The Unexpected Guest

April 4, 1999


The Unexpected Guest

I decided once, many years ago, to invest some serious time in researching the conflicting Gospel stories about exactly what happened after the death of Jesus, and one of the first things I realized is that the different Gospel writers contradict one another on many points, including the nature of their encounters with a risen Lord. In one moment they describe his appearing and vanishing in sudden, mysterious ways as if he were a ghost whom they do not recognize without help. In the next moment they describe him as a familiar physical presence who eats food and bears the scars of crucifixion in his hands and feet. Along with all the discrepancies about exactly what happened at the tomb, there seems to be confusion about the nature of appearances afterward. We haven’t time to examine more than one of them so I’ve chosen to concentrate briefly this morning on a single fascinating story and the different ways in which it has been understood.
Given in its longest form at the end of Luke’s Gospel, it is read by many as if it were literal history, and by others as if it belongs to the kind of devotional poetry Luke uses in a preface to his gospel to describe the birth of Jesus. You are invited to choose between the two ways of interpreting the story as I read and make comments on it. Just before it begins, Luke tells us that a group of women, convinced that Jesus had been resurrected, hurry from the tomb to tell the apostles but the message sounds like nonsense to these gentlemen and they refuse to believe it. This scepticism seems surprising when you consider that according to the Gospel stories these very men had seen Jesus walk on water, cast out demons, multiply food by magic to feed a multitude, miraculously heal the sick, and bring a man back to life after four days in a tomb. Put yourselves in their shoes for a moment: you’ve seen all these incredible things, and you’ve also heard the wonderworker himself promise to rise from the dead himself. So instead of dismissing the women’s report, wouldn’t you have said, “Wonderful! It’s happened just the way he said it would, and it’s no big surprise after all we’ve seen him do!” But they are strangely obtuse….an oddity to be dealt with in your Sunday morning adult study grou since we must get on with our story.
On that same day, Luke says, two of these sceptics leave Jerusalem for a seven mile walk to a village called Emmaus, perhaps the home of one or both of them If your imagination is at work you see their sandals kick up little spurts of dust and the occasional dog that runs out to bark at them. They are both so depressed over their recent loss that in one sense their trip to Emmaus may represent the kind of journey we all take at times when our hopes are crushed.
Whatever Emmaus meant for the two men heading away from that ugly skull-shaped hill where their hopes had died, what happens on the way is that all of a sudden they hear footsteps behind them and they are joined by some man they do not recognize. They should know him, of course, because he has been as familiar of late as their own faces, but the story takes an odd turn at this point that makes us wonder whether we are reading history or symbolism: it says that in some mysterious and unexplained way the eyes of the two men are kept from recognizing their friend Jesus.
This is all so contrary to nature that the story at this point poses problems for a thoughtful, modern reader. Are we really in a world of magic where people’s eyes are controlled and someone seems to come and go in supernatural ways, and where even the ears fail to recognize a well-known voice, or is this story a piece of Christian symbolism rather than actual history? Will we get a clue from a certain ceremony in which things come back to normal and the two disciples do finally realize they are in the presence of Christ? Please hold that thought for a moment while we return to the story.
We are told that as the stranger joins in the walk he asks what the two men have been talking about. They stop and look at him, their faces full of misery, and one of them says, “You must be the only stranger in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard the things that have happened there in the last few days?” “What things?” their new companion asks, and they answer, All this about Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet powerful in word and deed….[and] how our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and crucified him. And as if that’s not enough, this is the third day since it happened, and some women of our company have told some wild story about an empty tomb and their sighting of angels who said Jesus was alive.
It would seem these two men agree that the story is unbelievable, since they are leaving town instead of sticking around just in case a corpse really had been resuscitated. And at that point the stranger breaks in to tell them how dull they are, and launches into a sermon that starts with Moses and the prophet and interprets them as having predicted all these things many centuries ago. This, of course, is exactly how the early church used the Old Testament in its effort to prove to Jews that Jesus was the Messiah they had been expecting. Jewish and Christian scholars both agree that this is not a proper use of the Old Testament, but Luke’s story certainly has the effect of validating the interpretation techniques of the early church.
We have no idea how long the sermon lasts, but as the men reach the village, the stranger shows signs of going on without stopping. But since it’s late, he’s urged to spend the night, he agrees, and we come to what may be the key words for explaining what this whole strange tale really means: “And when he had sat down with them at table, he took the bread and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” At that moment, we are told, their eyes are suddenly opened and they recognize him….just before he vanished from their sight.
Since those words sound so much like the ritual of communion, some readers have thought Luke’s intention was to say that in that familiar ceremony, the risen Christ is known again. And if not that, then at least the author may be reminding us that the divine presence can intrude upon our journeys at the most unexpected times. Unlike the Near Eastern people who first heard this tale, we are very literal minded people, so it can be difficult for us to read such a story as a kind of parable, full of symbolic rather than historical truth.
For me, the affirmation that Christ is risen means sensing the beauty and power of his life in everyday moments. When one person says to another in absolute sincerity, “I love you,” I think the holy stranger joins us on the road. Every time a child trusts utterly the guidance of your hand without the least fear of harm, the spirit of Jesus is alive and at work. So for one of the greatest of modern Bible scholars [John Dominic Crossan] the real point of Luke’s strange little story is that the risen Christ may walk with us even when we don’t know it. He says, “Emmaus never happened,” meaning that for him the story does not report an actual event that happened on a particular day. But“Emmaus always happens,” he says, thinking of those with eyes of the heart and the imagination to sense a presence.
The great Dutch artist, Rembrandt, liked this story — painting it realistically as a young man but moving toward a more subjective interpretation as he got older. In a late painting, at the very instant when the two disciples recognize the presence of Jesus, Rembrandt shows a nearby servant who appears to see nothing unusual at all. Jesus, in other words, was there for those with eyes to see.
The story is a challenge, and the debate about what it means will go on and on, just as what it means to speak of a risen Lord is understood differently within the church. A Southern Baptist, convinced that a physical body was resuscitated and walked out of the tomb, tells us Christianity is without meaning unless we believe the same way. At the other end of faith a Unitarian writes: “Most of us do not believe Jesus rose bodily from the dead, but we believe that his life, teachings, example and memory inspired first his friends and disciples, then countless [more] people down through the ages ……[to]….. support the works of love and truth.”
What I would testify of myself is that I have sensed the living spirit of the Man from Nazareth many times in all sorts of moments. Always, in this room, when your faces turn this way in the conviction that I will speak honestly. Over there a few steps, on Saturdays, when two kids in love kneel in front of me and I look down on their heads and their joined hands and think of the love and trust and enormous hope that fills them, and how the years will bring laughter and tears — and in such moments of hope and promise I sense the presence of the One who loved supremely.
Or as I did one day sitting with a man in a nursing home as we reminisced about a happier past. He got up suddenly and walked away slowly, saying, “I’ll be back,” and came back in a moment with a picture taken years before of a lovely woman and a copy of the order of service for her funeral to tell me that she had been the great joy of his life for 63 years of married happiness. In that room, in that moment, I felt the presence of a sacred, unseen stranger whose name you know.
As a splendid Bible student and preacher named Barbara Brown Taylor put it the other day, “We never know where he will turn up next.” She reminds us of Mary Magdalen, standing near the tomb and saying, “O dear, what have they done with his body?” If her question reaches me over nearly 20 centuries, I have an answer. I would look at all of you and say, “His body is here — among people in whom his spirit lives, and who are dedicated to being his eyes, his voice, his helping and healing hands.
The “truth” of poetry and parable and symbol, dear friends, is not the same as the truth of science or literal history — but it outlasts them both and it has power to turn your routine journeys to Emmaus into an unforgettable joy. Or… put it another way….may Easter happen every day of your life.

May we be surprised, over and over, to learn who walks near us.