The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Easter 3—Year A; Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
Two weeks ago, we were on “the first day of the week.” Last week, we were on “the first day of the week.” Today, we’re on “the first day of the week.” We just can’t seem to get off of “the first day of the week,” and that’s a really good thing. Easter, resurrection, it’s just way too big of a thing to wrap our hearts and minds around on the first go round. Some of us experienced full-on resurrection on that glorious Easter day two weeks ago with the flowers and the brass and the children and that fabulous party; some of us came back to life on that very first day. But some of us still had our hearts somewhere in Lent; some of us got detained on the way to the tomb and found ourselves very much still in Holy Week. If you have been slow to come to this resurrection thing, the church is going to keep circling back for you until you, too, know the fullness of resurrection. If you aren’t quite feeling in step with all of this Easter joy yet, today is for you.
So, on the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ followers were going to a village called Emmaus, it’s about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and fell in step 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?” And they weren’t just having a nice, calm, very rational discussion; they were throwing these words back and forth, telling these stories as fast as they could get them out, you know, like when you are full of adrenalin because something has really excited you or upset you, and you’re talking just a little too fast. They stopped dead in their tracks, stood completely still, and maybe for the first time, let this stranger look into their eyes, and those eyes looked so 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? Are you not on Facebook? Have you not been following the Twitter feed? Have you checked your email? Don’t you listen to the radio, or read a paper, or watch the news? Don’t you know what’s happened? Don’t you know the things that have taken place?”
The stranger asked them, “What? What things?”
They replied, “Oh my gosh, 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.” And here, they are starting to talk a little fast again. “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, it’s 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. He didn’t say a ton of words; he wasn’t talking way too fast, he just 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. The eleven 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.
Slow of heart. These two followers of Jesus were slow of heart. What a great phrase! What a wonderful image! The heart that is slow to see. The heart that is slow to believe. The heart that has been broken that is so slow to trust again. The heart that is afraid to leap because it might crash and break into a thousand pieces. The heart that is slow to warm when pain and grief have frozen it. That heart that is so fixed on a particular story, on a particular narrative that, evidence to the contrary can stand right before it, the heart that can be looking straight at a different narrative, and it still can’t see beyond the story it knows.
Resurrection is a whole new story, but you can’t see it if you are clinging to the old story.
Those two followers of Jesus had a sense about how this Jesus-story ought to go, and crucifixion was definitely not in the plan. Suffering and Messiah were not two words that were ever supposed to go together. Messiah-liberator-of-Israel might have been a combination. Messiah-hero might have been another, but not suffering Messiah. That is not the narrative. And though they told the tale of the women and their vision of angels who announced “He is alive!” they mostly dismissed all that as an idle tale. They were still stuck on the suffering-Messiah-dead story which did not compute.
The stranger set about going back through all their stories, starting with Moses and rolling all the way through the prophets, pointing out all the things that would point to him. They knew their stories, but they couldn’t see the thread running through them that made it all make sense. They couldn’t see a bigger story than the one they thought they knew, and they still couldn’t recognize him.
But something in them was beginning to wake up because when they came to the village, and the stranger appeared to be continuing on, they asked him to stay with them. And it was at supper, when the words feel away, when it was just bread, just blessing, just breaking, just giving, it was then that their eyes were opened, not these eyes (point to eyes), but these eyes, the eyes of their hearts were opened. They had been looking all along, but now they could recognize the stranger for their beloved Lord.
Recognition is never just a function of physical sight, but it is always a function of the heart that awakens, and it cannot happen if we won’t let the narrative change.
What narratives are we fixated on that are keeping us from recognizing the Risen Christ in our midst? What stories are we telling ourselves that keep our feet firmly planted in death so that we cannot recognize that Resurrection Life is tapping on our hearts begging to get in?
Are we trapped in narratives that our race, our gender, our ethnicity, our economic status is superior to another’s a la Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling? Or, how about a narrative that says we need to cast Donald Sterling to the outer reaches of the universe, or further, forget our baptismal vows, and strip him of all dignity as a human being—is that the story we want to cling to? And all of these narratives, all of these stories, miss the Resurrection Life that calls us to a new story, that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female, racist or reconciler; for all of us, all of us, are one in Christ Jesus.
Are we trapped in narratives that say we, as a society, can figure out humane ways to execute a human being if we just figure out the right ingredients and amounts of the lethal cocktail? Are we trapped in stories of what is deserved and narratives that tell us that state-sponsored violence will somehow bring the healing we long for when our hearts have been broken? All the while missing the Messiah who was executed on a cross and who absorbed that state-sanctioned violence so that this death-dealing cycle of violence could stop. All the while missing the Resurrection Life who calls us to transform our wounds not perpetuate them.
Where are you caught? What narrative has so enveloped your heart that it can’t recognize the new life that stands before you?
What story has so captured your focus that you can’t recognize the Love who is calling you out of death and into life?
What words are you throwing around, if not with another live person, inside your own head, that leave no space for your heart to recognize the Holy Companion who has come alongside you?
And if you just can’t square all the words and all these stories, the ones inside of you, and the one standing right before your eyes, then just stop trying to figure it all out and simply gaze on the bread, the blessing, the breaking, the giving. Just let this meal bypass your eyes and work on your heart from the inside out. Take this bread, blessed, broken, and shared, and your heart will know in the twinkling of an eye what the eye has not yet been able to comprehend.
And as soon as they recognized him, he vanished, he was gone. He didn’t need to be in their sight because now, he was permanently fixed in their hearts. Once the heart sees, once the heart recognizes, that recognition is forever. They don’t have to see him out there because he lives in here.
Our stories can kill us, and they have real power to kill others, if we refuse to let them go. Resurrection is a whole new story, a wonderful story, an immensely real story, a story of wholeness and life and possibility, a story of wounds that get redeemed and losses that get transformed, a story of forgiveness and mercy and power and life that is so much bigger than what most of our stories can imagine. The road to Emmaus reminds us that even followers of Jesus aren’t immune to having stories that are way too small of a container for the incredible love of God that knows no bounds.
So, let Jesus rewrite your story. Let him walk back through the narrative of your life and point out the thread of coherence and meaning that runs throughout and begins and ends with him. Let him show you a bigger vision. Feel your heart burn as you see your own story written anew. And then, in that broken, blessed, given bread, feel the eyes of your heart open. Feel your whole being come back to life and know that the One you’ve been looking for out there now lives within you never to be a stranger again. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 4, 2014