13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then 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?” 19He 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, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But 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. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and 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. 24Some 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.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But 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. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They 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?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
In the month or so leading up to Easter, there were several Christian films out in theaters: Son of God, Noah, God is Not Dead, Heaven is for Real. I don’t think they signal any great awakening of Hollywood to Christian values or message; more likely it’s an awakening to the fact that Christian dollars are just as green and profitable as anyone else’s dollars. Some of these movies were good, some were bad, some were very bad. I don’t think any of these movies will appeal to or reach out to people who aren’t already Christians. Worse, I don’t think any of these movies will even challenge Christians to grow in their faith or understanding of the scriptures.
I actually think the very best films present the gospel the way Jesus did—in parables; in hidden stories that non-believers walk away from saying “Hmmmm…that was an interesting story.” and which believers walk away from saying “There was something familiar about that story” and which a few believers will say “Yeah, I see what you just did there.” So the best and most imaginative film out there right now about death, resurrection, and eternal life is one that no one is talking about because no one really noticed it. It’s a little film called Transcendence. Today’s sermon is not about this movie, but I am going to show you one short clip from the film, because I think it captures a fundamental truth in today’s scripture passage: Jesus is never quite who we expect him to be.
The film revolves around a scientist, Dr. Will Caster, who is the world’s foremost expert in artificial intelligence. Tragically, Dr. Caster is struck down by an assassin’s bullet, but in his dying moments, manages to have his mind, his memories, and his very consciousness uploaded into a super-computer, thus defeating death and attaining a powerful, god-like immortality. In the clip we’re about to watch, two of Dr. Caster’s former friends are about to “meet” him for the first time since his death and resurrection:
“Jesus Christ!” says the friend, who is shocked, surprised, skeptical, and more than a little creeped-out. Jesus Christ, indeed. We who have heard the resurrection story told and retold for 2,000 years forget how shocked, surprised, skeptical, and more than a little creeped-out anyone would be if confronted by a dead friend who has come back to life in some form or another. We’d need some proof, some time, and a whole lot of faith to believe something like that, wouldn’t we?
Jesus is never quite who we think he is. We see people misjudge and mis-characterize Jesus throughout his life and ministry, in his last days, and even after his resurrection. Mary thinks he’s the gardener, the disciples think he’s a ghost, and the two travelers in our scripture passage today think he is the most clueless stranger in Jerusalem who hasn’t kept up with the most important news of the day. Jesus is never quite who we think he is.
And yet, though their eyes were kept from recognizing him at first, on this road to Emmaus the two who traveled with Jesus eventually do come to recognize him. Their story actually provides a pretty good template for how we can come to recognize Jesus, even when is is not quite who we think he is, or who we think he should be. Looking at the text, there are four elements that I think are all essential in some way to recognizing Jesus, both then as well as today: The Road, the Community, the Scriptures, and the Table.
First, the Road. Most of this story takes place on the road. The Greek word for Road was hodos. It also meant the way, the path, the journey. In fact, this was the name that Jesus’ earliest followers adopted as their own, before the terms “Christian” and “Christianity.” They simply called their system of beliefs, “The Road” or “The Way” and they called themselves “People of the Road.” What they understood, and what we often forget, is that faith is a journey, a process that takes time. It has a beginning and an end, but most of it takes place in the middle. We come to recognize Jesus when we travel on the road with him.
Second, the Community. How many people does it take to make a faith community? In Matthew, Jesus says, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am with them.” Here with these two travelers, he proves it. Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “Wherever two or more gather in the name of golf or knitting, or Chuck-E-cheese, I am with them.” It takes people intentionally gathered in his name to recognize Jesus. It takes a community. It doesn’t take many, but you can’t do it alone.
Third, the Scriptures. As they travel, in verse 27 we read that, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Notice the word “interpret.” Just like Jesus, the scriptures are often not quite what we think they are. It’s not enough just to read them, or listen to someone else read them occasionally. We have to study them carefully. Incidentally, that works best in community, over a long period of time. You know…like a journey?
Fourth, the Table. This is the last element, the most intimate. I believe that all the things I just named contributed to their eventual recognition of Jesus, but it is precisely in the simple and familiar act of sitting down to a table and sharing a meal together that their eyes are finally opened.
So, the Road, the Community, the Scriptures, and the Table. These are the things that still, after 2,000 years help us to recognize Jesus for who he really is, not just who we think he is or who we think he should be. It’s not a coincidence that these are also the four things that help us to recognize each other, that draw us closer to each other, and help us become the people that God wants us to be.
I could end the sermon right here; it’s certainly enough. But last Sunday, you voted as a congregation to end my “two year probationary term” and elect me as your permanently installed pastor. So this past week I’ve been thinking a lot about this journey, this “Road to Emmaus” that we are embarking upon together. In this sermon, and in the next few to come, I’d like to spend some time talking about where we’re exactly going as a community, what we’re doing, and how you can join us on the road.
To do this, I’d like to go back to these four elements that are essential in recognizing Jesus. As a church, we’re over 130 years old. We’ve been around the block a few times. Heck, the block has been around US a few times! But the second that we think we’ve got it all figured out, or that we know definitively, rigidly, irrefutably, who Jesus is, the second we no longer strive to recognize Jesus in the face of the stranger who travels with us…that’s when we might as well close the doors and go home. We exist because we want to recognize Jesus, because we want to know him better, and because we want to help other people recognize him, too.
So first, the Road and the Community (the two are intertwined). Faith is a long journey, and unfortunately we live in an era of instant gratification. A long journey requires commitment. Communities require commitment. And commitment is something else our culture has a hard time with. But last week you made a commitment to me, and later this summer (at my service of installation) I will make the same commitment to you.
Now let me share with you now one of my personal goals: I would like to be the pastor of this church, your pastor, for at least the next 20 years. First Presbyterian Church has never had a pastor serve for that long—Bob Young served for 12 years, and Bill Burroughs died suddenly after 13. More recently, we’ve had a slew of short-term pastors, often with only a short-term vision for the church. And yet, it seems that everywhere I look, the churches that are thriving, the ones that are doing God’s work, have had stable, long-term pastoral leadership. That’s my goal, my commitment to travel with you, in community, on this road for a long time.
But I also would like to ask for a commitment FROM you as well. A commitment to the journey and to the community. Many of you are long-term members who have traveled faithfully with First Presbyterian Church through half a century or more. You have carried the church through good times and bad, but the end of your journey is now in sight. The commitment I ask of you in the season ahead is to continue to walk faithfully with us, but let us carry you from time to time. I also ask you pray for the generations coming after you, to encourage them, and to trust that Jesus will walk with them, just as he did with you.
There are a growing number of members here today who are relatively new to First Presbyterian Church. You’ve walked with us for a few decades, or a few years, or even a few months. The commitment I ask from you is a deeper, stronger commitment than you think you can give. One that is only possible because Jesus is walking alongside us. You are the ones leading the way now, and we have miles to go with big shoes to fill. We need your strength and your stamina for the journey.
There are also a few here today who have been on the fringes of our community. You come on Sunday, you like what you see and hear, the people you meet—but we only see you on Sundays. You want to know Jesus better. We want to know you better. So to you, I ask that you take that very first step of commitment: Join the church. Not just the worship service, but really join the community as members. Find a place to contribute, to connect, and then walk with us on this great adventure.
Next, the Scriptures and the Table. We get both of those things in our Sunday worship services. We preach and teach the scriptures every Sunday, and we celebrate the Lord’s supper once a month. But if you want to recognize Jesus, one hour out of 168 in a week isn’t enough.
This fall I will be leading a Bible Study on How to Study the Bible, from a Reformed-Presbyterian perspective. Which is to say, a well-informed, intellectually rigorous, no holds barred, critical, historical, linguistic, and archaeological perspective. I’ll offer it at several different times, and honestly, I’d like everyone to take it. No matter where you are in your study of scripture, I promise you’ll learn something. And my hope is that from this introductory class, several leaders will emerge who can then begin to lead their own bible studies on various books in the bible in the years to come, applying the same principles that have been a hallmark of our denomination for generations.
In a few minutes, we’re going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. That’s the table, and it’s an important ritual in our life together. But in all honesty, I don’t think the table that the two travelers gathered around with Jesus in our passage today was a ritual, with tiny cups and bite-sized chunks of bread. It was a shared meal. It was dinner. We get to know each other best around the dinner table, and in my opinion, this (even more than Sunday Worship!) is where we become the community of Christ.
Here at First Presbyterian Church, we gather around the dinner table every Wednesday night at 6pm. It’s a potluck dinner, but even if you can’t bring something, we’ve never turned anyone away. We grill outside when the weather is good, and we eat inside when it isn’t. The kids have a program at 6:30, and the adults…well, we just hang out, talk and get to know each other better. Choir practice starts at 7pm. But this shared meal—this is the true heart of our community, this is the table around which we gather, and where our eyes our opened. If you don’t already come to our Wednesday night dinner, I’d strongly encourage you to start.
The Road, The Community, The Scriptures, and The Table. May we truly embrace and cherish these things as we walk together. And may our eyes be opened to see the face of the son of God in the stranger next to us, and in each other. May God truly bless First Presbyterian Church, and may he lead us and walk with us for another 130 years and more.