13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
They stood still, looking sad. 18Then 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?”
19He 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,20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But 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. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and 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. 24Some 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.”
25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
So he went in to stay with them. 30When 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; and he vanished from their sight. 32They 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?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (NRSV)
The more I wrestle and dance with varieties of biblical texts, the more deeply I hear a single voice speaking at the heart of them all. Just as the language of the Trinity affirms the presence of one God, the languages of birth, rebirth, and resurrection affirm the same whirling mystery and animating love called grace.
The image of new birth suggests an entry (occasionally a painful one) into uncharted territory. The birth of Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, reveals that creatures are born with an innate union with the Creator. We can deny or mask our oneness with God, but we cannot destroy it. That truth can—and perhaps should—directly affect “Christmas shopping.” Gifts that reflect God’s incarnate gift reveal in both giver and receiver the holy and eternally beloved person God sees. True Christmas gifts delight us and open us up to capacities to give, receive, and create we didn’t conceive on our own.
Perhaps the gift of a journal delivers a shy and withdrawn teenager into an exciting new world of self-understanding, creative expression, and unfettered adventure. Maybe a musical instrument reminds an older person of the well-spring that never runs dry, because creativity comes from what is holy and eternal within us.
A similar thing happens with the gift of re-birth. And to me, re-birth is synonymous with forgiveness. To forgive and to be forgiven is to shed a burden that diminishes our lives, a burden that suffocates us under either the pain of regret or the self-consuming fires of vengeance. The first breath of freedom from remorse or revenge begins a brand-new existence.
Now, it is easier to forgive when others admit their offense. The scandal of the gospel, though, is that the preemptive forgiveness of God in Christ doesn’t require repentance. And while such grace is entirely loving to the one forgiven, it’s also entirely liberating to the one who forgives. Preemptive forgiveness says, Regardless of anything you do or don’t do, I will not allow anything to encumber my joy. So that I may live fully, I release both of us from the mire. The peace of Christ be with you.
Having said that, repentance does deepen our experience of grace, because to ask for and to receive forgiveness is to humble ourselves. It’s to acknowledge our willful and hurtful selfishness and our elemental need as human beings to be in loving relationship, even with those whom we might not like all that much.
Forgiving and being forgiven both involve the same painful death—the death of pride. Proud hearts can neither let go of grudges nor admit error. Proud hearts beat with a living death. Nonetheless, I trust that the God of grace always sees those hearts not as lost causes, but as places of potential re-birth. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” says Isaiah, “the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly.” (Isaiah 35:1-2a)
Resurrection ups the ante on birth and rebirth. Resurrection completely rearranges our human being. It restores our inborn union with God and releases us into the unbounded mercy and love of Jesus.
There’s a catch with resurrection. We discover its empowering gift not inside an empty tomb, but on the road to Emmaus, and to reach that highway we climb the steep and rocky path of Friday. On Friday we die to those things that hide the image of God within us.
As Cleopas and his companion travel the road toward Emmaus, their destination is simply geographical. They have yet to pass through their own transforming Friday. Enter: The resurrected Jesus, who shows up as a random stranger.
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” says Cleopas.
Bless your heart, says Jesus. You sure are slow to die to that which blinds you to truth.
Now, let’s cut Cleopas some slack. It’s no small thing to die to the expectation that God’s plan includes violent conquest of Israel’s enemies. Indeed, just two verses after speaking of the desert blooming, Isaiah says that God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’” (Isaiah 35:4) Cleopas represents everyone who expects shock-and-awe from God. And it’s no small thing to die to that hope and to follow one who (to the chagrin of rulers and realms) teaches non-violence on top of humility, forgiveness, and compassion for all.
As the three men walk, Jesus reinterprets the story of God’s involvement in, with, and for the Creation. In doing so, he gives these disciples—who still don’t recognize him—another run at Friday, another chance to die to all that their well-intentioned doctrines, and all that their years of frustration and suffering have led them to believe about God’s activity in the world.
Then, Jesus breaks bread with them, and their eyes are opened. They recognize him.
When Emmaus itself is our destination, geography defines our journey. And maybe it begins that way, but Cleopas and his companion don’t stay in Emmaus. After their burning-heart experience, and after the revelation of the elusive, here-and-there risen Christ, they hurry back to Jerusalem, giddy with wonder and excitement. The road they travel is The Road to Emmaus and Back, a seven-mile hike that ends at dusk, only to turn them around and send them stumbling those same seven miles the other way, through the glorious dark.
As a Friday-to-Sunday experience, the Emmaus journey is the perennial passage of death and resurrection. The alien newness that begins in Emmaus returns us to the every-day world to share the news of resurrection by sharing our own transformed selves.
During these days of stay-at-home orders, it’s harder to experience bread-breaking, eye-opening community. That’s why our mission as the Church doesn’t take a hiatus. It’s merely re-focused by our changed context. Our constant calling is to open ourselves to God’s presence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that we might follow Jesus wherever he leads. Today that means feeding the hungry all the more generously. It means taking the initiative to call people who live alone and to remind them that they’re loved and valued. It means taking all necessary precautions to protect ourselves and others from the virus.
It also means recognizing that people we know and love may yet fall ill, perhaps beyond recovery, and nonetheless, in that frightening knowledge, holding fast to faith, hope, and love.
Richard Rohr writes, “I believe that the Christian faith is saying that the pattern of transformation is always death transformed, not death avoided. The universal spiritual pattern is death and resurrection…That is always a disappointment to humans, because we want…transformation without cost or surrender.”1
Emmaus, the place of death transformed, can be anywhere. In Emmaus we share stories and meals, and in the sharing, we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the presence of God in one another. In that sharing, God strips us of our comfortable but selfish assumptions, then turns us, and sends us back out to do what we could not do before—live according the radical grace of Christ into which we were born and by which we are being re-born.
This grace is itself the province of Resurrection.
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
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