Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
The Road to Emmaus (Revd Dennis Ryle) 30.4.2017
Reading: Luke 24:13-49

Last Monday Karen asked me what my theme for today was going to be.

My response was Emmaus - the Luke reading.

This apparently was too ambiguous.

So several days later Karen asked me again `What`s your theme?`

I thought, `Curses, now she`s put me on the spot. How do I address this fascinating example of Luke`s view of post-resurrection discipleship that embraces progressive and conservative perspectives alike?`

So, I responded `How do we walk the Emmaus Road in these times?`

Karen replied `Excellent!`

So how to describe these times.

We are just emerging from a closer than usual proximity of Easter celebrations and Anzac commemorations. Less than two weeks separated their place on this year`s calendar.

The feast that is central to Christian identity and stimulus to faithful action and the sombre icon of our local national identity both speak into anxious times - but oh so differently.

Popular media, as it does, provided the touchstone for each of these events. Typically, they included a generally broad description of what took place seasoned with a titillating scandal.

Easter reportage focused on church attendance in the CBD of major cities and statements from church leaders. Interestingly there was little appetite for heresy hunting this year.

It was Anzac that seemed to stir more fervour and conversation. It spoke into the current flavours of forging national identity, how to commemorate sacrificial giving, the politics of war and peace in an increasingly conflicted international community, multiculturalism and preserving national security.

ABC presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied tweeted on her private twitter account `LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine . . . `).

These seven words became the focus of a perfect storm. The nation that fought so hard to preserve the civilised virtues of peace and freedom was lining up to shoot the messenger that was reminding them of the implications of the very same values the diggers fought and died for. Such was the force and vitriol of the attack that Abdel-Magied felt compelled to delete her message and apologise.

The confusion of our national discourse, it seems to me, was as disoriented as the conversation taking place between the pair of disciples making their sad and weary way from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

According to Bishop N T Wright, New Testament scholar and friend and sometime sparring partner of Marcus Borg, our Easter conversation is equally confused and disoriented. A few days ago, I came across this delicious utterance of his:

`We have swapped our biblical heritage of new heavens and new earth for a form of Platonism (`going to heaven` - which you find in the first century in Plutarch, not in Paul!). We have swapped the biblical vocation of humans (to be `a kingdom and priests`) for a moral contract in which the most important thing is whether or not we`ve passed the moral exam, and if we haven`t what can be done about it. And we have therefore swapped the rich biblical account of what Jesus` death achieved for a slimmed-down version which can easily be `heard` to say that an angry God took out his bad temper on his own son . . . which is the sort of thing a pagan religion might say. So, we have platonized our eschatology, as a result of which we have moralized our anthropology, and have therefore been in danger of paganizing our soteriology. Fortunately, the Bible itself will help us get back on track.` N.T. Wright

And where better to focus a response to such a challenge than a reflection on the walk to Emmaus, when confusion was transformed to clarity, connection and a commission.

It is John Dominic Crossan who reminds us that Jesus not only taught in parables but that the Gospel stories about him are parables. They are recorded not as journalistic accounts of day to day events but as stimulation for hearers to live out the meaning behind the story.

Luke`s description of the encounter with the stranger on the road to Emmaus hence brings the reading of this story out of a long distant past in a strange land into our everyday reality. This is the work of parable.

Remember the scene as Luke tells it. Two people are walking to Emmaus and discussing the recent crucifixion of Jesus. A stranger approaches them and joins in their conversation. The stranger interprets Scripture to them as they walk, explaining to them that they should have expected Jesus to be killed, as were the prophets in the Scriptures. When they come to their house the stranger acts as if he is going to continue on, but they ask him in and once inside they offer some food. The stranger breaks the bread and in this action they recognize him as Jesus … and he vanishes from sight.

Crossan suggests we might see the parable as follows. In our context today, meeting the stranger in the unexpected setting means that we don`t know when we will be visited by the Christ. We can say there Jesus is with us when we study and meditate upon the Scripture. We gather knowledge, (whether we interpret it from progressive or conservative perspective) but this is insufficient for us to recognize Jesus. Reading Scripture is only preparation. It is akin to meeting a stranger on the road. Sometimes, indeed, our hearts will burn within us as clarity dawns. It is only when we invite the stranger into our home and share food, which some say suggests the Eucharist, that we will recognition dawns. (Bill Peddie)

The angle of Luke`s telling is also instructive. His whole theme speaks to a community that is on the road being summoned by the Risen Christ in their midst to deeper service. Pre-crucifixion, Jesus and his band are travelling from one district to another. Meeting lepers to be healed, religious identities to be instructed, tax-collectors to be affirmed and challenged to greater things, disciples to be equipped - all while travelling. Luke`s Christian community is a pilgrim community of encounter and engagement with people from all walks of life.

Crossan`s insights suggest that the story is not just intended as history. The experience of the two persons on the road to Emmaus is always going to be more than the story of an event. By implication there are two things which might also be part of our experience. By all means let us respect the knowledge we can gain from study of the Scripture, but it is when we go that one step further and do the equivalent of inviting the stranger in to share God`s food with us that we are going to have a chance of recognizing something more in the encounter with the stranger, the real meeting which is the one with the risen Christ. (Bill Peddie)

Bill Peddie draws our attention to another dynamic within this story. We sympathize with Cleopas and the other disciple. They were clearly missing the one who they had been inspired to follow, yet Jesus is in no hurry to make himself known. Some commentators have suggested that because they were walking towards the sunset with the sun in their eyes they found it hard to recognise Jesus, but Jesus in his responses to them suggests that their lack of recognition might have had a more fundamental reason. Their description of Jesus as one who would rescue Israel, and one who had been prevented from so doing by those who crucified him suggested that they had misunderstood both the nature of Jesus and the significance of his death. Indeed, as they talked more with Jesus it became very apparent they did not understand exactly who they had been attempting to follow.

Does this speak into some of the confusion we encounter in our churches today - confusion sometimes masked as false certainty?

Does it give rise to the three disorientations identified by N T Wright?

Have we platonized our eschatology, - relegating the Christian vision to some ephereal future without realising the implications of the apprehension of a new heaven and new earth for our service to the world today. That resurrection is something to be practiced in our day to day encounters on the road?

As a result, have we have moralized our anthropology? How do I understand my call to discipleship? To be a learner of the Christ? A practitioner of resurrection? To be open and hospitable to the other? To be free of the prison bars of code, creed and regulation in order to be available to the stranger on the road?

And have we therefore been in danger of paganizing our soteriology? Do we look to the discourse of the culture in which we are immersed and follow its hollow dictates to the things that are promised to make us whole and complete as individuals and as community?

Jesus, in the story of the Road to Emmaus, models an intriguing way to conduct a conversation about the essentials of practicing resurrection. Had he simply said - I am Jesus and I am back, the two disciples would have been no further ahead in their understanding. In the same way my favourite aunt telling teenage me about Jesus and the meaning of salvation through his death needs first to check that we understand the same things by the words being used before I am ready to understand.

The Church, intentionally or otherwise, often portrays Jesus as one worth studying and representing a form of action on our behalf that we are encouraged stand back and admire.

Jesus himself treats us differently. He expects us to live his teaching. Such cannot be hurried. Jesus disciples were not known for catching on quickly. Indeed, it was training on the road of encounter and immersion in the experience living Jesus way that brought knowledge and understanding.

The road to Emmaus is a cameo of the pre-crucifixion road from Galilee to Jerusalem.

And indeed, where do these two head as soon as clarity dawns and lifts the fog of morose confusion? With fiery hearts and clear heads, they are off back to Jerusalem.

There in the place of risk and danger, they bear witness to their encounter among the sequestered disciples who are also pondering rumours of resurrection.

As if to underline the authenticity of their story, the Risen Christ appears to those gathered, displays his corporeality by displaying his wounds and eating some fish, affirms and reminds them of his teaching and pronounces them witnesses.

It matters little, in my experience, whether one understands this description literally or figuratively.

What does matter is whether I and my community of faith take on the essence behind this story, and cultivate the kind of attention that is alert for the risen Christ that is present in the other that I meet on my day to day roads.

Let me close with another parable about recognition told through C S Lewis` famous Screwtape Letters

The demon Screwtape explains to his nephew Wormwood what happens when the `patient` (the man entrusted to Wormwood to lure toward hell) dies and meets the angels.

He had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence. But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not `Who are you?` but `So it was you all the time.` All that they were and said at this meeting woke memories. The dim consciousness of friends about him which had haunted his solitudes from infancy was now at last explained; that central music in every pure experience which had always just evaded memory was now at last recovered . . . He saw not only Them; he saw Him. (C.S. Lewis 1898-1963. The Screwtape Letters

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands