Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“They stood still, looking sad.” (Luke 24)
This is a Michaelmas like no other. Some things are the same: images of Michael adorn the church, the hymns are about angels and archangels, and the anthem is based on Michael’s war in heaven.
But much is different, too. Because of the on-going pandemic, only a portion of our community is gathered together. There is no parish-wide brunch. But most of all, what is different is that we come with unusually tired, anxious hearts, uncertain of what is to come.
For that reason, we have substituted for the usual Michaelmas gospel the story we just heard, of the walk to Emmaus. It’s a gospel we need to hear right now, and because it’s a big and fulsome story, we have let it stand by itself with no other readings.
It is a text that should speak directly to us, in our current circumstances. It opens with two disciples walking rather aimlessly along the road to Emmaus, a village about 7 miles from Jerusalem. (Interestingly, although scripture gives no reason to assume this, depictions of this scene almost invariably show two men. One of them is named in the text, Cleopas, clearly a man–but the other remains nameless, and so one suspects that she was a woman, given the conventions of the time. Just saying.)
In any case, they—like us—have gone through a collective trauma. In our case, it’s a pandemic and political crisis, perhaps with some family or professional stress thrown in. In their case, it’s the aftermath of the execution of Jesus, the one in whom they had put all their hopes. Their walk is, after all, on Easter afternoon, but before they’ve actually seen Jesus, and they are walking along “discussing” all that has happened, trying to make sense of how the fulfillment of God’s promise, which seemed so near at hand only a few days ago, now seems so defunct.
And not only that, but they have heard reports that some women visited the tomb early that morning, and found it empty, except for a vision of angels who told them Jesus was alive. (You see, there are angels in the story after all!) But as of yet (at least in Luke’s telling), no one has laid eyes on Jesus.
Until now. Suddenly, there he is with them, but they are so deep into their sadness and confusion that the do not, and perhaps cannot, recognize him.
So he begins to quiz them, and they confess they had hoped that the one to redeem Israel had come. They had hoped. And that to me is the key phrase of the whole story. They had hoped, only to have their hopes dashed.
And isn’t that a lot like where we are ourselves right now? We had hoped, that the advent of a vaccine would hold the virus at bay. We had hoped, that we as a people would pull together to overcome the pandemic. We had hoped, that some degree of political normalcy might be restored after an election. We had hoped, that the worst of racial violence and intolerance was behind us. We had hoped.
But now we are on our own road to Emmaus, also walking along somewhat aimlessly, trying to make sense of it all.
But the thing I notice in the disciples’ reaction to Jesus (or rather, in the lack of their response), is that what really holds them back is that their vision of what God has promised is too small. For them, it was only (as they say) “to redeem Israel,” when what God has in mind is to set the whole of humanity back in right relationship with one another and with God.
And so, Jesus begins to teach them, to open their minds to see the true narrowness of what they expect of God, and conversely, to begin to see the expansiveness of what God offers to us.
And isn’t that, too, a lot like our own circumstances right now? Our thoughts tend to go toward wishing for nothing more than that things would return to the way they “used to be,” when in fact the way they “used to be” was not all that good—not really. The pre-pandemic world for which we are now so nostalgic was riven by social conflict, by uncontrolled violence, by unsustainable gulfs between rich and poor, by an earth teetering on the brink of disaster—and, if I may say so, by a Christianity in steady decline through the weight of its own conventions. Surely we want something more than that!
Jesus pushes the disciples to get over that for which they had hoped, and to hope instead for something more. What he is pushing them to see, finally dawns on them when they sit down to supper, and in the breaking of the bread they suddenly find themselves saying, “Wait! This is Jesus here now!” And in that moment, everything is turned on its head. But Jesus draws back out of their sight, and the two disciples rush off to Jerusalem to tell the others. That’s where we left off reading today.
But if we had continued to read, we would have heard that just at the moment they meet the other disciples, Jesus appears again to all of them, and after addressing their fright, he makes clear what the story has been leading to all along: they are to be witnesses not just to Israel, but to all nations of the gospel of peaceableness that he came to inaugurate. In short, they are to do nothing less than change the world. And in Luke’s telling, that’s the end of the story. Having said that much, Jesus leaves them for good, sending them out to do the work they have been given to do. His commission becomes their hope, and their hope transcends the limited imagination of what they had formerly accepted.
So what if, on our own walk toward Emmaus, we were to dream new dreams and imagine new possibilities of our life together? Today marks the beginning of the fall stewardship season, and the committee has proposed that we make this season an opportunity to spend time, like the disciples, both taking stock of the trauma we have been through, but also looking forward to the future that we might create in Jesus’ name—among ourselves, and in the world around us.
Under the title of “Emmaus Gatherings,” we are inviting you to trace in the weeks ahead the three essential elements of the Emmaus story: a shared meal to draw us together, discussion of what has happened to us, and then imagining a forward-looking vision for the future.
Obviously, in the short amount of time we will have, we can’t do or say everything. But we can at least adopt a pattern of anticipating what might be, rather than longing for what was.
Which come to think of it, reminds me of a question I raised last week somewhat rhetorically, and promised to address today. If Lucifer (or Satan) is, as the mythology of the book of Revelation has it, a fallen angel—and if we are St. Michael and All Angels Church, then is Lucifer among the angels whom we evoke in our name?
Well, it you look toward the future with an unbridled hope, as I think the Emmaus story suggests we do, then I don’t see how you can avoid expecting that in the end, all of creation is to be reconciled to God, even those parts that have fallen furthest away. Some regard it a heresy, but I think it a necessary conclusion to believing in a merciful God, to say that (bottom line): none will be lost. Not one of us. All means all. That’s how radical I read God’s promised reign of peaceableness, to be. Amen.