If your house is like mine, you probably get a lot of catalogues – some for things you are interested in, and others are for items you would never have any intention of buying. I sometimes enjoy looking at the catalogues that feature T-shirts with various sayings, and one of my favorites of the years has read: “Life is a journey. Take snacks and a magazine.” On one level, this saying takes a truth of some depth and moves it to a humorous and day-to-day reality. Life is a journey; it takes time; you’ll need some sustenance along the way; you might be a little bored or lonely at times; there will be occasions when all you can do is wait for the next thing to happen. All of this is wrapped up in that little quip.
The idea of faith and following Jesus as a journey is central to understanding what it means to be a Christian. And today’s Gospel reading makes that very clear. The setting is Easter day. In Luke’s version of the Resurrection, he names the women who went to the tomb as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary (the mother of James), and some others. They went to Jesus’ place of burial, found the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty, and were very puzzled. Then two angels appeared, announced that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and reminded the women of what Jesus had told them before the Crucifixion. When they went back to the apostles and told them what they had seen and heard, they were not believed. Peter went to look for himself, but found only the empty tomb, and was more confused than ever.
This is where today’s passage picks up. Two of Jesus’ followers had set out for the village of Emmaus – we don’t know why – sad, and full of the momentous events of the last three days, and they encounter a stranger walking on the road with them. He engages them in conversation. He gets the disciples to tell him all about the things that have so rocked their world, and their sadness, and incomprehension.
This stranger than takes them to task: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe!” And he takes them through a Bible reflection on the Scriptures and what they have to say about the Messiah. You’d think at that point those disciples would have gotten a clue as to who this stranger was, but that’s not the way it works – for them, and so often for us. Sometimes we are so focused on what we think, or hope, or expect that Jesus will do for us, that we miss his actual presence and purpose in our midst.
Why does that happen? Sometimes it’s because we have preconceived notions of how God will act, just the way we sometimes do with people in our lives, as in: “If you really loved me, you would….” act in this way, or stop doing that, or some other litmus test of the other person’s affection and commitment. Other times we miss seeing Jesus because our conception of God is too small. We get so stuck in a mechanistic world view that says only what we can see, touch, hear, taste, analyze, quantify is real and anything else is not possible, a fantasy, that we miss God’s mighty deeds and miracles. On the other hand, sometimes we expect and long for God to intervene in our lives by waving a magic wand and making things all better. There have been many times I’ve wished that this could be true. But if we expect dramatic magic-wand action we will miss the powerful, but sometimes subtle, shifts of hearts and minds that may not make everything all better, but absolutely give us hope in God’s strength and goodness.
One of the aspects of Christian faith being a journey is that we learn, over time, all these different ways that God acts. Through trial and error, through practice and experience, through listening to the Holy Spirit - in Scripture, in conversation with others, and in the still, small voice in our own hearts – we learn to recognize and discern Jesus’ presence.
The disciples on the Emmaus road walked with the Risen Christ, they had a conversation with him, they listened to him discuss the Scriptures – God’s big story. And when they described this journey later, they realized that their hearts were burning within them. But even before they had words for their experience, they offered an act of hospitality; they invited this stranger to stay with them because it was getting late – time for the evening meal and a rest. And the stranger accepted their invitation. We don’t know where they were staying – at an inn, at the house of a friend, or even their own house; no matter. When they sat down to dinner, their guest took the round loaf of bread that was the staple of their meal, and gave thanks to God:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam Hamotzi lechem min haaretz.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.
He then broke the bread and gave it to them, just as he had done at the Last Supper. It was then that the disciples recognized that this was their friend Jesus, their rabbi, their Lord and Messiah, risen from the dead, just as the women had told them. And Jesus disappeared from their sight, one of those resurrection comings and goings for which the best we can say is that the reality of God’s realm we call heaven and our earthly existence overlap in wonderful and unpredictable ways.
For Luke’s Gospel, this is the first reported Resurrection appearance. We need to pay attention to that. Luke is telling us that Jesus is most often found on the journey, outside our comfort zone, in the presence of strangers, when reading and discussing the Scriptures, when offering hospitality, when breaking bread with others, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. It was true for the first disciples, and it is just as true for us today – we who follow in Jesus’ Way. But don’t expect a big flashing neon sign to say: Jesus is here! You may get those signs, and you shouldn’t rule them out, but more often you’ll find the presence of the Risen Lord on the road, on the journey, bit by bit. But always sustained by the breaking of bread – knowing that at every feast Jesus is both the Host and the Guest; the One we invite by our words, our prayers, by welcoming the stranger into our midst. Jesus is the One who welcomes us with all our questions, problems, loneliness, grief, pain, and joy and says: Welcome – wherever you are, I am with you, and you are home.
When we walk this way with Jesus, when we practice opening ourselves in hospitality and welcome, when we put aside our fear of the stranger (whether the stranger is a person, an idea, a part of ourselves we don’t want to acknowledge, or the depths of Scripture that may be unfamiliar to us), we learn increasingly and over time to recognize Jesus and to know the joy and sustenance of his presence. And we can offer it to others.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen. Alleluia.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday of Easter
April 30, 2017