A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 10, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 24:13-35
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            A passenger in a taxi leaned over to ask the driver a question and tapped him on the shoulder.  The driver screamed, lost control of the cab, nearly hit a bus, drove up over the curb, and stopped just inches from a large plate glass window.  For a few moments, everything was silent in the cab, and then the still sharking driver said, “I’m sorry, but that scared the daylights out of me.”
The frightened passenger apologized to the driver and said he didn’t realize a mere tap on the shoulder could frighten him so much.
“No, no, I’m sorry,” said the driver. “It’s entirely my fault.  Today is my first day driving a cab.  For the last 25 years, I’ve been driving a hearse.”[i]
Hopefully, you’ll see why I told this joke by the end of the sermon.

As I did with the first sermon in this series, I want to walk through today’s second scripture lesson with you.  There’s an insert of the scripture reading in your bulletins, if you want to read along with me.  But before I get into that reading, I want to take a moment to talk about the difference between truth and fact.  The story we’re about to read is true, but it’s not factual.  Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan says that the symbolism in the story we’re going to read, the Emmaus Road story, “is obvious and is the metaphoric condensation of the first years of Christian thought and practice into one parabolic afternoon.  Emmaus never happened.  Emmaus always happens.”[ii]

As we go through the story, you may hear me say things that might make it seem as if the story is factual.  It’s not factual; it never happened.  But it is true, because – and I hope you’ll agree with me by the end of the sermon, if you don’t already – Emmaus always happens.

We’re in chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel, the last chapter of this gospel, so we know we’re at the end of the story.  We’ve heard about Jesus’ birth, his baptism, his ministry, the final week of his life, his arrest and crucifixion and burial.  Luke 24 begins with a story about women who had followed Jesus since Galilee going to the tomb and being met by two angels who tell them that Jesus isn’t there.  They go back into the city and tell the “eleven and all the rest” about their experience.  A few of the disciples go to check it out, but all they find is an empty tomb.  Then we cut to today’s reading.

13 Now on that same day two of them [meaning two of “all the rest”] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,

One of the things that makes Crossan and me say that Emmaus never “factually” happened is that archeologist have not been able to identify a village about 7 miles from Jerusalem that was called “Emmaus.”  A couple places have been identified as possibilities, but nothing definitively.  So, if “Emmaus” never existed, the metaphoric nature of this story is heightened – and “Emmaus” can even become a stand in name for any place we escape to when the news is bad.

The seven miles the story says they walked – that’s a good 2 to 3 hour journey, maybe longer depending on how quickly they walked.  So we’re talking half a day.

14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

Were they talking about the crucifixion and burial or were they also talking about the tale the women told?  Were they convincing themselves as they walked and talked that what the women had said was “an idle tale”?

15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,

How do you experience Jesus “coming near”” as you talk about personal things? emotional things? spiritual things?

When I’m upset, it’s sometimes hard for me to be aware of Jesus’/God’s presence.  I’m so wrapped up in my emotional experience.  But I know that God can come near in sharing, in the vulnerability of sharing personal, emotional, and spiritual things.  My call to ordained ministry – one of the most intimate moments I’ve ever had with God – came in the midst of having an emotional/spiritual discussion with a friend.  And I felt Jesus coming near through the support of friends in the days following my mother’s death.  It doesn’t surprise me that Jesus came near as they discussed “these things.”

16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

I believe that God is as close as our next breath, but I’m not always aware of it.  I’ve done a little reflecting on what keeps me from recognizing Jesus’/God’s presence.  I think the biggest challenge I face is when I’m full of myself – when my ego gets in the way – or when I’m afraid – when fear or anxiety gets in the way.

I’m not sure what Luke’s intention is here.  Maybe Luke just wants to set up a big reveal later in the story.  Or maybe Luke is affirming the reality that it is easy to be unaware of the presence of God from moment to moment.  Whatever, the line does invite us to consider what keeps us from recognizing Jesus in our lives.

17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

They stood still, looking sad.  18 Then 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?”

We learn the name of one of them, but not the other.  What does that mean?  It could be that the other was a woman (perhaps Cleopas’ wife?) and therefore nameless; that would be the social norm.  Or perhaps Luke is leaving this second disciple nameless so it is easier for us to enter the story; each one of us can be that second, nameless disciple.

I find it interesting that Jesus gets called “a stranger.”  There’s probably a sermon in that one word.  But this is a perfect word for this story, because this story is all about when we don’t recognize Jesus and when we do.

But it’s not just “stranger” that Jesus gets called.  He is also called a “stranger in Jerusalem.”  Jesus is a stranger in Jerusalem.  What an interesting turn of phrase.  But we know the story that led up to his crucifixion.  He is out of place in the centers of political and economic power.  He is a stranger in Jerusalem and other centers of power.

There were a lot of things that happened in Jerusalem in those days.  Jesus’ crucifixion and burial were not the only things that happened.  But to disciples, they would have been the only things that happened in those days.

Isn’t that true for us, too?  When something emotionally impactful happens, it’s as if it is the only thing that’s been going on.

19 He 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,

How would you describe Jesus to someone who is unfamiliar with Christianity?  Or to someone who is familiar with Christianity, but perhaps assumes all Christians are the same and fall into one type of thought?  The way Luke tells the story, Cleopas describes Jesus as a “prophet,” putting him in the tradition of Moses and Samuel and Jeremiah and Isaiah.  The way this story is going to unfold, we may be challenged to think of Jesus as something more than a prophet.

20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  21 But 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. 

The hope that Jesus would “redeem Israel” harkens back to Moses redeeming Israel (or God redeeming Israel through the work of Moses) and giving Israel freedom.  The Hebrew peasants and probably most of the disciples were expecting Jesus to give Israel freedom again, this time from the oppression of Rome.  But it looked like Rome won.  They killed Jesus in a most brutal way.

22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us.  They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and 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. 

The body is missing.  That was confirmed when disciples went to the tomb and found it empty.  The women said that angels appeared to them; at least, that’s their claim.  And the angels claim that Jesus is alive.

No one’s seen the resurrected Jesus yet in this gospel (remember, these two disciples don’t know that they’re experiencing the resurrected Jesus).  All that they have is the claim that it’s true.

I claim that Jesus is alive.  I can’t prove it; I can’t say “look here and see.”  But I’ve had experiences of Jesus that make me know that Jesus is alive.

24 Some 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.”

25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!

I want to tell Jesus to cut them a little slack.  Taking a leap of faith is not an easy thing to do.  And when you compare what they saw verse what they were told, I completely understand why they were slow of heart to believe.

26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 

Was it necessary?  There is, no doubt, at least another sermon (if not a series) in this question.  For today, let me simply says that if I were writing the gospel, I think I would have phrased this verse a little differently:  Was it not inevitable that the Messiah would suffer …

27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

This suggests that the early church looked to the Hebrew Scriptures to understand who Jesus was/is.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” 

I love this moment.  “Stay with us,” they say.  It’s evangelizing Jesus.  Invitation and hospitality are evangelism.  Any time you invite someone into the wonder of God’s love – whether that’s by inviting them to church or by inviting them to meal at your home – you are sharing the good news of Jesus.  You are saying, “Come be part of the good news.”  Right here, in this moment, these disciples are evangelizing Jesus.

The comment about it being almost evening come across as an excuse, but it also means that the sun is going down.  It’s getting dark.  In other words, it’s not safe to be out and about.  So these two disciples ask this stranger to stay with them for safety’s sake.

So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 

These words, these four verbs – took, blessed, broke, gave – tell us that this is communion.  More on this next week.

31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him;

This is the key moment in this scripture – at least for today’s sermon.  They’ve been on the road, talking with Jesus without realizing it’s him.  They’ve had his life and ministry and even his death explained to them.  And they still don’t recognize that it’s Jesus.

But here at the table, here as Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to them, their eyes are opened and they recognize him.  Here at the communion table, they recognize the presence of Christ.

It reminds me of the old joke about the Unitarian who came to a fork in the road and didn’t know which way to go, because one sign said, “This way to a lecture about God,” and the other sign said, “This way to God.”

Sometimes talking about God or talking about Jesus brings us a little closer to the Divine.  But there’s a real difference between thought and experience.  Here in this moment, at the table, they have an experience that brings them into an awareness that they are in the presence of Christ.

I’ve had experiences at the table when my awareness of the presence of the Divine was deepened and heightened.  I went to seminary straight out of college and when I got there I realized something very quickly:  this is graduate school.  In a matter of weeks I became convinced that God had made a terrible mistake and that there was no way I was going to make it through this Master’s program.  Then, in early October, the Franciscan seminary down the street was holding a big festival mass to celebrate St. Francis’ feast day.  I went to the service.  I don’t remember a thing about the sermon.  But as I came forward for communion, I had an experience of the Divine being present and reassuring me that it was going to be okay.  It turned out that seminary was hard – and that it was okay.

In my last sermon, I talked about the importance of discerning the body on Christ in the community when we gather at the communion table.  Today, the invitation is to discern the presence of the living Christ in our midst, of opening our eyes to the presence of Jesus, when we gather at the communion table.  Today, the invitation is to open ourselves to the real possibility that when we take, bless, break, and give the bread, that our eyes may be opened to something that is real in a way we’re not used to describing as “real.”

and he vanished from their sight.

And that’s how it is with these things that are real that we’re not used to describing as “real.”  Sometimes, when we’re lucky, we can dwell within that realness, at least for a while.  But so often, when we become aware of our awareness, that moment ends.

There is a tension in the presence and absence of Jesus.  When I become aware of my awareness, I usually cease to be aware of his presence.  But I suppose that isn’t all that surprising.  When I become aware of my own awareness, the moment ceases to be about Jesus and it becomes about me (and my awareness).  Ego can be such a block to my awareness of the presence of Christ.

32 They 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?”

In retrospect, they become aware of how they knew, even though they didn’t know they knew.  It’s in retrospect that I am often able to identify when Jesus has been present in my life.  Sometimes this is easier than in the moment itself, it is easier to have our eyes open looking backward to what happened.

I think about some major decisions I made in my life.  Sometimes I’ve been aware that God was working in me in those moments – like choosing to come to Fremont to serve this church.  But often, perhaps more often, it’s in retrospect that I recognize how God was working – like when I picked what college or what seminary to go to.

33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem;

We might well ask, “What were they doing, running through the night?”  This is dangerous.  But then, when we allow our experiences of God to move us, they will move us to action and to take risks.

and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They [the eleven and their companions] were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

35 Then they (Cleopas and the unnamed disciple) told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Interestingly, Luke doesn’t tell us about Jesus’ appearance to Simon Peter.  The first appearance we hear about in Luke’s gospel is one that happens to previously unknown disciples:  Cleopas and the unnamed disciple.  More important than the risen Christ appearing to Simon Peter is Christ appearing to you and me, and one way this happens is when our eyes are opened in the breaking of the bread.

Thanks be to God.  Amen!

[i] Karen Hilfman Millson, “Emmaus Never Happened; Emmaus Always Happens,” St. Paul’s United Church, http://www.stpaulsunitedchurch.org/cimages/2008%2004%2006%20Emmaus%20Never%20Happened.pdf?PHPSESSID=1vevevgmf4580iiaqhso99o3q0 (5 March 2013).

[ii] John Dominic Crossan, Overture, http://www.johndominiccrossan.com/The%20Historical%20Jesus.htm (5 March 2013).