Last Sunday I was privileged to preach at a worship service at the College of Idaho. The occasion was a presbytery-wide celebration of Easter. While I am uncomfortable with the descriptive, “first annual…” anything, I am hopeful that this service will be the first of many presbytery events designed to gather us for worship, fellowship, service and play. Eighty persons attended our service on a wonderfully, warm and sunny Easter afternoon.
The text for the day was the journey to Emmaus text from Luke 24 and the sermon focus was on the surprising, unexpected ways that the risen Christ appears to disciples.
Earlier this month I traveled to San Jose, California to attend a meeting with my colleagues from the Synod of the Pacific. To be honest, I find the San Jose airport convenient and less stressful to navigate thru or to get to than other Bay Area airports. I travel through San Jose several times each year. Inevitably – on each trip – someone will quote the line from the song, “Do you know the way to …San Jose?”
The line rolls off the tongue so easily and despite being cliché seems, well…so clever…when we say it. The song, however isn’t about seeking directions to a town, rather it is about getting back to the familiar. The lyrics include “Dreams turn into dust and blow away And there you are without a friend You pack up your care and ride away” then purposefully says, “I’m going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose.”
“Do you know the way to Emmaus?” might have been the stranger’s opening line. Cleopas and his companion were leaving Jerusalem. They had had enough of the place. They had gone to the big city for the celebration of the Passover but something more had happened there this time: something dreadful had taken place.
They had been eyewitnesses to tragedy – something they wanted to forget. They were going back to Emmaus to “find some peace of mind.” It was time to get back to reality of living in Emmaus because the dreams they carried with them to Jerusalem had turned into dust.
“Where is Emmaus? Why there?”, we ask. Luke tells us the village was about 7 miles from Jerusalem but placement on the map isn’t central to this text or this sermon. Each one of us knows exactly where Emmaus is. Emmaus is where we seek peace of mind. Emmaus describes the ways we seek shelter from life’s harshest realities. Emmaus is a place of retreat and work; the place where we’ve got lots of friends who know us by name. It represents the place of dreams and hopes or a place of refuge or escape. Emmaus represents life itself. “Oh, yes, we know the way to Emmaus!” Cleopas responds.
Luke tells his reader that these disciples didn’t recognize that the stranger was Jesus. This tidbit is a bit troubling especially when it’s part of the climax of the Christian story. I’m always perplexed that in the gospel accounts the demons recognize Jesus but the disciples cannot. In the case of Cleopas and the other disciple, I suspect that two factors keep them knowing the identity of their traveling companion: surprise and hopelessness.
What had happened in Jerusalem that week was certainly not what they had expected of the Messiah. Surely God’s anointed would not suffer the indignity that Jesus had endured. They had hoped Jesus would drive out the oppressor and restore the glorious kingdom of God. They are surprised by this stranger’s lack of knowledge about Jesus’ arrest and execution at the hands of the Roman authority. They are surprised by the complicity of the Jewish people themselves in the death of one of their own people. What Rome would do was no surprise, but to witness the cruelty of their own people was completely unexpected.
That Jesus would allow such things to take place was also surprising. Maybe they had been among the witnesses when the blind regained their sight or the lame walked. Maybe they had seen Lazarus stumble from the grave. What surprises them is that Jesus just took it. If Jesus were the Messiah, why did he die?
Ironically, as we know, the stranger to whom they speak is the only one who knows the meaning of all that has taken place.
Their surprise at all that had happened that week becomes hopelessness that day. If the events taking earlier had not been bad enough, today the women reported even more disturbing news – the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid was empty. Not only had Jesus suffered the indignity of a Roman cross, now his final resting place has been violated. What the women reported was more likely to be an irrational dream of a reality that could not be possible: the dead don’t come back to life.
What they had believed about Jesus was no longer true and no longer possible. The person they had followed was dead – executed as a criminal – and like him the hope they had was dead. “We had hoped…” they lament to the stranger.
Hopelessness prevented them from recognizing possibilities and embracing the news of the women. Hopelessness drove them to despair and paralysis and the inability to recognize the risen Christ. Surprise and hopelessness were the mileposts on the road to Emmaus.
What we know and celebrate today, they will discover without the angelic chorus that shepherds received at the announcement of Jesus’ birth. The joyful news of Easter would not be revealed by dramatic trumpet fanfare or a giant message written in the clouds. The news of Christ’s resurrection was revealed in conversation with the stranger; their eyes were opened in the simple, everyday act of breaking bread at a common meal.
While the resurrection is the central event of the day, the appearance of the risen Lord to the disciples was not the end of the story. Luke moves his reader quickly to Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples. The resurrection was not to become a historic event commemorated annually. Easter is to become a daily retelling of God’s love for the world for there are many who are on the road to Emmaus to whom we may become the good news of the risen Christ. There are men and women in this community who feel they have no hope to whom we can show Jesus by sharing an ordinary meal.
The significance of Easter is affirmed as we show the power of the risen Christ at work in our lives. The message of Easter is shared when we journey alongside those who seek Emmaus when life has become too harsh or reality seems to be more than they can bear. The joyful news of this day is revealed in table fellowship and in acts of hospitality toward the stranger. We too can be surprised by the risen Lord for he appears to us in unexpected ways and in the people in whom we least expect to see his face.
My hope for us all is that sometime, somewhere and in some person we will be surprised and experience the hope and joy of Easter. We will know the power of Christ’s resurrection.