Monday, April 09, 2007

The Road to Emmaus

Luke 24: 13-35

May God be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.

Holy God. Holy and loving. Holy and eternal. We invite your Spirit to ignite our hearts that we may be as Christ to those we meet and that we might find within them your Christ, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the main office at Marsh Chapel pursuing the never-ending quest to get the printer to do what I wanted when my friends Courtney and Steph came in. Others in the office were saying hello so I looked up and noted the two of them present. I had needed to speak with Courtney about a project we were both involved in and so launched directly into a conversation with her. As we wrapped up the conversation I became aware that something was not quite right. Suddenly, I realized that Steph had transferred back to her native California at the start of last fall and was only here in town to visit. I had not seen her since her visit six months prior, but her presence in the chapel felt so natural that the strangeness of her presence did not even register. When it finally did, I launched myself across the room shouting, “Steph!” and embraced her warmly. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I was unable to recognize the strangeness of my friend’s presence.

If the disciples’ vision of their friend Jesus can be so obscured, and my vision of my friend Steph can be so obscured, how much more must my vision of Jesus be obscured? This question is often posed theologically as the scandal of particularity: how can a particular man in a particular time in a particular place be the savior of all the world in all times and in all places? Jesus was a particular man living at the particular time of 20 centuries ago in the particular place of Roman ruled Palestine and within the particular cultural milieu of oppressed and Hellenized Judaism. I am a white Anglo-Saxon Anglican religious living in 21st century Boston. Is it not more likely that I will ask the question posed of Jesus by the demon Legion, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Luke 8: 28).

Furthermore, we do not know Jesus directly. We only know Jesus in his particularity through a variety of authors who wrote out of their own particularity. These authors wrote at a somewhat later date away from the places these events actually occurred and with their own particular worldviews that led to their own particular ways of understanding the impact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Luke was trying to help the early church understand her own experience by linking the law and the prophets through the proclamation of Jesus to that experience. For Luke, the tension between God’s purpose for the world and human rejection of that purpose is resolved in the person and work of Jesus through whom God’s purpose is achieved precisely by Jesus’ rejection. Luke expects that when his hearers understand this, their lives will be reshaped and oriented properly toward God and each other. Luke has a particular role in mind for Jesus and so tells the story with Jesus playing the prescribed part. Hear me saying here with Paul, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.” (1 Corinthians 13: 12).

The life and meaning of Jesus ring down twenty centuries and across continents and oceans, passing through numerous theological, philosophical, cultural, social, psychological and political interpretations. Is it any wonder that Jesus, for many living in the 21st century, is little more than a faint echo amidst noisy gongs and clanging cymbals? (1 Corinthians 13: 1). We may know something of what the Gospel authors, Paul and other New Testament writers thought about Jesus, but how can we possibly be expected to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9: 20).

Perhaps our problem in answering this question is that we have made Jesus too historical. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we are so concerned about the Jesus of the past that we overlook the Jesus of the present. In the Lindisfarne Community, our prayer is to be as Christ to those we meet and to find Christ within them. Our practice of mindfulness is meant to keep us attuned to the presence of Christ in our midst so as not to miss Christ in the people and the world around us. The stranger becomes the one who bears Christ to us as we bear Christ to the stranger in hospitality.

Fr. Henri Nouwen, or Saint Henri as we in the Lindisfarne Community call him, says this about the stranger:

And the stranger? Hasn’t he become a friend? He makes our hearts burn, he opens our eyes and ears. He is our companion on the journey! Home has become a good place for the friend to come. So they say, “It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over … come and stay with us.” He doesn’t ask for an invitation. He doesn’t beg for a place to stay. In fact, he acts as if he wants to go on. But they insist that he come in; they even press him to stay with them…
“Be our guest,” they say. They want to be his hosts. They invite the stranger to lay aside his strangeness and become a friend to them. That’s what true hospitality is all about, to offer a safe place, where the stranger can become fried. There were two friends and a stranger. But now there are three friends, sharing the same table…
Jesus accepts the invitation to come into the home of his traveling companions, and he sits down at table with them. They offer him the place of honor. He is in the center. They are alongside him. They look at him. He looks at them. There is intimacy, friendship, community.
-Henri Nouwen. With Burning Hearts. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994). 66-7, 74, 77.
For Saint Henri, the invitation of the stranger is the means by which Jesus is made known.

This is all well and good for those who knew the resurrected Jesus. The question remains, however, how can we know Jesus now in a post-ascension world? Answering this question requires a more radical theology. It is true that we know Jesus in the stranger. However, that is not to say that every stranger is Jesus in a historical sense. Furthermore, we are called to be Christ to one another so that Jesus may be known in our communities and contexts. However, this is not to say that we should all embrace Christ complexes. On the one hand, it is almost impossible to read the Emmaus Road story without thinking of Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” On the other hand, it still seems inadequate to have something like Christ, but not Jesus Christ himself.

My friend Danielle wrote a book about her experience working with street children in Lima, Peru called Nothing but a Thief. In it she tells her stories of being Christ to those rejected by the world.

The first words out of Manzanita’s mouth told me that he had to go right now with the other boys to steal.
‘Wait for me,’ he told me.
‘Where? For how long?’ I asked, hurt.
He shrugged nonchalantly. ‘At the stadium?’ It was a Monday, and the kinds always met us on Monday afternoons at the stadium.
‘Fine. At the stadium, I’ll wait for you.’ As soon as I spoke, the boys were on their way, disappearing into another crowd. I watched Manzanita walk away until I could no longer see him. Tears burned my eyes. It hurt worse than if he had never come at all – to see him and then not to have him stay…
In the end I never met up with Manzanita…
As I waited for Manzanita, I wanted so much to show him love, to tell him that he was important to me, to provide a meal for him, and to allow him to escape life on the street for just a few hours. I would have continued to wait for him, over and over, because I love him. Manzanita was one of the reasons I returned to Peru after having left, and he was one of the kids I loved the most.
-Danielle Speakman. Nothing But a Thief: The Street and Her Children. (Kent, TN: Sovereign World, 2002), 58-9.
Being Christ to the stranger means becoming vulnerable like Christ to rejection by the very ones we are called to love. Danielle also tells stories of the children as Christ to her and to others. She tells the story of Mudo, a deaf-mute who was killed in a street fight.

In the paper, Mudo’s death gained the attention of the public in the heading: ‘The deaf-mute doesn’t even have a dog to bark for him.’ To the general public, Mudo was just another piraƱita, lost in the throes of the violence that is sure to swallow those who live on the streets. But to the other street children, and to those of us who worked with Mudo, we’re proving wrong the headline. Mudo’s silent voice has persistently remained inside of those who knew him; many of whom have made it their purpose to give a voice to him and to other children like him.
-Danielle Speakman. Nothing But a Thief: The Street and Her Children. (Kent, TN: Sovereign World, 2002), 101-2.

Like Christ, Mudo was killed and the world hoped he would be forgotten, but instead he has inspired and eternally changed those he encountered in his short life.

For Danielle, it is clearly not the case that Mudo was something like Christ to her or that she desired to be something like Christ to Manzanita. Her theology is much more radical than that. She says, “We, to the world, must be the body of Christ. In the hope that hurting children will be able to start again, we must act as His body. In the hope for the children of these children – for Menudo’s children, we must be His body. We may be the only Jesus Christ the world will ever see” (Speakman, 180). We may be the only Jesus Christ the world will ever see. We must step out and become Christ for others because they may never know Jesus otherwise. We must risk letting others be Christ for us because knowing Jesus in this stranger may be our only chance.

Come, let us walk together on this road to Emmaus. Let us be Christ to those we meet, and let us find Christ within them. Amen.