What a week – what a month – what a year we are having!
I went for a walk with Aron this week, to try and process some of what has been happening, and I heard words coming from my mouth quite like those of the disciples in this passage, “Now there will never be a time when the nightmare of this past year and Covid 19 is over and we can all be together again.” (“We had hoped,” is what these two walking to Emmaus say. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”) And as we walked, the afternoon sun was casting our two shadows long onto the ground in front of us. And I kept looking at them, having been reading and thinking about this passage in Luke all week, waiting for a third shadow to join ours on the road…
I have no supernatural phenomena to report – no miracle – except the very dime a dozen (or less) disciples miracle, the white bread (broken) miracle, the middle of the (Emmaus) road miracle, the garden variety miracle that in our hopelessness, in our grief and distress, God makes Godself known to us.
I imagine we have all uttered – in some form or another – the words of the disciples in the last few weeks – or over the years. We had hoped… We had hoped we would all be together – with that family member or those friends – celebrating at this time. We had hoped this work or study opportunity would happen this year. We had hoped this job would continue! We had hoped the disease wouldn’t return or the depression would lift. We had hoped that this relationship wouldn’t fall apart. We had hoped…
‘We had hoped’ are words of pain and disappointment and confusion, but the reason this passage is so beloved of the church is that it speaks to our lived experience that Christ comes to us – God is made known to us – even in our most hopeless ‘we had hoped’ moments. And I want to draw your attention to three ways this happens in this passage.
Firstly, God is made known as the one walking with them.
On the road, while they were “talking with each other…. while they were are talking and discussing” (the Greek terms used here indicate the intensity, the emotion of this dialogue) Jesus comes, unheralded and unrecognised, and simply joins them on their journey. In a resource I have for leading all-age worship it makes the point that Jesus also “walks at our speed…[He] does not race ahead expecting us to be clever or to understand of to know all the answers. He walks by our side.”
In the company of another, in the presence of a stranger, when we feel most alone, God is made known as the one walking with us.
Secondly, God is made known in the opening of Scripture.
For Jesus’ disciples his crucifixion and death devastated all their hopes. Their Lord was dead. And with him had died – they thought – the vision and promise of God’s coming reign – ‘good news to the poor…’freedom for the oppressed’. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel!” What this passage tells us is that it took some time, some soul searching and some scripture searching, for the early Christian community to recognise that the way of redemption was also the way of suffering and death; that, as Peter preaches in his Pentecost day sermon in Acts, it was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” that Jesus was crucified and killed. But that God also raised him up, freed him from death, “because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”
This scripture was also opened for me this week in a commentary by a Lutheran minister who pointed out how this journey story echoes another journey story in Luke, in chapter 2.
There Mary and Joseph are journeying away from Jerusalem after the Passover, but they find the twelve-year-old Jesus is not with them. After three days of searching, they find him, “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” They are distressed and anxious, but he speaks to them of a divine imperative. Did you not know that I ‘must be’ (dei in Greek) about my Father’s business!
And here, in chapter 24, another couple travel away from Jerusalem, Cleopas and a companion, possibly a woman; also distressed and anxious. This time Jesus is with them, but they do not recognise him, but again he speaks of divine necessity, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
In both situations Jesus’ imperative is his Father’s business – the mission of God that is at work through suffering and death.
God – and God’s way – is made known to us in the opening of Scripture.
Thirdly, God is made known to us in the giving and receiving of hospitality.
It is a lovely detail in this story that when they reach their destination, their new companion walks ahead “as if he were going on” and they must urge him to stay and be their guest. Then he, in turn, in words that are as familiar to us as they were to his first followers, takes on the role of host. “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them…” In the mutuality of listening and speaking, in the mutuality of guest and host our God comes to us and invites us into true communion; true communion in which God is made known to us and God is made known to others.
God is made known to us – and through us to others – in true hospitality.
I am reading a book at the moment, Let Your Life Speak, by Quaker writer Parker Palmer and in it he describes a time in his life where he suffered from deep depression, where like these disciples all he had hoped seemed lost. Some of his friends, he says, despite good intentions were no better than Job’s comforters, telling him to ‘get over it’, to go and soak up some sunshine and look at the flowers. Or telling him what a good person he was, what a great job he had done in the past and would do in the future. This only deepened his depression. Or they said they understood exactly how he felt. This he knew was a falsehood. “No one,” he writes, “can fully experience another person’s mystery.”
“Blessedly,” he says, “there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way.” One was a friend named Bill who, having asked permission to do so, would stop at Palmer’s house every afternoon, sit him down in a chair, take off his shoes and socks and for half an hour simply massage his feet.
“Bill rarely spoke a word,” Palmer writes. “When he did, he never gave advice, but simply mirrored my condition. He would say, “I can sense your struggle today,” or, “It feels like you are getting stronger.” I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful; they reassured me that I could still be seen by someone…. This is the kind of love that my friend Bill offered. He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice; he simply stood on its boundaries, modelling the respect for me and my journey – and the courage to let it be – that I myself needed if I was to endure.”
In our distress and disappointment, in our sense that in this Covid 19 situation all that we had hoped is lost, God continues to make Godself known to us in the ones who come beside us, the phone calls in our isolation, the notes and gifts left on doorsteps from neighbours, the stranger with the kind word or the extra smile as we keep our distance at the shops or out walking the dog.
God continues to make Godself known in the opening of Scripture each morning at 8am in our community prayers or over Zoom on Sundays or in our small groups or our own reading.
God continues to make Godself known to us in the hospitality we show to each other – our preparedness to listen, to share, to allow others to break bread for us, to give to others in return. To model, as Parker Palmer says, the respect for others and their journey that all of us need if we are to endure.
In these ordinary yet extraordinary ways God continues to make Godself known to us and we, as the community of faith, continue to declare, “The Lord has risen indeed!”