By all accounts, Jesus of Nazareth was a pretty good preacher and storyteller, someone who knew well both the essence of Jewish scripture and the heart and mind of his parent God. Which is why I find it very humbling, as someone charged with teaching and preaching our scriptures, to point out that, according to today’s story about Jesus and his grief-stricken followers on the road to Emmaus, the Risen Christ was not made known to them in preaching and teaching.
Did you notice that?
Apparently, it was only when Jesus sat down at the table with the grief-stricken Cleopas and his companion, and then when he took the bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them that they realized who he was.
The Risen Christ was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
In Luke’s gospel, this happens on Easter Sunday, after the women had discovered Jesus’ tomb to be empty and the male disciples refused to believe them, and after Peter had gone to the tomb to see for himself. It was on this day of resurrection, but before anyone had seen the Risen Christ, that two followers of Jesus, Cleopas and his unnamed companion, were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Maybe they had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, but over the course of a few days everything they hoped for had been lost, and so they began the journey home.
Now, maybe teaching and preaching the scriptures isn’t entirely worthless. After the fact, Cleopas and his friend realized that their hearts had been burning within them—which is to say that their hearts knew something their minds could not even begin to fathom—as Jesus walked with them and explained to them God’s dream for the world.
Their hearts had been on fire with life and hope but their minds could not connect the dots between the great loss they had just experienced and the person walking beside them.
And there lies the rub, right?
Our hearts want to believe, but the mystery that is God—the God who is Love, the divine Love that, through breaking open and giving out, overcomes death—makes no earthly sense to our human minds.
And so it is that on this third Sunday of the Easter season, some of us have yet to recognize the Risen Christ in our midst. On this seventh Sunday of being unable to gather together in person for worship, some of us are having trouble seeing and feeling church and community. And on this whatever day it is of life under pandemic lockdown, between our own isolation, disorientation, inertia, resignation, the death of life as we knew it and the reports of more Covid-19 deaths than we can imagine, some of us are left wondering where God is, where life is, where hope is.
Which, it seems to me, makes us not that much different from Cleopas and his friend. Which makes me think we might have something to learn from their experience—something about life, something about hope, something about God and life with God.
But this something is not information we can study or a subject someone can teach us; it is a way of living that opens our hearts and our lives to God’s grace. It’s about choosing to put ourselves in the path of the Light. It’s about going beyond our comfort zones to welcome in what we may not understand. It is a way of seeing that opens our hearts and our eyes to recognize God’s presence with us. It’s about being willing, after our hearts have been broken open, to go for broke.
And all of this is so very different from how so many of us think about God and church and the spiritual life. It is less about becoming a good person than about letting Love change our lives. It is less about believing certain things than about opening ourselves to the possibility that there is a Goodness and Wholeness greater than all the evil that ever has been, all the injustice that is, and all the uncertainty about the future that would tempt us to despair. It is about trusting that Love is real and alive and at work in our lives and in our world. It is about opening ourselves to, and joining forces with, that Love.
If you think about it, this is the framework not only for the entire church year but for the basis of our spiritual lives: Advent is about preparing the way for God’s Love to break into the world and into our lives in a new way. Lent is about getting rid of the things that come between us and the transformative Love of God, which is likely to involve dying to some ways of thinking and being. Easter Sunday is about celebrating not only the Risen Christ but also the new life that arises from the death of all that separates us from God. Eastertide is about recognizing and welcoming, embracing and nurturing this new life, which may end up looking different than what we had expected.
The cycle of the church year is the cycle of life: birth, death, and re-birth. And the journey of Cleopas and his companion with Jesus is our journey into life with God.
First, there is the breaking open. Then comes the vulnerability of sharing our pain and our need. Then there is the hearing of the Word. And then, when we’re feeling lost and confused and intrigued and maybe just a little bit hopeful, the key moment arrives:
When we arrive back at what feels safe and familiar, will we separate ourselves from the Great Mystery, the Wondrous Love, the Hint of Deep Meaning that has touched something deep inside us? Will we part ways and go back to our old lives?
Or will we say, as Cleopas and his companion did to Jesus, “Please stay.” Will we welcome the Holy to come in for supper? Will we invite Love to be our guest? Will we implore the Great Mystery to make a home in our hearts?
It is on Cleopas’ and his friend’s hospitality, their attentiveness to their hearts and their invitation to Jesus to stay with them, that the entire story turns. And so it is with our spiritual journeys and our life with God:
We need not be good or sure; we need not be free from sin or free of doubt. We need only to be wide-open and willing, present and welcoming, ready to make room in our days for prayer, room at our tables for an unexpected guest, room in our hearts for Love.
Then, we too will know the Risen Christ in the breaking of the bread. We will know him in the dedication of health care workers. We will know him in the dependability of each day’s sunrise. We will know him in the making of face masks. We will know him in pink cherry blossoms and yellowing goldfinches. We will know him in the giving of plasma. We will know him in clean air. We will know him in the the dedication of grocery store workers and the delivery of care packages. We will know him in the development of new ways to care for our neighbors. We will know him on YouTube and Zoom and Facebook, in the sanctuary and in the chapel, and in our own homes at our own communion tables. We will will know him in blessing and giving and sharing. We will know God’s Heart when we grieve the daily Covid-19 death counts. We will know Life Together in the staying home and the staying apart and the keeping each other safe.
And when we allow ourselves to know the Risen Christ, when we allow the Holy to know us, life will never be the same.
Thanks be to God.