The Stranger (Isa. 40:25-31; Rom. 8:31-38; Lk. 24:13-35)
“The Road” is both an ancient and a contemporary metaphor for “life as it’s lived.” I have remarked to you a number of times in this year that Luke presents Jesus’ teaching as for “the road.” One of the earliest synonyms for Christian life was “The Way,” and at least one source of that metaphor is the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. The goal of Luke’s “road” is Jerusalem, where Jesus’ journey came to an end and where the Church’s journey began in the Book of Acts.
So, just two weeks ago we came in off the road to Jerusalem and witnessed the events of Jesus’ passion and death there. Last Sunday we stayed in Jerusalem and looked into the empty tomb. But Jerusalem isn’t life, so, today, it’s all over, and here we are, on the road again. This time it’s the road to the little village of Emmaus, seven miles distant from Jerusalem (we don’t know exactly where it was today) with two of Jesus’ disciples – one named Cleopas, and another unnamed, perhaps his wife – trying to figure out what had happened. They knew they had to go back to their lives, but they weren’t sure what that was going to mean.
Do you ever talk about things with people when you’re on the way somewhere (home or elsewhere)? Some of my very best memories are discussions that Maxine and I have had talking things through in the car on the road. Now, I say they are my best memories, and they are, but not all of them are memories of discussing happy things – some of them quite the contrary. In any case, these two were clearly in a depressed state because they had, as it looked to them now, misjudged life’s significance. So, when the risen Christ, came up behind them to go along with them on the road, they didn’t recognize him for who he was, but thought of him as just one more fellow traveler who happened to be sharing their way for a while. We can ask how that could be? How Jesus could come alongside of his own disciples and they not recognize him? This experience isn’t unique in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene thought that Jesus was the gardener. Even at Jesus ascension, some of his disciples doubted that it was Jesus they were seeing (see the Gospels of John and Matthew). Luke only tells us that their eyes were “held” or “kept” from knowing him. By just what they were “held” the author lets us imagine.
In any case, when “the stranger” asked them what they were discussing, they stopped and looked at him and said, “Have you been living under a rock”? “How could anyone have been a pilgrim to Jerusalem for the Passover and not have heard all the goings-on there over the weekend”? “The stranger” played along and said, “What things?” as if he had, indeed, been under that rock. Then, they briefly summarized it all, even down to the rumours of an empty tomb, and went on to express their disappointment because, they said, they had hoped Jesus could have been the one to “redeem” Israel. Now, what many of us might hear by that word “redeemed” will be different than someone in that time and place would have heard. To them it would have meant “to deliver Israel politically.” They had hoped that Jesus would be the great political hero many Jews called the “one anointed” (in Hebrew “the Messiah”) who was ardently expected to come, like Judas Maccabaeus some 200 years before, to end the political domination of Gentiles in Israel (the Romans) and restore purity to the land once more. But the fact that he was dead, and that he was put to that kind of a death, simply showed that he wasn’t. This whole thing just rings with irony, which means that we, as readers, know more than the characters do. What we know that they don’t is that they are talking to Jesus about their disappointment with Jesus as their Messiah. Their eyes truly had been held so that they might not know him. They had misjudged what their Messiah was to do.
All this brought a mild rebuke from Jesus who said that they didn’t understand all that they thought they did, and, as my mother would have said, weren’t very quick on the up-take. Jesus said that they should have grasped all that the prophets preached. He also said that it was “necessary,” meaning it was what God wanted, it was the right thing, that the Messiah should first suffer and then enter into glory. They had been reading their scriptures with the wrong glasses. They had thought that the Messiah was coming to deliver God’s people from suffering, while in reality that Messiah was delivering God’s people through suffering, and, indeed, had just done it. Next, this so-called stranger went through their scriptures to show them what he meant. If Jesus mentioned any Old Testament passages in particular, it might easily have been the passages about the suffering servant in Isaiah 40-55, especially, chapters 52-53, but what Luke was really saying was not about individual passages, but about the whole thrust of the Old Testament pointing to God’s care for the whole world and caring for the whole world by suffering love – incarnate in the Messiah – who gave the pattern for service for the people of God. From the beginning in Abraham, that’s where it was all headed. Jesus was saying “This is how to read the scriptures, from first to last, in all their scope.” Luke is giving a model for Christian Bible-reading.
You might think, at that point, that the scales would have fallen from their eyes, and they would recognize who this was that was walking beside them. But they didn’t. Nonetheless, when they got to Emmaus, and the stranger made as if he was going on, because of their cultural tendency to hospitality, they asked him to stay with them. And he did. As Jesus sat at their own table, he the guest who acted also the host, and broke bread in fellowship with these disciples, then it was that their eyes were opened, and they knew him. And then, he was gone. They raced back to Jerusalem (now that’s a fair walk) and told the apostles that they had met Jesus when he came to them in the midst of their life on the road and taught them and broke bread with them and for them.
This is such a wonderful and inexhaustible story. It gives us the model for Christian living on the road, as we must walk day by day through our world. There are many things to learn. We can learn that Jesus comes to us, often as the stranger who wants only to walk beside us for company. We often do not recognize the ways in which the risen Christ comes to us because our own vision is blocked by our expectations and our cultural blinders and what we think is possible and what isn’t. We need the blinders taken off in order to see what is really there and not to mistake appearance for reality. How do we come to see Jesus?
First, we need to learn how to study the scriptures. As all of you know, I am an advocate of asking hard questions of the Bible and thinking about and studying the scriptures using every tool we can. Questions of how we got them and what they meant in their ancient contexts are endlessly fascinating (to some of us), and intricate. In the end of the day, however, if that’s all there is, these ancient writings are simply about then and there; about people who are all dead. It is only when we understand that, however they came to us, when the scriptures are allowed to point to and are filled full of meaning in Christ, we hear them as Christians ought. Whatever else we do, we dare not fail in that.
Second, we also need to learn that we will not recognize the risen Christ, even in our reading of the scriptures or hearing them preached apart from the presence of the living Christ and living experience in the community of faith. It was sitting around a table, within a tiny community of faith that, we read, “their eyes were opened and they knew him.” The written and preached word only received its power when it was connected to the community, the community to living Christian experience, and Christian experience to the spirit of the living Christ.
Third, we learn that Jesus became known to these disciples “in the breaking of the bread.” When we see those words, we naturally enough think of the Lord’s Supper, and as you all know, I read a shortened version of this passage at most communion services, and will do it again today. The very verbs that are used: “he took bread, he gave thanks for it, he broke bread, he gave it them” are the words the Bible itself uses for the Supper of the Lord, words the church has used for this ancient rite as far back as we can go. Yes, it is in the fellowship of the community’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper that we do “know him.” But, I think there’s more than that. Every time bread is broken and we share with others at a common table, we have the opportunity to meet the risen Christ anew in the face of an other. When we serve one another in the narthex after worship, or at a breakfast or luncheon, or serve folk at Monday’s Meal, we can meet Jesus anew in the faces of others.
These two, once discouraged, disciples, with their eyes now wide open, admitted to one another that their hearts burned within them while Jesus walked with them on the road and when he opened the scriptures to them. But it was only after their eyes were opened that they had the courage to admit what was already true.
The church still only recognizes its Master as it walks with him, as it listens to him, as it learns faithful reading of the Scriptures, and as it breaks bread, not only the holy bread of communion, but the ordinary bread of opening our tables to other strangers. The Epistle Lesson reminds us that God is for us and gives us the power to live for others. Our Old Testament Lesson tells us that the world is too hard a place to depend upon our own power (personal or financial) to make it or even to try to be good or be God’s people:
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
As now, after Easter, we get back to life on the road, let us do so with the resolve to be God’s people who wait on God’s strength. There are some wonderful words written of this stranger who would walk beside us, open the scriptures to us, and break bread with us, over a century ago by the great humanitarian, musician, and theologian Albert Schweitzer:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old by the lake-side, He came to those who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings, which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (THE QUEST OF THE HISTORICAL JESUS, p. 401)
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. AMEN.