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The stranger on the road

Third Sunday of Easter, 6 April, 2008
Brother Christopher John SSF
Preached at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

That very day, the first day of the week, two of the disciples 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. (Luke 24:13-35)

Over the past two weeks we've been hearing the various gospel accounts of the resurrection. These accounts are like witnesses, each showing us one of the ways in which the disciples came to know the risen Christ.

This morning's gospel is often called "The Road to Emmaus", but let's think of it as "The Stranger on the Road". Who was this stranger on the road? We of course know the answer to that. We know how the story turns out and so we read it backwards as it were, as being those whose eyes have already opened. But try to imagine we are those whose eyes have not been opened. We are like those disciples on the road to Emmaus who did not recognize Jesus. Why? We can imagine that fear, ignorance and unbelief "kept their eyes from recognizing him." But more deeply, perhaps, this shows the difficulty of ever recognizing Christ, except in brief moments. God is, for us, so often a hidden God.

So who is this stranger? Our knowledge of the end of this story tells us that of course it is Jesus. We know that he has somehow come back from death, and is here on the road. Just like old times, except that he is harder to recognise. The theologian James Allison has pointed out something so obvious that we perhaps don't see it. This man on the road, he says, is a dead man walking. To quote from his book, Faith beyond Resentment:

"I think it very important that we don't make the separation which we are accustomed to when talking about the risen Jesus, imagining that he is alive, and for that reason, not dead. No, what is fascinating about the doctrine of the resurrection is that it is the whole human life of Jesus, including his death, which is risen. The life of God, since it is totally outside the order of human life and human death, doesn't cancel death, as if it were a sickness which is to be cured, but takes it up, assumes it. Luke offers us a vision of a risen Jesus who has not ceased to be a dead man, and who, starting from his living-out-being-a-crucified-man, teaches and empowers his disciples by his presence."

To put that in other words, Christ's resurrection was not some cancellation of his death or an undoing of his suffering. It was not a spiritualised otherworldy experience, nor was it the act of a deus ex machina coming down out of the skies to fix everything up at the last moment. The resurrection was the transformation, and the rising to new life, of the crucified corpse of the man Jesus of Nazareth; the man who had been killed by the power of the Roman Empire for daring to say that God his Father was the ultimate authority, and for asserting the primacy of God's kingdom over Empire and especially over the corrupt collusion of that Empire with the Temple.

He was killed, and three days later, his body although still carrying its wounds was filled with life, and once again walking and talking. What did he talk about? Revenge on his persecutors? An armed rising against those who had executed him? The eternal damnation of those who killed him? Punishment for those who had betrayed him? None of these.

To borrow another key word from James Allison, the risen Christ was free from resentment. The innocent victim became the innocent victor and, totally free from resentment, he now was teaching his disciples, opening the scriptures so that they too could live with the same lack of resentment.

And what is a life free of resentment? It is a life of grace, a life which no longer needs to protect itself against the powers of death. Christ has drawn the sting of death. We no longer need erect barriers, or live in fear. How is this possible? Christ's resurrection was nearly 2000 years ago. But what did God raise in resurrecting Christ? It was human flesh and bone, the same stuff of which we are made. Christ was raised so that we too might be raised to eternal life. That is God's supreme gift of grace to us. Resentment and the way of vengeance and the endless circles of violence — these are the forces of death which Christ has overcome. Resurrection is so much more than a happy ending to a sad story or the vindication of the innocent victim. Resurrection is not just Christ being alive again. It is the undoing of the powers of destruction.

But let us return to that road, and the stranger walking on it. The disciples cannot recognize Christ. Their hearts are broken as they pour out their grief. They had hoped that Jesus, a mighty prophet, would have been "the one to redeem Israel." Not only has he seemed to fail in this, not only has he died, but he has been killed by the very powers he challenged. Their grief both cripples and blinds them. It is now three days since his death — in Jewish thought three days was the longest period that a soul might still inhabit or wait around a body — and they are further disturbed, rather than reassured, by the news of the empty tomb.

Jesus begins to teach them, as he must have already done many times, drawing on Moses and the prophets — the books of Law and Prophecy — which were counted as the Hebrew Scriptures. But still they do not see.

How can we see Christ? For if we see his body, our preconceptions of who he is and of his mission will cloud our vision. We will see not Christ, but rather our own projection of who we imagine him to be. The disciples had heard the teaching of the stranger on the road, but still they were confused and disquieted. Their projection of who and what a Messiah should be was that of a political Messiah who would use force to redeem Israel, lead it back to independence from Roman control, and restore it to the imagined glories of the days of King David.

Their projection had blinded them and left them without life. Their view of how things should be just couldn't accommodate what had happened, and so in their confusion they couldn't see the truth in front of them. Jesus had suffered and was killed, and this wasn't in their vision of what should happen to a Messiah. Other people's gods didn't suffer. They were powerful, and if you were lucky your god would be more powerful than the others. The God those disciples were still struggling to know was a God who allowed himself to be weak and to suffer. This is the foolishness of the Cross.

When we cannot see that "the Christ must suffer", and that God not only permits this, but that is it fundamentally at the heart of God, then we are blind. When we cannot accept human suffering because it seems a sign of imperfection, then we too are blind. And when we ignore the suffering of others we also are blind because we cannot see God. And why this suffering? Surely suffering is negative and destructive. Certainly it can be, and often is, but it's important to see it in a wider context — that of love — which gives it a meaning which it would not otherwise have. In and through love, suffering can be transformed and made redemptive.

But Cleopas and his companion are still blind. Perhaps for company, or out of friendship they invite Jesus, "Stay with us, for night is at hand." And now sign and symbol and action bring those disciples to the realization which words and rational explanation could not do. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. And then their eyes were opened.

This bread is more than just bread. It is the very life of Christ. Christ takes it, in thankfulness acknowledges God's blessing in it, breaks it and gives it up for others. And here is the moment of recognition.

The commentary for today in the excellent website Preaching Peace, uses a shocking phrase to express what is going on here.

"True cognition of Jesus takes place when we as a Christian community gather round our sacred victim and acknowledge what we are doing, the symbolic ritual activity of mob cannibalism. This is the Eucharist. This is where, even as we re-enact the murder of Jesus, we are told we are forgiven. If we would do this to Jesus, we would certainly do it to others. And we do, and knowing this, we can also choose to no longer participate in processes that lead to death. We become aware that we are the Forgiven Ones. We have come under the reign of Life. We become the Forgiving Ones. And this is the joy of Eastertide."

At the very heart of the Eucharist is service and self-emptying. It is Christ's giving of himself, and his invitation to us to join him in this self-emptying. The Eucharist cannot be reduced to a private moment alone with God. It is a thanksgiving meal for the whole Christian community in which we draw strength from the presence of Christ among us, and are fed for the journey. Not just fed for our comfort, or to relieve our hunger, but fed with the bread of justice and love which drives us out into the world to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

Luke's account of the last supper links the eating of that supper with the fulfilment of God's kingdom. That kingdom is recognizing that God is present in this world, transforming it, overcoming injustice, and leading us as his forgiven and forgiving people, living in grace and free from resentment.

That is our Good News.

"It is true, the Lord is risen and has appeared to Simon."

May we know the love of the Father,
the Risen Life of the Son,
and be led by the Spirit.


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