Standing in the road, stunned
Text: Luke 24:13-35
Do you hear the sadness with which the disciples spoke this morning? “We thought he was to be the one. We thought it was going to work out, to be great, but it didn’t. We didn’t see him today as we thought we would, as we thought he had promised us. He did these wonderful things; we thought the world was being changed. We thought he was to be the one.
We must have been mistaken.”
And even though Jesus, their hearts’ desire, was there with them on their sad journey, came to meet them on their sad journey, they didn’t see him. They couldn’t see him. The text even says, their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
Why? What was it that kept the disciples from recognizing Jesus as he came among them after his death? It happens in this story from Luke, it happened last week in the
story from John. It happened when Mary Magdalene encountered him in the garden. Why were people not able to recognize Jesus when he came to them?
Jesus always did come to them. No matter what they had done, no matter that they had deserted him, no matter that they had misunderstood him time and again. They always got another chance to learn, to grow, to change their ways, to joyfully celebrate, to be with him.
And yet at crucial moments, when they were despondent, grieving, confused and hurt, they didn’t recognize him.
This passage in Luke can be, and is often described like this: “Oh look, it’s church! We walk together, we hear the scriptures opened up and explained, we gather at the table and there we meet Jesus in the breaking of the bread. We are nourished with spiritual food and experience his promise to be there with us always. And then we go out, joyfully, to share with the world the love that we have received.” This is the church’s life and work, in a nutshell. Luke’s story reminds us, if you want to meet Jesus, go to church!
And along with the words we heard last week at the end of the passage from John (“blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”), we are reminded that we didn’t have to be physically present with Jesus in the first century to experience him now. The witness of the Gospel and those who have testified to Jesus AND the experience of meeting him in the breaking of the bread, which we do here every time we gather, are ways in which we too can encounter Jesus and be touched by him today.
And that’s a vitally important message for us to hear. Ours is a living faith, in which we do not simply look back and remember, but we live out lives that are informed and touched by Jesus and his healing, restoring, reconciling work today. And it doesn’t stop at going to church. We are commissioned both by Jesus and by the church to to go out from the church and continue Jesus’ work ourselves in our communities.
And we are met on our journey, wherever we are, on the way to church or on the way home, by Jesus who calls us into and back into relationship with God and neighbor.
But listen once more to the beginning of the story. Hear the despondency, the fears about misplaced hopes, the sadness of the words: “we hoped he was the one.” Could those fears, that despondency, the sadness be connected to the inability of these followers of Jesus to recognize him when he met them on the road? At a crucial moment, did their despondency, grieving, confusion and hurt keep them from recognizing him?
Disappointment and sadness is an integral part of our earthly life. Resurrection didn’t render that moot. Resurrection doesn’t mean that we will never have troubles, that we will never be sad, that we will not second guess ourselves, that we will not feel pain. That’s all part of our human experience. The resurrection doesn’t mean anything if it’s not connected to those things in our lives that we experience so deeply. The resurrection doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t connected to Jesus’ earthly life and ministry and our earthly life and ministry.
And so the story begins in disappointment. Hopes and dreams dashed. Going back over the story to see if there is some way it can be interpreted differently, to see if there is a way to make it better, to see if there is a way to erase the pain.
And in the looking backward, in the desire for the outcome to have been different, in their having given up before the fabled third day was even over, their eyes were kept from seeing Jesus walking with them. They were still looking back at grief and not looking around for hope.
Fortunately, the story ends in utter joy. In the knowledge of new possibility. The followers finally do recognize Jesus in the ritual of the breaking of the bread, they realize that they were responding to him (did your heart burn like mine did?) even as he was talking with them about the Scriptures, and they rush back to Jerusalem, to the rest of the gathered faithful, and all of them erupt in joy, talking over one another: I saw him, we saw him, Peter saw him, too! He was with us after all! What he had said to us was true! It wasn’t a defeat but a victory!
So this is our story, too. We find our hopes dashed. We go back over an event, trying to make it different, to change the outcome. And we forget to look around for hope. We are blinded by our grief to hope and new life, to resurrection.
But then we are gathered together in story and for a meal, in relationship and ritual, in familiar tradition and new expression of tradition, and we remember. We experience again what we had forgotten in our grief. Hope is ahead of us, it is with us, when we are able to look for it.
I think we are wrong if we think that because of the resurrection we should never have grief, never be disappointed, never stand still in the middle of the road looking back in regret. That’s part of our story, too, part of the human condition. We, all of us, have been there, and have been there more than once, and will find ourselves there again, standing in the middle of the road, stunned and hopeless.
But we are Christians in community. And when we are not able to do it ourselves, the community holds out the hope, holds out the possibility of gathering together to hear the story again, to remember the hope again, to be the balm in Gilead and the place where we experience wholeness again. We come together and through the hearts and hands of others receive healing, we find the church a place for us to bring our hurts and disappointments and the altar a place for us to lay them down before we share the meal again. He took and blessed and broke and gave, and we recognize in those actions not only consolation but hope and joy and life again when we thought that all was lost.
Resurrection is what comes out of devastation because of love. And we don’t get there without either the devastation or the love. The world is both beautiful and broken; to forget either is to forget half the story of our life. Jesus stands right in the middle of that, to show us that he experienced devastation and also that he embodies resurrection. New life comes from the wreckage and ashes of our lost dreams.
Most of us have experienced devastation. We have lost our dreams. A desperately wanted child is not able to be conceived or carried to term; a beloved husband or wife cannot overcome cancer; a cherished friend cannot survive a crash. A career bombs, a home is burned to the ground, mental illness turns a parent into a stranger, addiction robs a teenager of a future. This parish collectively experienced the helplessness forced upon it by life’s brokenness in the death of an innocent baby abandoned on your grounds last year.
And yet we come together again, to hear the story again, to be nourished again, to realize that Jesus was with us on our way, that Jesus is with us at this table, that Jesus will always hold out to us the hope of beauty and truth and a new kind of perhaps unexpected wholeness in the wake of our disappointments and worries and grief.
When we are despondent, grieving, confused and hurt, Jesus is there. But we might not recognize him at the time.... until we are able to remember the promises, to hear the story anew, to participate in the overflowing love that is given to us in the banquet that Jesus hosts at the altar. There we might catch just a glimpse of him in the midst of it all as we stretch out our hands to receive again the life that Jesus takes and blesses and breaks and gives.
Thanks be to God.