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13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
I guess I am not surprised that the encounter between Jesus and the two disciples happens as they walk on the road to Emmaus, because every one of my major life events seems to involve walking.
I remember pacing around my apartment complex in December of 2007 as I made the decision to ask Stacey to marry me. Or a walk right about this time a year ago, as the Bishop and district superintendents met to decide which church I would be appointed to, as I tried to stay in a mode of prayer about where God would be sending me, but mostly I was just freaking out.
And I remember when Stacey went into labor with Emmaline, just after Christmas of 2012. It was three weeks before her due date, and Stacey had a doctor’s appointment that morning at which the doctor said, “you’re going to want to pack your bags. It could be next week, it could be tomorrow, who knows.”
And Stacey came home and told me what the doctor had said, and we both tried to stay calm, she had a little bit of a stomach ache that, you know, seemed to come and go every twenty minutes or so. And so I said, you know, maybe, just maybe, you are in labor. No, no, it couldn’t be labor—it doesn’t hurt. So I said what they teach you to say when you take the class where they teach you how to be a good husband during the labor process and avoid getting killed, which was why don’t we go take a walk. They say that one way to tell between false labor and true labor is to walk, as the labor pains are supposed to get more significant when you exercise.
I found this little app on my iPhone that measured contractions, and what do you know, they got more significant and closer together as we walked, so we went, begrudgingly, to the hospital, where they had us do more walking, literally around the nurse’s station, around the square-shaped corridors, two hours, two hours, during which time I kid you not the obstetrics nurses were taking bets as to whether Stacey was in labor or not.
Walking seems to be part of every big life event, and I remember that walk around the hospital so clearly, for two reasons. One is that Stacey spent those two hours laughing, and I would like to think it was because her husband is hilarious, but more likely because the whole situation was ridiculous, she, connected to all these cords, nine months pregnant in a hospital gown, walking the halls in the middle of the night the nurses took bets, me, the day before I was supposed to preach my ordination sermon, and so we just spent those two hours laughing.
The second reason I remember that walk, of course, was that it was a precipice moment, that nebulous time between night and day in which dawn appears, and you can’t really pinpoint exactly when it happens—you just know that morning has come. We were walking in circles around the nurses’ station, but we were walking towards being parents, with all of the diapers and joy and tears and everything else that goes along with that. And so while it was a precious time, it was also a time in which laughter seemed to be the only proper response. Tears wouldn’t do justice to the magnitude of that moment, nor seriousness. I am reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah, Sarah, who so wanted a baby, and the angels that visited Abraham to tell him that even though she was ninety-nine year sold, Sarah would bear a son, and how, in her wise, old way, she laughed, not just because she found the whole thing preposterous, which she did, but also because in that kind of moment, on the walk toward that kind of experience, in that kind of encounter, laughter is the proper response.
And maybe laughter is the right response to something so hope-filled, but you have to forgive the two disciples, Cleopas and the other, for not laughing on the road to Emmaus. It’s a tough slog, you know, traveling between Jerusalem and Emmaus, seven miles of tough terrain, and there’s no telling who you’ll encounter on the way. It’s dusty and dirty. It’s hot. And it’s dangerous.
If laughter is what comes when you hope, disbelief is what comes when you despair. You can hear that disbelief in what they say to this stranger they meet, this unknown one, as they talked about Jesus as the one they hoped would redeem Israel, but who was handed over by their own religious leaders, who had been killed as a common criminal.
Disbelief is what happens, when you get the late phone call, or when you wake up in the middle of the night remembering again that he is, in fact, gone, but it just can’t be. It just can’t be. Disbelief is what happens, especially, it seems, when the thing to be disbelieved is so large you’d be crazy to miss it, but somehow, we do, and you can understand the disciples’ disbelief after the crucifixion of Jesus, after the women go to the tomb and claim to have seen an angel, how they are unable to see just who it is they are talking to, unable to understand that they’ve spent their walk in the presence of the living God.
It’s a tough slog, that kind of walk, and those of us who have walked difficult roads know how difficult it can be to see God when all you can see is tragedy, is heartache, is pain.
It is a tough slog, that kind of journey, and so it is no surprise that walking seems to be a part of many of our major life events, walking forward, moving through, traveling from one way of being to another. And if walking rough terrain is a good metaphor for life and change, so is the breaking of bread a good metaphor for the way we seem to ultimately be reminded of God’s presence. The time before a meal, of course, is the time in which we are most likely to pray, to ask God to bless the food, and maybe to bless our own bodies to God’s service. The dinner table is where we gather to share food, where we laugh and tell stories. If you have an old heirloom table, you probably understand more than most that when we gather to eat, we are calling to mind the relationships we have now, but also the dear saints who have long past, the divots in the table from the children demanding their supper, the burn mark from the romantic dinner in which the cat knocked the candle over, the leg that was just short enough to wobble when the kids crawled under the table. It’s no coincidence that Jesus was made known to the disciples in the breaking of bread. It’s the way in which Jesus seems to most be made known to me, the time in which I am most pulled out of my own stuff into God’s presence, into the presence of the great cloud of witnesses, in a glass of good wine, in a taste or smell that reminds me of the beauty found in the first bite of one of my grandmother’s biscuits, in an old memory brought forward to the present in the breaking of the bread. If you’ve been brought food after losing a loved one, you know the power that a meal can have. When all is death, when you’ve walked through hell, a meal has the power to bring you back to life.
Now, this is just me talking, and you won’t find this in your Bible, but I think that in some ways, the disciples who met the stranger on the road to Emmaus must have understood this, because as the stranger went on his way, they invited him to stay for supper. Even though he had called them both foolish and slow of heart to believe all the prophets have declared, even though he sort of insulted them, they said, no, it is late, evening is drawing near. Stay with us. Come and share a meal.
When you’ve walked through hell, a meal has the power to bring you back to life, and so it was, though it was not Jesus who was brought back to life that night. It was the disciples, Cleopas and the other one whose name we still don’t know. It was the disciples: demoralized and defeated, having put their hope in a savior who had been killed, a messiah who couldn’t even stand up to the chief priests of his own religion. And in that act of hospitality, in the act of inviting Jesus in, of sharing a meal, their eyes were opened and they found themselves alive and in the presence of God.
Now, I like this story because we seem to break bread a lot around here, share meals a lot, gather around God’s table on the first Sunday of each month and share in the holy mystery of Communion, a time in which we commune with God and one another, in which God’s presence becomes known to us in the breaking of bread.
It is powerful, the kind of encounter we experience in Communion. If you’ve come here today feeling like you’ve been walking through hell, I’d wager you are hoping for that kind of encounter, so that you may be brought back to life. It is a big reason most of us come to church. Why, I heard of a whole congregation recently that was experiencing tough times, and that’s all that unusual, of course. Churches all over the place find themselves struggling to figure out how to be the church in modern times. But this church, this particular church had been struggling for a while, getting older, dealing with changing neighborhood demographics, and complicated racial dynamics, and before long they found themselves doing the tough work of waking through hell, of trying to think realistically about the future. Maybe they ought to merge with another church, they thought, and they explored that option and all the unpleasantness associated with it. Maybe they ought to sell their property to the highest bidder, relocate in a more palatable area, start fresh with something smaller, something more suited to who they felt they were becoming, rather than who God might be calling them to be, right where they were.
They worried until their ulcers grew ulcers, and for a while, for as difficult as it was, it got demonstrably worse, and you could forgive them if they wanted to throw in the towel on the whole religion thing altogether. It was a dark time for this church, but they kept walking, kept hoping, as best they could, kept waiting to meet Jesus on the road.
And it took a while, but one day, as they gathered around the table to receive Communion, it was as if their eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread. It was as if in that moment, they understood that when you’ve been walking through hell, a meal can bring you back to life. And they discovered that when you’ve been brought back to life, your eyes are opened so that you may recognize the God who has been in your midst all along.
Now, you may not have your eyes opened as suddenly as the disciples did. In fact, if my own experience is any guide, it happens like that walk in the hospital, like the nebulous line between dark night and dawn, like a precipice moment. You look around one day in the midst of your despair and you start to realize the Resurrection; you start to feel Communion. And when you experience Communion—in the breaking of the bread and the being together with one another—when you experience that kind of communion, your eyes can be opened to the resurrection that has already happened, even before you realized it, and the new life that springs forth from the crack in the sidewalk suddenly can’t be contained, for nothing is impossible for God.
When you are faced with that kind of Resurrection, you’d be forgiven if, like those two disciples, you felt the need to jump up from the table, middle of the night or middle of the day, and run the seven miles to town to tell the others. You’d even be forgiven for laughing, for when you’re faced with that kind of news, that kind of resurrection, it may be the case that there is no more fitting response. And so may it be the case that we find ourselves laughing, as we give thanks that the Lord is Risen indeed, even, of all places, at North Decatur United Methodist Church.