May 8, 2011

Luke 24:13-35

I have always appreciated Luke’s story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It’s a story of disappointment turning into possibility, of sadness turning into hope, of loneliness turning into friendship, of confusion turning into understanding. It’s a story about an ending becoming a new beginning, of disciples who were wandering away returning with great hope and purpose.

An interesting point that has been noted in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is that only one of them is named. The author of Luke’s Gospel tells us about two disciples “who were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.” One of them, we are told, was named Cleopas. The other is not named.

Now, it’s not that unusual in the Gospels to encounter characters that are not named. Yes, we meet many of Jesus’ disciples by name: Simon, Andrew, Matthew, John, and Mary Magdalene, just to name a few. But then we hear about others identified as “a blind man,” “a sinful woman,” or “the woman at the well.”

Some have pointed out that the women in the Gospels are disproportionately left unnamed. The classic example is the woman in Mark’s Gospel who anoints Jesus at Bethany. Some of those who were there scolded the unnamed woman for wasting such precious ointment. But Jesus thanked her and praised her for what she did. And he said, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” And still, we don’t know what her name was.

And so it has been suggested that the other disciple on the road to Emmaus might have been a woman. Maybe it was Cleopas and Mrs. Cleopas, on their way back home to Emmaus after the disappointment of Jesus’ arrest and execution. And as they walked along they were talking and discussing with each other, as couples often do, the strange, upsetting, and confusing events of their visit to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.

I like the idea that the other disciple might have been a woman because I like to think that in the early days of Christianity, men and women were exploring and discovering an emerging faith in the risen Christ together. Jesus appeared to some women in the garden, and the men didn’t believe them. Jesus appeared to the men in a locked room, and they started to believe. And Jesus appeared to a couple on the road to Emmaus, and they were so happy and excited that they walked the whole seven miles back to Jerusalem to share the news with their friends.

But someone else has suggested that one of the disciples on the road may not be named for another reason – not because the author couldn’t remember what the guy was called, and not because a woman’s name wasn’t deemed to be very important. But there is the idea that the unnamed disciple can leave the readers free to use our own imaginations.

Could the Gospel writer be inviting us to place ourselves into the story?… to imagine ourselves on the road with Cleopas, at the end of the disastrous week in Jerusalem, walking away in confusion and disappointment, and wondering what to do next?

Most of us know what it feels like to have a disastrous week. And so imagining ourselves on the road to Emmaus, perhaps we can picture what our reaction would have been like.

Some of us would have been angrily ranting about the injustice of Jesus’ arrest and the arbitrary release of Barrabas instead of our friend Jesus. We would have been complaining about the torturous method of execution that the Romans used, and arguing that there was really no evidence of Jesus having done anything to warrant execution in the first place.

Others of us would have been responding more quietly. Instead of anger, we would have simply felt overwhelmed by sadness and disappointment. We thought Jesus was going to be our Saviour, and we must have been wrong… ‘cause now he’s dead and his movement is over. We feel stupid, and embarrassed, and just sad.

Still others of us would have been just torn up inside about what happened. We would keep replaying the events of the week in our minds, trying to imagine what we could have done to prevent such a terrible outcome. What could we have said or done to save Jesus from that horrible death? Could we have convinced him to run? Could we have done something to help him? We would be wracked with guilt and regret and despair.

As the disciples walked along the road that day, they were talking with each other about all the things that had happened. And as they talked and discussed, Jesus himself came near and went with them. It would be convenient if whenever Jesus came near to us, he would just LOOK LIKE JESUS, but that’s not the way Jesus works… at least not the risen Christ.

They walked along, talking and discussing, and Jesus walked with them, but they didn’t recognize him. He asked them what they were discussing, and they told him about their experience in Jerusalem. Together, they discussed the scriptures, the law and the prophets, and he reminded them about the Messiah that they were expecting God to send.

And though they didn’t even realize it at first, the disciples were being transformed. They were being converted. They were coming to a new understanding of God and Christ, and their own identity as children of God and disciples of Christ.

And I’m wondering… If today’s Gospel text invites us to place ourselves within the story… to imagine ourselves as disciples on the road with Jesus… Then we must ask ourselves, “Are we walking through life and faith as if we know all the answers already? Or can we open our minds and our hearts to hear and to understand new ideas or new perspectives?”

When in our lives do we take the time to study the scriptures, to read some theology, to talk and discuss our faith – including our questions and our doubts – with our friends, with fellow believers, or even with the strangers that we may encounter along the way? If we are to be transformed – to be converted – it will only happen if we are open to those conversations – if we are open to listen, to learn, and even to change to a new direction.

But the theological discussion on the road was not the whole of the encounter with Jesus that day. Perhaps if the story had ended there, the story might never have been told… Because it wasn’t until the disciples were sitting at the dinner table with the stranger that they suddenly recognized that Christ was present with them.

Without knowing that it was Jesus, they had invited the stranger to stay with them in Emmaus – to rest and to share a meal. That kind of hospitality would not have been exceptional. It was a normal part of the culture to welcome and feed a traveller on their way through town. And as disciples of Jesus, these two had likely been on the receiving end of this hospitable practice more times than they could count.

But as they sat down with the stranger, and he blessed and broke the bread, they remembered Jesus and the many meals they had shared with him. Perhaps the memory of his words came flooding back: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup… Do this in remembrance of me… This is my body, which is given for you.”

And the story says that suddenly their eyes were opened and they recognized him. It seems odd to think that if the stranger looked at all like Jesus that they wouldn’t have noticed until then. But maybe he didn’t look like Jesus. He just looked like a stranger. But in the welcoming, the blessing, the sharing and remembering, Jesus’ disciples could suddenly see that Christ was truly present with them. He’d been with them in their grieving and their grappling, and he was with them as they shared bread together, just as he had been so many times before.

Imagining ourselves within the story, we are invited to look for Christ’s presence within the ordinary encounters of our lives. When we welcome a stranger, when we share food with someone who is hungry, or when we allow someone to care for us when we need it, Christ is with us. And when we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion, it is so much more than simply a memorial for one who died for us. But it is a holy meal hosted by one who was raised from death and is present with us here and now. Perhaps in that sharing our eyes will be opened too, and we will recognize him.

As the story continues, it becomes clear that the lives of these two disciples have been radically turned around by their encounter with the risen Christ on the road and at the table. It has been good to study and discuss, and to understand more fully. It has been a blessing to share food together, and to experience Christ’s presence. But Cleopas and the other disciple do not linger there… reflecting some more, discussing and sharing. Instead, they get up and go! “That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem… [and] they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Getting up and going… going out and telling… that may be the most difficult part of the story in which to imagine ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as evangelicals, even if the word “evangelical” just means “sharing the good news about Jesus Christ.” It may seem daunting to think that you might have to explain your faith to someone else – to put your experience of the risen Christ into words. But we are, indeed, called to do that.

But I think that the three steps in the story are in that order for a reason… First – scripture study, discussion, and conversion to faith in Christ, Second – experience of the risen Christ, in worship and in our daily lives, Third – witness to the risen Christ.

If you haven’t done the first and second step (or at least begun to do them) then no, you’re probably not ready to do the third one. If it scares you half to death to think about putting your faith into words, it could be because you first need to do some exploring and studying and reflecting on Christ and your own faith. But even the most theologically-educated, even the most spiritually-mature Christian, may still feel a little apprehensive about going out and sharing the Gospel.

But I think it’s interesting that BEFORE Jesus’ disciples started preaching the Gospel far and wide, they got together and told each other about the experiences they were having of the risen Christ. They began by sharing their faith within the community of believers. They noticed how similar all their stories were sounding. And eventually, Jesus sent them to go out and tell the world the good news. So maybe that’s where we need to start… just by witnessing to each other, just by telling each other what we understand and what we have experienced.

This morning I want to invite you to make a new commitment on your journey as a disciple. But it’s up to you to decide what that commitment will be. During the hymn, I’m going to pass around some baskets of yarn. And I want you to take a piece of yarn to remind you of the commitment that you are making today.

Take a piece of blue yarn if you want to open your mind and heart to learn and grow in your faith and understanding of Christ. (Think of blue as committing yourself to be as open as the blue sky is wide.) Maybe you will study the bible more, or read some theological material. Maybe you will take a class, join in a study, or engage in a conversation about faith. Take a piece of blue yarn if you want to commit to opening your mind and your heart to conversion.

Take a piece of red yarn if you want to commit yourself to offering hospitality. (Think of red as opening your heart and your life to a stranger.) And open your heart to the presence of Christ in those with whom you will share. Take a piece of red yarn if you want to commit to offering hospitality.

Take a piece of white yarn if you want to commit yourself to witnessing to the risen Christ with another believer. (Think of white as the colour of new life and resurrection from the dead.) Take a piece of white yarn if you want to commit to sharing your experience of the risen Christ in your life.

Invitation to Commitment:
So come and follow Jesus,
you who have committed yourselves already,
and you who would like to do so for the first time;
you who have given yourselves to the care of creation
and to the suffering ones of the world,
and you who feel moved by the Spirit
to begin to offer yourselves;
you who have been faithful in your life commitments
and you who have failed.
Come, for our Lord invites us to follow him,
and to make new beginnings in our lives. Amen.