The Third Sunday of Easter – May 4, 2014
Preacher: Christopher Ashley, St. Michael’s Parishioner and Ph.D. student at Union Theological Seminary.
The story we’ve just heard is a mystery.
I don’t mean that, primarily, in the religious sense. I mean it more like Agatha Christie, The Wire, SVU. And I say that because of the question that our disciples are asking: Where is the body?
Any story becomes easier to understand if you know what kind of story it is, what genre it falls into. If three mismatched people walk into a bar, you’re hearing a joke. It’s your job, as listener, to look for a punchline a few seconds later.
If a stranger in a white hat rides up to a dusty farm, you’re watching a Western. It’s your job, as watcher, to enjoy the triumph of good over evil, if it’s an old movie, or to meditate on the complexities of violence in a fallen world, if it’s a newer one.
If Jerry Orbach is standing with his partner over at least one dead body, you’re watching Law and Order. If you’re a St Michael’s parishioner, your job is quite possibly to collect a Screen Actors Guild-eligible credit. Or maybe you’re just folding laundry with the TV on in the background. That’s fine too.
Which brings us to the point. This morning’s Gospel begins with a pair of disciples having a walk-and-talk. Their subject … is… Where Is The Body? Where is the body? That’s the sort of question you ask in a mystery. Whatever else is happening in your story; whatever other genres may be present in this text; if you’re looking for a body, which may or may not be dead, you are in a narrative of detection. And that means, it’s your job to learn how to read it for clues.
The traditional name for this story is “The Road to Emmaus,” but this morning, I don’t want to talk about the road. I want to talk about the disciples on the road. I want to talk about their thought process, their heart process, the way they make sense of the story they’re in, the way they come to live with how their lives have changed. I want to talk about their conversion. And I think one way into that is to look at how they grapple with the mystery.
Some detectives are loners, but many of my favorites work in pairs. Holmes and Watson are the originals, but the variations and transformations of the trope are endless. Poirot and Hastings, say. Or if you like your references more current, Philip and Elizabeth on The Americans (filmed at St Michael’s!) People of my generation: Do you remember Tuesday and Friday from Mathnet?
I’d divide detective pairs into two basic types. On the one hand, there are pairs where one of the two is an intuitive genius, and the other is sort of an audience surrogate, asking the basic questions that the genius can answer if he just gets the whole picture right. House is always going to have the answer, even if Wilson and Cutty are better at being humans. On the other, there are detectives who are basically in this thing together. Think of Benson and Stabler, with their parallel damage; or Mulder and Scully, as avatars of intuition and reason.
When our two disciples set off on the road, I imagine them as more of an equal pair. In fact, speaking of The X-Files, I ship them. I think, that is, that they are, or should be, in a relationship. I believe, based on hints elsewhere in the canon, that the disciples in this story are actually a couple, Cleopas and his wife Mary.
As they walk out from Jerusalem, Mary and Cleopas are going over the story again. Luke says they are “talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” They’re trying to understand, to sift through the facts and interpretation, to figure out what happened here. This is the basic work of detection, at some level.
In Luke’s gospel, remember, we the hearers are in the same place as these disciples. We, like they, have not seen the body of Jesus since Joseph of Arimathea buried it. We’ve been to the tomb with the women and heard the angels testify. We’ve been there with Peter and seen the grave clothes. We’ve heard tell that Christ is risen, but we haven’t seen him. We may even believe it, but at this point in the story, we can’t say we know.
So: When Mary and Cleopas talk about Jesus’ missing body, they should draw us into the conversation. They should draw us into the detection. We have the same facts, the same clues, that they do. And I think that, like them, we shouldn’t have any easy answers yet.
And they don’t have easy answers. When a mysterious stranger falls in alongside them on the road, their retelling of the story is all questions, either stated or implied. Why did Jesus have to die? Why didn’t he bring the promised liberation? And where, for Pete’s sake—where, if he’s not in the tomb, where IS he?
These are, I want to say, the right questions. These are modern questions too, the obvious questions in light of a realistic worldview. These are the questions we should ask of Jesus’ death and rumors of resurrection, in light of our hopes for order and justice in a world full of chaos and crime.
These days, most of our fictional detectives are damaged. House is an addict. Benson is a survivor of child abuse. McNulty is a philandering drunk. Claire DeWitt, from Sara Gran’s novels, has had at least one psychotic episode. You could argue it was ever thus—Holmes had a drug problem too—but you’ll understand if, sometimes, I miss decent old Columbo.
No: Mary and Cleopas have no illusions about the world that they, and we, are living in. They have watched their fondest hope die with the body of their dearest friend. Mary was at the cross’s foot. The mysteries that catch us, the mysteries that draw us in, the mysteries that leave us speechless on the road—if these mysteries don’t connect to trauma in our personal lives, then they certainly connect to the cultural traumas that affect all of us indirectly. We watch doctor shows because the hospital is one of the few places we’ve allowed ourselves to confront the reality of death. We watch cop shows, which I think are so often set in New York because no matter how cleaned-up the city gets, it still sometimes feels like the bad old days may be just around the corner.
And of course, for some of us, the bad old days never left. Ask anyone at a Trans* Day of Remembrance event, where we hold up the victims of hate crimes. Ask anyone who’s lost a loved one to gun violence, in our own city or elsewhere. Ask the mothers of those two hundred Nigerian girls, who share the disciples’ question in another form: Where are our loved ones?
So how does Jesus respond? From his hiding place, he asks Mary and Cleopas for their story. They tell him. They unpack their mystery. And Jesus says: Step back. Take another look. Try another frame. See if the story makes more sense with another point of view in place. See if there’s room for your questions in the Biblical narrative, as Jesus himself interprets it.
This is the basic, basic structure of a mystery. Any detective story is operating on two different levels at once. There’s the underlying story, the story of the crime—or the miracle. And then there’s the story of detection, the one we actually read. The detectives are in the surface story, trying to piece together the clues that will narrate the deeper story.
Sometimes we share the detectives’ point of view. Watson writes of his adventures with Holmes, and we see the story through his eyes. He won’t understand anything, and neither will we, until Holmes explains it all.
Or: Sometimes we see the whole picture, and watch the detectives try to explain what we’ve already seen more fully. Horror movies often work this way: We know there’s a monster in the house, but the characters don’t … until they do. The dramatic tension between our knowledge and the characters’ ignorance drives the story.
Or: Sometimes it’s a mix. We know more than the detectives do, but there are enough clues and details left unexplained that we’re fully invested in their work of detection. This is the basic dynamic of The Wire. As viewers, we have to be fully invested in McNulty and the other detectives as they sort out the drug murders of Baltimore, but we also come to see the police critically, as part of a larger urban system.
This morning’s story does both. We see the story from Mary and Cleopas’ point of view; but we are invited, as well, to see from Jesus’. He doesn’t just tell his story. He interprets it, from Scripture, in light of his own lifespan. And as he does, what had been just a mystery, just a story, becomes the gospel. In the combination of the word and the table, he makes himself known.
The point of a good mystery, as always, is to make us into detectives, to draw us into the story. We come to that work with our questions, our experiences, our personal and cultural baggage. We come to the mystery of Easter with those same questions, and rightly so. There’s no other way to come to it.
I’m not here this morning to offer answers to all the disciples’ questions. I could reflect on why Jesus had to die, or what liberation actually looks like—but those are different sermons. But I do want to end by offering Jesus’ answer to their main question.
Where is the body?
Where is the body?
Share the peace with your neighbors, and look around.
Where is the body?
Offer your thanksgivings, and look around.
Where is the body?
Approach the table with confidence, and look around.
Do you want to know, as Mary and Cleopas did, that Jesus is risen?
Break bread with us, and look around.