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05-07-17 - Christ Encouters of the Best Kind

Christ Encounters of the Best Kind

5/7/17

 

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Luke 24:13-35

 

            In today's gospel reading from Luke, two followers of Jesus come to know the living Christ as they open their hearts to hearing and experiencing God's grace. The story begins with two discouraged people walking down a road. These disciples are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the Passover celebration. We are told one of them is Cleopas, and the other remains unnamed. These two sorry disciples have bet their lives on a savior who is now crucified, dead, and buried. And so they are headed home, back to their old lives. As they walk, they are rehashing all that has happened – the trial, the cruelty, the cross, the death. And as they wonder together about what they once thought was worth their lives, but has now left them emotionally, financially, physically, and spiritually defeated, they are likely asking, “What do we do now?” For seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, the two plod on in despair.

            Then, another character falls into step with them. This stranger is Jesus himself, yet Luke tells us “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” When Jesus asks the two disciples, “What are you talking about?” this question stops them in their tracks. "They stood still," Luke says, suggesting that when God enters a conversation we think we are having with one another, we cannot but find ourselves halted by the intrusion of God's vertical perspective on our human thoughts about our lives and the world. At those times when God's Word has interrupted our idle conversations, where our journey is met by the intervening action of God, when God has effectively jolted us from our aimless or listless or frantic forward momentum, we find ourselves standing at a crossroads.

            Cleopas responds to Jesus' question by asking in return, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” The two disciples begin to tell their new companion about Jesus – “a prophet mighty in deed and word.” They confess to him, “We had thought he was the one to redeem Israel.” Yet, when they recount the story of the women who went to the tomb, returning with the astounding report that they discovered the tomb to be empty and were told by angels that Christ was alive, they tell Jesus that they and the other disciples refused to believe the good news because they didn't see the risen Christ for themselves.

            Jesus listens patiently as they tell their story, and when they are finished he says to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” In effect, he tells them, “You blockheads!” as he confronts them with the question, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then, without being asked, Jesus tells them another version of the story, tracing God's saving purposes over the events of the last days. Jesus puts their story in a different context, sharing spiritual truth and shedding new light by re-interpreting for them the things they thought they already knew. He starts back near the beginning, with Moses and the prophets, and “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

            Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we also get stuck in our stories. We retell the events of our lives from our limited, human perspective, blind to the larger meaning which spiritual truth brings to our experiences. Our stories are the ones repeated over and over again, beginning at birth and continuing throughout our lives. They are the stories we have repeated to ourselves through the familiar tapes that continuously run in our minds. They are the stories that our life circumstances have collaborated because that's what fits the framework of understanding we have created for ourselves. They are the stories of victimhood and failure and lack. They are the stories that tell us: “I'm not good enough.” “I'm not smart enough.” “I'm not pretty enough.” “I'm not lovable.” “I'm not worthy.”  They are the stories that do not speak to our spiritual truth, yet the ones we tell again and again because they are the ones we know so well.

            One of the difficult things about repeating a familiar story is discovering something new. The more familiar we are with the story the less able we are to step back from it, to hear a new perspective or see it from a new light. The surer we are of our story, the more we've memorized the script and can predict the outcome, the less open we are to hearing it in a new way. 

            In Luke's story, Jesus holds the tale of the disciples up against God's Word, reinterpreting their words to give them new meaning in light of the larger story of Scripture. Jesus meets these disciples on the road and tells them their own story in a new way. And sure enough, they heard something that they had not heard before. 

            What makes a story transformative is the power it has to connect with and change our lives. In telling our stories, we need to ask: What of it rings true? What parts hold up when the light of spiritual truth is cast upon it? I have been witness to stories of suffering and abuse and addiction transformed into stories of healing and transformation when they are retold from the perspective of spiritual truth.

            As the three travelers come near the village, Jesus leaves his two companions free to continue on without him. Jesus' love is such that we are always free to turn our backs on him, close the door of our hearts against him, bolt shut our minds in fear of what inviting him in might involve. But the two persuade him to stay with them. In this act of hospitality, as the disciples now open their hearts as well as they minds to this stranger, God's grace is revealed, and the guest becomes the host. 

            In words reminiscent of our Eucharistic celebration, Jesus breaks bread with the two disciples as the meal becomes an expression of thanksgiving and deepened faith. “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” In that moment, they see Jesus, and their lives are transformed.

            It wasn't until these disciples invited Jesus to stay with them that their eyes were opened, that they experienced true communion with the living Christ. Yet, the moment they recognize Jesus, he vanishes. As the two look back to his presence with them on the road and to his interpreting of scripture, they say to one another, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" Christian scholar John Leith writes, "Revelation is the clue that enables one to put together the disparate experiences of life into a meaningful, coherent whole, to see a pattern and purpose in human history, to overcome the incongruities between what life is and what life ought to be."1 In their encounter with the living Christ, these disciples realize that spiritual truth is not only for the head, but also for the heart.  Relationships of depth, grounded in forgiveness and hope, will endure, and the absence of Jesus is made bearable by the abiding presence of the Spirit.

            With renewed hope in their hearts, the two take to the road again, retracing the seven miles to share the story of their experience of the risen Christ with the disciples back in Jerusalem. News this good must be shared, and news this transforming creates new community. This story moves from defeat to hope and from isolation to community, as Jesus joins himself to those on the road, who then make space for him at the table, who then go to share the good news of the living Christ with others.

            The promise of this text is that Jesus will meet his beloved on the journey of life and "in the breaking of the bread.” Yet Christ does not linger at the table, and neither should we. We come to the table to be fed and nourished and replenished so that we might go out into the world to share the good news of the living Christ. This is the good news that our stories of pain and loss and sorrow, when seen in the light of spiritual truth, become the stories of new life and second chances. This is the good news that we experience the grace and love of the living Christ whenever we extend hospitality to the stranger. This is the good news that God always creates space for the "other" in order that true community might be formed.

            Our experience of the living Christ calls us to witness to others that they too might come to know God's grace and love. Actions more than words, welcome more than self-protection, provides the space where others might fearlessly enter and find themselves at home. In breaking bread together, we transgress our human limitations and open our hearts to communion with Christ, who meets us whenever we gather at the Lord's Table and wherever we welcome the stranger into our midst. 

            The good news is that the ministry of Jesus continues in the midst of our broken world. If it depended on us, it wouldn't be. But the work of Christ is animated by his own living power. Christ is revealed in Scripture and sacrament, word and action, spiritual truth and lived encounter. Wherever the gospel is preached, spiritual truth is proclaimed, people are forgiven, transformation happens, and bread is shared at table and with those in need, the living Christ is present. As we hear and share the old, old story, as we break bread together, and as we extend hospitality to the stranger, may we open our hearts anew to experiencing the presence of the living Christ.

 

            1John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1993), 30.

 

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