April 23, 2023
|*Acts 2:14a, 36-41||Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19||1 Peter 1:17-23||Luke 24:13-35|
Fior three weeks now, we have been hearing glorious stories of Jesus appearing to those who loved him. The disciples don’t always know that it is Jesus. In our Easter reading from John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene was at the empty tomb, in despair at the disappearance of Jesus’ body, when she saw someone who appeared to be the gardener. She asked in anguish where “they” — some outsiders, some other people — had put her Lord’s body.
Only to have the gardener speak to her by name.
Only at that very moment, to know that it was Jesus himself standing there before her.
That same misperception happened again in today’s story recounted by St. Luke. Today we have two disciples, like Mary, consumed in grief. It was evening of the same first Easter day. As the two walked toward their destination, they agonized over what had just happened in Jerusalem.
A seeming stranger, a passer-by, joined them. He asked what they were talking about. They were astonished that anyone could not know what had happened.
So they poured out the story of Jesus of Nazareth, words tumbling over words –
the story of his life and mighty teachings,
of the leaders who had condemned him to death and the unspeakable cruelty of crucifixion,
of all the hopes they had of him as the Messiah,
of the astonishing report of women who that very morning had gone to the tomb and found angels there who told them that Jesus was alive.
And, finally, of their own rushing to the tomb where they saw for themselves that the tomb was empty.
And that they left the grave stunned, still dumbfounded.
Their new companion joined in the conversation, interposing, to their wonder, interpretations from scripture that brought light to each episode of their account. The disciples found their hearts kindled with hope. When they reached their destination, they stopped “the stranger” from continuing on the road alone. He joined their meal and blessed and broke the bread.
And then, their eyes unveiled, they knew at last that this had been Jesus in their very presence all along.
And then he vanished from their sight.
There is so much in that much-loved story, but one part, the misperception followed by dawning truth, is part of what makes this appearance, like the appearance to Mary Magdalene, I think, seem so real. We feel we are hearing the story just as it would have happened.
Still, for many of us in our world, powerful as these old stories are, we do not, generally speaking, expect to have a bodily vision of Jesus, or to expect to hear that the people around us have had them. It is hard for us to explain this kind of encounter although we repeat, day in and day out, that Jesus rose from the dead, that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” We rejoice to sing the glorious Easter hymns like the ones we sang today, all exulting in the fact of resurrection.
Our world is not the same world as the first century in Jerusalem or Galilee, or even the world of other communities who are our contemporaries today. There are places in the world today where bodily visitations of saints and prophets are accorded unquestioned authority. In a commentary on the chapter on Easter day in John’s Gospel (in a book recommended by Laurie Schumacher in one of our Bible reading Zooms), the authors warn us not to make our own limited perceptions the standard:
“… it would be quite anachronistic and ethnocentric to take our post-Enlightenment, technologically obsessed society as normative for judging anyone other than ourselves. For most of the world, even today, a report of alternate states of awareness [referring in this case to bodily visions] would be considered quite normal.”
Put another way, Mary Magdalene, and Cephas, and Thomas last week, and Cleopas and the other disciple today, and everyone in the upper room, and the disciples on the beach eating fish, all those people really did see Jesus in the aftermath of what Cleopas in today’s gospel refers to as “the things that have taken place [in Jerusalem] in these days.”
(They did and we don’t.) Two caveats to what might seem our limitations. First of all, some among us may in fact have had occasions, in a dream or awake, of a vision, perhaps of a lost loved one, that had the reality of waking life. In a recent conversation, again in one of our Wednesday Bible reading sessions, Rev. Peggy [Patterson], who has served as a hospital chaplain, reflected that there are times in peoples’ lives, especially times of great grief, when they are open to experiences that otherwise for the most part are not common in our particular time and place.
And the other caveat is this. That appearances of the Divine, encounters with the Divine, take place in many ways.
Some of you may remember a “reflection” when we were meeting on Zoom when Margaret Doleman invited folks to recall encounters, moments of communion, times of God’s presence, in encounters of everyday life. And there were many people who spoke up.
Similarly, I remember Dani Gabriel, our former deacon, once telling us about a disheveled homeless man she had recently interacted with – maybe it was in one of her poems – who was Christ. Probably, Dani did not recognize him at first, just as the disciples did not immediately know Jesus. But in the words exchanged, in something in that brief relationship, she knew that God was present.
Our hymns point to that experience. Charles Wesley in our opening hymn rejoices in the light, mercy, and divine radiance of the risen Christ. In our sequence hymn, Brian Wren sings out a language close to many of ours, a language of knowing that the risen Christ lives in justice, love, and peace, of hope that never dies.
The Resurrection story, and the post-Resurrection visions of Jesus, are stories about hope. What happens on the road to Emmaus is a story of hope restored in the generous interaction of pondering God’s story and sharing bread. Again, there is a reality to the story, a sense that we are hearing what really happened as three people talk to each other about what matters most.
What happened on the road to Emmaus gives us guidance in how to prepare ourselves for meeting Jesus. We also need talk as the disciples and “the stranger” did. They relived the events of Jesus’ life and they probed the prophecies of scripture. Their “hearts … burn[ed] within [them].”
And we need to share bread as they did, an echo of the sacrament but also a signal of the Divine in the everyday.
The prayers of our Book of Common Prayer, like Charles Wesley’s hymns, often echo scripture. A particularly beautiful collect set for Evening Prayer echoes today’s gospel reading in a way that brings the story of the road to Emmaus into our lives,
“Lord Jesus, stay with us [for evening is at hand and the day is past;] be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.”
We pray the collect to beseech Jesus’ risen presence on our journey. And the collect guides us to what we need on the way, the revelation of Scripture and the breaking of the bread.
That pairing – of what happens on the road and in Emmaus — recalls another BCP prayer that we always use in our mid-week Morning Prayer gathering. That is the General Thanksgiving, when we thank God for “the means of grace and for the hope of glory.” We don’t hear that phrase much — “the means of grace.” It is an old phrase that includes scripture. And sacraments. And prayer.
And so we pray: Living, risen Lord Jesus, “stay with us…be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.”