Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 26, 2020
Luke 24:13-35 Commentary
After his wife died, C.S. Lewis once wrote that he thought that his grief might be less if he intentionally avoided the places he and his wife Joy had frequented and so he limited his travels to only those places where they had never been together. He switched grocery stores, tried different restaurants, walked only along streets and paths that he and Joy had never taken. But it didn’t work. To paraphrase Lewis, “I found out that grief is like the sky above—it is over everything.” A lot of us feel that way right now in this time of pandemic. So much grief. So much grief-laden sky above. No one is spared.
The two travelers in Luke 24 seem to think that by getting out of Dodge maybe they, too, could walk away from their grief, leave the bad memories of the previous Friday behind. Jerusalem had become like an empty house from which all the children had gone. It was haunted with memories. It was haunted by hope deferred. Jerusalem was the place where their dreams had died. It was more than high time to hit the road and see if they could leave their troubles behind.
As Frederick Buechner asked in his classic sermon on this text, where is your “Emmaus?” We all have one.
Maybe it’s the mall where the noise of commerce and the rush of people keep you from thinking about life. Maybe it’s a bar where the booze and the beer nuts help numb you to the more bitter truths that swirl outside the windows of that darkened, smoky room. Maybe it’s a matinee at the movies where you go to take in what Hollywood proudly touts as “escapist fare.” Maybe it’s the TV remote that takes you away from it all as you mindlessly channel surf every single evening. We try to escape our troubles. That’s when we head to Emmaus. Maybe we can escape our grief and troubles.
Of course, it doesn’t work now and it did not work very well then. Grief is like the sky . . .
The two followers of Jesus thought Emmaus maybe would be the place to go but as they trekked that way their conversation kept circling back and back and back again to the death of the One they had loved, the One in whom they had hoped. Had hoped. What a wretched pluperfect that is.
In fact they were talking about all that—failing singularly to forget their troubles, in other words—when the clueless stranger came up to them. “Shalom! What’s up, friends?” The question catches them up short. After all, doesn’t everybody know the latest?! “Where have you been, friend” they ask. “You must be the only one in the whole county who hasn’t heard about the recent disaster!”
It is probably a sign of the enormity of their grief that they reacted like that. In truth, there could have been lots of people who hadn’t heard this. Sure, to the disciples this was headline news, but to some people it may have been noted only in passing. Just another Roman crucifixion. Happens all the time. It was just a side story buried on page 3 of the “Jerusalem Gazette.” Big deal. Pass the Sports section.
Well, this stranger on the road must have been one such clueless tourist because he didn’t seem to know a blessed thing about any of it. So they explain things to the stranger, more or less admitting in the end that the One on whom they had pinned their hopes did not pan out. They had made, it appeared, a rather large mistake.
We all make mistakes, of course, and when the mistake in question is no more significant than burning your breakfast toast or accidentally calling “George” “Harry,” you can pick yourself up and move on. But when the mistake you’ve made is more along the lines of trusting a neighbor who ended up molesting your child or trusting your husband only to find he’s been a serial adulterer for decades, well then you feel not just embarrassed or a bit upset over your mistake but shattered by it. “How could I have gotten things that wrong?” we want to ask ourselves.
But then, suddenly, the stranger, who had appeared so clueless a moment before, changes. He has the audacity first of all to call these two folks foolish, and before they can object to this, the stranger has launched into a quite serious and thorough Bible study. And after that, the rest of the trek to Emmaus just flew by! With breathtaking sweep and exegetical precision, this anonymous fellow traveler re-tells Scripture’s story. It is Israel’s story, all right, but the stranger tells it in a quite new way. The last time they’d heard anyone talk about the Bible in such an invigorating a fashion was . . . well, never mind.
Before they knew it they were standing at their destination. With a slight wave and a nod the stranger says, “Nice talking with you” and then keeps walking. So Cleopas pipes up, “Sir! Look, the sun is setting which means the thieves along the highway will be coming out soon. It’s not safe to travel alone–stay with us at least tonight.” The man agrees. After having washed the dust of the journey off faces, hands, and feet, the three find a place to eat. Before they knew what’s happening, the stranger reaches for the flat bread, lifting it up in a strikingly familiar way. He then gives thanks, breaks it just so, and hands it to Cleopas and his friend. They knew instantly who he was but just as they are ready to cry out, “Jesus!” he was gone.
“I knew it!” Cleopas exclaims. “Didn’t you wonder about this, too! The way he taught us, the way he applied Scripture, wasn’t it eerily familiar all along!” Then, stuffing the bread into their pockets, they sprint back to Jerusalem, covering those seven miles in record time. A little of their thunder is stolen, however, in that before they can spill the beans of their news, the others say, “The Lord appeared to Simon Peter!” They then share the news of their encounter, making special note of the fact that Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Grief is like the sky. It’s over everything.
But so now, apparently, is hope.
If you compare Luke 9:16 with Luke 24:30, you will discover that the verbs are basically identical in the Greek as Jesus takes the bread, eulogizes (or gives thanks) for the bread, breaks the bread, and gives the bread to his disciples.
Even as the words are nearly identical in the Feeding of the 5,000 and the room at the Emmaus Motel, so the actions would have been unmistakable to the disciples. And there can be little doubt that the whole thing is also semaphore for the Lord’s Supper. In fact, if you zoom all the way forward to Acts 27:35, Luke repeats this set of taking, thanking, breaking, and giving as Paul feeds his shipmates just before their boat is wrecked by a storm. Again, there can be no mistaking the sacramental presence of Jesus, the bread of life.
In the ancient Greek myth The Odyssey we read the epic tale of Odysseus. Odysseus was the valiant warrior who fought so bravely in the Trojan War. But, according to legend, his homeward journey after that war was interrupted for many years as the gods had decided to test Odysseus’ true mettle through a series of trials. His journeys carried him far and wide as he encountered mythic beasts and lands, many of which have passed into common parlance: the Cyclops, the Procrustean bed, Scylla and Charybdis, the sirens’ voices.
Meanwhile, back at his home, Odysseus’ wife and family presume he must have died en route back from Troy. Finally, however, the day came when the gods released Odysseus and he arrives back home at last. But instead of simply waltzing through the front door and crying out some Greek equivalent of, “Honey, I’m home!” Odysseus decides that he wants to determine if anything has changed during his long absence. Did his wife still love him? Had she been faithful? In order to find out, Odysseus disguises himself so as to approach his home looking like a stranger in need of temporary lodging.
The housekeeper, Euryclea, welcomes the apparent traveler and performs for him the then-standard practice of foot-washing. As she does so, Euryclea regales the stranger with anecdotes about her long-lost master, Odysseus, whom she had also served as a nurse when he was young. She told the traveler about how long her master has been missing and she noted, too, that by then Odysseus would be about the same age and of about the same build as the man whose feet she was washing. Now when Odysseus had been a young boy, he was once gored by a wild boar, leaving a nasty scar on his leg. As Euryclea went about her servile task, suddenly her hand brushed against that old scar and instantly her eyes were opened and she recognized, with great joy, her beloved friend and master!
Recognition scenes like that have long exercised a strong pull on the human heart. Sometimes this can be used for comedic effect, as in any number of episodes on the old I Love Lucy show when Lucy would disguise herself so as to worm her way into one of her husband, Rickie’s, shows. And you always waited eagerly for that moment when Desi Arnaz’s eyes would widen right before he’d exclaim, “Luuucccy!” But such shocks of recognition are also the stuff of high drama, as in The Odyssey and any number of plays, novels, and films across the centuries.
And, of course, also in Luke 24.
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