Sermon for May 4th, 2014
13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But 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. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The Road to Emmaus
In the month or so leading up to Easter, there were several films out in theaters that had a distinctly Christian flavor: Son of God, Noah, God is Not Dead, and most recently, Heaven is for Real. I don't think they signal any great awakening of Hollywood to Christian values or message; more likely it's an awakening to the fact that Christian dollars are just as green and profitable as anyone else's dollars.
Some of these movies were good, some were bad, some were very bad. I don't think any of these movies will appeal to or reach out to people who aren't already Christians. Worse, I don't think any of these movies will even challenge Christians to grow in their faith or understanding of the scriptures.
No, if you want the gospel message on the silver screen I think the best way to do it is the way Jesus did--in parables; in hidden stories that non-believers will walk away from saying "Hmmmm...that was an interesting story." and which many believers will walk away from saying "There was something familiar about that story" and which a few believers will say "Yeah, I see what you just did there."
So in the weeks leading up to Easter, the Hollywood film about death, resurrection, and eternal life that no one is talking about, because no one really noticed it, the film with the most captivating and imaginative re-telling of the gospel message...is a film called Transendence.
Today's sermon is not about this movie, but I am going to show you one short clip from the film, because I think it captures a foundational truth about the resurrected Jesus in today's scripture passage. To set up the clip for you, the film revolves around a scientist, Dr. Will Caster (think about that name for a moment) who is the world's foremost expert in artificial intelligence.
Tragically, Dr. Caster is struck down by an assassin's bullet, but in his dying moments, manages to have his mind, his memories, and his very consciousness uploaded into one of his super-computers, thus defeating death and attaining a powerful, god-like immortality. In the clip we're about to watch, two of Dr. Caster's former friends are about to "meet" him for the first time since his death and resurrection: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxuWwvSiMm8
"Jesus Christ!" says the friend, who is shocked, surprised, skeptical, and more than a little creeped out. Jesus Christ, indeed. I think it's pretty easy for those of us who have heard the resurrection story told and retold for 2,000 years to forget how shocked, surprised, skeptical, and more than a little creeped out anyone would be if someone you knew to be dead appeared to you again in any form, especially one you were not entirely accustomed to.
The two men on the road to Emmaus in today's scripture passage are not part of Jesus' inner circle, the 12 disciples, but they do seem to be part of the larger group of his followers. From things they say in the passage, it is obvious that they have followed Jesus for some time, heard him speak often, and have even broken bread with him in a more intimate setting. In other words, they were close enough to him that they ought to have recognized him by his physical appearance, by his mannerisms and his teachings. And yet, we read in verse 16 that "their eyes were kept from recognizing him." And this went on for at least 7 miles. I'm assuming that the average walking speed hasn't changed much in 2000 years, so that's somewhere between 2 and 3 hours of walking, talking, and not recognizing the very person you are talking about, the one you had walked with, listened to, and eaten with so many times before. There's been plenty of speculation as to why this was: Perhaps Jesus' resurrected form was somehow different than his earthly form; perhaps they were so ditraught and distracted they didn't pay close attention to this stranger; perhaps their logical, rational minds did not allow them to make a connection they knew to be impossible; perhaps Jesus simply didn't want them to know who he was, and so they didn't.
And that leads me to the first of several observations I'd like to make about this famous story. The first is a problem, a dillema. And then I'll conclude with some observations that are solutions, or rather suggestions in response to this problem. So here's our dillemma: Jesus is almost always not who we think he is.
This happens time and time again, throughout Jesus' life and ministry, in his last days and at the scene of his death, and especially in the wake of his resurrection, people seem to come to their own conclusions about who he is, and they are generally (at least at first) wrong. A few weeks ago in our Easter text, Mary Magdalene thought he was just the gardener. When he appears to the disciples, especially Thomas, they think he is a ghost. And here in today's passage, the two travelers think he's the most clueless stranger in Jerusalem who has somehow missed everything that has happened in the last few days. Jesus is almost always not who we think he is.
2,000 years later, of course, we have it all figured out, right? We're so much more likely to recognize Jesus than the people who actually lived and walked and touched him and ate with him, right? We're so much smarter than the disciples, especially those of us who grew up in the church, who have heard the stories about Jesus over and over throughout our lives. We know who Jesus is, don't we? Careful now...
It's true that if I asked everyone in this room the question "Who is Jesus?" I'd probably get mostly similar, theologically correct answers that the church has done a pretty good job of teaching over the years. He's the son of God. He's our lord and savior. But what does "son of God" mean? Is he God's son in the same way that I'm the son of my father? Do they share the same genetic DNA code? Or does "son" mean something different in this case? What does Lord mean in a day and age where we don't really have a system of feudal Lords and Masters? What does savior mean? What or who is it that Jesus is saving us from?
I'm not saying there aren't good answers to those questions. Just that if we probe and poke our simple answers a little deeper, chances are everyone in this room has a somewhat different understanding of who exactly Jesus is. And still, after 2,000 years, Jesus probably isn't quite who we think he is.
In fact, if you were to ask me that question, "Who is Jesus?" remembering that, well, I'm a pastor, I have two masters degrees from one of the oldest seminaries in the country, I've studied and sat at the feet of people who have spent entire lifetimes trying to answe that very question, and if you ask me "who is Jesus?" the most intellectually honest answer I can give you is this: I don't really know, but I want to know him more. I know him a little, but I'm still learning who he is. Come learn with me, and maybe we can teach each other a thing or two about who Jesus is.
I hope I never have it completely figured out, to the point where I'm certain that I know definitively, rigidly, and irrefutably who Jesus is. I know a few pastors and churches like that, and I don't want to be one of them. I don't want us to be one of them. I've known my wife, Amy since we were both 16 years old, and one of the things I love the most about her is that she still has the capacity to surprise me, to be not quite who I think she is...and so it is with Jesus, too. Jesus usually isn't quite who we think he is.
In our scripture passage today, the two travelers do ultimately recognize Jesus. That's not to say they have it all figured out--after all, in the instant that they recognize him, he mysteriously vanishes. But like the travelers in this story, I think we too can get to the point where our hearts burn within us, because we know that Jesus has been walking and talking with us along the way.
In verse 31 of today's scripture passage, we read that their "eyes were opened, and they recognized him." Now, that's not to say they have it (and him) all figured out--after all, in the instant that they recognize him, he mysteriously vanishes. But they do recognize him at last, and I that's not a bad goald for us, either. I hope and believe that we, too, can arrive at a point in our lives where our hearts burn within us because we recognize that Jesus has been walking and talking and breaking bread with us along the way.
So how do we go about learning to recognize Jesus? It's not always easy, but I think this well-loved story, the road to Emmaus, gives us a pretty good template to follow. I can identify four elements, or four stages in the story.
The story begins with a road, with a journey. This is no accident. The earliest Christians immediately after the time of Christ were not known as Christians. There was no such thing as "Christianity" yet. They refered to their religious system by the Greek word, όδός, which means "the road" or "the path." In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." The word used there for "way" is όδός, so Jesus is literally saying I am the road. Early Christians called themselves "the people of the road." They recognized that life was a journey, that getting to know Jesus, the way, was a process, one that could take a lifetime.
In recent years, in Christianity there has been an emphasis on the point of salvation -- at what exact moment did you accept Jesus as your lord and personal savior? Those dramatic moments do happen; after all, the two travelers in our passage today have their eyes are suddenly opened and they recognize Jesus. But that moment is part of a larger process, a journey. Recognizing Jesus begins on the road.
So we have a road, but next we need people. How many? Numbers are pretty important to us. To be a successful business, you need a lot of clients, a lot of profit. To be a successful church, you need a lot of members, a lot of programs. Jesus does happen to share with us his own numerical criteria for successful ministry. In Matthew 18:20, he says, "wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them." And in today's story, he proves the point. A community of two, talking and discussing Jesus, becomes a community of three, with Jesus as part of it.
Recognizing Jesus happens in community. As a pastor, I hear all the time of people who are "Spiritual but not religious." That's ok, and spirituality is good, but what that usually translates to is "I believe in God, but I don't go to church." Does that make you a horrible person? No, just a person without spiritual community, a person without much opportunity to get to know Jesus. Notice that Jesus doesn't say "wherever one person is gathered in my name in her living room I am with her. Wherever one person is gathered in my name on the golf course, I am with him." Nor does Jesus say, "Wherever two or more are gathered in the name of Basketball, or knitting, or Chuck-E-Chese, there I am with them."
No, recognizing Jesus begins in Christian community that is gathered intentionally in his name. By the way, that's called a "church." Doesn't have to be a big one; two is enough. But you can't do it alone.
Recoginzing Jesus begins on the road, in community, and through the scriptures. In verse 27 of today's passage, we read that "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures." Notice where he begins, too. Jesus didn't just whip out his pocket edition of the New Testament, turn to the gospel of Luke, and read to them the story of the Road to Emmaus. For Jesus, the scriptures were what we call the Old Testament, or the Hebrew bible. I actually had someone suggest to me several weeks ago that I should stick to the gospels, and preaching about Jesus. To be fair, this was toward the end of my six week long sermon on the book of Job. But as Jesus demonstrates, we come to know and recognize him best on every page of the scripture story, from the beginning to the end. By the way, the Bible is a pretty long book. I don't suggest trying to read it all in one sitting, all by yourself. Consider it reading it as a long journey, best undertaken in the company of others.