Luke 24:13-35

 

A group of scholars were asked to identify the most fundamental need in the life of the church. Ellen Davis, one of the biblical scholars says of this meeting, “We agreed on the most fundamental need, namely, to learn again to read and teach the Bible confessionally within mainstream Christianity.”[1] Yes. I believe the church has to come home again and acknowledge that the Bible is the functional center of its life and that we are to orient our lives to the demands and promises of the Scriptures.

Back in the 16th century huge Bibles were chained up in English churches. Today we need to chain the church to the Bible. You may find this a bit confusing because most Baptists will insist that we are a people of the Book. I am challenging this deeply held belief. We may not be as biblical as we think.

I want to amplify my claim with the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. I believe they are a couple – Cleophas and Mary. Luke shows us the church in worship. We get biblical teaching/preaching, the Lord’s Supper, and creed mixed with disappointed believers on the road to Emmaus. Thank God, it includes disciples who are disappointed in the church. I have always felt at home in a place that makes room for doubt that is honest, emotional, gut-wrenching, and searching. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was acutely aware of the painful distance we can feel from God, crying out: “Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.” Thirst and hunger in church, worship and disappointment together in the pew, now that’s reality. 

 

The pair trudge along looking nowhere in particular, just going home. They left church too early. They feel let down, disappointed, even angry. There had been a movement, a revolution, and then their Messiah dead on a cross. Religious people often struggle with anger and frustration when they are politically displaced like this pair. They feel left out of everyone else’s success.

 

See them walking away from the resurrection. We understand because that is happening in our churches. The church has been distracted from the resurrection by some New Testament scholars and other scholarly critics. Bultmann – resurrection not a historical event; Robert Funk and Marcus Borg – resurrection all metaphorical. Spong – impossible to believe. All the Process Theologians – Cobb and Hick. One such book, The Tomb of God, says that the bones of Jesus now lie in a sealed tomb in southwestern France. I prefer John Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter – Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as His body. Let us not mock God with metaphor, / analogy, sidestepping, transcendence; / making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door.

 

And there’s this from the New Testament: Dead Jesus is alive. “The resurrection purges the death-bound illusions that previously held us captive and sets us free to perceive the real world of God’s life-giving resurrection power” (Richard B. Hayes). God, in Jesus, negates death’s power over the body. He is the first fruits from the dead, the precursor to our own resurrection. Our bodies become the vehicles and theaters of God’s transforming power. God raised Jesus from the dead; therefore, “flesh is precious.”

 

Resurrection is an event we can’t possibly understand within the confines of our rational world. We are not in control. Notice that the risen Jesus is present where and when he chooses. We depend on a God who insists on being known on his terms, not ours.

 

Many Christians shy away from the resurrection because it makes us sound odd. And God knows we will do anything to not appear odd. I maintain an unverified theory that the people who named the town of Normal were people determined not to be thought of as odd. Besides, if you make remarks about the resurrection you will soon stop being invited to all the best cocktail parties in Peoria. Of course, since Cat is moving top executives to Chicago, maybe there just haven’t been enough good cocktail parties to attend, huh?

 

These two disciples had lost everything. Hope is dead, lost, finished, forever over.

Hope had grown grey hairs,

Hope had mourning on,

Trenched with tears, carved with cares,

        

Hope was twelve hours gone. (Hopkins)

 

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus faced the ultimate impasse – a dead Messiah – as well as e closure of all future hope and expectation. Here death is a dead end.

Some of us are on that road this morning. The Emmaus Road is where we stop connecting the dots, no longer work at improving our spiritual practices, and put our faith on hold. The Emmaus Road (Our culture) is populated with demons of the spirit where we are smothered by complacency or murdered by despair. People refuse the truth of resurrection out here and prefer the old crippling identities, the old quarrels and silly resistances, and the old patterns of war, hate, and greed (Walter Brueggemann).

 

Why? The Emmaus Road leads away from church/resurrection. The first movement of this story is a movement away and it involves closure.

 

Is there any good news for all these disciples walking away from our churches? Of all things, Jesus appears and starts walking alongside the two disciples. It’s like the couple didn’t stay for Bible study, so Jesus brought the Bible study to them.

The good news is in our Scripture and the Sacrament. Sounds so old-fashioned, yet I am stubborn about this.

 

Jesus opened the Scripture to teach his disappointed disciples. How different this is from all the preachers, insisting on narrow readings of little bitty portions of what is the biggest story in the world.  

 

Here’s just one example. One writer, bent out of shape because Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t agree on how many times the rooster crows when Peter denies Jesus, ends a tortured explanation by concluding that the rooster crowed seven times. By the way, this conclusion disagrees with all the gospels. Matthew, Luke, and John say the rooster crowed after Peter denied Jesus. Mark says the rooster crowed twice. It just doesn’t matter how many times the rooster crowed. The big story matters; the itty bitty details not so much.

Abraham Lincoln discussing General McClellan, said the general was like this rooster that would strut back and forth on the fence and crow loud and long, but when thrown into the ring, the rooster dropped his tail and ran. It turns out that this rooster was, as President Lincoln put it, “great on dress parade but not worth a damn in a real fight.”

There are too many strutting roosters crowing about the Bible instead of engaging it. If we start believing that our salvation depends on how many times the rooster crowed we are up to our elbows in alligators.

Of all things, Jesus doesn’t chide them for not believing the resurrection but for not understanding the Scripture. Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” Luke informs us that the testimony to Jesus is found “in all the scriptures.” Resurrection belief depends upon a right reading of Scripture and the Sacrament.[2] 

 

Luke believes that Jesus cannot be understood apart from Scripture. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” The Emmaus disciples knew the story but not the storyteller. You can know Scripture and not know Jesus. You can preach like a preacher and not know Jesus. You can sing like an angel and not know Jesus. (“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”). Frederick Buechner says that if God appeared in the sky and like a sky writer scribbled the message, “I am God,” people would be interested for a moment and then as the message drifted away, they would put their heads down and return to their everyday lives. Resurrection is not an instant experience, designed to prove once and for all that Jesus is alive. It is not a one shot emotional experience because that fizzles not long after it sizzles. Resurrection is an experience of walking in faith over the long haul with the church in company with Scripture and Sacrament. In the Bible we get Jesus walking slowly, steadily with his disciples, opening the Word to them, and gradually opening their eyes, hearts, and minds.

 

The Word was not enough to open the eyes of the disciples, not even when the Word was taught by the Word of Life. There is a word in the text that reveals what is possible: It is the word OPEN.[3] “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”[4] What the world blocks, Jesus opens. What the world closes, Jesus opens.

 

Here sacrament aligns equally with sermon. It has cumulative impact. This is how Jesus “easters” in us. Easter as a verb comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins:  “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.” The slow, daily teaching of Jesus from Scripture absorbed into our minds, hearts, practices and we become a people of the resurrection.

 

His mystery must be instressed, stressed;

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

 

Hopkins forged a body politics that made clear the incarnational nature of our faith. He uses the word “instress” to mean the “inner tension by which a thing maintains its proper form – its particular “thisness.” What Hopkins means is that we are in relation with God in very particular, concrete, human ways and we discern that this is what God has chosen for us, and we ratify it, and choose it in our turn. It is communion with God.

 

Jesus breaks the impasse for the disciples as surely as his resurrection broke open the gates of hell and defeated death for all time and he continues to do so through the daily practices and rituals of the church – Scripture and Sacrament. How ordinary of him. How odd and ordinary and yet how normal and extraordinary. Jesus helps the disciples to rejoin the community of resurrection, gives them the freedom to once again embrace body practices thirsting for the unimaginable: Cross and resurrection. The church can never let go of these crucial practices of Word and Table. Our belief in resurrection will suffer as our attention to Scripture and sacrament diminishes. The less we partake of the sacrament the less we will be conscious of the presence of Jesus in our lives. I know Jesus is alive because he feeds me word, bread, and wine.   

 

Here the good news: In the breaking of bread, sorrow turns to praise. Disappointment turns to shouts of victory. The two disciples return to Jerusalem. They go back to church. Resurrection is a turning around and going in a different direction. Resurrection occurs in the context of a shared life in community, in the practice of opening the Scripture together and breaking bread together. This kind of confessional reading and practicing will lead to repentance – a turning back.

This is how Jesus “Easters” in us! Thanks be to God! 

 

[1] Davis and Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture.

[2] Richard B. Hays, “Reading Scripture in Light of the Resurrection,” The Art of Reading Scripture.

[3] “For those who participate in the practices of sharing modeled by Jesus, an ‘opening’ occurs. It is not by accident that Luke uses this word twice in quick succession. When Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them, their eyes were opened to recognize him, and as they later recall his teaching, they say, ‘Weren’t our hearts burning within us as he was speaking to us on the road, as he opened to us the scriptures?’  The disciples’ faculties of perception are opened by God in such a way that they now recognize not only Jesus but also that the Scriptures have been opened by Jesus’ interpretations. The same word appears once more in the following account of Jesus’ teaching of the disciples in Jerusalem: ‘Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures’ (v. 45). Reading in light of the resurrection opens both text and reader to new, previously unimagined, possibilities.” 

[4] “Even Jesus’ peripatetic Bible study does not produce understanding and recognition in the Emmaus disciples. The moment of recognition comes only as they sit at table and Jesus breaks bread with them – an action that recalls Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in Jerusalem. This is significant for understanding the hermeneutics of resurrection. We do not gain a grasp of Scripture’s significance solely through lectures on the text; we come to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus as we participate in the shared life of the community, enacted in meals shared at the table” (Richard B. Hays, “Reading Scripture in the Light of the Resurrection,” The Art of Reading Scripture).