Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sermon: Emmaus Never Happened

Luke 24:13-35

Lately I have been reading renowned Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable. The first half of the book is one of the most powerful explanations that I have ever read about the purpose of Jesus’ parables. He says that Jesus’ purpose in teaching is not to hide secret messages behind confusing symbols, his purpose in teaching is not even to impart to us instructions for how to live good ethical lives; rather, Crossan says that Jesus is trying to challenge our assumptions about what it means to live as participants in the realm of God.

The couple of keys words there are challenge and participants.

Jesus is shaking up the world, including the religious world, and he is challenging our thinking. Still 2000 years later he is taking what we think we know and turning our beliefs upside-down and saying that isn’t what following me is about. Crossan suggests that every teaching of Jesus is meant as a challenge to our normal way of thinking, and if it doesn’t challenge us then we probably aren’t reading it right. Jesus wants us to struggle and wrestle with the clash between social norms and God’s expectations, with the clash between our thinking and God’s thoughts, with our emotions and God’s love.

The other key word to Jesus’ teaching is participation. Crossan says that Jesus is always inviting people to openly participate in the kingdom of God, in following him. Jesus never teaches about being passive observers, about letting God do it and we just watch. So every teaching moment is about our role in the work of God, every parable should leave us asking, “How am I to participate based upon this teaching?”

All of that is an introduction to a profound statement that Crossan made about this week’s gospel reading in his book. He says, “Emmaus never happened.” Now before you get angry saying that he is denying the Bible, he follows his first statement with a second. “Emmaus always happens.” 

What Crossan explains is that we do not know the exact location of this village.

The bible says that it is about 7 miles from Jerusalem, but we know of no town called Emmaus at that distance. There are several towns named Emmaus that are much further, the most likely being Emmaus-Nicopolis which is 18.6 miles from Jerusalem, but if that is true the biblical writer got the wrong distance. Or there are several villages that are around 7 miles from Jerusalem that it could be, but perhaps the biblical writer got the wrong village name. So the scholar writes “Emmaus never happened” as if all these details being not quite right make the whole thing false. It is the sort of thing that skeptics do all of the time. They look through the bible and find one contradiction or one incorrect fact and say, “See, it is false.” As if one small problem makes the whole thing false. So Crossan is taking up the skeptic’s chant here. Emmaus never happened because something is wrong here.

But then he refuses to throw out the whole thing. He follows it up with “Emmaus always happens” because the very idea of the story then becomes that Emmaus could be anywhere. I think that is part of the reason that it got picked up as a name for the Emmaus walks – meeting Jesus can occur anywhere, Emmaus could be anywhere. Crossan suggests that we treat Emmaus as any other teaching parable of Jesus – meant to challenge us to participate in the unfolding realm of God.

Like the story of the Good Samaritan who comes along and helps a person beaten by robbers when the religious folk passed him by, like the story of the prodigal son who wastes his inheritance in wrong living, but comes home and finds himself welcomed. Whether all the specific details are exactly right isn’t important, what is important is that the story should impact our lives.

So what does the Emmaus story teach us about that? How does it challenge us?

It starts by reminding us that encountering the risen Christ can happen for us anywhere, on any road, in any village, in any place. Yes, the story of Emmaus is about us seeing Jesus in our daily lives. Do we, when we walk along the road with a stranger and talk about faith, see Jesus? Do we, when we break bread with a stranger, see Jesus? We should.

The truth is we have all had the experience of failing to recognize someone we know very well. Perhaps they are in a place we don’t expect, or we aren’t looking very closely, or our brain is playing one of those tricks that come along with aging, or the person is wearing a crazy wig and a Halloween costume. But then they say to us, “Don’t you know who I am?” and then we take a closer look and realize who it is. This story is about that happening with Jesus. How often are we running around in life, we are out in a place where we don’t expect to see Jesus, or we aren’t looking very closely, or we just aren’t thinking about religious things, or perhaps he has disguised himself in the form of a person that scares us, makes us uncomfortable – Mother Teresa used the phrase “Jesus in his most distressing disguise” -- and then something happens that awakens us and opens our eyes. And it is as though Jesus is saying to us, “Don’t you know who I am?”

Brandon Vogt (a Catholic author, blogger and speaker) tells about a muggy Tallahassee day.  He was resting at a picnic table when suddenly a strange, disheveled man plopped down right across from him. His face was grizzly, his beard was dirty, and without exchanging hello’s he stared deep into Brandon’s eyes and boldly shouted, “I am Jesus Christ! Your Lord and Savior, who died for your sins!”

For a moment Brandon just sat still, blinked a few times, and wondered whether he should agree for the man’s sake, or run away as fast as he could! But after a few beats, the man smiled, chuckled and confessed, “Aw, I’m just kidding you. The name’s Rick!”

Brandon then takes him to McDonalds and for a couple of hours they hung out. I like what Brandon says in reflection about the event. “I wondered whether Rick really thought he was Jesus. I couldn’t be absolutely sure.”

“But . . . I became convinced that his claims were true whether he believed them or not. If Jesus was right–if Mother Teresa was right–then through Rick I really had encountered God. Not because Rick claimed to be Jesus, but because Jesus claimed to be in him.”[1]

Now, usually the people we meet don’t quite so blatantly remind us that they are Jesus in disguise. Normally, it is like the story about Emmaus, it isn’t until we are breaking bread together, it isn’t until we are sharing in hospitality that we realize what is happening.

That helps explain why Crossan says that the Emmaus story is a two-fold lesson for us –  it is about us welcoming the stranger, inviting them to walk and talk with us, to eat with us, to stay with us, and being hospitable to those we meet.

But it is also about us finding Jesus fully present in our lives, loving us, feeding us spiritually and even physically. So Emmaus is a two-fold lesson for us: when you see Christ in others, you discover Jesus is walking with you all the time.

Those two things come together to create a holy moment, where two more teachings of Jesus happen. First, the parable of the sheep and the goats becomes reality as Jesus turns to us and says, “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” And we reply, “But Jesus when did we see you hungry or thirsty.” To which he answers, “Whenever you did it for one of the least of these, you did it unto me.”

But at the very same time Jesus feeds us: he tells us how he is the bread of life and the living water. As we feed another, Jesus sees the hunger of our souls and gives us the bread of life. As we quench the thirst of another, Jesus sees the thirsting of our souls and pours us the living water. Through the encounters where we reach out and touch others, Christ then touches and nourishes us.

The story of Jesus appearing on the road to Emmaus challenges us to open our eyes to see Christ in the people around us, and it invites us to allow our hearts to be warmed as we participate in the kingdom work of reaching out to them.

The encounter is meant to be an example of something we should always be making to happen around us. So we could argue about the names of the village or the miles they stand from Jerusalem, saying “Emmaus never happened.” or we can make it happen today. I say let “Emmaus always happen.”

[1] http://brandonvogt.com/his-most-distressing-disguise/

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