Luke 24:13-35

A Funny Thing Happened on the Road to Emmaus

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

The gospel lesson this morning is an old friend – the walk to Emmaus: Two men are on their way home from Jerusalem following the crucifixion. Jesus comes up beside them.

They tell him all that has happened. He tells them what it means. They invite him to dinner and, in the breaking of bread, their eyes are opened, and they recognize him as the risen Christ.

So, what does this story tell us about living a life of faith in the spirit of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? That’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon today.

First, I think it tells us we can expect Jesus to meet with us along the way, in the course of everyday life.

As most of you know, I took off Monday after Easter and flew to Rome. I got back late Wednesday night. Those of you who’ve been to Rome know there’s a lot to see, and I did my best to see as much of it as I could in eight days.

Needless to say, I did a lot of walking. I figure I must’ve walked ten miles a day. Some days I was on my feet for eight hours or more. Walking the streets of Rome, it was altogether common to overtake other individuals and couples, to walk alongside them for a while, then move on up ahead. And it was just as common to notice that someone was walking alongside me, that they’d slipped up on me from behind.

Having the Emmaus story on my mind, I began to imagine what it would be like for Jesus to be walking the streets of Rome, coming up beside people – like the people in front of me – overhearing their conversation, being close enough to rub shoulders with them.

Then I started asking myself, what if the person up ahead, or the person standing next to me on the buswas Jesus? Would I recognize him? Would I want to meet him? There are a lot of unsavory people on city streets and riding on city buses, you know. Would I be willing to make a place for him in my heart and share my thoughts and feelings and experiences with him? Would you?

In the Christian faith, we call this the Incarnation – God with us in the here and now, as opposed to sitting up in heaven, distant and far-removed. Well, I can’t think of a better image of what it means to live a life in the spirit of the resurrection than to look for the presence of Jesus Christ in the faces of those around you and to reach out to them in his name.

I did a lot of walking, and I can’t tell you how many times I got lost … which is unusual for me because I’m usually pretty good at reading a map. Only there weren’t always a lot of streets signs in Rome. And the streets change names every few blocks. Plus, hardly any of them run parallel or perpendicular to each other.

So, I’d find myself going in a circle and, of course, I didn’t want to ask anybody for help. You know what they say – real men don’t ask for directions! But once I gave up, invariably, some kind stranger would come to my rescue and point me in the right direction.

In the story of the walk to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other disciple were also lost, only in a different way. They were on the right road, and they knew their way home, but they had no idea what to make of Jesus’ passion and death or the women’s testimony that he’d risen from the dead. Geographically, they knew where they were; theologically, they were as lost as I was on the streets of Rome.

Jesus came alongside them and asked, “What’s this you’re talking about?” And they told him the whole story of Jesus’ passion and death. When they finished, Jesus explained to them, in light of the prophecies of the Old Testament, the significance of what had happened.

I like to think of it this way: Only when they were willing to stop talking and start listening were they able to hear the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

My friend, Keith Hill, had a term for this. He called it a teachable spirit. Keith and I served on the Committee on Ministry together in the Palo Duro Presbytery. We’d interview a candidate for ministry and Keith would say, “I think he’s going to make a fine minister – he has a teachable spirit.” That meant he was willing to listen and learn and let others help show him the ropes.

This is one of the most important attributes of living a life of faith in the spirit of the resurrection, to listen for the voice of God and trust the leading of God’s Spirit to guide you rather than trying to be in control and call the shots yourself.

As I mentioned, the story goes on to say that Cleopas and the other disciple invited Jesus to join them for dinner and, in the breaking of bread, their eyes were opened, and they were able to behold the risen Christ. They ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others: “He is risen! He is risen, indeed!”

And that where the story ends, with Jesus’ self-revelation and his followers’ faithful response. But where I’d like to end the sermon is with what Paul Harvey would call, “the rest of the story.”

As we all know, this was but one of many appearances Jesus made before he ascended into heaven. After that, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, and they were empowered to speak and act in Jesus’ name, and in no time, they fanned out in every direction taking the gospel to the four corners of the world. It’s this universal scope of the gospel I’d like for us to think about in closing.

Again, I go back to my trip to Rome. Standing in St. Peter’s Square, I couldn’t help but think about what it means to be Presbyterian in the world today. I concluded that being Presbyterian is a good thing; it’s just that we represent such a small slice of the pie. The church of Jesus Christ is so much bigger, and so I think it’s incumbent upon us to keep this in perspective and look for ways to broaden our faith and understanding.

While in Rome, I made a list of all the things I like about the Roman Catholic Church – its rich history and unwavering focus on the mystery of the Eucharist. I also made a list of the reasons I could never be a Roman Catholic. At the top of my list was the infallibility of the Pope. For me, that’s over the top. But can’t we learn from each other?

That’s the question.

In a sermon by Dr. Fred Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, Fred says,

“The word Presbyterian itself is not very useful …
after all, we are Reformed Christians;
actually, ‘reformed Catholics’ …
we come from that theological tradition
that set out in the sixteenth century to reform the Catholic Church
on the basis of what the Bible teaches us to believe, do and be.”
(Being Presbyterian, June 8, 1997)

Well, I’d like to see us work harder at becoming more reformed in our catholic; i.e., our universal understanding of the Christian faith, embracing the rich traditions of the early church while honing the skills of articulating such Reformed doctrines as justification by grace through faith and the priesthood of all believers.

But let’s not stop here. Let’s go on to explore the commonality we share with other faiths of the world.

One of the books I took along with me to read was a brief biography of Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk who lived in the monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky. He gained notoriety in the ‘60s for his support of the Civil Rights Movement. At the time of his death, Merton was plowing new fields in applying the disciplines of Zen Buddhism to the contemplative Christian life. He told his friends he had no intention of converting to Buddhism, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him from learning all he could from the Zen masters.

In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

The context of this passage is the Torah, and the implication is clear: By the death andresurrection of Jesus we are set free from the narrow boundaries of any one particularreligious system.

So, how does that play out for us today? For one thing, we share a common ancestry with Judaism. Christ sets us free to become more Judeo-Christian. We’re also related to the Muslim faith through a common ancestry with Abraham. Christ sets us free to learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Several years ago I led a group from my church on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was noon, and we’d just come out of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The minarets were sounding the call to midday prayer. We got on the bus and looked over to a parking lot to see hundreds of Muslim men down on their prayer mats kneeling toward Mecca.

One member of our group groused, “Would you just look at that?” Another responded, “Before you criticize, when you have ever seen that many Presbyterians down on their knees at one time?”

I’m not suggesting we convert to Islam, only that we look for the common ground on which we all stand. For example, we all deal with the same issues of health and aging and accidents and disease. We all struggle to find meaning and purpose in life. We deal with the common issues of vocation and mortality. And I’m sure Muslim and Jewish and Hindu and Buddhist parents love their children just as much as anyone else.

We have so much in common. How can we, as people of the resurrection, relate to others across the boundaries of race, religion and national allegiance without being sectarian, on the one hand, or losing our distinctive identity as Presbyterians on the other? Somehow, I believe there’s a way and, until we find it, our vision of Christ and his kingdom will be too small.

I’ll give you an example. Recently I attended a conference on Christian vocation. At issue was how we can recognize and affirm God’s call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament among young people in our churches? In one of our small group sessions, the question came up: “How do we understand the place of personal revelation; i.e., those who say that God has spoken to them personally and individually and called them to preach?”

One of the participants said, “We have a clear process for that,” meaning that it’s a matter for the Session and the congregation and the Presbytery to confirm. Another replied, “Yes, but what about the Apostle Paul and his experience on the Damascus Road? He certainly didn’t look ask for anyone’s endorsement.” And the first participant said, “Paul wasn’t Presbyterian!”

Do you see the problem here? As long as we interpret life experiences solely in light of what we’ve been taught as Presbyterians, we’ll fail to grasp the fullness of God’s grace and love. Only as we’re willing to interpret what it means to be Presbyterian in light of scripture and the witness of others, both Christian and non-Christian, will we experience the full power of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of life in all its abundance. Enough for now. Here’s where I’d like to stop. A funny thing happened on the road to Emmaus. Jesus appeared out of nowhere and opened the eyes of two of his followers to the miracle of his resurrection and the dawning of God’s New Creation. May he open our eyes, as well.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2006, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.