What things?

A sermon for Easter 3 from the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs, assisting priest, St Martin’s Providence: Luke 24: 13-35

There are places in the Holy Land where it is possible to feel that you’re walking where Jesus walked. The shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A garden near the Mount of Olives. But not the Road to Emmaus; at least not for me. Its precise location is debated and claimed by various localities in the area, so one knows from the outset that the exact Road these days is a matter of speculation. Still, a girl can hope, right? So we got on a bus. And took a multi-lane highway (already inauspicious) leading out of Jerusalem to a gravel parking lot, next to a ruin of a Byzantine church, and a gift shop. Sigh. Not exactly a place of picturesque transcendence where one can contemplate the disciples’ encounter with the Risen Lord. Even MY imagination couldn’t summon it up through the diesel fumes and the sounds of nearby traffic. I had so wanted my own personal Road to Emmaus Experience. But I was disappointed.

In retrospect that’s not such a bad thing. Because the story of the Road to Emmaus begins with disappointment and dashed hopes. “We had hoped…” The disciples had had a vision of who Jesus was supposed to be, in spite of his pointed assertions throughout his ministry that their expectation of an earthly liberator was unfounded. And Good Friday was the end of their hopes of political influence. Even the surprising news of an empty tomb wasn’t enough to open their eyes to the reality of the Resurrection. It took an encounter with a Stranger on the road to show them the foundation of what it is to be People of the Resurrection.

The first hint of this foundation is seen in a single question posed by the Stranger to the two disciples trudging down the road on the evening of that first Easter day. Cleopas grumbles, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” And Jesus says simply, “What things?”

“What things?” This phrase has been described as the beginning of pastoral ministry. Jesus has come upon two friends who are obviously in a state of anxiety and distress, and he walks with them, asks them a simple question, and then waits. And when they begin to speak, with their words sometimes tumbling over one another’s, he listens. And then, because he’s Jesus and not a licensed pastoral counselor, he teaches. But first, he listens, and that is the key point here: The disciples’ very first experience with the Risen Christ is with his willingness to walk with them and to hear what they have to say. This is a crucial aspect of any meaningful relationship. And it is not a coincidence.

“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…” Table fellowship is one of the most significant characteristics of community and family relationship. The breaking of bread is the beginning of the Jewish family meal, particularly on the Sabbath; each person takes part of the bread as it is blessed. So here Jesus becomes known to his companions in an activity that not only commemorates what he did at the Last Supper, but, for anyone who had not been present in the Upper Room on the night of his arrest, the breaking of bread would still be emblematic of the relationship of family members to one another and to God.

“…And they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

I have always pictured this scene in a particular way: Jesus is seated between his companions and they are focused on him as he breaks the bread. And then as he vanishes they are left looking…at one another.

This is also not a coincidence. First, he walks with them and listens. And then he breaks bread with them. Then he leaves them with each other, and within the hour they returned to the rest of their friends. To their community.

Think about it. There are too many examples to name of how often Jesus shows or speaks of the importance of relationship. During his ministry he refers to himself as shepherd, as vine—both forms of relationship. And on the cross he gives his mother and the Beloved Disciple to one another in a new family: “Woman, behold your son…behold your mother.” And after he rises from the dead he sends Mary; “Go, and tell the others…” Later he tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

Relationship: The basic building block of Christian Hope and of what it is to be People of the Resurrection. There is a temptation to dismiss this as simplistic. But basic is not the same as simplistic. Basic is fundamental.

What was Jesus’ lowest, most wrenching moment on the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Forsaken. Alone. Out of relationship. This is not a coincidence. When we speak of our Trinitarian God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or as Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer—we are referencing a God who is, by definition, relationship. And we are made in that image. Jesus’ life and ministry was all about showing us that the Dream of God is first and foremost about reconciliation—reconnecting with our fundamental nature and the fundamental nature of all Creation—and that is right relationship.

What is the basis of modern psychotherapy? The healing of relationship. What is the basis of spiritual direction? Spiritual friendship—two people who agree to listen for and discern God’s voice together. What is crucial to the building of resilience in children who have experienced traumatic loss? According to a recent New York Times op-ed, strong loving relationships that name and face grief together. All of these are examples of how people can seek healing and wholeness in a society threatened by isolation; an isolation that is fed largely by the myth of self-reliance; by the fallacy that needing help is a moral failure.

We treat the myth of self-reliance as foundational and weakness as marginal when in fact it is weakness and vulnerability that can lead us, if we will let them, into deeper knowledge of our foundational interdependence; into deeper relationship with each other, God, and Creation. After all it was Jesus at his most vulnerable who exhibited the profound strength of love to forgive every hurt, to meet us in our suffering and shattered hopes, and to render powerless that which would isolate and forsake us. And having done that, he gave us to each other in the breaking of the bread.

So what does that mean for us? What does it look like to be People of the Resurrection? That was the question in the back of my mind as I drove home from church on Easter Sunday. And that is when I heard, on an NPR storytelling program, about The Council of Dads.

In his story author Bruce Feiler told of receiving a devastating diagnosis of a rare form of bone cancer. His life was turned upside down—all of his hopes and expectations thrown out the window. His greatest concern was that his three-year-old twin daughters would grow up without a father—he wouldn’t get to teach them to ride a two-wheeler, to schlep their belongings to their dorm rooms, to walk them down the aisle. It was an overwhelming disappointment. In times like these there is a temptation to close ranks emotionally; to try to muscle through a crisis—to give in to the myth of self-reliance. But rather than shutting himself off he chose another path; he decided instead to seek out the men that he had known in his life who had shaped his identity. He decided to convene The Council of Dads.

The Council of Dads were chosen for the gifts that they could offer to Feiler’s daughters—gifts of bravery, curiosity, adventure, perseverance. Each member of the Council agreed to be there for the girls in the event of their friend’s death, and immediately began doting on them. And, since they were from different parts of Feiler’s life and were strangers to each other, now they got to know one another.

And it changed all of them. Feiler muses, “Something in our culture conspires against friendship…We have our work, we have our family, but friends keep getting pushed aside…[The Council of Dads] had built a bridge and allowed us to invite our friends into the thing that means the most to us, and that is our family.”

Relationship. What does it look like to be People of the Resurrection? Look around you. You never know who you’ll meet on the road.

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