May 10, 2020

“Where’s Jesus?”

Luke 24:13-35

This past week, as I was getting out of my car and heading into my house, a few folks were walking towards me on the street, and said “Hello.” I responded in kind, not paying attention. “How are you?” one person asked in the group as I headed towards my front door. I thought, “Well these strangers sure are friendly.” “Fine. How are…” As I got closer, I finally recognized that this was no group of strangers - It was a good portion of the Freed family - Lori and her sister taking Esther for a nice walk in her wheelchair. I’m used to seeing Lori and Esther on a Sunday morning in worship, not out on the street walking towards me. I find I often do that with people when I see them out of context - like when I see someone I know who works as a checker at Market of Choice out for a walk go by, and I just can’t place them, although they seem vaguely familiar.

I think in some way this is what happened to Cleopas and the other disciple of Jesus when he appeared to them on the Road to Emmaus. Even though he was there, right in front of their faces, he was out of context. In addition, so many things had happened, and the last thing they expected was to see Jesus face to face. They had their minds on other things. These two disciples were what I like to call “Stress walking.”  I’ve done some of that over the last few weeks during this pandemic. Does everyone know what that is? It is when something tragic or frustrating has happened or is happening, and you walk with another person to blow off steam and process the whole mess you are facing. I would guess these two disciples were stressed and sad, having seen their Lord, their leader dies, wondering if they might be soon arrested by Roman authorities for being his followers. With all of their swirling emotions, it is no wonder that their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

As Jesus drew near the two, he feigned ignorance of recent events. Cleopas was surprised. Apparently, the event of his crucifixion was well known. So Cleopas recounted all the events that had happened- How Jesus, a great and mighty prophet had been condemned to death and crucified. How they had hoped he would be the one- the one to rescue Israel, to redeem it. How it had been three days since all of these things happened. Rev. Nancy Seheasted says, “They had hoped that he was really going to be the one to set the oppressed free. They had hoped that he was really going to be the one to lead their movement for liberty and justice for all. They had hoped, but no more. Tragedy had struck. Devastation and despair crashed through hope's door and demanded entry into their inner chambers. Two defeated disciples dropped their heavy hearts on the dusty road.”  Jesus was dead. Three days had passed and the world was unchanged. Rome was still in charge.

Then Cleopas mentioned how some of the women disciples went and saw the empty tomb. They said they saw an angel, and that they were told Jesus had risen. Some of the other disciples then went to look for themselves, but they only saw an empty tomb and did not see any sign of the Risen Messiah. It is at this moment that Jesus could’ve said, “Hi guys! It is me!” Yet instead he sought an opportunity to teach, and so he reminded them of the prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures, and how Christ’s death fulfilled all the scriptures about Messiah.

Their journey must’ve seemed to take less time, as he walked with them and taught them. Suddenly, they were at their village, the place they called home. The sun was setting, and their long walk was at an end. It seemed that this stranger who knew so much about the Messiah and scripture was traveling on. Both of them, however, felt something with this man and wanted to spend more time with him. “It is late. The day is almost over. Why not stay with us and have some dinner?” Jesus agreed, and as he sat at the table, he did the same thing he had done at the last supper with the disciples. He took bread, blessed it, and broke it. It is likely that there were more than just the 12 disciples with Jesus on the night of the last supper, and perhaps Cleopas and the other disciple were there. As they saw him take the bread, bless it, and break it, they were suddenly taken back to that scene in the Upper Room. They put the face of the stranger back into context - and at that exact moment he vanished.

It was suddenly clear to them, all at once. “Who else would know so much about the scriptures? Who else could teach in such a way? Who else would’ve broken bread in the same manner? Surely our hearts were on fire when he was with us! We have to go and tell the others! We have seen the risen Christ! Jesus has risen!”

They were so excited that they couldn’t wait until the next day to travel, and so the two of them set out at night, even though they had just walked 7 miles, and were tired. Traveling 7 miles on foot in sandals-how long would that have taken?  It takes me about 45 minutes to run a 5k, a little over 3 miles, wearing running shoes. My guess is that their journey must’ve taken a good 2 and 1/2 hours to get to Emmaus, and the same time in getting back.  They were so excited that Jesus had appeared to them, they rushed back in the dark to Jerusalem despite the distance to tell the others what had happened.

When they got back, they heard that someone else had also had an eyewitness encounter with Jesus. Verse 34 tells us that the Risen Lord had already appeared to Peter. According to 1 Corinthians 15:5, Jesus appeared to Peter before anyone else. Although we have no details of this meeting, whatever occurred also energized the disciples.

What happened as a result of these experiences with the Risen Lord? Originally, Luke and the book of Acts were together as one work Acts is really the second half or part II of a single work. The first part, Luke’s account of Jesus on earth, set the stage for part II, the acts of the apostles. Part II of the book is the establishment of the Christian church- disciples going and preaching to thousands, people getting converted, and house churches getting established. The catalyst for these events was the encounters the disciples had with the Risen Christ. As they met and recognized Jesus, they were inspired. Their hearts burned with faith, and they spread the word.

What does this encounter on the road to Emmaus tell us for today, we who are modern-day disciples? We see that Jesus appeared to the disciples at their most discouraging moment, most fearful time, and most anguished of days. Then he revealed his true identity. Jesus instructed them with words and sustained them by his presence. We certainly are in discouraging and fearful times right now. So many people are having days of anguish all over our nation. Here in Ashland, things are looking particularly bleak economically right now- OSF closed for the season, SOU furloughing employees.  Is the Risen Christ among us? Is his presence able to sustain us, give us hope in the midst of hopelessness, light in the midst of darkness?

This passage reminds us that Christ comes to us in those discouraging, fearful anguished moments. In such difficult times, we need to look for the Risen Christ amongst us - so we can find some hope and light kind of like that book series, “Where’s Waldo?”, except this search is so much more meaningful.

Since I felt led to preach on this topic, I decided I would look for Jesus out in the world. On Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, I went for runs up Crowson and onto Siskiyou towards the church. I kept my eyes alert- looking for Jesus in some fashion. I confess I had no true encounters with Jesus. However, I began to think about places he would be in this world. First I thought of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, a young African American man who was jogging through his own neighborhood in rural Georgia and was shot and killed by 2 white men because they thought he had been involved in a crime. Those two white suspects were free to do as they pleased for six weeks after they shot and killed Arbery, until finally being arrested this past Thursday after a national outcry for justice to be done. I imagined Jesus there with Ahmaud’s mother as she cried for justice for her innocent son in a TV interview. I think Jesus had his arms around her. I thought how unjust it was that I, a white male jogger could have gone through that same neighborhood and not even have been given any attention. I thought about how my white privilege was real, how unfair that was, and how Black Lives Matter still is just a slogan rather than a reality in this country.

I then began to think of the times I HAVE encountered Jesus. I have had many encounters with the Risen Christ, both joyful and painful experiences;  on the face of a young homeless couple on the street in San Francisco with a  newborn child;  on the face of a traveler in need of gas as I helped her get gas for her car; in the eyes of a blushing bride on her wedding day;  on the face of a woman named Dolores in Nicaragua, who had lost everything from Hurricane Mitch and was living in a cardboard shack along with 8 other people; in the eyes of someone coming forward to receive the cross of ash upon their forehead on Ash Wednesday; in the smile of a volunteer as I handed him bags of water bottles for the unhoused at the OHRA Community center; in many of the faces of those I have been with on their deathbed. Jesus was there, and in looking back at those moments, like Cleopas and the other disciple, my heart was on fire. In our encounters with the Risen Lord, our hearts can burn with the flames of faith, and we can be inspired to do great things of hope and purpose, even in difficult times such as these.

So, where’s Jesus? Jesus told us in scripture where we could find him. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that whatever we do to the least of these- whatever we do or say to another, we in effect do to him. We will also find him when we break bread and share the cup in the Lord’s Supper, and I hope in some way that has happened for you, even though when we have communion together now, it is “togertherish” on a computer screen. Jesus said in Matthew 18:5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me" (Matthew 18:5).  Jesus said, “Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered together in my name, I am there.” (Matthew 18:20) Jesus is present in many guises all over this world. Theologian Jim Forest wrote, “I am in those around you, especially those who are being made to walk the way of the cross: the hungry and thirsty, the naked and homeless, the sick and the imprisoned.”

Suddenly, very often when we least expect it, a word is said by someone we know, or we see something unusual in a stranger’s face. Their expression alters, and we find ourselves in the presence of a huge mystery. That face seemed so easily mapped, so safely flat, a kind of dull wallpaper. Yet suddenly a seam is revealed, a door swings open, and we are in Christ's presence.

In today’s fractured and contentious world, where there is such suffering and death, such injustice over the value of life, such racism and hatred, such polarization and disagreement over what is safe and when things can open. If we recognize Christ in others, then fear will be replaced by faith.  Differences can melt away when we are able to see Christ in others.

So, keep your eyes open for the Risen Messiah, who is among us in so many ways. May we have eyes of faith to recognize Christ in other people’s faces, that we might not be discouraged, but find hope, that we would not be fearful but faithful, that we would be sustained and find God’s shining light before us. May we meet and recognize Jesus, and be inspired, so that our hearts burn with faith, and we too spread the word. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.

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