A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on May 8, 2011.
If we saw a dollar bill lying on the floor, most of us would probably stop and pick it up. But if we saw a penny on the floor, even a flashy new penny, most of us would probably just walk on by.
Unless we were members of the John Pass family.
John Pass, the husband of Mona Pass and the father of Leigh, Kaye, and Johnsie, has been gone a number of years now. But for many reasons, I’ll never forget this man who was a successful banker, a deep Christian, and a dear friend.
Almost exactly a year after John died, Mona discovered a shiny penny lying on the floor of her home. What was odd it is that the carpet had just been vacuumed, and the penny hadn’t been there before. But she didn’t think much about it until she got to John’s grave later in the day. When she removed an old floral arrangement to replace it with a new one, she discovered another brand new penny lying on the grave. This was too much to ignore, and before long Mona shared her penny story with me, and her strong impression that her husband the banker was communicating to her through those shiny new pennies to assure her that heaven was real, God was present, and so was her husband. And even though this sounded like something out of a Stephen King novel, I couldn’t disagree!
Since those two initial sightings of pennies, Mona estimates that over the last 16 years she and other members of her family have discovered at least 15 shiny new pennies here and there. The last discovery occurred just last Sunday night when Johnsie saw something flash on her bathroom floor and spotted a penny that had not been there a few minutes earlier.
Every member of the Pass family is absolutely convinced these flashy new pennies are signs of heaven breaking into their lives.
What do you think? Is this sheer coincidence? Or a supernatural presence? It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?
On this third Sunday of Easter, this penny story raises some questions we’ll be wrestling with today—do you believe God’s presence routinely breaks into our everyday lives? Do you believe it enough that you are actively looking for signs that the Spirit of God, or what we can also call the Spirit of Christ and the Holy Spirit, is here with us? And if that Spirit is with us, how would you know?
Today we are dealing with the most elaborate account of the post-Easter appearances of the Risen Christ. Only Luke records the “Road to Emmaus” story. And we can be eternally grateful he did.
Luke 24 opens with three women going to the grave of the crucified Jesus to anoint his broken body. Much to their surprise the stone is rolled away from the tomb and Jesus is gone. Two men in dazzling white clothes tell the women Jesus has risen, and is no longer there. The women run to the remaining eleven disciples and tell them what happened. The disciples don’t believe a word of it, though Peter does inspect the empty doubts to verify Jesus is gone. Luke tells us Peter is “amazed” by what he sees. But there’s nothing to suggest Peter believes Jesus has been raised from the dead.
Then, the action shifts to later in the day when two people are walking on a road to the village of Emmaus, located seven miles away from Jerusalem. One traveler is named Cleopas, and the identity of the other is unknown. Some traditions say it was Peter, others Luke, and others even suggest it could have been Cleopas’ wife. All we know is that these two were among the followers of Jesus during his life and ministry. And now they are talking about all that had transpired over the weekend, especially on Friday when Jesus had died on the cross. Their hearts have been broken by the events of “Good Friday,” and their conversation is grim.
Someone has observed that the unknown disciple could represent any of us who’ve ever had our hopes shattered and our dreams dashed. Because biblical scholars have never been able to pinpoint the location of Emmaus, Frederick Buechner observes that Emmaus is anywhere we go to escape—a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, (to heck with it.) It makes no difference anyway.”
As they journey on this road to nowhere, Cleopas and friend are overtaken by the last person they expect…Jesus. They had evidently been with Jesus many times. Yet, says Luke, their eyes were kept from recognizing him. Notice—Luke says nothing about Jesus wearing a disguise. No, these two can’t recognize Jesus because something or someone is preventing them. I can only conclude that someone is God.
This is such an odd notion to us! Do we ever see God interfering with or influencing the eyesight of people in scripture? Yes, we do. In 2 Kings 6, for example, God inhibits the eyesight of those enemies of Israel known as the Arameans, while opening the eyes of the servant of the prophet Elisha so that this servant can see invisible horses and chariots of fire all about ready to assist the outnumbered Israelites in their battle with the Arameans.
This same God is clearly at work again in preventing Cleopas and friend from recognizing Jesus, even as Jesus expertly unpacks the scripture for them in such a way that it becomes clear as day that the Son of Man must suffer and die, and eventually be raised from the dead. But God’s part in this is not the whole story—not even close.
Earlier this week I heard a retreat speaker say that ideally all of us have three kinds of vision: eyesight, insight, and foresight. Eyesight helps us see what is going on. Insight helps us understand what is going on. And foresight helps us visualize the future.
I agree with that speaker, as far as he goes. I would also say we need hindsight, or the ability to look back into the past and appreciate what came before us. Most importantly, we need “heart sight”. Heart sight originates in our souls, and is the ability to recognize the presence of Christ in our midst.
The Apostle Paul speaks of heart sight in Ephesians 1 when he writes, I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom…so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…(vv.17-18). If our heart eyes are dimmed or worse yet, deliberately closed, then our head eyes are seriously affected. And that was the problem with Cleopas and friend. Their heart eyes were closed to the reality of the Risen Christ, and consequently they weren’t ready to see him.
Now it is almost dark, and the three traveling companions are almost to Emmaus. Jesus, still unrecognized, appears to be moving on down the road. But Cleopas and friend invite him to join them for the night, and Jesus accepts their invitation. That’s Jesus way—he never barges into our homes or hearts. He always waits to be invited.
What follows is one of the most famous meals in history. We don’t know of course, exactly how this meal appeared. But an Italian painter named Michelangelo Caravaggio helps us visualize it through a painting he produced 410 years ago called The Supper at Emmaus (pictured on the screen and the back page of your worship folder).
Art critic and Christian spiritual director Juliet Benner notes that Caravaggio goes out of his way to paint an everyday meal with ordinary people in an ordinary house. Jesus is seated with two friends. And a servant or innkeeper stands to his right.
But wait a minute! As we think about it the light in this picture is anything but ordinary. It’s dark outside and inside the house, and yet, the scene is flooded with light from the upper left hand corner. This light coming from an undisclosed source is evidently supernatural, and a sign that this is anything but an ordinary moment. The Spirit of God is present, and anything is possible.
The key to understanding this painting and this story lies in the hands of Jesus. Jesus’ left hand hovers in blessing over his own bread, one of the three loaves on the table—one for each participant in the meal. His right hand casts a shadow on his left hand of blessing as it reaches out of the painting toward us. It’s this action of Jesus’ hands that unifies the scene. And…it’s the action that sparks the flash of recognition of the two men sitting at the table.
It was just three nights earlier in the Upper Room when these and other followers of Jesus had seen and heard Jesus bless the bread at the conclusion of the Passover meal. “This is my body broken for you” he had said. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Suddenly, everything clicks! Suddenly, their heart eyes are wide open and they recognize Jesus.
Meanwhile, notice how Caravaggio depicts Jesus’ face. It is unbearded, unbeaten, unscarred. It is young and unwrinkled rather than prematurely old and haggard. Jesus is not looking at us or his friends but rather at the bread. The light streaming into the picture focuses on Jesus’ face. Down turned or not, we cannot avoid that face.
Notice the response of the disciples. The one on the right flings out his arms in a gesture that reminds us of the cross on which Jesus was nailed. Even in the unexpected joy of this moment, we cannot and should not forget the cross. The disciple wears a seashell, the symbol of a pilgrim and a fisherman, prompting many to think this may be none other than the impetuous Peter. Note that his left arm breaks through the frame of the painting, pushing its way into our viewing space. The man is looking not at Jesus’ face but at his hand blessing the bread, underscoring the fact that it was the practice of breaking and blessing the bread that sparked his recognition of the Risen Christ.
Likewise the disciple on the left is clearly taken aback. He is so astonished that he grips the arms of his chair and pushes himself from the table. His right elbow, emphasized by a small, bright white patch, thrusts itself out at us. You can almost hear the scraping of the chair as it is forcibly pushed backward outside the frame of the painting. His face, though it is in profile and in shadow, is clearly filled with wonder as he also looks at Jesus’ hand.
Truthfully, the hearts of these disciples had begun to burn when Jesus was interpreting the scriptures for them back on the road. Now, their hearts are on fire, and their heart eyes and head eyes are wide open!
Meanwhile, notice that the servant (not mentioned by Luke) looks at Jesus and does not see the action either from the disciple’s point of view or ours. He misses the significance of Jesus’ blessing the bread because he was not present at the Upper Room and the other meals when Jesus prayed over bread. And yet, he seems to sense something unusual is going on and leans slightly toward Jesus with a look of questioning on his face. This man is what we might call a “seeker”—fully possessed of eyesight, yet lacking insight and heart sight. But to his credit, his eyes are open wide to the wonder before him.
Caravaggio gives meticulous attention to the colors and details of the painting. He even shows the fruit with its blemishes and worm holes, fruit that will eventually decay and die as compared to the wine Jesus serves that will never spoils. And notice, too, that the basket of fruit is perched precariously on the edge of the table, an artistic device that makes us want to step into the painting to prevent the basket from falling. In other words, the overall effect of the painting is to pull us into the scene.
Here, my friends, is the truth we find at The Supper of Emmaus. Easter is not confined to one day a year, but extends into the rest of our lives. The Risen Christ can meet us anytime or any place, especially on the road to our Emmauses, in the ordinary places and experiences of our lives. You just never know when you might find a shiny new penny on the carpet, or Jesus in the breaking of the bread, or in a meditation upon scripture, or in a host of other spiritual practices. Like a shiny penny, Jesus can turn up when we least expect him—if we have eyes to see.
Please notice one more thing about this painting. There’s an empty space at the table, and that space is for you. Believe me when I say that Jesus’ outstretched hand is extending to you, inviting you to pull up a chair and join him at the table of this intimate communion.
In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says—“Listen! I am standing at the door (of your heart), knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me.”
So my friends, if you haven’t done it already, open the eyes of your heart. And the door of your heart. And let Jesus do what only he can do—transform your life forever!