This sermon was delivered by Thomas B. Slater, professor of New Testament language and literature, at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on April 21, 2009.
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. (Luke 24:13-35 NRSV)
Far too many times we find our most closely held understandings and readings are actually misunderstandings and misreadings. Even worse, too often we insist upon persisting in the comfort of those mistakes and, in so doing, we delay our bliss indefinitely.
Luke 24:13-35 presents an interesting and powerful story. A stranger meets two disciples in the Jesus movement. The stranger notes that their countenance appears to be on the negative side and he asks what has caused their sadness. The two men relate to the stranger the demise of Jesus of Nazareth. They tell him how they had put their hopes in his message, his ministry and in his person. They relate how much they had hoped that the nation would be purified, both its religious and political institutions, and how they had hoped that the Roman occupation would be finally ended. To their dismay, instead of celebration there was a crucifixion. Instead of vindication, an innocent man had died for crimes that he did not commit. They were sick-unto-sick.
Some women had mentioned some nonsense about an empty tomb and that Jesus was alive, but some of the men went there and found nothing: the tomb was indeed empty, but Jesus was nowhere to be seen. It was not enough to kill Jesus. Now someone has stolen his body so that he could not have a decent burial.
It is clear to the stranger that the problem is not that the tomb is empty but that the disciples have misread and misunderstood the Scriptures! Therefore, he upbraids them for their thickness and then instructs them in a proper understanding of the Scriptures. To their credit, the disciples do not remain stuck in the solace of their ignorance. Rather, they embrace this new perspective and they also seize an opportunity to grow in grace. Indeed, they have found hope where there was none before. Instead of standing on faith, they have stepped out on faith!
Often we postpone our bliss and misdirect our praise because we refuse to accept that we are wrong. Often we choose the past with its familiarity than a new vision and living by faith. Often we choose tradition and good planning. In the process, we foreclose on God’s divine surprises. Then, when we get to the fork in the road, we go one way and God’s blessings for us go another.
Instead of arguing with the stranger and simply re-calibrating a faulty equation, the disciples of Jesus accepted the surprise of the Resurrection and what it meant for them and the hopes of Israel. They have re-calibrated their expectations and what God expects of them. Their countenance has been lifted by the stranger along the way. Ofen I wonder how many angels I have failed to entertain or to learn from simply because they were strangers to me, as if God only speaks to people that I know and love. It is as if I have reduced God to my tiny realm of experience. I often wonder how many blessings I missed because I was not open to the God Who can do anything but fail.
As the sun sets, the two men ask the stranger to spend the night with them. At supper, their eyes were opened when they recognized that the stranger who broke bread with them was actually Jesus, their resurrected Lord. What a wonderful surprise! That moment never could have occurred if they had not been open to a new way of understanding the Scriptures. It could not have been possible if they had not been open to the God of surprises.
We should never be so stuck in our traditions, or our plans, or our ideas, or our concepts, or our understanding, or our interpretations that we close ourselves off from our Lord, the God of surprises.
In Christ’s name. Amen.