Sunday, May 4, 2014

Emmaus Imagination

We're in this worship space celebrating the third Sunday of Easter. We're still here talking about the resurrection that happened, for us, last month. Some churches invite special guests musicians, or add an extra sunrise service, or do things in a generally "bigger" way than we worship from week to week. A lot of folks wear a special Easter dress, or a different suit. Did Don wear his pink bow tie again this year, or was that a one time thing?

In all the Pomp, we may be losing perspective on just how strange these events were to those who lived them. A handful of folks had been raised from the dead, but nobody had ever seen anything like a resurrection before, so the word was a little slow getting out.

Our morning worship, therefore, begins on the afternoon of Christ's resurrection. Verse thirteen: "On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem." 

One of the things that struck me in reading this question is why these disciples, who have heard the report of the resurrection, are already heading out. Our churches have been celebrating for two weeks, and have several more to go, and these two guys are skipping town. If we back up just a couple of verses into Luke's account of the resurrection, the women are telling the rest of the disciples about the empty tomb. But "Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn't believe the women."

It's possible to hear the good news of the gospel, the promise of the resurrection, and be struck as though it is nonsense. It's possible to witness the collapse of a ministry and not believe that something can be built from the rubble. It's possible to find yourself ready to leave Jerusalem on Easter Sunday because the Golgotha imagination can only see the end of a ministry, the death of one we had hoped would redeem Israel.

All of our journeys are going to have stretches when the good news of Christ's resurrection sounds like nonsense. That's part of our reality as Christians. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been chosen for an arduous journey, and as a church we choose to travel that path together, as faithfully as possible. There are obstacles on our path that challenge our ability to imagine what may be on the other side.

The ancient Israelites journeyed to the promised land and grumbled against Moses all along the way because they were only able to imagine life as slaves in Egypt, or the hardship of the wilderness wanderings. The people of Judah were carried into exile in the land of Babylon and mourned the total collapse of their society, they were only able to imagine that God had failed them and the idols of Babylon had defeated their Lord. The chief priests and leaders in first century Palestine killed a man who was the Christ because they were only able to imagine the weight of the Roman empire crushing their people if a rebellion sparked. These two disciples left Jerusalem and headed for a little town called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, because they could not imagine that God would resurrect their crucified redeemer.

But just as God sent a lawgiver who could imagine a land flowing with milk and honey. Just as God called prophets who could imagine a God that was with the people even in exile, working to bring them back home at the right time. So God sent a Messiah who could imagine redemption and resurrection for all God's people.

And those two disciples on the road from Jerusalem? "While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey."

I think what happens next is one of the truest parts of the gospel narrative. Although it only appears in Luke, there's so much power in it to expand our imaginations and shift our lives. Even before they believe, or even know, what God is doing in their midst, they proclaim the gospel. They can only imagine Calvary's suffering, and the news some women from their group brought them seems like nonsense to them. But when a stranger whom they do not recognize asks them what's happening, they tell the story even if, at that moment, they cannot believe it.

God's action is not limited by our ability, or our imagination. God's ability to use us for ministry is not bound by our belief. God interrupts us on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, "What are you talking about as you walk along?" and then takes over so that the gospel may be preached even in our unbelief. The good news of Jesus Christ is so powerful that it is proclaimed even through our weak faith and limited imagination.

So they tell Jesus his own story, not imagining that they are telling the most important truths of human history. ""The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago.

"But there's more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn't find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn't see him."

The resurrected Christ responds to the testimony of their Golgotha imagination by breaking down all of scripture, giving them the truth of the arc of human history. His response is not without judgement. ""You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn't it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Essentially: "You should have known!"

We should have known that God would not be stopped by something as limited as death. All death can do is carry us to our graves, but God is capable of anything. I was at a wedding yesterday, and the minister read the scripture that says "Love is strong as death.
" He then pointed out that the resurrection demonstrates that love is stronger than death. Jesus gives the disciples, and us, just a taste of judgement for not having the imagination to recognize how God was at work, for not having the faith to believe that the cross would not stop God's redemptive love.

But Christ's word of judgement, "You foolish people," is ultimately a word of  love. "You should have known better, but since you didn't, here's what's going on." He's not willing to leave behind these disciples who are trying to get out of Jerusalem because all they can imagine is faith that has died. "Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets."

But the disciples were still prevented from recognizing him.

When they were unknowingly preaching his death and resurrection, they did not recognize him. When Christ was lecturing them on the theology of the Old Testament, they did not recognize him. When they were walking along the road to their homes, they did not recognize him. When they invited him into their home, they still did not know who is was who was in their midst. "After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him,"

It is at the breaking of the bread, the enactment of the Lord's Supper, that we encounter the risen Christ. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that elevates us to dine with Christ at the Lord's Table, and that encounter gives us an Emmaus Imagination, where we can catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God already in our midst. Our eyes had been clouded with the heartbreak, heartbreak that the one we hoped would redeem Israel was handed over to be crucified. Now, however, we have seen the Lord and know the truth of those words that had once seemed to be nonsense.

Christ is certainly present with them throughout this whole story, and I have every confidence that Christ is present with us throughout our stories as well, whether we are able to believe it or not. Christ's presence among us is very real, although it is not in a physical way. Since we cannot experience Christ through our senses, it is left to our Emmaus Imagination to open our eyes so that we can recognize someone who's presence is more real than any sight or touch or smell.

Perhaps the strangest, most complicated, mysterious branch of theology is how we understand the sacraments. Most people just say they don't know how it happens, only that it does. Sharing in the Lord's Supper is one of the central acts of the worshipping life of the church, because it's how we recognize Christ in our midst. One commentator remarked on this Emmaus story saying, "There is no doubt that Luke is serving not only the story of Jesus but also that of the church which knows him in these ways.

Once Christ breaks the bread and the disciples' eyes were opened, and they recognized him, he disappears. The two disciples, who had left Jerusalem because they could not imagine the nonsense of the women from their group being truth, leave after it's already dark and walk, perhaps even run, seven miles back from Emmaus to tell their friends and colleagues, their brothers and sisters in Christ, what they have seen.
So even though the word of Christ's resurrection has gotten out slowly, spreading through the testimony of those who have gone from inability to believe to absolute faith in the resurrected Christ, the story is still told, and we still encounter Christ. We share in the first-hand experience of the resurrected Christ with these disciples who have returned filled with Emmaus Imagination.

The nonsense of the women at the tomb has become these disciples testimony too, and in turn has become ours. We have seen the LORD, the Messiah of the resurrection, whenever we gather around the bread and the cup, which awaken us to the real presence of Christ in our midst.

Alleluia, Amen.


  1. "Even before they believe, or even know, what God is doing in their midst, they proclaim the gospel."
    This tells me again that it's not what we do but what God does through us. One of the most striking things to me is the concept that God makes us in God's image, and since God is at work in the world, we are as well. God wants us to be in partnership to work through amazing a concept is that? God must be crazy to want to use me! But that's the way it is.

    1. Thanks for the comment Elsie! I agree, the fact that our God wants to be in relationship with us is a huge expression of love. We certainly cannot earn that love, but since it is freely given, I think we should proclaim that good news as often as possible!