April 30, 2017

The Walk to Emmaus

Passage: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35
Service Type:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem …Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he (Jesus) had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

In Ontario employers (including churches) are obligated under Occupational Health and Safety regulations to have a workplace violence and harassment policy. Central United Church has one posted on our website. When a society finds itself in the place of having to legislate civility it is likely a clear indication that civility has significantly eroded. And I wonder if we can legislate our way to improved civility?

Christian writers are now publishing books proposing strategies for the church on how to live in post-Christian western societies. I read an article reviewing three such books. One of those authors, Professor Anthony Esolen put his finger on the erosion of civility, in what was for me, an arresting sentence that spoke volumes. He wrote, “”Liberty is to be measured not by what the law permits you to do, but by—to use a whimsical criterion—how far from your house you feel comfortable allowing your child to play.” When I reflect on how far from the house my parents allowed us children to play and compare that with what I did with my children and now to see what my children do with their children—each succeeding generation has been bringing children ever closer to the house.

When I think about this cultural direction I find myself, metaphorically speaking, on the road to Emmaus. I am disappointed in the direction things are moving. I am walking away from it. For me, political leaders push policies and agendas that undermine the faith foundations out of which civility arises. As a minister of the gospel, I should know that politics will not save us. Yet that same gospel teaches me to pray for leaders, and so I shouldn’t abandon a desire for good polity. I have hung around to the “third day,” so to speak, to see if anything will improve. I am more prone to walk away “from Jerusalem.”

1. In many respect it would be hard to put ourselves form our Canadian experience in the shoes of these two disciples on the road to Emmaus knowing in any complete way their sense of despondency. In other parts of our world no so hard. They came to Jerusalem with such high hopes for Jesus; Jesus about whom they were utterly certain was Israel’s Messiah. He was going to free them from the tyranny of Rome. He was going to end the confiscatory taxation where so many ended up in slavery or indentured in some way. Injustice would come to an end—the injustice that gave rise to sexual slavery for young Jewish women in Roman harems. Poverty was going to give way to prosperity. Jesus would reign.

Things, simply put, couldn’t have ended up in a more disastrous place. Jesus was arrested, tried for conspiracy and somehow convicted. The loud Hosanna’s on Sunday had been drowned by the thunder of “Crucify him” on Friday. Not only was Jesus executed by the state but he was crucified; the godlessness of crucifixion aimed by design to wipe the memory of the person from existence; it was especially designed to shame so no one would ever dream of identifying with the crucified. They even had waited around to the “third day”—not quite sure what Jesus had meant when he said “on the third day be raised.” Some of the female disciples had been to the tomb and when they didn’t find the body they came back and said they saw a vision of angels who said he was alive. The boys went to check it out—yes, the tomb was empty, but him they did not see. How could God have let this happen? So we are out of here. On our way to Emmaus. Nothing to keep us here anymore. It’s over. We had such hope that he was the one!

We may not be able to know the particular despondency of these two disciples yet I suspect that we too have been on this road to Emmaus. The road of “why did God let this happen?” The road to nowhere in particular just away from something for which we had been so hopeful. I was visiting in the home of a cousin of mine not long ago. She is plagued by a number of physical ailments that have incapacitated her rendering her virtually housebound. She said to me that she never dreamed in her wildest imagination that this would be her life. She wasn’t bitter but it would be easy to get on the Emmaus road of “what is the use of trying.” What is the point of believing?

Perhaps we have found ourselves blindsided by economic reversal. The plans we had in mind for our future have been shattered having had to spend our savings to rescue a child from potential ruin. Or maybe that relationship we once counted on to be the dearest in life has come to an end. It wasn’t anything in particular but like little grains in the cogs of a wheel it finally ground to a stop. Maybe a career has come to a sudden end because the company we worked so diligently for has had a change in leadership and direction. Sometimes the bereaved find themselves on this road. And some have found themselves on this road away from faith because of the behaviour of a leader of the church; hypocrisy or abuse has us running on the opposite direction.

The Emmaus road. A road on which art first we find ourselves just walking away. There is no purpose in our step. A road where we are consumed by the downturn that has befallen us. We just keep rehearsing events that went so wrong. A road were we are close to being done with faith wondering why God let this happen.

2. The story shows us that God does not abandon us on this road. “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them.” I notice that Jesus comes alongside us on this road. He does not wait in Jerusalem for them to come to their senses and return. It is almost like the story of the lost sheep. The ninety-nine in the fold will be ok until I get back. The disciples who have remained in Jerusalem he will tend to when he gets back. But there are two on the road walking away. I need to go get them. Jesus doesn’t write them off because they’ve given up. Jesus does not say—it’s only two, I have enough disciples here in Jerusalem to launch things.

Luke tells us that they were kept from recognizing Jesus. He does not say what kept them, from recognizing Jesus. Let me ask you, did you recognize at first that it was Jesus who came alongside you in that despairing moment? Maybe it was the word or kindness of a friend; or maybe it was the line of a song or hymn that spoke to you; or it was an unusual experience in nature; or a sentence of scripture that came to light tucked in your memory from long ago; or something in a story you read. Jesus came alongside you. You know it now looking back. At the time you didn’t recognize him.

And I can assure you today if you are on a similar road as these two to Emmaus Jesus is coming alongside you. He will not abandon his people.

3. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. When God enters the conversation we are at a crossroads. They stopped their walk in the direction away from Jerusalem. Away from the terrible events that happened there. They stood still. At least for a moment. Will we stand still long enough to enter this conversation?

They first expressed surprise that anyone leaving Jerusalem that day would not have known what they were talking about. Many of the pilgrims leaving Jerusalem after the festival of Passover are on their way back to Galilee—they were the ones, the Galileans, who shouted the Hosannas a week ago with them as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. They are hard pressed to believe that any Galilean wouldn’t know what had happened. Jesus was from Galilee, after all.

I notice how this disaster consumes them. In their retelling of the story its vortex exacerbates their sorrow. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” And isn’t this the way we often experience these things? The details of events that discourage we can replay with excruciating detail that even our new 4K televisions cannot capture. We keep replaying them. There is almost a comfort in doing so because it helps rationalize walking away.

Please note that Jesus invites us to tell him our story in all its discouraging detail. Not long ago I had a conversation with a young man. The story of the challenges he was currently facing in his life made me stagger just listening to them. Yet he was not bitter. He wrote me a note a couple of days later thanking me for listening because it was nice to talk to someone about them. He was encouraged.

Prayer is a great help to us here. And when you consider that God hears our conversations there is a sense in which to listen to another unburden their heart is prayer. I also find that pouring out my anxieties in prayer a great help. I was recently experiencing some disquiet with regard to the way the world’s ideologies encroach on faith. The sort of thing I eluded to in a general way at the beginning of this message. This surfaces in the work of preaching the gospel. People gather at church on Sunday hoping to hear a word from the Lord. Have I been too dismissive of these ideologies? The next morning at prayer as I poured this out in my heart to God, Psalm 62 was the one of the Psalms appointed for reading that day—here is how it begins, “My soul truly waited still upon God: for of him cometh my salvation.” That note of clarity was a wonderful breath of sunshine.

4. The Emmaus road story is not without its amusing parts. Here they have just said that when some went to the tomb to check out the women’s story—“him”, meaning Jesus, “they did not see.” And yet here he is talking with the very one “they did not see.”

I note that Jesus goes on to help them see their story differently. It is often the case that we are trapped in our own self-stories. But there is something else going on. Beneath the surface of day-today events God is at work. This was even true of Christ’s death on the cross. An act of horrendous suffering that gains significance when understood within the whole narrative of God’s eternal purpose. “Was it not necessary,” said our Lord, “that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

Jesus calls us to see the world and our experience in it from God’s perspective—through the prism of the cross. The Messiah had to suffer then enter his glory. What looks to the world as weakness such that it couldn’t be weaker—Jesus hanging limp on a cross—is God undertaking his most powerful work in rectifying all that is wrong. Jesus believes we need this gospel, his good news.

What did Jesus say to them on this Emmaus walk? You will find it through reading the letters of the Apostles as they unpack the meaning of the cross for us. Luke gives us samples of sermons of the Apostles in the book of Acts. We read the conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost day sermon earlier in the service today—“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36) Jesus is the redemption promised Israel.

Something more dire in its captivity of humanity that even Roman occupation needed to dealt with by the Messiah in his redeeming work. The Apostle Paul wrote that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scripture.” (1 Corinthians 15:3). According to the teaching of the Apostle Peter in the first letter, “you were ransomed … with the precious blood of Christ like a lamb without defect.” Peter is alluding to Israel’s sacrificial system which made clear that sin cost life.

When God comes himself in the son to give his life for us you know that something very serious is a stake. Sin biblically understood has two aspects. Sin is a responsible guilt for which atonement must be made. Sin is also an alien power along with death that must be driven from the field. Christ Jesus is both ransom for us and victor over sin and death. In Jesus Christ is the rectification of all things.

On this Emmaus road Jesus shows these disciples the real battle that God is undertaking for our sakes. Behind the ideologies of this world in its own self-understanding another story is being written by God in the Son for our sakes. Every reversal or debilitation or lost relationship or sidelining is never the final story about us. Jesus will not leave us on this road away from his glory—from his self-giving at Jerusalem for our sake and the victory he has won for us there. All things are rectified in him. These losses in life are made right in him even as the risen Christ now stands before them whole, having suffered crucifixion.

5. One final note. Jesus makes himself known and in the wake of his self-disclosure they are on the Emmaus road again—only this time going back to Jerusalem with as purpose of telling of Jesus.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem …Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he (Jesus) had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.