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Broken Before Burning
April 19, 2015
From the Gospel of Luke:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then 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?’ He 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, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But 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. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and 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. Some 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.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But 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. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They 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?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
This story of the two disciples on the Emmaus road is a favorite of many Christians. For one thing, the pattern of Christian worship is embedded in this narrative. The disciples meet on the road, have the scriptures opened, share a meal at table with the risen Christ, and then they are sent out, to share the good news. We still practice this fourfold pattern: We gather for worship, hear the scriptures proclaimed, come to the Table, and are sent out to serve. Yet the experience of the disciples on the Emmaus road is more than a template for the church’s worship; it’s also a template for a congregation in transition.
The first thing to notice about these two disciples is that they are broken-hearted. Four words pop up right in the middle of the story, four words that are among the most realistic in Scripture: “But we had hoped.” So much is said in those four words. They speak of a future that is not to be, a dream that did not materialize, a promise that proved to be false. Cleopas and the unnamed disciples did not belong to the original twelve, but clearly they were among those who had embraced Jesus with enthusiasm. They believed that he was the Messiah, the one who would redeem Israel and restore the Kingdom of David. But that was all in the past. Now on this Easter morning they are headed back…but to what? To their hometown, to their fishing nets and tax offices where they would do their best to put one foot in front of the other, but there would be no longer be a lilt in their steps or a song on their lips. Their hope had died, nailed to a cross, absent.
Surely Luke embedded those four words, “But we had hoped” in the heart of this narrative, because these words are also embedded in the heart of human experience. Cleopas and the unnamed disciples may have been the first to voice these words but they are not the last. Such a sentiment continues to resonate whenever the future we had imagined no longer seems viable, and that which was bright with promise suddenly becomes shrouded in uncertainty and sadness. Once challenged to write a short-story in six words, Ernest Hemingway supposedly replied by penning on a napkin: “For sale: Baby shoes, never used.” When our hopes are dashed, it’s not just the tragedy of what happened that hurts, but the gaping hole of all that could have happened and now won’t.
Of course, it’s always tempting, maybe especially in the church, to gloss over, or at least try to move quickly through, the cross-like experiences of life. A friend shares the news of a death in his family, and we sympathize for a moment before changing the topic. Or a colleague shares her disappointment at not getting a promotion, and we remind her that at least she has a job. We don’t mean to be callous or insensitive, but often we are at such a loss when it comes to. . . loss.
Thus when reading the story of the Emmaus road disciples we may want to hurry on to the “burning hearts” part of the narrative, celebrating with the disciples their encounter with the Risen Christ. But just as before there is resurrection there is a cross, we must also accept that before there are burning hearts there are hearts that are broken.
Last weekend at our all-church retreat at Mo-Ranch, we spent the entire weekend engaged in a conversation about change and the anxiety that inevitably accompanies it. A time of pastoral transition is not a tragedy. In itself, it’s not even a sad event, but clearly there’s sadness in it, as well as loss and grief. During the retreat we talked openly about our feelings, faced up to our anxiety, and expressed our sense of loss– sometimes with humor and sometimes through tears. Through it all, we acknowledged that in the church, as in life, there will be experiences of disappointment, heartbreak, and loss.
But here’s the thing. The two heartbroken disciples in our story were not alone. They were joined by the risen Christ. He came alongside them and accompanied them in their sorrow. As they trudged along their way, the despairing disciples tried to explain how the one in whom they had hoped had been killed. His death, they believed, meant that all was lost. Then, according to Luke, the risen Christ began to open the scriptures, showing them how it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die.
We don’t know the specific scriptures Jesus expounded for them, but he may have said something like: “Oh, you who are slow to believe, don’t you remember how in the beginning God created the dawn of a new day out of the dark and empty chaos? Have you forgotten how, when we were enslaved in Egypt, God led us out into the freedom of the Promised Land? Don’t you recall that when we were defeated and exiled in a foreign land, God opened up a pathway home and gave us a new beginning?
“Now,” Jesus might have concluded, “do you understand the meaning of my death and resurrection?” Suddenly their hearts began to burn because they understood how the whole biblical saga is a story of life emerging from death. It dawned on them that God had not forsaken them. Jesus had not left them. In short, they heard the gospel, the good news that every ending holds the promise of a new beginning.
So when the church goes through a transition, suffers loss, or faces change, we acknowledge it honestly. As Paul says in one of his letters, “We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.” This is what the church has called the Paschal Mystery, which is the enduring mystery of how God brings life out of death, new beginnings out of each ending, and hope where hope had died.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Emmaus road disciples want this elusive stranger to stay with them. When they were at table he took bread, blessed, broke, and gave it to them. According to Luke, their eyes were opened and they recognized the risen Christ. It’s not totally clear what it was about this gesture that opened their eyes. Perhaps when they saw the hands of Christ reaching for the bread, blessing, breaking and giving it to them, the light came on. They recognized those rough carpenter’s hands…wounded hands…hands that had first beckoned them to follow…hands that picked up and blessed little children…hands that touched the untouchable, healed the sick, and fed the hungry. Maybe when they saw those servant hands, they knew that they were in the presence of the risen Lord.
So, friends, we gather here in this sanctuary as those two disciples who met Jesus long ago. We are not on the Emmaus road, but we are on our own unique journey. A journey that passes through many transitions, some of which are uplifting and inspiring, some of which are heartbreaking, and some which have a little of both. Yet we are a church of cross and resurrection. We are a place that welcomes the broken-hearted, and calls all people—strangers and friends, healthy and sick, joyful and the sad—to the Table of our Lord. Here we are served, here we are fed, here our eyes are opened and we recognize that we are not alone. Christ is risen! Alleluia!