May 4, 2014

The Road to Emmaus
The Reverend Philip Tierney
May 4, 2014

One Sunday after church a girl turned to her mother in the car on the way home and said, “Mom, the sermon confused me. The minister said that God is bigger than we are.” “That’s right, dear.” Her mother replied. Then the girl added, “But he also said that God lives in us.” “Yes,” her mother agreed. The girl went on, “Well, if God lives in us and is bigger than we are, wouldn’t He stick out?”

Christ is risen. That’s our motto during Easter season. The risen Lord, Jesus Christ, is with us here and now. He’s behind you. He’s in front of you, beside you, around you and, by faith, within you. That’s what the words of the famous hymn from St. Patrick’s Breastplate said. The risen Christ is with us, here and now. Jesus said, “I will be with you always.” If you believe that, then wherever you go and whatever you do, the risen Lord is with you. Whether you’re in the company of others or alone, whether at home, at work, in school or driving your car, whether you’re eating or sleeping or praying or playing—the risen Christ is with you.

That can be a sobering and a joyous realization. I say sobering because He’s privy to our exchanges with others—including our moments of grace and of impatience. I, for one, have times when I feel or behave impatiently. For me, it usually happens when I’m driving behind someone who’s travelling at a slower pace than I prefer or I’m waiting in line for service. When I’m unaware of Christ’s presence I can entertain uncharitable thoughts, but when I’m conscious of His presence I have extra incentive and help to decide to turn the moment into an occasion for some kind word. It’s completely a matter of the consciousness that I choose in the moment—I can choose to make the moment one of awareness that the risen Christ is present, and act that way or not. It is joyous because those moments of awareness bestow the joy of what St. Patrick’s Breastplate also said: “Christ in quiet and in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger, Christ to comfort and restore me.” Christ’s presence sustains, guides and strengthens us in daily life.

Jesus said, “I will be with you always.” And yet he also said that he was going away, to be with God. To us, that means that the risen Christ is in that state of being that we call heaven. How can Christ be in two places at once—with us and in heaven? I have to confess that for a while, now, I’ve stopped thinking of Heaven as up there far away. Rather that God, that the Risen Christ, that what we call Heaven—is a different dimension—throughout what we call the universe and beyond, but also all around us. Heaven is here. The risen Christ is here—simply on a different plane, and He manifests Himself on our plane whenever we open ourselves to welcome His leadership, whenever we choose to discern His presence and become occupied with God and His ways. When we gather for worship, this way, insofar as we consciously occupy ourselves thinking of God, worshiping Him, honoring Christ, and following His Spirit, the channel is wide open between the realm of Heaven—where Christ ascended—and us, right here, right now. I believe that’s what Jesus meant when He said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you. The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” Christ is present all around us in Heaven, here and now, as we gather for worship.

The cornerstone of Jewish spirituality and of Christian sacramental theology is this: whenever God’s people remember the past events of God’s loving grace—those events and God, Himself, become present. That’s the basis of a Passover Seder and it’s the basis of the Eucharist. As I’ve mentioned, we call it anamnesis, and it’s integral to our Eucharistic prayer when we say, “On the night He was handed over to suffering and death, He took Bread…” it’s remembering back—anamnesis—and Christ becomes present in the sacrament.

That’s what happened on the Emmaus road that day. Today’s Gospel reading tells us that two little-known disciples were walking the seven-mile stretch of road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. They’d followed Jesus, though they weren’t sure if He was a prophet or the Messiah. They were downcast because of Jesus’ execution, and perplexed by rumors that some women they knew had apparently seen Jesus alive again. As they walked, they talked about Jesus and all that had happened.

Then supposedly, all of a sudden, Jesus came up along side them. As they shared fellowship, thought and spoke with each other about Him, He appeared to them—though they didn’t recognize Him at first. It was only later, as they reflected upon scripture and the meaning of His death, and then broke bread together in His presence, that it dawned on them that the guy they invited to dinner was, in fact, Jesus and that He had risen.

Notice that pattern again. It was the same pattern described in last week’s gospel and in today’s story from the Book of Acts. In the passage from Acts, Peter spoke about Jesus. Those who heard responded in faith. Later, they were baptized and then—“They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of Bread and the prayers.” Do you see it? Shared attention to Christ, the context of fellowship, breaking bread together—that is, sharing a meal or Communion, and prayer—this pattern evokes recognition that the risen Christ is among us. And that’s what makes us the church—Christ’s presence and our awareness of it. He’s with us not only invisibly as a spiritual presence, but also in each of us toward one another. The person beside you is Jesus. Look and see. The person in front and behind you is Jesus. Look and see. Jesus said, “How can you love God whom you cannot see if you do not love your neighbor whom you can see?” Look and see. That’s Jesus, and so are you. Jesus also said, “Insofar as you have dealt with the least of these my brethren you have dealt with me.” Each of us is intended by God to be a physical extension of our risen Lord. And all of us, together, are His body, not only here, but out there, too.

There’s a story. You may be familiar with it. There once was a formerly great monastery. At one time it had been home to hundreds of monks, who worshiped God and served the surrounding villages, but that was long ago and it had since fallen on hard times. Now, there were only a handful of monks—mostly rather old and decrepit. As people sometimes do, they had gotten in the habit of fretting over their condition. “Whatever will become of this old abbey?” They wondered. The Abbot worried more than anyone.

One day the abbot took a walk in the adjacent woods. Lost in his thoughts and prayers, the abbot walked farther than he ever had before, until he came to a little hut. He knocked on the door to ask for directions. The inhabitant—a rabbi, who seemed even older than the abbot—invited him in to rest a while. As they talked the abbot shared his concern for the monastery, how it was that no young men had joined the order for years and how afraid he was that it would soon fall into ruin. “Do you have any advice for me, rabbi?” He asked. The rabbi replied, “All I can tell you is this: The Messiah is among you.”

After he left, the abbot pondered the rabbi’s words—“The Messiah is among you.” “What could it mean?” At dinner the abbot told the other monks what the rabbi said. Each pondered the words in his own heart—“The Messiah is among you.” The monks wondered if Christ was among them, and which of them it might be. At first, each monk thought of the others in terms of those traits he didn’t care for—the ways in which the others didn’t measure up, saying, “Surely, he couldn’t be Christ!” Then they started to notice the good qualities in each other and wondered, “Might that one be Jesus, after all?” That’s when something happened. Every one of those monks started treating the rest as if he were Jesus. A remarkable spirit of love grew among them, and word of it spread to the surrounding villages. People went to visit to see the change for themselves. Feeling the love of Christ, there, some decided to stay and the abbey grew in numbers, but more, in love, until word spread throughout the countryside that surely Jesus was among them. In time even their former greatness was surpassed in acts of love.

That can happen to us as well.

Christ is with us, always. By faith He is in you and you are in Him. He’s present with everyone you meet—here and everywhere. With His help, let’s act accordingly. All it takes is the willingness to be aware that He’s with us, as he was on the road to Emmaus.