Sunday, April 30th, 2017 – A sermon on the road to Emmaus and Luke 24:13-35

You can listen to this sermon here.

Luke 24:13-35
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 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?” 19 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, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 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. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 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. 24 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.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 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. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 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?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Earlier this week, my son asked, “Dad, what does tagalong mean?”

At first, I explained the verb version to him. To tag along. Elliot, it’s when you follow or go along with a person or a group somewhere. You tag along with them.

But then I immediately realized that there is an entirely different way of understanding this word and it’s pretty loaded. The noun version. To be a tagalong. How am I going to explain this to him in a way that is both true and compassionate. And as I thought about it, I was quickly transported back to those treacherous moments in middle school and high school, and college, and even still sometimes today, when you yourself feel like a tagalong. We’ve all felt it. That feeling of being on the outside of a group but desperate enough to just sort of linger behind them, hoping for a natural and smooth way to blend in.

The dictionary definition is a little too blunt on this one. Tagalong – “a person who follows or goes somewhere with another person or group often in an annoying way.”

So, I stumbled over my words with Elliot as I did my best to say, “A tagalong is someone who sees someone or a group of people doing something that they want to be a part of, and they join them in it.”

And as soon as I said that, it dawns on me. Oh my goodness – Jesus is a tagalong. On the road to Emmaus – he is such a tagalong.

I rushed over to a bible and open it up to Luke 24, and it’s true. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them. And not only is Jesus a tagalong, but his opening line is the most tagalong question there is, “Uh, hey guys, whatcha talkin’ about?”

And then Cleopas, who is sad and hurting and grieving Jesus’ death, isn’t exactly the kindest person to Jesus, but then again that’s what we do when we’re hurt – we take our hurt out on others. Cleopas says to Jesus, “Are you the only kid in school hasn’t heard about what’s happened?”

And I realize I am quite likely putting a 21st Century spin on a 1st Century text, that may or may not have known of tagalongs, but I gotta say that for the insecure 13-year-old self that lives inside me who knows what it’s like, this was such good news. My heart sings at the fact that if high school is a metaphor for the gospel, Jesus is the tagalong and not the captain of the football team. And my heart aches as I think of the ways I’ve dismissed the tagalongs too.

You’ve seen those shirts that say, “Jesus is my boyfriend”, I want a shirt that says, “Jesus is my tagalong.”

But seriously. This is really good news that Jesus tags along with them on this road. Because the road to Emmaus is the road of deep disappointment and despair and fear, and the truth about life is that we all have or we all will walk it.

The disciples are walking it because the only thing they are sure of is that their hope died on Good Friday. And any Easter hope that is alive is rumor. Jesus, the hope they carried, had been crucified and buried. That’s all they know for sure.

We walk the road to Emmaus for many reasons. Perhaps it is because we watch as family and friends, neighbors, strangers, and students, or we ourselves are threatened and silenced because of the color of our skin. And we’ve grown weary and tired of not knowing what to do about it. Or perhaps it is because we’re at that age where our family members are declining and we don’t know how to help. Or perhaps it is because the person we always thought we would be shifts and fades as the real possibility of divorce, or barrenness, or a devastating diagnosis set in.

We all walk this road to Emmaus. It’s the road where we’re desperate for companionship but everyone’s a stranger. And at the same time, on this road, every stranger is a potential friend.

And of course it is a road. Of course it is a road to walk. Because when you are grieving, the only way out of it is through it – with your body. Too often we’ve turned grief work into something we do in our heads. You need to grieve, the therapist says. Yes, but how? Author and funeral director, Thomas Lynch says, “Grief work…is not so much the brain’s to do, as (it is) the body’s. (Grieving) is better done by large muscles than gray matter; less burden of cerebral synapse and more of shoulders, shared embraces, sore hearts.”[1] This is the gift and the wisdom of a traditional funeral. We carry with our shoulders the body of our beloved and we walk them to their place of rest. It is how we grieve. It is how we get through.

So of course it is the road to Emmaus. Because in times of grief and deep disappointment, we need to move our bodies, putting one foot in front of the other.

And of course it is the road to Emmaus. The gospel says that Emmaus is 7 miles outside of Jerusalem. Seven being the symbol of perfection – I’m not sure what to make of that, but there’s something there. But here’s the thing, no one can find Emmaus. Historically, no one knows where it is. Archeologists cannot find it. Perhaps the road to Emmaus is a synonym for not knowing where you are going. Which sounds a lot like times of fear and grief and disappointment.

British psychologist Colin Murray Parkes has said that most of the time we think we know where we are going and who is with us, “except that when we’ve lost one we love (when we grieve, when we are living in the land of disappointment), we no longer know where we are going or who is going with us.”[2] Perhaps these two disciples have no clue where they are going. They’re just going. One step at a time. And Jesus, whom they’ve known and who knows them, goes with them, but they only see a stranger. A tagalong.

But then when they welcomed in this stranger and eat with him, then they recognized him as Jesus who was with them along.

Notice that it is rarely in the moment that we can see Jesus. In the moment of loss and grief and disappointment, our ears are ringing and our vision is narrowed. Usually it’s when we look back that we can see the places where God was with us.

They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” And they joyfully rush back to Jerusalem and tell the others what had happened to them on the road.

Now, Luke’s first readers would’ve smiled at this line. For they knew about the road. The road was more than a highway; it was a symbol for them of the whole Christian life…In fact, these early Christians were called by friends and enemies a like, “(people) of the Way”. And the word “way” and “road” are the same in Greek. In other words, early Christians were known as “people of the road. [3]

The truth of the Christian life is that Christ becomes present to us as we walk down the road together. Putting one foot in front of the other.

And at its most basic form, the gospel in this story is that Christ is with us on that road. Even when we cannot recognize him. Even when we don’t know that the face of Christ can be seen in the stranger beside us. There are “strange graces that come to our aid only on a road such as this.” (Jan Richardson)

In his remarkable book, The Road, Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a father and a son walking alone through a burned and devastated America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape (except) the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. This father and son are on a journey to the coast, having no clue what awaits them there.

It is the story of an image of the future in which no hopes remains, except that the father and son are sustained by their love for one another.

Throughout the book, there is this theme of fire. Naturally, as travelers on the road of a dystopic America, fire would be very important. They are constantly looking for wood to start a fire, waking up to a fire that’s almost burned out. The father holds the son close to the fire to warm him at night. But this theme of fire isn’t just about the fire that burns outside – it is about the fire that burns within. The father and son have this phrase they use together on the road – we’re carrying the fire, they say. The fire of hope.

Early in the book, late at night, the small boy says to his dad,

We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?
Yes, we are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

Towards the end of the story, the father has grown weak and ill. He’s developed a bloody cough and he knows his end is near. And he tells his son to go on without him.

I want to be with you, the boy says.
You can’t.
Please.
You can’t. You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes you do.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.

 Brothers and sisters, we are the People of the Road. People of the Way. The way of forgiveness and grace and hope, even when we can’t recognize Jesus and all seems lost. We are the people of the way, walking together and trusting that somewhere along the way, we will recognize that Jesus has been with us the whole time.  Together we are a people who put one foot in front of the other, not always knowing where we are going, but trusting in the presence of God with us.  And in that way, we are carrying the fire. Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road? the disciples asked?

When Christ is with us, there is a burning in our hearts. When Christ is with us, there is a fire inside and hope is alive. It may feel like a small ember that is growing cold, but if you can keep the door to your heart open and not lock it up, God will breathe the Spirit of life on that tiny ember to grow a fire of life inside your heart.

And here is the thing – Christ is always with you. Especially on the road to Emmaus. Which means hope is alive and the fire has not gone out.

Carry that fire. Care for it, protect it like a candle in the wind. Because there are all sorts of forces in this life that will try to snuff it out.

And it is only fitting that this morning we have a baptism for Ozzie and the welcoming of new members. Today we lift Ozzie Taggart as one who is on the road with us and we say that he is carrying the fire too. We give him a candle representing that fire. And we recognize new members who have chosen to walk the road with us and we give each household a candle too.

Thank you for welcoming these people on the road with us. And thanks to them for welcoming us on their road. At times, we may be strangers to each other, but I trust that along the way, we will stop and look back, recognizing the face of Christ in one another.

Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? We don’t know where it is.
Yes we do. It’s here. Among us.

We do not walk alone. Christ has come along with us. And the fire is alive. Thanks be to God.

[1] Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long, The Good Funeral, pg. 65.

[2] Ibid., pg. 224.

[3] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 98.

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