Readings: Isaiah 42:16-20, Luke 24:13-35, Secrets of Heaven #3863:14 (see below)
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We hear today about one of the most beloved and detailed post-resurrection appearances: Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We begin the story with two followers of Jesus who are traveling to Emmaus from Jerusalem, after everything had gone down. We don’t know why they were traveling to Emmaus; it was not an especially notable town. Perhaps they were just going home. Along the way, they encounter someone, and here begins the delicious irony. The reader—us—we know something that these two followers do not yet know. The person is Jesus.
Jesus asks them what they are discussing. (The actual Greek is quite charming: it is literally “what are you tossing back and forth between you?”) The two are incredulous — how can this person not know the biggest news of the last few days? Jesus feigns ignorance. What news? So they give him a summary of the easter story that we ourselves have read over the last several weeks. Jesus is bemused, and begins to explain the significance of the events according to Scripture. Yet, still the two remain in the dark. Finally, when they reach the village, they invite Jesus to dine with them, and it is in the moment of breaking bread that their eyes are opened to his identity.
It is such beautiful story-telling. One of the reasons that I believe this story is so beloved is that resonates so fully with our experience. We have all had disappointed hopes, we have all had our expectations dashed, or felt overwhelmed and confused. And we’ve all had moments of being taken by surprise by the in-breaking of the spirit, a moment gone before we knew it was there.
But one of the main things that makes this story so compelling is the mounting irony: we know that Jesus has been resurrected but the disciples don’t recognize him. So, what keeps them from seeing? Well, the text makes pretty clear that it was their expectations kept them from seeing. They say it themselves: “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
They had their own story that they are telling themselves about what happened. They had their own ideas about what Jesus was, and why he had come. And this kept them from seeing Jesus right in front of them. You see, Jesus was the one who was going redeem Israel. Jesus existed for them within their Messiah construct, and that came with certain ideas about what success looked like, and it sure didn’t look like death on the cross. Now, we shouldn’t be too hard on them, when Jesus was crucified and put in a tomb, that really must have seemed like the end, and we in their place, we all have thought so too. But part of Jesus’ whole message was that, if we want to usher in the reality of the kingdom of God, we cannot always trust our own telling of the story. Part of the point of being crucified was to upend human ideas about what is righteous, so that we might learn to depend on God’s telling of the story more than our own.
We too, like the two followers, have stories that we tell ourselves about the way life is. About what has happened to us. About what other people have done, or not done. About what God’s plans are. About what, or who, is good or not good. Yet, our telling of the story will always be formed and marked by our social location, by our expectations, our community formation, and yes, our personal interest. Now that is not bad thing necessarily, in fact, it is kind of unavoidable. We all have our particular viewpoints, we all have our unique experiences. But it *is* important to remember that our story is not the whole or only story. It is important to recognize the existence of a variety of experience, a variety of interpretation, a variety of stories, which means that there is always more to learn. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron likes to say “let the world speak for itself.” She says, “the world doesn’t speak for itself because we are so caught up in our story line…You just keep speaking to yourself, so nothing speaks to you.” (1)
So it is important remember not to get so caught up in crafting our own narrative, so invested in our own story-lines and expectations, that we can’t see what is unfolding right in front of us. We must let God, and the world, speak for itself.
But it is not quite that simple now is it? Because, certainly, our own self-centeredness and our expectations can absolutely get in the way of seeing how God is showing up for us, but is that the only thing that obscures God’s presence? Yes, the disciples had expectations, sure, and they were having a hard time letting go of them, and of what they wanted Jesus to do for *them.* But also, they were sad. They were suffering. They had had good intentions overall and an oppressive regime had crushed their hopes. They were reeling, they were hurting, they were confused and overwhelmed. Like most human beings, their experience was a complicated mish-mash of things that were their fault and things that weren’t, things that were in their control and things were out of their control. People sometimes suffer under things that are not their fault, and this experience can *also* make it hard to see God, to recognize God’s work in our lives. We shouldn’t heap shame upon ourselves when our circumstances…political, economic, biological…all make it hard to feel positive, open and receptive.
And as usual, the Word of God speaks to our human experience in a both/and kind of way. God shows up for us on the road of life no matter what, a companion to our hardest days and our deepest challenges. When everything feels like it has fallen apart, God is there. The text tells us that when Jesus asked what had happened, the disciples “stood still, looking sad.” The simplicity of this description just kills me. Their sadness literally stopped them in their tracks. Certainly there are times when we can all relate to that. A deep deep sadness. God shows up for us in this sadness, or whatever else we are experiencing, unequivocally, and non-judgmentally.
But God shows up with more than companionship. Even in our suffering, the stories that we are telling ourselves matter. God comes to us where we are and introduces the possibility of seeing things differently. Not judging, just gently asking, “hmm, so what happened again?” And listening to the way that we tell it. And then inviting us into a new way of seeing and understanding, if that is what we need.
God understands that we are both products of our environments *and* that we are capable of rising above our environment. When we quiet our litany of desires and interests and expectations, we open ourselves to the possibility that God is welcoming us into a new story. And this new story isn’t always about what we are doing wrong, although it can be. This new story is also sometimes about grace, or realignment, or rest, or forgiveness, or so many other things.
So, what helped the two of them to see? Well, first, they were curious and hospitable. They told their story and Jesus listened to the whole of it. But they didn’t argue the truth of it with him. When Jesus started to explain things to them, they listened, they were open. And then, they offered for Jesus to continue with them. They made space for what was being offered.
Second, they sat down to an ordinary meal and allowed Jesus to be the host in a situation in what he should have been the guest. And what Jesus did was draw their attention to the bread, to the breaking of bread, which is done for the purpose of nourishment. As we learned in our Swedenborg reading, bread represents goodness, represents love. God’s presence with us is most fundamentally grounded and recognizable in acts of service, is most fundamentally accessible and understandable in love that is given freely to one another. Many times our thinking is caught up in questions of what is right or what is best or what is efficient. But are we told that God is found in goodness, not in truth without goodness. All the explanations in the world don’t matter unless they are organized around the question of “how do we serve?” or “how can we bring goodness and love into being?”
The answer we give to these questions will be individually different. If we are already serving a lot, it might be loving to serve our own health for a while. If we are spending a lot of energy in trying to figure out how to serve in the best possible way, it might be loving to just serve in the one way that we can today. And of course, if we have privilege of some kind, it certainly might be loving to use that privilege for the sake of others. The key is, God is recognizable in love that is shared, in power that is relinquished, in concern that is extended. And this is why Jesus disappeared from sight, because God is seen in the moment that we give something away. Personally, I don’t love this idea. I want to hold on to God! But this comes from my own fear of scarcity. When we recognize what this story is telling us, that God is present and recognizable in each tiny ordinary bread-crumb moment of love and goodness, then we realize that God is all around us, all the time, and always will be.
(1) Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, p30
16 And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them. 17 They shall be turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in graven images, who say to molten images, "You are our gods." 18 Hear, you deaf; and look, you blind, that you may see! 19 Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the LORD? 20 He sees many things, but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear.
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, "What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cle'opas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" 19 And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up 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 this happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning 23 and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see." 25 And he said to them, "O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. 28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, 29 but they constrained him, saying, "Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, 34 who said, "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Secrets of Heaven 3863:
It came to pass when Jesus sat down with them, that He took the bread, and blessed, and breaking, gave to them; and their eyes were opened, and they knew Him (Luke 24:30-31);
by which was signified that the Lord appears by good, but not by truth without good, for "bread" is the good of love. From these and other passages it is evident that "seeing," in the internal sense, signifies faith from the Lord, for there is no other faith which is faith than that which comes from the Lord. This also enables a person to "see," that is, to believe; but faith from self, or from what is a person's own, is not faith, for it causes them to see falsities as truths, and truths as falsities; and if they see truths as truths, still they do not see, because they do not believe, for they see themselves in them, and not the Lord.