They were devastated. They’d been through the horrors of Jesus’ crucifixion, the ongoing threat to their own safety and the utter uncertainty of their futures, and now they were finding themselves displaced, both physically and ideologically.
Specifically, in today’s Gospel reading two of them had set out on a day-long trip to leave Jerusalem and head toward Emmaus, a town about 7 miles from Jerusalem. There they’d be out of the fray, safe from the threat of arrest, in a place where they could begin rebuilding their lives little by little.
And as they walked they processed with each other all the details of the situation they’d just endured. They walked kicked up dust as they went, and as they traveled they ran into another man on the road to Emmaus. He was drawn into their conversation, as it had an intensity that was hard to ignore, and he traveled along with them. The man walking with them had not heard of the events of days past—unthinkable!—so they filled him in and lamented over and over: “We had thought he would be the one to redeem Israel. We had thought.”
Anyone who has lived through grief will recognize here in this Gospel passage the stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. You know them: they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. The disciples who walked along the road were not very far into the grieving process—it had only been a few days, after all. But they were certainly deep into the beginnings of heart-wrenching, fist-pounding grief, wondering if things could possibly have been different, talking over and over again the details of their experience, hurting for the loss of their friend Jesus and wondering what in the world was going to happen next.
Yes, Jesus had died. Yes, they were afraid. But what they didn’t know as they walked along the road that day was that Jesus had risen, that his resurrection had completely redefined the framework of their lives. From this point onward, their community, that band of followers that had hung their hopes on this man Jesus, was a community . . . in exile.
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We spoke last week about the Celtic Christian community, a community that was formed when missionaries were sent by the Roman church to the area that is now Ireland and Scotland. When missionaries were sent there they encountered a culture that had a well-established clan structure into which the missionaries could not easily assimilate. As a result, alternative communities formed, communities in which Christians were exiled from the culture that surrounded them . . . forced to develop their own unique response to the experience of being marginalized. What resulted, as we heard last week, was a rich tradition of music, prayers and devotional material reflecting the struggle of this community.
One of the missionaries who came into that situation was named Aidan, now a saint in the Catholic Church. He’s especially remembered for his work in Northumbria in the Seventh Century, when he was consulted to mediate a clan conflict even though he was living as a member of an exiled Christian community. The official remembrance of his life maintained by the church says, “His life was lived in marked contrast to the apathy of the times.”
Living in marked contrast . . . that’s what exile was for the Celtic Christians; that’s what exile was for the very first Christians, too. In fact, exile meant for the Celtic Christians and exile meant for the very first Christians that, because they believed in the message and resurrection of Jesus, their community stood in stark contrast to the rest of society at large. It meant they marched to the beat of a different drummer, that they had different scripts than the scripts of the empire around them, and that they now had the task of identifying those scripts and living them faithfully.
I’ve recently discovered that the plight of the Pacific Sockeye Salmon is currently a hot topic in environmental advocacy circles. Did you know that in some areas of the world, the salmon population is at a critical point and facing extinction? This was deeply troubling for me to discover, and not necessarily because I am in touch with the critical environmental issues of the day.
Frankly, this is of much higher concern for me because my very favorite thing to eat in the summertime is salmon cooked on the grill.
Nevertheless, I learned recently that this particular species of salmon is experiencing serious threat due to environmental issues in the rivers in which they spawn. Salmon, as you probably know, are born in fresh water streams and migrate to the ocean to live. When it comes time for them to spawn they head back, almost all of them, to the river in which their egg originally hatched. What’s notable about this migration is that it is undertaken for huge distances—scientists estimate 1200 kilometers in some cases—and, for most of that distance, swimming against the current of very swift-flowing rivers. Spawning salmon are so strong they can swim against the current and also use their bodies to jump over small waterfalls and obstructing rocks.
I doubt that the early Christians knew about salmon, but I do know the symbol of the early church was a fish, and maybe rightly so. By establishing themselves as followers of this man Jesus, a man who proclaimed unusual messages of love, peace and justice, the early church had set themselves firmly against the scripts or messages of the culture in which they lived, and as a result found themselves swimming, with urgent and trying effort, against the current.
Those men on the way to Emmaus had begun the trek upstream, against their culture. The Celtic Christians also were swimming that direction.
But what about us?
We heard last week about some of the messages, or scripts, we hear in our culture. Today we examine how the task of living in the shadow of an empty tomb, of living the truth of the resurrection, might place us in contrast to our culture. If we’re serious about swimming upstream, about following the scripts of Jesus, then we will quickly find ourselves in the company of the first disciples . . . in exile.
Over the next few weeks in this season of Easter we’ll be considering the scripts of exile . . . scripts by which the reality of the resurrection, the practicalities of following Jesus, start to become concrete for us. For Daniel and the other Israelite exiles in Babylon it was following the dietary rules and preserving the language of their homeland. For us twenty-first century Christians, the scripts are different than that but still messages that call us to swim upstream against the pull of popular culture.
The first script is MYSTERY. In a society in which we strive for answers to every question, the way of Jesus invites us to live with mystery and doubt. We do not know the answers to every question; we cannot formulaically describe God. We long for a different reality than that around us, but we have to admit that this longed-for reality Jesus described, the Kingdom of God, is not one that can be ushered in with logic or reason. Rather, we live in relationship with God in which we are sometimes unable to see the larger picture but keep moving because our lives have been transformed by knowing God and because we believe in God’s ongoing work in the world. Our society’s scripts tell us that questions must be answered. The way of Jesus invites us into a life of mystery in which we strive, not for definitive answers all the time, but rather for a faith that carries us through the times when we just don’t know.
A second script by which we live is the script of SUFFERING. Here, only three weeks from the holiest week of the year when we recall the death of Jesus, we are confronted with the reality that sometimes standing up for what you believe to be true and right results in pain. Your mom was right all along . . . it’s not always easy to do the right thing. Jesus died because of the messages he preached; if we claim to be his followers it should not surprise us in the least if we encounter difficulty. We’re living scripts that are opposite the scripts of our culture, and any idea in opposition to a mainstream idea is going to meet resistance. The message that Christian faith is a way to comfort and material success is not the way of Jesus; in fact, if we follow this man Jesus we may have to script some suffering.
And rather than a life marked by “looking out for number one” a third script of our faith is the script of RECONCILIATION. If we are followers of Jesus we are called to be at peace with all people. This is strange, as it places us squarely at odds with most messages of the world, messages that tell us we should run roughshod over anyone in our way, disregard the opinions of those who don’t agree with us and promote only our own perspectives as the only valid ones. The script of Jesus is a script that invites tax collectors and prostitutes to dinner, that offers forgiveness to the thieves being executed, that makes time in a busy schedule for the important task of loving children. The script of Jesus invites us to lives of reconciliation rather than lives in which we disregard others just so we can get ahead.
And fourth, the script of Jesus is a script of TRANSFORMATION. While our world tells us that we can do anything if we try hard enough, the way of Jesus reminds us that we are people in need of a Savior. The script of Jesus is a script in which we enter relationship with God because we need God to transform us, to heal our lives in ways no self-help book, yoga class or self-realization exercise could even come close to meeting. We are people who believe that the scripts of this world do not provide enough power to change us . . . but that the scripts of our Savior utterly and totally transform us.
Mystery, suffering, reconciliation and transformation. If we live our lives by these scripts, if we adopt them as guiding principles of our lives and tuck them under our arms as we head out from the empty tomb, well then we will have become just like those disciples on the way to Emmaus: a community going against the current of popular culture; a community in exile.
Exile, of course, is not a new idea in our faith tradition. The Jews were exiled many times over the course of their life as a nation. We heard this morning the story of Daniel and the exilic period when the Jews were exiled to Babylon.
There are certain things that happen to a community when they are exiled, and one of them is what we heard in the account of the disciples on the Emmaus road. It’s a feeling of sadness, of displacement, of suddenly and urgently knowing that the place in which we find ourselves is not familiar . . . it’s not home anymore. The place we find ourselves, instead, is a place that is hostile to the essential things we believe, that runs opposed to the convictions by which we live. And accompanying those feelings of displacement and grief are feelings of uncertainty, insecurity and pain, all framed by the sudden knowledge that things are not as they once were and that they will never be the same again.
Exile is hard, because in the experience of exile we are no longer carried along by the current of popular culture. Instead we’re challenged to swim against the tide, to live our lives following the scripts of the exile . . . not the scripts of the empire anymore.
But we can also note that the faith tradition we’ve been handed is incredibly rich, that, in its pain and uncertainty, the experience of exile provides some unique gifts, and it is precisely here that we find hope. We find hope in the new scripts Jesus offers because new scripts mean new possibilities . . . the Kingdom of God coming to life right before our very eyes.
Walter Bruggeman, highly regarded Old Testament scholar, writes about the Jewish experience of exile in Babylon: ” . . . Israel’s seemingly helpless present is teeming with liberation and intentionality. Israel is expected . . . to cease its mesmerized commitment to the rulers of the age, who thrive on the despair of Israel, and to receive . . . the freedom of imagination to act as a people headed home.”
What the disciples didn’t know as they started out for Emmaus that day . . . and what we might not have known when we turned from the empty tomb two weeks ago . . . was that we have set out on an experience of exile. We’re on the adventure of learning to live in new ways, but completely different scripts than the scripts our society hands us.
And as we walk along, like those disciples, we may be grieving. We may not understand the difficult task we’ve taken on, the task of scripting the mystery, suffering, reconciliation and transformation of the resurrected Christ. We may also feel displaced, uneasy and maybe even terrified as we walk along. And, the people who walk with us on the journey may even share our fears . . . they may walk alongside in the throes of grief just as we are, struggling with denial, anger, bargaining and depression . . . moving toward acceptance, but ever so slowly, like swimming against a very strong current.
What those disciples may not have known as they walked along was that, in their grief and confusion, in the midst of a discovery that their faith was calling them to do things that were exceptionally hard, that they were decidedly . . . not alone. They did not drift in uncertainty. They were not abandoned to their own devices. They were not fighting the current with their own power.
No, even though they didn’t see it for awhile, walking right alongside them was the resurrected Christ, who would never leave them alone.
If you and I are going to take our faith seriously then we are going to be called to do some strenuous up-stream swimming. That is, we are going to face situations in which the convictions of our faith will place us in opposing positions to the messages of our culture.
This is not an easy place to be. In fact, sometimes it’s full of uncertainty and fear. But we set out on this journey in the first place because the message of this man Jesus was so compelling that the very least we could do was give our entire lives to following him, even if it meant laying down our old way of life and embracing something totally new . . . even if it meant following to strange places, places like a cross and a tomb . . . even if it meant taking on new scripts, new ways of living that run against the current of the messages we hear everyday in our culture.
Like the Jews in Babylon, like the disciples after resurrection, like the Celtic Christians of the six century . . . we are a people invited to live the scripts of the exile, difficult, unconventional ideas of mystery, suffering, reconciliation and transformation.
And in our exile we may, from time to time, feel that we walk alone, that we wish only for things to return to the easy and accepted way they used to be. But if we keep it up, if we process our pain and doubt and fear and keep living the scripts of exile, we’ll notice along the road that there are others walking with us, others who share our struggle. And if we keep walking together, following faithfully, we’ll begin to recognize this Jesus whom we long to see . . . well, he is walking right beside us.