Here we are. We’ve arrived at the third week of Easter season. The Resurrection is a bit distant, and last Sunday we dealt with those pesky questions from “doubting Thomas”. So now that we’ve gotten through all that and we’ve worked it out, we might begin shifting our gaze toward summer. Heaven knows, we Episcopalians aren’t exactly known for our church attendance during the summer. I sometimes joke that Episcopalians have a special arrangement with God where we organize fancy church services during the rest of the year - with crucifers, acolytes, and robes; in some churches we even use bells and incense - we do all that so we can take a break from church in the summer. I don’t know about you, but this July I hope to be somewhere on a beach, relaxing on vacation.
So it’s right about now, after Easter, after the highpoint of our Christian calendar that we might start shifting our gaze to warmer weather and summer plans. And the tricky thing is that Jesus won’t leave us alone. We keep looking down the road but today’s story keeps pointing us back toward Easter. Today’s story from Luke (24.13-35) happens on Easter; it happens “that same day” (Lk. 24.13). And to make it even more tricky, this story isn’t a sweet little meditation about Jesus like The Good Shepherd. It’s not a neat little package that we can set off to the side, because today Jesus is actually chasing people down. He’s on the prowl. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to your village... (cue the shark music) there’s Jesus, he’s ba-aack!
It’s a little amusing, but also a little uncomfortable because Luke’s Gospel would have us believe that on the very first day Jesus walks out the tomb, what he’s most concerned about isn’t traveling the universe or soaring through the cosmos. Oh no, on Resurrection Sunday Jesus has nothing better to do than chasing down a couple of no-name followers: Cleopas and his companion (perhaps his wife?). Who are they?! I mean it’s one thing if the risen Jesus happens to breeze by a few of folks as he rockets out of the tomb (which can be kind of how Easter feels), but this looks different. It’s almost like he’s tracking people down.
I don’t know if it was like this for you, but when I was growing up and I came home from school in the afternoon, I was usually ready for some free time. I was ready for some games with my friends - maybe football out in the cul-de-sac, riding our bikes in the field behind our neighborhood, or just doing something silly and maybe even getting in a bit of trouble. And it didn’t always happen like this, but sometimes my mother would be waiting at home with her own set of ideas about my schedule. And her ideas were usually much less exciting - things like chores, homework, or family time. And the moment I walked in that door I realized that my schedule was not my own. That’s almost how today’s story feels. This couple discovers unexpectedly that Jesus, the one who was dead and gone, the one who let them down, is suddenly poking his nose back into their lives - and their schedule is not their own.
If we’re feeling like we are just about ready for summertime and free time, then these disciples were even more ready. They’ve just seen Jesus arrested and crucified for treason - and they might be next. They were his followers and now that he’s gone, they’re sitting ducks. So the very first day after Passover, the first day it was legal for them to travel, they weren’t camping out at the tomb expecting an encore presentation. They packed their bags and left. They began the long journey of trying to put the pieces of their lives back together. Maybe it wasn’t quite “free time” but they needed space to think, to grieve, and to figure out what on earth had just happened.
Some people here at St.C’s occasionally buy a group of lottery tickets, you’ve told me so, and I’m glad. I thank you for buying these tickets and I thank you for telling me because I know you wouldn’t have told me if the church wasn’t already high on your priority list when that winning ticket appears (and all God’s people said, Amen!). Well, the people we meet in today’s story, not to mention the rest of Jesus’ followers, were betting people too. They had bet everything on the Jesus ticket - “a prophet,” they said, “mighty in deed and word... we had hoped that he was the one to [rescue] our nation from slavery and oppression” (vv.19-21). We might know a thing or two about that kind of national story; we might know something about fighting back when people threaten our national security. And these disciples thought Jesus would fight for their freedom and their national security. So even if there’d been a strange story from a couple of hysterical women about an angel and an empty tomb, well the Jesus ticket still hadn’t won. They had nothing to show, but a price on their head.
Then Jesus appears, secretly. And he and gives something like the mother of all sermons - “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v.27). If only we had that sermon, right? But here’s the thing: his sermon isn’t the main thing. Me and every other preacher takes comfort knowing that it’s not the words I cobble together on Sunday morning that turns your life around; that makes your life find hope and meaning. This story and this couple get turned around when, “Jesus was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (v.35). Maybe a sermon set the stage, maybe it even warmed their hearts, but it’s only seeing and knowing the risen Jesus that turns their lives around and sends them racing back to Jerusalem. Even with those big targets on their chests, they went back “that same hour” (v.33).
Think about it like this. The big story of the Bible, the big fat story from Genesis to Revelation, from creation to new creation, begins with another couple and another meal. Adam and Eve are created in God’s garden. They walk with God and talk with God in the cool of the day, and they are shown by God’s own self how to find wholeness in creation and in their fellowship with God. But even God’s own words (we might say, even God’s own sermons) don’t hold their attention very long. Because a surprising, slithering visitor appears and tells them a different story about the meaning of life; about the way they too can become like gods. This slithering visitor offers a simple meal, and here’s what we read: “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3.7). They’re driven out of the garden - naked, afraid, and vulnerable to death.
Easter takes that story and runs it in reverse. This couple on the road to Emmaus begin their story feeling naked, afraid, and vulnerable to death because of the crucifixion of Jesus, and they might be next. But then a surprising, shadowy visitor appears and tells them a different story about the crucifixion, not as some tragic mistake but as the very height of God’s own plan. This visitor shares a simple meal, and here’s what we read: “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 13.31). And instead of getting banished from God’s garden they go sprinting back to join the rest of Jesus’ followers as part of God’s new creation.
Do you hear it? Do you see what Luke is trying to tell us? The risen Jesus has been set loose in creation. He’s on the prowl. And with the same ferocious energy that Jesus used to overturn the tables of those moneychangers in God’s Temple, flipping them left and right, upsetting all those people who were defacing God’s Temple - with that same force, the risen Jesus is now set loose in this world, overturning the story of that serpent who defaces God’s creation. We don’t become like God by simply grasping for more knowledge, or power, or pleasure. We become like God - at least the God of Scripture, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ - by following in the steps of both the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And the Good News is that when we meet Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” (v.35) our eyes can be opened, not to a fearful life trying to escape death, but to a risen life where death itself is overcome.
I’m still going on vacation this summer, and I expect you’ll keep your vacation too. But maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised if we happen to meet Jesus out there on the road. It may be a bit tricky. It may feel like our schedule isn’t completely our own - after all, we’re supposed to be on vacation! - but I find that reassuring. Because if Jesus is alive, then he’s going to be out there. And he’s going to be taking some initiative - we’re not the only ones responsible for this relationship with God: Jesus takes initiative.
So when we’re out there on the road, if we keep just one eye looking over our shoulder we may find him stepping out of the shadows and overturning some of our hopeless stories when we least expect it. It may be a sense of hopelessness about our lives, a pain we’ve suffered, or a person we were betting on who let us down. And perhaps Jesus will say, “Oh foolish, and slow of heart. Was it not necessary for this suffering to be the path of resurrection?” And when we share our simple meal at Communion - taking bread, blessing it, and breaking it - we may find our eyes opened to the risen Jesus who is still living, still active, and still poking his nose into peoples’ lives. And the really exciting thing is where that meeting with Jesus will send us - racing to join God’s new creation, today. Amen.