A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (23/04/23): Meeting the Risen Christ

Luke 24:13-35

Everyday life goes on. It is the nature of our lives, of our experience of reality. Things tend to continue as the always have. There are moments that stand out from that norm. There can be highs, like the birth of children, some great or unexpected success, or some amazing transformation in circumstances. But of course, there can be lows, moments of disappointment and sorrow. The most obvious amongst these of course would be the loss of a loved one through death. But following such moments, more often than not life tends to settled back into something like normality. The high or the low may have altered that normality in some way, but life tends to settle into a pattern, a routine which sooner or later becomes familiar, it becomes the norm. And obviously following on of those lows, especially after the death of a loved one, we naturally want to reach that place of normality sooner rather than later.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.
On that first day of the week, after Jesus had died, two of his followers are on their way walking to Emmaus. We’re not given an explanation for why it is that they are going there. I think the simplest most obvious explanation is that they are going home. They are headed back to the place of their everyday lives. They are going back to where “normal” can be re-established. And given what has happen in the last few days who could blame them. They have gone from a great high. Their friend and teacher, only a week ago, rode triumphant into Jerusalem, on a donkey. Jesus had given a clear sign that he was the Messiah and that the kingdom of God was about to be established. And the crowd as a whole had welcomed him as such, on that promise. But just five days later they had been plunged into the deepest of lows. Jesus had been betrayed, rejected, condemned and crucified. On Friday night he was dead and buried, and with him all of their hopes and aspirations. As if that see-saw of emotion were not already enough, today had brought more disruption and confusion. Early that day, some of the women from the group had gone to the tomb and found it empty. They had come back and said they had seen angels who told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. After that others had gone to the tomb and found it as the women had described. What was anyone to make of such things? Cleopas and his companion had perhaps stayed long enough to hear these stories and maybe to eat some lunch, but what they both need now was a sense of calm. They wanted to find a place of equilibrium. So they had set off for Emmaus, which was only two or three hours walk from Jerusalem. They went home.

As they walk, Cleopas and his friend talk. They talk, as we all might, about what has happened. They discuss their shared experience, perhaps hoping that the other’s perspective might bring some insight. The question on their minds and in their conversation is where does Jesus fit into our lives now? They have been following Jesus. They have been shaping their lives, with his presence, with his actions and with listening to his words. They have gone with him, and where this has led is to death, death on a cross. How are their lives going to be shaped now? The conversation which the friends have on the road to Emmaus is the basic conversation that any of us needs to have about the gospel. We have the story of Jesus. We know his life. We know what he did. We know what he taught. We know that he was betrayed, rejected, condemned and crucified. And we know that the women and the apostles tell us that the tomb is empty and that he has risen. But we need figure out how that all fits into our lives. We need to answer the question of what difference the Gospel is going to make to us. Where does Jesus’ story fit into our story? And how does our story become part of Jesus’ story?

Where do we find the answer to such questions? Where do we look for the answers that will guide our faith, our spirituality, and even our ordinary lives?

Very often the answer that is given is to “look within.” We assume that the answers to questions of faith and spirituality come from what might be called “inwardness.” We picture the religious or even the moral life as one that is often focused on self-reflection. It was Aristotle who said “the unreflected life is not worth living.” What I think he means is that unless you understand yourself, and why you do what you do, you will not get the best or the most from living. And indeed there is a great tradition of that kind of “inwardness” in Christianity. Many saints, especially mystics, have found what they needed by such reflection. They have looked into the darkness and void that they have found inside themselves, and somewhere in there, they have found God. And perhaps there may be much to be said for lives that are lived a little more reflectively. There may be something in the popularity of what now called “mindfulness.”

But the Biblical tradition most often seems to hold a rather different opinion. When posing the question: Where do I find God? Or in more explicitly Christian terms: Where might I encounter Christ? The answer the scriptures give is never, “In here.” The Bible never invites us to look into ourselves for God. The answer which the Bible gives tho those questions is much more likely to be, “Over there.” There are very many journeys in the Bible, at the end of which there is found an encounter with God. So “journey” naturally is taken to be a metaphor for the spiritual quest to find God. But it is probably slightly less of a metaphor than we sometimes imagine. It is too easy to turn a spiritual journey into something that is only “spiritual” and not real or actual. You might say we spiritualise it, too much. Our encounter with Christ is most likely to occur when we are doing something else, like travelling from one place to another. The journey which Cleopas and his companion took, which led, as it transpired, to their meeting the risen Jesus, was an actual journey. They really were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

The answer to our search for Christ in our lives is not going to be found inside of us, nor even is it likely to be found in something familiar. For the gospel to be given to us, it probably has to come from a stranger. As the two were walking to Emmaus they were:
…talking with each other about all these things that had happened.
The two of them were trying to find answers, exploring what had happened and trying to discern what it all meant. But between them they do not seem to have the resources to reach the conclusions they are looking for. And it is at this point that a stranger steps forward to help them:
While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
I think the way Luke tells the story rather plot-spoils. The essence of good story-telling might described as “strategic delay of disclosure.” Don’t tell us everything right away! Though of course by now we would be familiar enough with this story to know how it turns out without Luke telling us first. But from the perspective of Cleopas and his friend what happens might be described thus: “While they were talking and discussing, a stranger approached them and fell in step beside them and joined their conversation.” The stranger, as a friendly stranger might, invites them to tell their story. They repeat in outline the story Luke has just told in the preceding chapters of his Gospel. They tell of Jesus’ passion and indeed of his resurrection. They in effect make what becomes in the church the Easter proclamation. But it is not yet that, for them. It is the same story which the church always tells, which is at the heart of what make the church the church, and at the heart of what shapes us as Christians, but Cleopas and his friend aren’t seeing that way. It takes a stranger to make it real for them.

The problem that we have, both us in the church, and more so people outside, is that the Bible isn’t the place where we look first for the answer the our spiritual questions. There maybe lots of reasons for that, and at least a few of them our own fault. Yet when the stranger speaks, it is the Bible which he uses to help Cleopas and his friend:
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
The stranger, for that is who he remains at this point, explains to the two on the road what has happened. And he does so, using the Bible. He places the events that have taken place, over the last few days, and in their live, he place them into the context of the larger narrative of all that God is doing. He shows them where Jesus’ story fits into their story. And he show them how their story becomes part of that larger story. We worry about the Bible being a strange book. And we don’t expect to be told about God by a stranger. But how could it be otherwise. If it were familiar it wouldn’t be God it would just be ourselves. Jesus must approach us on the road, and our eyes must be kept from recognising him

The two get where they are going to. They arrive at home. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me before, but the most logical assumption make about the end of this journey is that the two have arrived back where they started, they have come home. They hold their own door open and invite the stranger inside. They invite the stranger to become a guest.

Hospitality is the first of all Biblical virtues. Often it is justified because of the possibility that those who are hospitable sometimes accidentally welcome angels, or even the unrecognised Christ. And on this occasion that is what is happening. But even without that outcome hospitality is justified because it is to act as God acts. Welcoming the stranger is showing the same loving kindness which God has already shown. But after they have sat down the roles suddenly become reversed:
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.
The guest who was a stranger now becomes the host, and the stranger is now revealed to have been the dearest friend all along. This moment at the house in Emmaus probably shows us more about what finding God or meeting the Christ might be like than any sermon could ever really put into words. If we are looking for a metaphor or model for what our spiritual quest might look like then a journey that ends in shared meal with a stranger who turns out to be friend, is probably as clear as we could find. If ever we read commentaries about this part of Luke’s account, they point out that in the meal which is shared Emmaus he is hinting at the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper. Luke’s expectation is that we find God, encounter Christ in the worship of the Church. And of course Luke is not wrong. But perhaps it is a little broader than that. What Luke draws our attention to is that finding God, meeting the risen Christ, is likely to occur when our lives are shaped like this. When we move on from the high and lows of our experience back into our ordinary lives, when we look for God’s presence in those experiences, when we are open to the voice of a stranger who shows us how our stories and God story fit together, when we find that context from scripture, when we welcome the stranger and eat with them, and when we allow strangers to be come our friends and our guests to be our hosts. That is how we might find God or encounter Christ.

Another sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter of Year A, based on the reading from Acts, can be found here

Meeting the Risen Christ by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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