Ascent, by a fierce sixth-century monk, John Climacus, and I listened.  The boy told me that the ladder was by his treehouse and that God had come halfway down.  God’s clothes were covered with pockets—like a kangaroo, he said, and we both laughed.  Even God’s running shoes had pockets, he told me, full of wonder, and we laughed again.  He told me that God carried food in the pockets to feed all the dead birds and the dead people.

This boy had recently experienced that most fierce of childhood experiences, the death of a beloved dog.  It had been bitten by a rabid raccoon on his family’s ranch, and his father had had to shoot both animals.  As the boy told me of his dream, I thought about Jacob, who during a crisis in his life had also seen a ladder going up to heaven.  Jacob’s response has always appealed to me; when he wakes, he says, “God is in this place, and I did not know it.”

Revelation is not explanation, and it is not acquired through reading John Climacus, or anyone else.  It is the revealing of the presence of a God who cares for all creatures, even a little boy who lives on a ranch in a part of America that has often been called “Godforsaken.”  A boy whose dog has died, and who needs, and receives, divine consolation.[i]

A boy distraught over the death of his dog, wondering, perhaps, who will feed him now, encounters a God with pockets of food.  Two travelers leaving Jerusalem, fleeing perhaps, distraught over recent events and perplexed by more recent news from that Sunday morning, encounter the risen Christ in the breaking of bread.  One a child’s story, silly fantasy to some, the other sacred story, Gospel truth to many.  But I say, if one is false, both are false.  And if one is true, both are true, for they are simply different variations of the same story. 

That probably does not surprise you, coming from me, but this might.  It is not because I know the Emmaus story to be true that I can believe the God with pockets story, but because I know the God with pockets story to be true that I can believe the Emmaus story.  That requires a little explaining.

First, regarding Emmaus.  A few weeks ago I introduced the concept of the new or emerging paradigm for understanding our faith as described by Marcus Borg and others.  We’ll be starting in the next week or two a study group which will explore this topic on a deeper level.  In fact, since I announced this group. the response has been so positive, that we are now looking at starting two such groups to make room for everyone who has expressed an interest.  So make sure you are on my list if you are one of those and we’ll get you the details this week.

If you asked me to name one story in scripture that illustrates this paradigm, it would be the Emmaus story.  There are many examples of paradigm shifts in the secular world.  Borg uses the example of astronomy.  Prior to Copernicus, everyone thought that the earth was the center of the universe, literally.  It was assumed that the sun, stars and planets all revolved around the earth.  The idea, introduced by Copernicus, that the earth revolved around the sun, was so radical that it was condemned as heresy by the Church.  Moving from an earth-centric universe to a heliocentric universe was an enormous paradigm shift that forever changed astronomy. 

Stephen Covey used the more humorous story in his best seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, of a battleship on a collision course with another vessel in the middle of the night.  According to the rules of the sea, smaller ships always make way for larger ones.  Thus the commander of the battleship signaled the other vessel to change course.  The reply, of course, was a polite refusal.  Not pleased, the commander told his signalman to send a more terse message, saying “I am the commander of the fleet, I order you to change your course.”  Again came a refusal.  Furious, the commander signaled, “I am a battleship, change your course now!”  The final refusal ended the argument simply with, “I am a lighthouse.”  That is a paradigm shift.

The Emmaus story contains not one, but two such shifts.  The first occurs within the story itself.  The two travelers, Cleopas and an unnamed companion, often assumed to be his wife, understandably assume that Jesus is dead once and for all.  Crucifixions were terribly final.  No one had ever survived them before and there was no reason to suggest that this one would be any different.  Even with the incredible reports of the empty tomb, these two were not prepared to see Jesus again in their lifetime.  It is not until Jesus does something very familiar, breaking and blessing the bread as he had undoubtedly done many times before, that they realize who he is and in that moment, everything changes.  Though he disappears suddenly from their midst, they now know that he is not dead, but is alive to them in a whole new way never before conceived.  So complete is this change in them that they immediately go back from where they had just come to share the news.

The second shift occurs outside the story.  It is not what happens to the subjects of the story, but the objects, if you will, which are the readers.  It does not happen for everyone, nor does it need to.  Many people are able to connect with this story in different, powerful ways.  Some will relate to that experience of the journey, traveling with the unseen Christ.  Others may recall a similar time when their hearts burned within them in a passion for the Gospel message.  And many Christians will resonate with the experience of encountering Christ in the breaking of bread, perhaps in the Eucharistic sense of the Lord’s Table or in a more generic sense of table fellowship with companions on a common journey.  These are all powerful images which speak to our own experience of the risen Christ, but in and of themselves, they do not represent the shift of which I speak.

This second shift occurs when we see in this story, as Crossan puts it, a generation of encounters with the risen Christ told in one parabolic afternoon.  This is precisely what Christian faith is all about—encountering the very real presence of Jesus in a way that opens our eyes, burns in our hearts and turns us around.  On such both the older and the emerging paradigm can agree.  What is new in the emerging paradigm is how we see this story and our relationship to it.  As I’ve said many times before, what matters most is the truth of the story, not the facts of the story.  It is not that facts do not matter, for the fact that Jesus was crucified matters deeply.  Facts as to the various details of his death matter less.  Same for his resurrection.  The fact that Jesus has been raised from the dead is central to our faith, the facts as to the manner of his resurrection, bodily or not, is of less import.

To put it differently in regards to the Emmaus story, there is a hard truth and a liberating truth in this story.  These truths were summed up powerfully for me in the afore mentioned dictum of Dom Crossan in just six words.  The first three reveal the hard truth: “Emmaus never happened.”  This is hard because some will hear in such words a challenge to Biblical truth.  So let me be as clear as I can be on this.  I believe in the importance and centrality of scripture to Christian faith with my whole being AND I believe that such belief does not require that I give up my intellect.  For me the two work hand in hand. 

Sometimes the Bible informs my intellect.  At other times, my intellect informs how I read the Bible.  In the case of the Emmaus story, my intellect tells me when Jesus pops in and out of the story at will, when followers have their eyes opened on cue like magic, when no other gospel writer mentions such a fabulous story, and when it concludes with an obvious reference to the Lord’s Supper, this is theology in story form, not biography in history form.  In other words, taking his cue from the parables of Jesus, this is Luke’s parable of the resurrection.  But as an historical event, Emmaus never happened.

The second half of Crossan’s dictum reveals this liberating truth:  “Emmaus always happens.”  This is how the Bible informs my intellect.  It tells me that there are truths beyond what I know, what anyone knows.  That the followers of Jesus did not just have fond memories of their teacher around which they created a whole new religion, they really did encounter the risen Christ in the ways described by Luke in this one story.  They found him walking with them as they discussed those events in Jerusalem, they heard him teaching them again as they re-read their scriptures, they felt him open their eyes just as he had done for the blind and most of all, they saw him in the breaking of bread when they sat down together and spoke the words he gave them: this is my body, this is my blood.  That presence of the risen Christ was so real, so powerful that it changed everything for them, and even sent those who fled Jerusalem in fear back to share this incredible good news:  the crucifixion had failed, Jesus would not be contained to a tomb, God has transformed his death into new life not only for Jesus, but for all.

What makes this truth so liberating and so powerful is when we recognize that the experience of the two on the way to Emmaus need not be any different than our own, that our own encounters with the risen Christ can be just as real and powerful as theirs.  Thus we can affirm the truth that “Emmaus always happens” with confidence and conviction because it is not dependent on historical facts from 2000 years ago, which we can never confirm, it depends only on what we know in our own hearts, when we have felt that same burning within us, what John Wesley called the “strange warming of the heart”. 

This then, is finally why I can affirm the truth of Luke’s account, that Emmaus always happens.  I’ve been on that road, I’ve struggled with that despair.  We’ve all been there, lost a loved one when we weren’t ready.  You never are.  Last weekend it was saying goodbye to Frances, a key leader here since 1937, as we sent her on her way to live with her daughter.  Last night I said goodbye to Jessie Bork, another key leader of our congregation for 60 years and another dear friend, as she quietly slipped away at home with her two cats and a few close friends, her only family.  Jessie entered into her eternal rest with God a little after 8:00 this morning.

And every time on that road filled with all of its sadness and grief, every time I’ve found myself in that same place, that same destination, always there, in Emmaus where I’ve seen Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  It was early in 1999, three or four months after the very unexpected and very public death of my mother.  I was in my office sitting at my desk when mother came walking in and sat on the love-seat across from me.  You may think I was dreaming, at first I thought I was dreaming.  You know how dreams always do strange things?  One moment you are at work or school and all is normal other than the fact that you are stark naked, which no one seems to notice but you. The next thing you know you are being chased through a forest by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a clown suit when you fall out of an airplane and you realize the parachute you were carrying is actually the sack lunch you made that morning. You’ve had that dream too? 

This dream wasn’t like that.  Nothing was unusual about it.  Everything in my office was the way it normally is—piles of paper on my desk, the same pictures on the wall, plants and rocking chair all where they should be.  And there sat Mom, as real as could be.  “Mom!” I said, “You’re dead, what are you doing here?”  Pretty normal reaction, don’t you think?  I am pretty sure that is just what one of the disciples would have said when they saw Jesus.  “Jesus, you’re dead!  What are you doing here?  You are supposed to be in your tomb!”  Mom just smiled and said, “Don’t worry about me, I’ve got lots to do so you may not see me for a while.”  And with that, she was gone.  Call it a dream if you like, I just know the feeling it left in me was very real and very comforting.  A strange warming of the heart.

You see that little boy, the one who saw God with the pockets full of food?  That’s me.  And Luke and the two on the road to Emmaus.  It is everyone who has encountered the living Christ. For us, you see, Easter is now, Emmaus is always.

[i] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith.  Riverhead Books, New York: 1998.  p. 341f.


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