The Third Sunday of Easter – April 30. 2017
Preacher: The Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool, Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of New York
In the EFM (“Education For Ministry”) Program, seminar participants engage in theological reflection in a variety of different ways. The most common way to engage in theological reflection is by telling the story of what is called a “critical event” in the life of a participant who is willing to share. Then, through a series of exercises, the group reflects on the ways in which God might have been present in the event. As the presenter tells his or her story, the rest of the group listens to the story being told and listens specifically for the shifts in action of the story. In identifying shifts in action, the group is preparing to choose the point where the energy is most intense for the presenter. Shifts in action can be physical, emotional, or cognitive – but regardless of which it might be, there’s usually a point in the telling of the story when the presenter’s own energy level goes up: she or he gets tense, or excited, or a tear comes to the eye. Something almost sneakily lets the rest of the group know what the focal point of the story is.
If all of us gathered here today were an EFM seminar group, and one of the two disciples – Jesus’ followers – told us the story we have just heard as today’s Gospel Lesson, where would we say the focal point of the story is? Would it be when “Jesus himself” approaches them, joining them on their journey? It doesn’t seems so, because “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Would it be when “they stood still, looking sad.”? I don’t think so – because there’s not much energy in that – and it’s followed by Cleopas, in response to Jesus’ question, giving a synopsis of all the events of the previous few days. Would it be when they were drawing “near the village to which they were going” and Jesus appears to be going on and they ask him to stay and he does? They still do not recognize him in this, and the energy in the story doesn’t seem to change.
You know what’s next! All of a sudden, Jesus is art table with them, and he takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them, and BANG! …“their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” No sooner do they recognize him, than he vanishes from their sight. They have a happier conversation than the one which they had had on the road, and they go back to Jerusalem to tell the others what they’ve experienced.
It has always seemed pretty obvious to me what the turning point of this story is. The disciples’ “moment of recognition” is like a light bulb clicking on. All of a sudden, in a single instant, everything falls into place, everything becomes clear: Jesus’ teaching on the road; Moses and all the prophets; the reports of the resurrection; the place of scripture; even the disciples” own lives. It all becomes clear in this “light bulb” moment, and all that is left for the disciples to do is run back to Jerusalem and witness to the other disciples.
But there’s a subtler turning point in the story. It is a literary turning point; but it has some very profound implications for us. We need to go back over the story, and approach it again, this time, not as potential EFM students listening to one of those two disciples tell of their experience; but rather, as, let’s say, literary critics who are reading and assessing what the Evangelist Luke wrote. The Evangelist Luke, you see, is addressing a similar issue as the Evangelist John did in last week’s Gospel Lesson. When the Lord appears to Thomas in the Gospel of John, he pronounces a final beatitude on all who would believe without having seen. Luke wants to write about this, too. How, especially in view of the ascension that he will report, can later believers experience the presence of the risen Lord? Would it not have been far better to have been among the first witnesses who actually saw him? How can we believe in that which we have not, ourselves, seen first-hand?
Biblical scholars have done the work for us! A literary critique of this story reveals what is known in scholarly circles as a chiastic structure – the word chiasm meaning crossing – the point at which two lines intersect, for example. And the point at which the two halves of the story intersect; that point at which, having taken some steps into the story, we begin to come out of the story, as it were – is a fascinating one. The hinge of the story if Verse 29, in which the two disciples urge Jesus to stay with them, and he does! Verse 29 reads: “But 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.” In other words, the focal point of the story, literarily speaking, is the point at which the disciples invite Jesus into their home, and he accepts!
If we take as the focal point of the story that point at which the disciples invite Jesus into their home, then what does this story tell us concerning how we encounter the Risen Christ and how we come to believe? First, let us notice that just before the disciples invited Jesus to stay, Luke tells us that Jesus “walked ahead as if he were going on” (Verse 28). On the surface, it is a gesture of social deference and polish. It implies that Jesus was not really going further but that he would not impose on the disciples to offer him hospitality. In Near Eastern cultures, the guest was obligated to turn down such an invitation until it was vigorously repeated. If you wanted to perform the required hospitality for anyone, you had to invite them emphatically and/or repeatedly. That is why, for example, Abraham, by the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18, when he saw the three men standing near him, falls on his knees and begs them to stay so he can offer the appropriate hospitality. So we read that the disciples urged him strongly, and Jesus stayed. Theologically, Jesus’ action demonstrates that he never forces himself upon others. There is no coercion involved. He looks as if he is going on, and they invite him in. He waits to be invited.
Again, if we take as the focal point of the story that point at which the disciples invite Jesus into their home, then in a sense, the recognition of the Risen Christ being present is not as important as the invitation for Christ to be present. It can surely be stated more simply. In our lives of faith, it is more important to invite the Risen Christ into our lives, than it is to recognize that the Risen Christ is there. Hopefully, we can sense Christ’s Presence in our lives. Ideally we recognize that Christ is always present. But there may be times when we don’t. There may be times in our lives when we forget, or when we feel desperate or out of control. There are certainly times when we don’t recognize the Risen Christ in our midst. If you are at such a place in your life, then you are on the Road to Emmaus.
Frederick Buechner interprets Emmaus as:
the place we go in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say “Let the whole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.” …Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that (people) have had – ideas about love and freedom and justice – have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends.
[Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Seabury, 1966) 85-86.]
If you are on that road, know that the Risen Christ meets us there, in the ordinary places and experiences of our lives, and in the places to which we retreat when life is too much for us. The story warns us, however, that the Lord may come in unfamiliar guises, when we least expect him. The important thing is to invite him in.
But wait a minute! That’s not the end of the story! We started with perhaps the more tantalizing focal point – that moment of the disciples’ recognition of the Risen Christ in their presence. And we moved, at least literarily speaking, to the focal point of the disciples’ invitation to the then unrecognized Jesus to come into their home. Let’s go back, for a brief moment, to the point of recognition. They recognize the Risen Christ, and he disappears. This is, truly, a mystical moment. I’ll bet you’ve all experienced at least one of these mystical moments in your life. Perhaps you have been graced with more than one. And this story tells us what we already, really, know: that God’s presence is always elusive, fleeting, dancing at the edge of our awareness and perception. If we are honest, we must confess that it is never constant, steady, or predictable. We almost always have that mystical moment of recognition in retrospect. The moment has passed – and we now recognize Christ’s Presence for what it was: Christ’s Presence. In the bread and the wine. At table. In the teaching. When the light bulb clicks on and we suddenly have that insight that makes everything clear. In the words of a friend or the touch of a stranger. The mystery of transcendence is always transitory. We perceive God’s presence in fleeting moments, and then the mundane closes in again.
That’s why it makes sense for us to begin with the focal point of the invitation. We cannot; we do not control God or Christ’s Presence. But we can – and we do – in fact it’s completely ours to issue the invitation. Jesus won’t be coerced. But we can invite, and keep inviting, our families and friends, our neighbors and strangers, the poor and the dispossessed, into our lives; offering hospitality; creating the space for the Risen Christ to accept and be present. We may not even know when it happens. But there will come a time when we, too, might say: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us along the way?”
In the Name of the Risen Christ, Amen.