~ Luke 24:19-35 ~
When we meet the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is evening, and the luminous glow of the day has begun to fade. Resurrection, at this point, is nothing more than a rumor, a curiosity, an idle tale. And yet when the disciples meet a stranger on the road, it is clear that the possibility of resurrection has intrigued them. They have been talking about it for hours, rehearsing the possibilities, arguing about the details, sparring with one another about the significance of an empty tomb. Buried beneath their verbal sparring, there seems to be a deep yearning and a holy hunger. Intimately intertwined with their skepticism is hope—and their need for God to be alive and present. But the baggage of their doubt impedes the fervor of their faith. And so they fail to recognize Jesus.
As they walk, this “stranger” chides them for being slow of heart and explains from scripture why the events of the past three days were necessary. Later in the evening after all of the amazing events have concluded they will say to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn as he conversed with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us?” Could we say that they had a severe case of heart burn?
Of course, heart burn, as we know it, doesn’t really involve the heart. What we know as heart burn is actually the burning sensation we experience when the acidic contents of our stomach (acid and bile) reflux back up toward the esophagus through an incompetent gastroesophageal valve mechanism. Or so I learned from the internet. I also learned that the common aggravating factors include: large meals, tight belts, exercising or laying down too soon after a meal, food intolerances, delayed stomach emptying, substances which increase the amount of stomach acid secretion, etc. On such websites several remedies are suggested, but if it persists, see a doctor, they say.
I think it is fair to say that Cleopas and his friend didn’t have this kind of heart burn. We don’t know the cause of their burning hearts. But we can guess. Maybe the acid of extreme disappointment was eating away at their hearts. Maybe the bile of anger and resentment towards God was leaving a bad taste in their mouths. Maybe an incompetent faith mechanism could not stop the reflux of confusion and doubt that persisted as they tried to make sense of what this stranger was telling them and what they had heard about the day’s events. Whatever the cause, this stranger, this Jesus raised from the dead and walking down the lane with them, knew that they needed a healthy faith treatment. So he stayed with them into the evening that he might provide a cure for their severe case of heart burn.
Jesus graciously agrees to sit down at table with his distraught friends. Likewise, Jesus comes to sit at table with us. Often when I’m asked to pray for meals (yes, it happens quite a bit. Goes with the profession), I thank God that we have the opportunity to share our lives with each other as we share this food. That’s what Jesus did. In a very common act, the breaking of a piece of bread, Jesus shared his life with his friends. And it was an amazing happening. If you are looking for rational explanations I have none to give. Jesus who was dead has risen from the grave and spends hours with his friends unrecognized and then in a moment, a split second, in the action of breaking a piece of bread, Jesus is recognized for who he is and vanishes in the same moment. How much time elapses between the recognition and the vanishing? It is virtually simultaneous.
Many artists throughout the ages have tried to capture the compelling moment of the disciples’ eyes being opened. Rembrandt, the 17th century Dutch artist, is said to have made several renditions of “The Supper at Emmaus.” The Rembrandt sketch on the cover of your bulletin shows the two disciples, one on the right and one on the left, gesturing in astonishment. In this early work, Rembrandt was drawn to the melodrama of the scene, using dramatic lighting effects to capture the moment. As Rembrandt matured this obvious and dramatic technique gave way to a subtler, deeper understanding of the event. His most well-known rendition of “The Supper at Emmaus,” painted many years later shows a more subtle reaction. The disciples are depicted not with dramatic gestures and faces, but with the subtle awareness in the eye of one of the disciples and a quiet gasp by the other. At the very instant of the disciple’s recognition a servant offers a plate and appears to see nothing at all remarkable. And then Jesus is gone.
I wonder if Rembrandt’s maturation in painting might reflect how we, in truth, experience recognition of Christ in our own lives. Yes, we may desire the dramatic revelation of light that makes us fall back with astonished faces and gesturing arms. But the resurrected Christ is more likely to come to us in the form of everyday worldly experiences that could, for the serious skeptic, be explained away in naturalistic terms. However, faith goes beyond what can be seen with our fleshly eyes to a living by what cannot be seen. As the story tells us, they recognized Jesus in the simple act of breaking bread. And Jesus, as the Christ, comes to us today in much the same way. We do not wait for some dramatic event sometime in the future for our hope. We are to look in the here and now of every act of love, in every revealing of truth, in every moment of joy.
Frederick Buechner, the now-deceased writer and Presbyterian minister, describes this hope in God’s presence in the here and now in his book, The Eyes of the Heart. He is describing some of the artifacts in his office as he contemplates his life. One of those artifacts is a Vermont license plate with the word “trust” on it. He writes,
Trust says the crumpled green license plate that hangs in my office. Trust what? Trust that…God is Love and Life because, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, it may just be true. Trust that if God is anywhere, God is here, which means that there is no telling where God may turn up next—around what sudden bend of the path if you happen to have your eyes and ears open, your wits about you, in what odd, small moments almost too foolish to tell. If God is ever, God is now, in the in and out of breathing, the sound of the footstep on the stair, the smell of rain, the touch of a hand…If God lives and loves…it is in ourselves no less than everywhere else.
The story tells us that Cleopas and his friend implored the stranger to eat with them. He accepted their invitation. As they sat down at table something extraordinary happened. Jesus took some bread, spoke a blessing, and broke it and gave it to them. And as he did so, they knew suddenly and with unshakeable certainty that this stranger was Jesus, the same Jesus who had been put to death and laid in a tomb. But at the precise moment this certainty is given to them, he vanishes from their sight. What is important here is that once they recognize Jesus his bodily presence is no longer required as a condition for their new hope. He is now present in much more intimate ways. And in a significant way they became different people. Before, their hearts burned with the bile and acid of disappointment and loss. Jesus cured them of their heart burn and they, straightway, at that late hour of the night, got up from the table and walked the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the others what they had experienced.
Did their experience happen, literally? I don’t know. But, indeed, that’s not the point. Instead this is a wonderful parable of what it means for Christians to encounter the risen Christ. Of all the Easter accounts this story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus seems to capture all that the early Christian church thought about the meaning of the Easter event. In that sense it is, to borrow a phrase from theologian Marcus Borg, a “metaphoric condensation” of what it means to encounter the Christ. It is marvelously suggestive. The risen Christ opens up the meaning of scripture. The risen Christ is known in the sharing of bread. The risen Christ journeys with us, whether we know it or not. There are moments in which we do come to know the Christ in our own individual experience. Whether the story happened or not, Emmaus always happens. Emmaus happens again and again – that is the truth of the risen Christ.
Do you suffer from heat burn? I suppose in some way or other we have all tasted the bitter bile of disappointment and dashed hopes. Well I have no TV commercial remedy for you. All I can recommend is to believe in the hope of the resurrection; to believe in the Christ who comes to us simply and gently in the quiet depths of our hearts. In doing so, sooner or later, the burning in your heart will be cured. And as a result you will be changed. Amen.