Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. 1 Peter 1:22-23
In the Easter lectionary cycle this week we find ourselves on the road to Emmaus with two of Jesus’ disciples. It is several days after the death and resurrection of Jesus and there is still confusion and uncertainty about what has happened and what it all means. The tomb where Jesus’ body was buried has been found empty and apparently, some folks have seen visions of heavenly messengers claiming that Jesus, who had been dead, was now alive.
The two disciples are recounting what seems to be gossip and hearsay to a stranger who has joined them on their journey. The men give no indication that they have seen any of this for themselves but they express some surprise that their traveling companion seems to have heard nothing about the events surrounding Jesus’ trial and death. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” After the disciples tell the man what they know and what they have heard he says something rather odd, “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?”
He proceeds to explain the Holy Scriptures in the context of himself. The disciples still do not recognize him but seem to accept that that he has the authority to teach them about the sacred texts. They are so engaged in the discussion that when they finally arrive at their destination they invite the teacher to dinner. When Jesus’ blesses and breaks bread with them the cloud of their confusion is lifted and they finally recognize Jesus… and then he is gone.
There are a number of inexplicable bits of this story that the author feels no need to clarify. The reader is asked to accept that Jesus was at first unrecognizable to his own followers but later his identity is unmistakable. He seems to appear and disappear miraculously and the disciples have no hesitancy in believing that Jesus had indeed been resurrected from the dead.
Reading this two thousand years after the facts we have no way to either prove or disprove the validity of the disciples’ account of these events. It is not really useful to argue over the particulars….at least not on a Sunday morning. We come to the Gospel looking for insight into our own relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We seek spiritual comfort in the deeper meaning of the story…that Christ, who is always walking with us is not always visible to us and yet, if we open our minds to the possibility he will reveal himself to us….in the breaking of bread and in the companionship of fellow seekers.
When I was in seminary I spent some of my time taking classes at the Center Theology and Natural Science which was part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. It was one of the most exhilarating and frustrating times of my academic life. I was in class with a number of other students…most of whom were also studying physics and philosophy. As a biologist, I was in the minority. If you want to be humbled sit in a room with a bunch of physicists discussing metaphysics.
Every day I would leave class feeling like I was hovering on the edge of some deeper understanding…that a profound truth was just out of reach waiting for me to recognize it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to grasp it and it would slip away. I am embarrassed to admit that for a year or so I carried around a little notebook so that when I finally did have my one really good idea I would be able to write it down for posterity. I never did think that one great thought and what I did write in my little book would probably be incomprehensible to me now.
While some more practical people might consider my studies at the Center a waste of time I disagree. The bright people I met there were seeking a deeper knowledge of God through their study of the natural world. They helped me realize that there is not some great divide between the spiritual and the physical and certainly not a conflict between science and theology. It is part of our human experience to ask questions… about the world…about ourselves…about God. Asking the big questions in no way indicates a lack of faith. I think we all realize that there are many questions for which we will never have provable, definitive answers but in asking the question we open ourselves up to communication with the Holy Spirit.
If we learn anything from our Gospel lesson of the disciples’ experience on the road to Emmaus it is that sometimes we do not recognize the Lord when we encounter him. Our vision can be clouded by any number of confounding factors…fear…anxiety…guilt. Sometimes we do not see because we have not been taught how to do so…or we have acquired a world view that is too narrow to allow us to see what we cannot accept. But we do not always need to understand to experience the truth of something. The incomprehensible mystery of God cannot be reduced to a collection of facts.
We read in the 1st letter of John chapter 4 that God is love. If this is true then we will know God like we know love….in the very deepest part of ourselves…beyond thought…beyond understanding. There comes a point where we must admit that we cannot explain but we can experience it. We cannot describe or quantify love but we know it when we feel it….we see it when someone reveals it to us…in an action or a word….or even in a moment of silent togetherness… a hand held in the darkness.
Even though the disciples did not recognize Jesus until right before he left them they had a sense that something important was happening. They wanted to prolong the encounter so they asked him to stay with them. It was in the simple act of breaking bread, something Jesus had done with them countless times that they saw him as he truly was and knew themselves to be in the presence of the risen Lord. They only understood what had happened in retrospect. The same is true for many of our most profound experiences. It is only in looking back…in reflecting on them …that we see the lesson we learned….the truth that was revealed…that moment of growing insight.
I have no doubt that when the time has passed and we look back on our experience in quarantine we will realize that we have learned some very important truths…about ourselves…about our worshipping community…about the power of faith and endurance of love. Never doubt that our Lord is walking with us on this strange journey and if we allow our eyes to be opened he will reveal himself to us….in our new way of communing with each other and in our solitary communion with God.
Brothers and sisters…hold tightly to your faith…it will sustain you in these trying times. Be patient with others and with yourself…be kind to others and to yourself…and do not fear. Christ is risen from the dead and even now we too are being resurrected….reborn in his likeness, new creatures filled with light and born of love.