via “zoom” on 26 April 2020 [Easter 3]:
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Luke 34:13-35
Mincing no words, the experience of this pandemic has suddenly brought the reality of death closer to more of us, at the same time, than ever before. Also, the experience of this pandemic has seriously challenged our expectations about the way we want to live our lives. Whether we realize it or not, the registration of all this on our hearts and in our minds creates a deep sense of grief – grief over losing the world we have known and, truth be told, grief over the loss of the routines that we have counted on.
Into all of this overwhelming reality, we followers of Jesus want to turn to our Easter faith as a way through this experience of deep change and death, but the uncertainty – that’s it: the uncertainty of it all — gnaws at our Easter foundations. We crave some certainty in the midst of all this murk. Yet, certainty, shrouded as it is in fear, is the opposite of faith. So, what are we to do?
It is said (and I totally agree) that the best story Jesus ever told is the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”, found only in St. Luke’s gospel, the 15th chapter. It is also said that the best story St. Luke ever told rests in the dramatic strokes of today’s gospel reading: The story of what happened on the Road to Emmaus. In no uncertain terms, Jesus’ “Prodigal Son” parable makes clear to us who our God is, what our God’s nature is like, and the price the Holy One willingly pays to love us, to stay in Communion with us – no matter what. The story of the two Emmaus disciples (I think) is Luke’s way of depicting what is takes for the likes of us to have faith: that is, to receive God’s unwavering love and life – no matter what. This is to say that in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”, we see God, acting in loving, steadfast faith for us. In the story of the two disciples walking home to Emmaus, we see ourselves and what it takes for us to receive what God gives – no matter what.
It was toward the end of that strange, upending day. Two of Jesus’ followers were walking home from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The 3.5-mile, familiar trek, the one they had walked so often because of their connection to Jesus, now demanded concentrated steps, so heavy laden were their feet with the burden of their broken hearts. At least they had each other to talk to, to attempt to grind out some awful sense of all that had taken place in the last week, specifically in the last three days.
Careful biblical detective work seems to indicate that this traveling twosome were a married couple. Luke himself tells us that one of the pair was named Cleopus (24:18), but his companion is not named, which immediately establishes an identity hunt for the ages. Yet, we can reasonable speculate about the unnamed other using the Gospel of John’s listing of those who stood by the cross on that fateful Friday. The Fourth Gospel account says that one of the women standing watch there was, “Mary the wife of Cleopus” (19:25). So, for the sake of retelling this story now, I will assume that Cleopus and Mary, his wife, are walking home on Easter Day, dragging their souls behind them.
In any event, the gravity with which each spoke their grief and confusion to the other caused them to miss the arrival of a stranger, who silently slipped into their company and then into their conversation, with a question: “What’s this you are discussing so intently …?” [Message: 24:17]
Stunned both by the surprise of the stranger’s presence and his apparent lack of awareness of the headline news, Cleopus responded – perhaps because a good Hebrew wife would not dare to speak to a male stranger. With a long face that looked like he had lost his best friend and a voice to match, Cleopas gasped: “Don’t you know what has happened?” The stranger shook his head and asked to be filled in.
With the timing of an old married couple, Mary and Cleopas sought to bring this outsider up to speed, filling in one another’s sentences when the other paused to breathe. With diligence, the two disciples conveyed the story of God’s hope in and through Israel, how Jesus embodied and completed each and every hopeful promise of the God-covenanted life but that the very leaders, who should have known better, were so threatened by him that they killed Jesus. And then the couple said it: “We had our hopes up that he was the One – the promised and long-desired Messiah, the One who would not only deliver God’s people from fear and death but actually bring and unleash the new and reliable life that only God can provide. But no …”
They finished up by saying that many in Jesus’ inner circle came to the tomb and found it empty and that some of the women in the fellowship had even seen him alive. This news, however, only added wrenching confusion to the Emmaus couple’s tortured expectations.
Having silently absorbed the couple’s woeful tale, the stranger took advantage of their tearful pause to say: “So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don’t you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?” [Message: 24:25]
The stranger then told the God-story, the one both Cleopas and Mary had known all their faith lives. It was the anchoring story of God and God’s people, stories that provided the touchstones that kept faith going and hope alive, in season and out: Stories of God the ever-creator; stories of God the covenanting partner; stories of Exodus and God the deliverer; stories also of the stubborn, rebellious resistance of God’s own partners and their consequential exile; and stories – always stories of return and homecoming. Cleopas and Mary knew these stories. They relied on them; but there was something in the stranger’s telling that made these old and familiar stories different. What was it?
Emmaus village loomed just over the next rise in the road. It was getting late in the day, and Mary, keeper of the household, invited their fellow traveler to stay with them for the night; and then he could be on his way the next morning. The stranger, curiously still unnamed at this point in Luke’s text, welcomed and eagerly accepted their warm hospitality.
In the modest house, they sat at table for the evening supper. Cleopas asked the guest for the meal’s blessing. The guest, then, took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it with his hosts. At that instant, Cleopas and Mary knew him, at which moment Jesus, risen and present, left their sight.
The two Emmaus disciples jumped from the table to run to Jerusalem, to tell the others what had been made known to them. The rumors and reports of the day were all true. Cleopas and Mary could confirm this, and they could confirm this because they had been reminded of God’s story, but what was different is that they had heard it told from God’s perspective and understanding. Strange how what God knows and sees is often so different from what we expect and allow in.
And here’s my point: You and I are Cleopas and Mary today. And here [dare I say] is our problem, the one that affects our faith and our living that faith: Many of us [myself included] want God’s story to be a story that matches our expectations and meets our fears. I will speak personally [and not for the first time] as an illustration of what I mean.
The Jesus that I want comes as one who takes all that I fear and hate away. Like some human/divine blackhole, I want the Son of God to suck up all that I don’t like or want and leave me safe and sound with the good results. I want Jesus, Messiah of God, Christ of all hope, to take away the reality of fear and death and leave me safe and sound … the jellybeans and chocolates. And then, when this embarrassing but quite natural expectation is unmet, when I am left to deal with the fact that I must change in order to have what I see in Jesus, then I can wobble and leave the God I love and need. In that disappointment, in the dashing of expectations, there is always the temptation to go off in a huff and try to forget the God of my soul. I know that I am not alone in this.
Why can’t the “good guys” win and live “happily ever after”? Why can’t Jesus die and rise again and make it all better?
No one expected the Messiah to die and to die so ignominiously. But the actual message of Easter is that Jesus faced all the worst the world can do; and he suffered. But in his rising, Jesus reveals that fear and death are not the defining realities they pretend to be. God’s love and life are. So in following Jesus, we too can move beyond the intimidating limits that death conveys and discover life that fear cannot touch; but this takes work on our parts.
This is what Jesus told Cleopas and Mary on the way to Emmaus. And this is what Cleopas and Mary discovered, when they encountered the God-story made flesh, Jesus in their midst.
So, in this time when fear among us is high and death itself more visible than most of us can remember, I think it is as important to see ourselves in Cleopas and Mary, walking home to Emmaus on Easter. Day. Everything they had banked on to give them life had been dashed. The One who they had pinned their deepest hopes on had been mercilessly killed; the world had done what the world always does to that which threatens its story, its power, its reality. And God let it happen. God let it happen so that we might take to heart that fear and death are real; but they are not the last word. God’s Word, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, is the last word. He is God’s Word; and God’s Word to us is “Yes!” – no matter what.
As their guest took, blessed, broke, and shared the bread, what Cleopas and Mary realized is that their guest was God’s life-giving word in their midst. And they ran back to the Jesus community in Jerusalem to continue to work out together – in community — how to know the story of our lives the way God sees the story of our lives.
How shall we tell God’s story the way God knows and tells it? One important answer is to remember that there is always more to God’s story than we can manage to tell or hear. The other answer is that (like Cleopas and Mary) we need each other; we need to be in community in order to talk the story out – even argue about it and its meaning – so, at the very least, we will be mindful enough to invite the stranger in to bless, break, and share the bread and for us to recognize that he is the answer in our midst, the one we must continue to proclaim and share and follow – no matter what.
Don’t let the separation and the uncertainty of this stressful time keep you from showing up (even virtually) and from wrestling with and learning from the God-story – not if we want a way forward in the face of fear and death that surpasses what we expect and think we know.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. Amen.