Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Third Sunday after Easter – May 8, 2011
May God be with us in every footstep, Jesus be known to us in the breaking of bread and the Spirit touch our hearts in gentleness. Amen.
If you have ever felt as if you had lost your way in life, if you have ever experienced profound sadness and dejection, if you have ever wondered when you would see the light at the end of the tunnel, then this Gospel story is for you. Perhaps a good summation of our human condition is offered by best-selling author, Anne Lamott, who says that we are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world. That surely describes the disciples making their way along the road to Emmaus.
It is the evening of the very day that Jesus was raised from the dead, they have heard the news, even spoken to witnesses who saw the empty tomb and the angels guarding it, yet they are so overwhelmed with a sense of loss and confusion that they don’t recognize the risen Christ who appears in their midst engaging them in conversation, even teaching them about the Messiah. They are stuck in the doldrums of Good Friday.
Our own journey on the road to our Emmaus place is not unlike theirs. We all know what it is like to be absorbed by a sense of darkness, to lose someone we love, to have our dreams shattered, to mourn the death of something in which we had invested great energy and hope. We know what it is like to be overwhelmed by unhappiness and to feel totally abandoned—even by God. That kind of desolation and anguish can be blinding and paralyzing. That’s the scene we enter in the Gospel today.
As theologian Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The whole of life lies in the word seeing.” These two companions did not recognize Jesus when they walked along the road with him because they could not see the possibility of resurrection. They were defeated by the limited, officially sanctioned, cultural and societal perspective about life. Death—whether it is physical or figurative—blinds us and tells us that the world is closed shut. No coming back. Dead end. Period.
Easter says we won’t buy that line. It champions the extraordinary innate ability of those who have been made in the image of God to perceive the impossible possibilities around us that allows us to recognize the evidence of resurrection in the midst of our Good Friday malaise. The whole of life lies in the word seeing.
It is significant that in this Easter story hearing all the things Jesus was revealing about himself through Moses and all the prophets did not seem to alter the cheerless mood of the disciples nor assuage their confusion and doubt. Neither did their conversation on their walk for the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus—a considerable amount of time to be engaged with the risen Jesus. What was it that turned the tables? What made the difference? If not by hearing, what then?
I think the answer is twofold: it was in the seeing—the recognition of Jesus who broke bread with them many times before, especially on the night before he died, just three days earlier—and it was in the sharing of that bread at a meal in community that their eyes became wide open and they were able to perceive that a new day had dawned, there would be light again, death was not the final word anymore.
The church, when it is authentically, faithfully, genuinely being the church, when it is doing what Jesus meant for it to do, is the embodiment of people walking on a road together where, the impossible possibility of recognizing the risen Jesus can be experienced in any number of ways. The first name for the church was “The Way” and its very first members were called “People of the Way” long before they were called “Christians.”
The road to Emmaus is a paradigm, a model of the way that revelation happens for us and how and where and when we experience light in the midst of our darkness, how we embrace life in spite of the fear of death, how we receive the gift of hope in the face of despair. The world brings us so many Good Friday moments and situations every day like the devastation still faced by thousands of people in Japan, the suffering of those who lost so much in the violent weather that besieged the south and mid-west, and the deep hurting that fills the lives of people right in our backyard.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the night before he died spoke these words in Memphis: “It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis.”
Easter is not just about the belief that Jesus has been raised from the dead and the assurance that Jesus overcame death, that we will be raised as well. Easter is about God’s promise of a whole new world, not someday, but today. Not somewhere in eternity, but now. Two disciples making their way to Emmaus, walking in sadness and doubt and confusion, encounter a stranger and that evening in their home at a table during a meal with Jesus they experienced that revelation of God’s promise of a new world.
This is the same Jesus who taught us to trust the surprising power of lilies, vines, branches, sheep, mustard seeds, falling stars, birds in the air—and bread and wine; the same Jesus who taught us that we can learn about God and God’s kingdom by paying attention to our own physical lives on earth.
The story of Emmaus, the evening the two disciples spent with Jesus—talking, sharing their deepest feelings, breaking bread together teaches us that incarnation—God taking on flesh— is not just a doctrine but more a practice. Jesus gave those two disciples and the church things that they could get their hands on, that would require them to get close enough to one another to touch one another. In a meal, he gave them fragrant things to sip and tasty things to chew—things that they could see—and could pass to one another around the table. Not unlike times when you have sat down to the table —maybe even with strangers—and discovered something you never expected to or at meals you have shared with people you love—where the bread you broke and the wine you drank and the laughter, the tears, the conversation, the teaching — maybe even the revelation — that happened became truly holy moments, a time when you may even have felt the presence of the living God.
What we learn from this Easter story is that what God most wants for us when we are walking our own path to Emmaus—carrying our sadness, our hopelessness, our sense of loss—is not to be in isolation but in the company of those who will walk with us. Jesus is most real to us when we share the good things of creation—the bread of life—with each other in our common humanness.
Shortly, we will raise the loaf baked for us by one of our members and pray that Jesus will be present, will be present with us as he was present with his disciples, that he will be known to us in the breaking of bread.
May we pray that prayer not just for this table but for every table in every place where sisters and brother gather to celebrate their humanity and give thanks for God’s promise of a whole new world.