It is often said that as we grow older, we slowly become more like our own mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. I’ve been noticing that in myself, recently — the ways the mannerisms of my relatives make their way into my daily life almost without my knowledge. I catch myself making up silly songs to amuse the baby, which used to mortify me when my mother would sing ad-libbed compositions to my baby sister. I start sentences with “Now, listen,” like my great-grandmother used to. And just the other day, I spent ten minutes searching my apartment for my glasses, only to find them on top of my head. I remember my grandmother doing that many times, shuffling through piles of newspapers, checking the shelf above the kitchen sink, the bedside table, next to the shower, searching desperately for what she had right there with her, until eventually I would realize what she was searching for and say “Grandma, they’re on your head.” Sheepishly, she would feel her head and realized that what she’d been searching for had been there all along. A little bit like those two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
The story we heard today from the Gospel according to Luke is the very first story of an encounter with the resurrected Christ. Before today’s reading, the women go to the tomb on Easter morning, find it empty, and angels tell them that Christ is risen. They tell the disciples, who do not believe them, and Peter sees the empty tomb as well, but no one has seen the risen Christ until we come to today’s text. I mention it because, although the story of Good Friday seems like a distant memory to us, sitting in our sanctuary on this late April evening, our text today finds the disciples barely forty-eight hours after Good Friday, still heart-broken, disoriented, and sick with grief. They have watched their teacher and friend die. They fear what might happen next. Perhaps that is why a disciple named Cleopas and his unnamed companion are walking together away from Jerusalem: they are terrified of what might befall Jesus’s followers at the hands of the Roman authorities.
Into this moment, a moment still heavy with the grief and panic of the crucifixion, Jesus appears. Like so many other resurrection appearances, though, the two disciples don’t recognize him. We don’t know why so many people didn’t recognize the resurrected Christ. Perhaps he looked different after the resurrection. Perhaps they didn’t recognize him because of their own certainty that they would never see him again. Perhaps their perception was altered by divine intervention or the veil of tears. In any case, Jesus appears and they think he is a stranger. “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” the stranger asks. “They stood still, looking sad,” we read. Dumbfounded that he hasn’t heard the news that has so consumed their lives, they start to tell him about Jesus. They say that he was a prophet, they mention his mighty deeds, and that he has been handed over and crucified. “But we had hoped,” they say. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Those words strike me as so poignant. We can only understand the joy of the resurrection when we acknowledge the depth of those dashed hopes. It can be hard to put ourselves in the shoes of those first Jesus-followers who hoped for revolution, who truly believed that the oppressive regime they lived under would come tumbling down at the hands of this Galilean preacher. We may not be able to imagine what it would feel like to have expectations of Jesus that are so profoundly different from the story of faith we know like the backs of our hands, but we know what it means to say “we had hoped.” I remember the heartbreak in this community two years ago when we realized that we had hoped Walter would get better. Many of us can think of a time when we had hoped for a job offer, or an acceptance letter, the visions of how our lives might change for the better. The commentators who host the Pulpit Fiction podcast described this week the dashed hopes of people who had hoped to wake up on November 9th to tell their daughters that the nation’s first female president had been elected. We know that feeling when hopeful anticipation is washed away by devastation and disorientation. “We had hoped,” the heart-broken disciples say, still reeling from the shattered hopes of Palm Sunday, and the raw horror of Good Friday.
The stranger walking beside them chides them for their lack of perception, and begins to interpret scripture for the two disciples. He reframes their devastation and despair. He tells them a bigger story that draws the crucifixion into a grand narrative of redemption. He helps them to see the tragedy and pain of the previous days not as a shocking and abrupt ending of the story, but as a turning point in the narrative of God’s loving care for the whole world. Eventually they come to the village, and the two disciples invite him to share their evening meal. They sit down together, and he blesses the bread, and breaks it, and gives it to them, and all of a sudden, in those familiar gestures, they recognize him — the risen Christ in their midst — and as soon as they do, he vanishes.
I am struck by the “both/and” of the story: Jesus gives them an explanation of the Good News, and he also gives them an experience of the Good News, and they don’t understand it until they’ve received both. To restore their sense of hope, they need both: they need the interpretive story-telling of the incognito Christ accompanying them on the road, and they need the incarnational, sensory experience of breaking bread together and seeing the risen Christ. The first part of the story, the part where Christ opens the scriptures, helps them to understand the good news of the Gospel with their minds; the second part of the story helps them to understand the good news of the Gospel with their hearts. They need both, and so do we.
Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, perhaps we sometimes find ourselves heartsick at tragedy in the world or in our own lives. The environment is being destroyed; children are dying at Syria; our government seems to be taking the threat of nuclear war far too lightly. Meanwhile, our streets are full of homeless folks, the church as an institution is in decline (although it feels selfish to even mention our ailing institution after that list of other global woes), and that doesn’t even begin to touch on any of the worries and burdens that we carry in our own individual lives — terminally ill loved ones, chronic health problems, financial struggles, conflict-ridden relationships, and more. It is right and appropriate to be sorrowful, or angry, or concerned about any or all of these things. It is empathetic, and human. I believe that God’s heart breaks with the suffering of the world.
And yet the good news comes to us – to our minds, and to our hearts. We Christians are people who are called to hold on to hope even when it feels foolish and impossible. We are invited to hold our heartbreak together with hope in a God who brings life out of death, healing out of brokenness, new life out of the tomb. But we forget. Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, sometimes we are so overwhelmed by tragedy and despair that we forget that we are people of the resurrection.
So we need both: we need to be taught, over and over again, the good news. We need to hear the stories of scripture, and the promises of God; we need to talk and to listen about how God is at work in the world, healing and redeeming and calling and loving. That is what a sermon is supposed to do: to invite the Holy Spirit in, to tell us again the story of God at work in the world. But much as James and I pressure ourselves to bring you a good word, a sermon by itself is never enough. Because we need both.
We need the presence of God that we experience in community, the risen Christ who is present in the breaking of the bread and the faces of our neighbors. We need bread and cup, water and music, hugs at coffee hour and handshakes during the passing of the peace. God meets us in community, in worship, in touch and scent and smell and sound. And not only here, but out in the world, as well. God meets us with good news when we walk through the park and see the flowers starting to bloom, when a good song comes on the radio, when we find ourselves inspired to join with God in working for a more just and compassionate world.
So often, we walk into this place weighed down by the bad news of the world, and God hands us, once again, the good news of the gospel, like the glasses that were on top of your head the whole time. God comes to us with the good news of love and forgiveness. The good news of people called into community, across difference, to work for a better world. The good news that death and despair are never the end of the story. God has been at work all along, even when our eyes were too full of tears to see it. God comes to us in a story that tells us who we are and whose we are. God comes to us in a story that tells us that God can bring good out of the very worst we can do. God comes to us in the crackle of crust and the scent of yeast. God comes to us, and for just a second, we see the face of the risen Jesus.
Thanks be to God.