Now on the same day that the women had discovered the empty tomb, two of the disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘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?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
I have to start off this morning with a little bit of a disclaimer: the story of the walk to Emmaus, our gospel reading for this morning, is one of my all-time favorite stories from any of the gospels. Throughout the New Testament we read of so many astonishing events— miraculous healings, exorcisms, the multiplication of bread and fish, walking on water, and of course, the most astonishing event of all, which we just celebrated a few weeks back-- the resurrection of Christ from the grave. And yet, none of those stories hold for me the kind of uncomplicated grace and power that this one does. In the Emmaus story, we read of something so simple-- two friends, journeying to a destination, sharing conversation and bread with a stranger along the way. And it is in that very simple, humble act of fellowship and hospitality where God is made known to these two disheartened and disillusioned disciples.
I love this story because it often reflects how many of us may feel after Easter. We have joyfully proclaimed that the tomb is empty and Christ is Risen! And yet for some of us, even though the stone has been rolled away, we remain in the tomb, struggling with the fact that, much like the dashed expectations of these two disciples, our own expectations for what God should be doing in our lives, or in the world, are not being met. Or at least, not in the way we would like them to be. Our loved one still has cancer. We still struggle with addiction. People are still coming to the shelter. People are still dying in Syria. Racism, homophobia, sexism, and every other -ism still exist. In the midst of all that, we may be inclined to ask: if the resurrection was supposed to change things, why does it sometimes seem like everything always remains the same?
Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we may not believe the good news of the resurrection, because like them, we don’t see it happening in the way we expect or desire. These two disciples didn’t believe the good news, and so they were inclined to give up and walk away. But of course, God had other plans for them and so God came to meet them on the road. So I suppose we couldjust say that despite our doubt and disillusionment, God has plans for us, and God comes to meet uswhere we are. And that would certainly be true enough, and we could almost leave it at that. Except… it’s not altogether quite as simple as that.
Yes, God comes to meet us. But what then? This story begs the question, even if God does come to meet us where we are, would we actually recognize it when it happens? The disciples don’t. Not at first. They walked seven miles with Jesus— talking with him, listening to him expound upon scripture, and they didn’t recognize him. They were so wrapped up in their own disappointment that they couldn’t see what was right in front of them. Of course the disciples do eventually come around. They do eventually recognize the risen Christ in their midst. So what was it that made the difference for them? What was it in that interaction that changed the way they were seeing things?
Well, I would propose that there is a crucial turn-around moment in this story-- a moment where everything hangs in the balance, a moment when the disciples arrive at their destination and Jesus is about to walk on. Will they part ways with the stranger? Will they go back to their homes and continue to dwell in their failed expectations- never to realize the opportunity God had placed right in front of them?
Imagine what you might have done if you were in their shoes. Exhausted after a long day’s journey, defeated and deflated, you would probably just want to get home, have some supper, and go to bed. You might feel a twinge of concern for this man you had been walking with-- after all it’s dark, and walking alone on the road he could easily fall prey to robbers or bandits. But you also don’t quite feel comfortable inviting a total stranger into your home, and you’re almost too tired and depressed to give it much thought or concern. Would you invite him in? Or would you simply give him a polite goodbye, wish him well, and shut the door?
It would have been very easy for the disciples, in their present state of mind, to react exactly this way. And yet— perhaps it was that pesky Holy Spirit, but there was something that just wouldn’t let them leave it at that. And so they invited him to stay with them. They opened their door to him, reached out in hospitality, and shared a meal with him. And that—I would argue-- is the turnaround moment in this story. It was in that moment of exceptional hospitality that the disciples were pulled up out of their own feelings of hopelessness and defeat, and their eyes were opened to the risen Christ in their midst. It’s a powerful moment because it speaks to how it is often in and through our acts of reaching out to others— especially to the stranger in need of hospitality— that we encounter God.
This is an ancient religious truth which goes back to the very roots of Judeo-Christian religion. The Emmaus story harkens back to one of the earliest stories in the bible— a story about Abraham and Sarah— the founders and parents of our faith. They were promised many offspring by God, but years and years went by without any children. They were starting to get old, and Sarah had lost hope. I imagine even Abraham was feeling pretty disappointed and doubtful himself. Well in the midst of one of their darkest moments, three strangers appear on the scene. Sarah doesn’t want to have anything to do with them. In her disappointment and despair, she had turned her energy inward. But Abraham found it within himself to welcome these three strangers—to open up his home to them, wash their feet, and share a meal with them. And as it turns out, the three strangers were messengers from God, and it’s from this story that we get the famous truism, “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
There is no doubt in my mind that discernment of God’s presence among us happens in many different ways. And yet, both of these stories indicate to me that more often than not,discernment of the resurrected Lord is mostvisible when we look beyond ourselves— when we look beyond our own disappointment or disillusionment, and when we take the risk of opening our hearts and our doors to someone in need of hospitality or compassion. In those moments, we encounter God. Somewhere in the back of their minds maybe the disciples remembered this. Maybe they remembered that this was in fact something that Jesus himself had taught them. In Matthew 25, Jesus says to his disciples, "whenever you offer food to the hungry, or shelter to the homeless; whenever you welcome the stranger, or visit the sick or imprisoned; whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me." Perhaps somewhere in the back of their minds the disciples remembered this just as they were about to part ways with the stranger they met on the road to Emmaus. And in that moment, whether they expected it or not, they encountered Christ.
Last Sunday, we welcomed guest preacher Greg Gray, who spoke with us about the importance of welcome, in particular for those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community— people who have historically not been welcomed and affirmed for the wholeness of who they are. I think it’s safe to say that our conversation with Rev. Gray was eye-opening for many of us, not because we aren’t welcoming, but because maybe we didn’t realize just how important it is to be radically explicit in the way we express that welcome. As Rev. Gray explained, it’s not enough to say “all are welcome” and leave it at that, because there are millions of people in this world who have heard that line before, only to find out later that “all” didn’t actually apply to them. And this is certainly true for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer folk. But it is also true for the African American who walks into an all-white church. It is also true for the person who is homeless, who walks into a church full of well dressed, upper middle-class folks, and sees a few people pull their personal belongings just a little bit closer to them. It is true for the undocumented person— not just in church, but at school, at the grocery store, and at the doctor’s office. It’s true for the refugee who dreams of seeing the statue of liberty one day, to see in person those beautiful words— “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”-- only to realize that those words of welcome didn’t actually apply to them. It’s not enough to say all are welcome. We are challenged to make our welcome a more explicit welcome— dare I say, a radically explicit welcome.
And just in case you were wondering, adopting this kind of radically explicit welcome has everything to do with our scripture this morning. Because if the stranger is hesitant to walk through our doors for fear that they will be judged or shamed, or viewed with suspicion and fear, then we may just be missing out on meeting the risen Christ in our midst. If the stranger is hesitant to walk through our doors, we miss out on the holy opportunity to extend hospitality and compassion and to entertain angels without even knowing it. To widen our welcome of the stranger— in the words of poet Marge Piercy— “to know who we mean when we say ‘we, and each day mean one more,”— is to widen the lens through which we see God’s world, and to open ourselves to more and more glimpses of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. To declare boldly and proudly that everyone, everyone, EVERYONE is welcome, is to open ourselves up to experiencing unexpected Easter moments in a Good Friday world. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it, and Christ was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.