Easter 3 May 8, 2011

Acts 2:14a, 36-41                                                                               

1 Peter 1:17-23                                                                  

Luke 24:13-35

There is a saying in Zen Buddhism: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Zen Buddhism is all about the shedding of attachments, including attachment to the Buddha himself. But Christianity, I think, is quite different. You might say it is about the deepening of attachments – though in a particular way, a way that avoids the false attachment of idolatry but leads us rather into a deepening quest for the attachment beyond attachments, that with God himself. Anyway, those thoughts as introduction to the gospel we’ve just heard, in which two of Jesus’ disciples meet him on Easter evening, on the road to a village outside Jerusalem called Emmaus.

What does this story mean? How do you and I encounter the risen Christ on the road of our life? How do our encounters change us? There are three parts to the Emmaus story which we will take up in turn: what Jesus does in “opening the Scriptures”; what he does in the “breaking of the bread”; and the final notation that when he had opened the disciples’ eyes he “vanished from their sight.”

First, what Jesus does in the opening or interpretation of Scripture. You and I live by stories. I’ve bought a couple of cookbooks recently, looking forward to having more time in retirement to cook and invite people over for dinner. Cookbooks these days are not like the old Joy of Cooking that started Anne and me off on marriage. The Joy just set forth hundreds of recipes in fine print, the ingredients, the directions, the final result. These new cookbooks have lavish color photographs and are written by celebrity chefs who tell you more about themselves and stories around the food they describe than actual directions for preparing the dishes yourself. Indeed, sometimes they neglect to tell you how many people a particular dish serves. Actually the cooking seems incidental: these books are put out to tell stories of the good life, the feast of abundance, and we read them to participate in that life, to be transported from our Kraft dinner world to their richness and beauty. The point is the stories.

Which is also why we watch movies and television, read novels and People magazine, are fascinated by the royal wedding or share guilty gossip. We come to understand our own lives, to know ourselves, through the stories we hear and tell. I could go off here in a long digression about the corrupt kind of stories our culture wallows in: stories of violence and celebrity, of consumerist lifestyles, the misuse of sex and power. But that’s not the point of the gospel today. The point of the gospel is that Jesus opened the story of Holy Scripture so that these two disciples could understand that the Bible is not about success in a simple, happy-happy, win-win sense, but about God working God’s purpose out through covenant and commitment, hope and love, suffering and sacrifice. “Was it not necessary,” Jesus says, “that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

I have found through my years of ministry, that what I do mostly as a pastor is just what Jesus did: try to help people see that in the midst of the struggles of their lives, which are often terrible, God is there. God is calling them to a deeper understanding of what life is about, of who they are, of the nature of God’s love for them, of the destiny God has for all of us. This is not the story the world tells us, the story of false salvation, but rather the story of true salvation, God’s story. This is why it is so important to absorb the stories of the Bible so they become the stories by which we live our lives. So, again, what this Emmaus story reminds us is that we encounter the risen Christ through stories which draw us into a deeper understanding of God’s working in our lives.

Second, this Emmaus gospel is about Jesus being revealed to us in the breaking of the bread. Of course, you’ve probably already noticed that the pattern of the Emmaus story is replicated in the Eucharist: the opening of Scripture, the breaking of bread. But the breaking of the bread here is more than simply a cultic reference. Note that in this meal, the disciples have invited a stranger to dine with them. What do you suppose is the significance of that for us? Jesus is the stranger until the disciples offer him hospitality. Have you ever served at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter? It’s a powerful experience. People who would otherwise be not just strangers but intimidating, frightening “others” (“stranger danger”) are revealed through the hospitality of a common meal to be our sisters and brothers, fellow children of God.

Anne and I used to serve at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, and we would take my mother, then in her nineties, with us. She’d sit at a table and soon have everyone laughing and talking together – the lost, the shy, the mentally ill, the stoned and drunk. What was her trick? She asked them what were the special Thanksgiving foods and customs in their homes growing up. The breaking of the bread which Jesus does – and which we do in the Eucharist – is a breaking open of the ordinary stuff of our lives, a revealing of the sacredness that lies there in the everyday stuff of our existence. It is an open sharing of ourselves. It brings us together, makes us one body, establishes communion. And in this the risen Christ is revealed as present among us. So that is the second element of this Emmaus gospel.

Now the third, the last: “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Here there is a parallel, I think, with the Zen saying about killing the Buddha if you meet him on the road. But the action here is not ours, us doing the “killing.” It is Christ’s. He is the one who vanishes, who eludes that idolatrous attachment I spoke of. The story is repeated again and again in the Bible: we can never hold onto God, never capture our mountaintop moments. When we try to, they become idols, our faith becomes idolatrous and imprisoning.

And it is not that we never encounter Jesus again. With Christianity, unlike Buddhism, the point is not avoidance of attachment, but deepening of attachment – and attachment not to false things, but to the things of God. In Luke’s gospel the disciples go on to even more significant encounters – ones that keep expanding until, in the Book of Acts, we see them fulfilled in the creation of the Church. The point is that Jesus vanishes so that he may go on ahead, so that we disciples have to “get up,” as the gospel says, and go forth to carry the excitement of our encounter to others, in word and in deed.

And that is why, dear friends, it is so important that vicars and bishops retire, that congregations call new priests and dioceses new bishops; that we don’t just keep worshiping out of one old familiar Prayer Book, singing the same old familiar hymns, doing the things we’ve always done in the ways we’ve always done them – wonderful as they are. For all the things that have happened here at Holy Cross in the last fourteen years – all the encounters we’ve had, you and I, with the risen Christ – much more, much more wonderful, is yet to come. If you take this gospel to heart, you and I have only just begun. “The Lord is risen indeed.” We must get up and go forth, to meet him on the road of life, again and again; to share his Good News, to be drawn ever deeper into his sacred heart.

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