Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 6, 2008

2008.04.06 “What We Learn on the Journey”

Central United Methodist Church

“What We Learn on the Journey”

Luke 24:13-35

April 6th, 2008

“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, from The New Revised Standard Version

     Funny, sometimes, how life is like a loose thread; you pull on it and you never know where it is going to lead.  Let me explain. (Parents, you will recognize the pattern.)

      Sometime last year I found out that my oldest daughter, Melissa, 22, a junior at Loras College in Dubuque, was going as an exchange student to Spain, from January through May of this year.

      Then I found out that where she was going in Spain was Santiago de Compostela, which means St. James of Compostela.  Then I found out that the reason it’s called that, is because the mortal remains of St. James the Apostle, the brother of Jesus, are supposedly interred there.  Then I found out that because of that, Santiago de Compostela has been one of the most important European pilgrimages, known as El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), for over 1,000 years.

      So, to make a long story short, later this month I’m going to visit my daughter, and to get there, I’m going to attempt to walk the 67 miles pilgrimage (necessary to get a certificate) on the ancient pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago.  Perhaps, as your pastor, I’ll be able to share some of the penance I receive with you.  (Applications will be considered on the basis of urgency and need.) It’s kind of like they say when your kids signs up for the military: they enlist, and you — their parents — get recruited.

The whole point of a pilgrimage, of course, is that it is a condensed, physical version of what life is, a journey.  Contrary to what Forrest Gump and his mama said, life is not so much like a box of chocolates (what you see is what you get) — as life is like a journey, from beginning to end.  Strange things — and spiritual insights — happen along the way.

      This is also the message of the Gospel today on this third Sunday of Easter, which describes one of the most famous journeys in the Bible.  It’s message is also that life is like a journey; a journey, which we learn, we walk not alone.

      This journey was a journey taken by two of Jesus disciples, one of whose names was Cleopas, the other we never learn.  It took place on the day of resurrection, and was a journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about seven miles.

      As they walked, their faces were as long as the shadows that lengthened around them, their mood that of dashed hopes and shattered dreams.  They talked of Jesus, and how they had hoped he might be the Messiah, but well, now, given his crucifixion, that seemed unlikely. But there were these rumors — started of course by unstable women — of resurrection sightings.

      As they walk, they are joined by a mysterious stranger, which begins to sound more like a story from Washington Irving or J. R. R. Tolkien than the Bible. When the stranger asks what they’re talking about, they tell him — obviously from out of town or another planet — what had transpired.

      Their interpretation of events reveals their distorted messianic expectations — the very expectations Jesus constantly sought to dispel among His followers. Perhaps it is those same expectations, colored by their disillusionment and disappointment, that prevent them from seeing who walks and talks with them.   Which is often the case with us as well.

      Then the mysterious stranger shares His version of the Story, the Old Testament version, but with the alternate ending. The story he tells ends not with failure, but with triumph over death and evil.  Still, as usually the case with Jesus’ disciples, they don’t get it.

      They reach their destination. The stranger acts as if He is going on, but hospitality prevails, and they invite Him in.  Then, seated at table, the tables are turned, and what happens next amazed everyone: the Guest becomes the Host!

      When the mysterious stranger takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them — just as He did at the Last Supper, just like we do every time we celebrate — their eyes are opened, and they recognize him! Though he disappears physically, He remains present spiritually — in the word and in the fellowship of His table, present in their hearts, if not in their home.   Not only were their eyes opened, but their holy heartburn during Jesus’ Bible Study is revealed to be not the product of their last meal, but spiritual insight; insight illuminating not only Jesus’ story, but their story as well.

      By the time the Gospel of Luke was written, around 80 AD, some 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christian believers were experiencing the same problems we Christians experience 2,000 years later. The risen Christ was not to be seen; nor had he returned, as many had expected.  Furthermore, life was difficult, sometimes disillusioning and disappointing.  So in what sense was the Risen Christ present?  And the answer was, according to Luke, in the hearing of the word, in hospitality shown to “strangers”, in the breaking of bread, along the Way, as Christianity itself was known.

      Sometimes we still get confused about this, like those first disciples did with their expectations.  Marcus Borg says that when he goes around the country talking about the difference between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ, how the first is physical and historical but the latter is spiritual and transcendent, inevitably someone will jump up and say, “But I know he lives because I walk and talk with him every day.”  And Borg says, “So if I were to follow you around with a camera, would I be able to capture the two of you on tape?”

      The Emmaus story is not just the story of two of Jesus’ disciples, it is our story, a story of our journey of discipleship.  Of how we move from ignorance to knowledge to experience.  Of how we move from the illusions of an immature faith to the confidence of a mature faith.  And how does that happen?

      Most of the time, it happens not in great mystical experiences, but by living life, by walking our daily journey of faith, by sharing in the means of grace.

      For example, we encounter Christ in the sacraments.  That’s what this story is about, how, in the hearing of the Scriptures, their hearts “burned”; of how, in the welcoming of the stranger, they welcomed Christ; of how, in the breaking of the bread, their “eyes” were opened to see Jesus present with them. Same things we do here today.

      But I would go a step further to say that I believe the point of “Sacraments” (with a capital S) — where simple things like water and bread and wine serve as spiritual symbols — is to open our eyes to life as a sacramental experience.  If only our eyes are open, we will see it!

Eugene Peterson, known best for his version of the Bible, The Message, is retired, and in his “retirement” is working on a projected five-volume series about Christian spirituality. The first volume is Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Eerdmans, 2005). In a interview in Christianity Today, he says that in his 45 years of pastoral experience, the most distressing question he’s asked is, “Pastor, how can I be spiritual?”  His answer is: “How about starting by loving your husband or your kids?” 

Peterson goes on to say,

      “What we’re talking about is the Christian life. It’s following Jesus.   Spirituality is no different from what we’ve been doing for two thousand years just by going to church and receiving the sacraments, being baptized, learning to pray, and reading scripture rightly.  It’s just ordinary stuff.”  (“Spirituality for All the Wrong Reasons,” Christianity Today, March, 2005)

        Ordinary stuff.   The day-to-day of the journey, whether that journey is El Camino de Santiago, or the Journey of Life. And that’s the message of the Walk to Emmaus: “Don’t be so blinded by how you want it to be that you can’t see the Christ who walks and talks with you every day.”

         If I should ever have any say about candidates for sainthood  (which I won’t), the one I would nominate is a local one, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.  I speak for many, I suspect, when I say that Cardinal Bernardin had a lasting influence upon us.

From his opening speech to his fellow priests, quoting the Biblical Joseph (“I am Joseph your brother”), to the attacks from both inside and outside the church, to his final struggle with cancer, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin remained one of the most humble and spiritual of men. I consider his book, The Gift of Peace a spiritual classic. 

In February of 1988, on the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Cardinal Bernardin preached on this story, the Emmaus story.   Here is part of what he said:

      “My life is not so very different from your own. My specific responsibilities as a pastor may vary from yours, but I face the same basic human issues as you. I get caught up in the maelstrom of my work or ministry. I am sometimes bewildered and perplexed by rapid changes in society, both at home and around the world. It’s no secret that I live — by reason of my office and, some tell me, by my very nature — in the “fast lane”. It’s just as easy for me to lose my way on our common Christian pilgrimage as it is for anyone else.”

      “Like you, I have sometimes wondered, “Is this all there is to life?” My thirty-six years as a priest and twenty-two as a bishop have been marked by a search for the Lord, by a sincere concern to live my life in accordance with His gospel. But, so often, my search seemed to lead me into darkness rather than light. I felt buffeted and bombarded by problems associated with my ministry. I often felt I was walking alone.”

      “Then one day I encountered the Emmaus story in a new way, and it had a profound impact on my life . . . . As I reflected upon it in prayer, I began to realize how often I looked elsewhere for the Lord rather than right in the midst of each day’s journey!

      “In light of the Emmaus story, all of us come to recognize that we do not walk alone! The Lord Jesus is with us. Through His word He helps us keep on the right path. Through the breaking of bread each day He feeds the deepest hungers of our heart and spirit . . . . The Emmaus story helps us understand the Lord’s presence where, often before, we had experienced His absence . . . . From this beautiful story we also learn to recognize Jesus in the “strangers” we encounter on our journey, that is, in our fellow pilgrims, in all our brothers and sisters . . . .”

      He concluded by saying:

          “I am particularly grateful for this opportunity to share with you an important episode in the story of Jesus. My prayer for you is that you will find it in your own story, as I have.” (Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928 – 1996), “The Journey to Mature Discipleship”, The Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Program  #3120, First air date February 14, 1988)

      Life is like a journey, like this journey to Emmaus.  The good news is, we do not walk it alone.  Amen.

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