Sunday, May 4, 2014

Our Companion on the Way

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, May 4 at Ascension, Munich
Easter II: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24: 13-35, Psalm 116: 1-3, 10-17

Thank you so much for inviting me back to preach today and to say farewell and thank you properly, after our rather sudden departure in February. I’m just glad that today’s reading was not the parable of the prodigal son! Instead today’s Gospel reading was all about the story of the journey to Emmaus, the event after which this church that we worship in is named. It’s a lovely story, packed full of sorrow, suspense, sudden recognition, excitement and a flurry of activity. I think it can act as a model for our lives of faith – for what is often called our journey of faith and I realize that this will not be the first time you have heard someone connect faith with a journey!

It is by no means an original idea. The author of Luke’s Gospel places virtually all of Jesus’ ministry in the context of journeys. Jesus is always on the move, first just back and forth from Galilee to other towns and villages. He always seems to be “going down to, walking through, or returning from” somewhere. Then of course he sets off on that long and fateful journey to his and to our destiny in Jerusalem. In fact Luke is so fond of journeys that the second book he authored, the Acts of the Apostles, is also mostly about the missionary journeys of St. Paul and his companions and the first Christians are described in Acts (9:2) as those who belong to the Way. And of course this image is by no means exclusive to Luke – in John’s Gospel Jesus famously describes himself as “the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

Journeying and travelling are also very much at the top of my mind at the moment. Most weekends I travel to and from Wiesbaden where I am currently serving as Priest-in-charge. Though at about 420 km from Munich, Wiesbaden is a little further away than Emmaus was from Jerusalem with just seven miles! I find these journeys very useful: I read and study; and I prepare my sermons or other presentations. In fact it is often while travelling and walking that I get a lot of my inspiration and ideas.

The Bible is packed full of stories of journeys of faith. Abraham has to be pretty faithful to leave his home and his father’s house and set off for the land the Lord shows him, Moses’ and the Israelites’ faith is sorely tested during their 40 year long trek through the wilderness, and it took a lot of faith for the Jews to leave their comfortable exile in Babylon and return to Jerusalem, to rebuild that ruined city and the Temple amidst hostile neighbors.

But this faith journey to Emmaus is a bit different. Most of the stories I just mentioned are about people journeying out of faith, about people taking a risk because of their trust in God and in God’s purposes. But that’s not the case here. These two followers of Jesus have lost faith, they had hoped that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel,” but now they are not so certain and are running away – or at least they think they are! To me it seems more like Jonah’s journey. His attempt to run away from God and from the mission God had planned for him also did not turn out as he had expected and he ended up, as we know via the inside of a large fish, right where God wanted him to be. The Apostle Paul also did not expect to encounter Jesus on his journey to Damascus, let alone to become such an enthusiastic follower!

So how do our two disciples find Jesus? Well they don’t, he finds them, but they just don’t recognize him at first although they seem to be doing all the right things. They review recent events in their community and in their own lives and try and relate them to what they believed. They are able to recite a sort of Creed about Jesus “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,” and with the stranger’s help they study and review Scripture, looking at the whole salvation story and how this might explain what they have experienced and inform their actions and behavior. And yet none of this enables them to see that Jesus is with them. They just do not notice his presence.  

What makes them see him in the end? Well the traditional explanation is that it is the Eucharistic act of Jesus taking, blessing, breaking and giving bread that opens their eyes. Echoing the last words of this passage, Steve will say later in the service at the Fraction: “Alleluia! Risen Lord be known to us in the breaking of the bread.” Yes I agree, good Catholic Christian that I am, of course Jesus was and is both revealed and present in the Eucharist.

But I also think that the act that immediately precedes the breaking of the bread is important. They invite the stranger in because it is late and dangerous and they invite him to a meal. It is this act of hospitality to a stranger that also helps open their eyes. It is not knowledge alone that allows them, or us, to see Christ and to make him present in our lives. Yes we must study, understand, and apply Scripture just as Jesus did. We must also break bread and share the cup as Jesus commanded: “Do this for the remembrance of me.” And we must care for the other, for the poor, the oppressed, and the stranger knowing that whenever we give the hungry food, the naked clothing, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, or welcome the stranger that we do this to and for Jesus. (Matthew 25:31-46) Together these acts will make Christ present in our lives.

But the disciples’ journey is by no means over with the meal; the journey does not end with them recognizing Jesus.  Luke doesn’t allow the two disciples to remain in the inn in Emmaus, basking in the warm glow of recognition and Jesus’ presence. Instead they get up, rush out into the dangerous Judean night, and head back to Jerusalem – although the day was now very much over. Their hearts are burning and they have very Good News to proclaim and to tell the others: “It is true. Jesus is risen indeed!”

That is an important lesson for us too: not to focus solely on what we believe to be the destination of our journey, especially not just on things above. The journey itself is important. Jesus is also part of the process, the journey, and the adventure of faith – and not just some token prize at journey’s end. Scripture, Communion, and Christ’s presence in our midst are meant to empower and strengthen us for the journey and for the life of faith in the here and now. They are meant to equip us to be active witnesses to God’s love for the world in Christ.

We deepen our faith through what we learn and experience on our journey, we expand our faith and knowledge through the people we meet and serve. We grow in faith both through our successes and our failures on the way. The good news of the Emmaus story is that God is with us whether we recognize it or not. God does not just accompany those who do what God has commanded, like Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites. God in Jesus also chases after those who doubt and have lost hope and turn away from him. As so often Jesus’ meal with sinners, because the two disciples had sinned by turning from Christ, is a meal of forgiveness and reconciliation.  

Jesus is our companion on the Way, on our journey through life. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus we will recognize his presence by our side when we listen for his voice in Scripture, when we know him in the breaking of the bread, and when we encounter him in the love and service of others.

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