A Glimpse of Christ (Luke 24:13-35)
The Road to Emmaus is a beloved story of the risen Jesus. It’s one of my favorites. It’s a powerful image that stays in your mind. So much so that there is a program of spirituality called ‘The Walk to Emmaus’. It’s used by many churches, and it involves spiritual retreats and small groups, all seeking to find Jesus in their daily life. It’s simply a beautiful image.
The Road to Emmaus story is also easy to preach on. The sermon almost falls out of the text. It looks like the story was designed to be a teaching tool. It narrates an actual event, but Luke the writer has stylized the story to make the message hard to miss.
Here is the message in a sentence: Christ walks beside us unseen, and sometimes we get a glimpse of him.
Let’s look at each half of this message. First, Christ walks beside us unseen. You have two disciples on a road leading to Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. It is the evening of the first Easter. Jesus has risen, but these two disciples don’t know this yet, or at least fully. They are as sad as sad can be. All they know is their leader, their master, the one they put all their hopes on, is dead and gone. Think of political campaign workers today who have put in 18-20 hour days for months trying to get their candidate elected. But on election day, their candidate loses, and on top of that has a heart attack and dies. All of their hopes are shattered. What do they do now? This is how the two disciples on the road to Emmaus feel.
Suddenly Jesus is with them, in the form of a stranger. We know it is Jesus, but they do not, adding to the dramatic tension in the story. It says ‘their eyes were kept from recognizing him.’ For whatever reason, they cannot perceive him, even though he is right beside them.
There is a story about Karl Barth that I just love. Barth was one of the most famous theologians of the 20th century. He was a rock star of theologians. Barth lived in Basel, Switzerland. One day he was riding on a street car in Basel, and a tourist sat down next to him. The two began talking. Barth asked the tourist, “What do you hope to see in Basel?” The reply was, “I hope to see the great theologian Karl Barth.” And then, “Do you know him?” With a gleam in his eye, Barth responded, “I give him a shave every morning.” The tourist was excited, “Really?” They would have continued talking, but the street car reached a stop and the tourist got off. He went and told his friends with great joy, “I met Karl Barth’s barber!” Barth was sitting right next to him, but he could not perceive it. Just like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Now we could get fixated on why they couldn’t see Jesus. But I prefer a more positive approach. This story tells me in their lowest moment, Christ was with them. And this image gives me hope that in our low times, Christ will be with us too. The person who has been searching for a job for 18 months, wondering if they’ll ever work again. Christ is with them. The person going through a messy, painful divorce. Christ is with them. The person in a hospital bed with a spinal cord injury, wondering if they will ever walk again. Christ is with them. For all of us, in whatever situation in life, Christ walks beside us unseen.
And sometimes we get glimpses of him, the second part of the message. This story shows me three ways to get a glimpse of Christ. In scripture, sacrament and silence. First, scripture. Christ is walking along with these two disciples, and they have an impromptu Bible study. He shows them where he is hidden in the scriptures, which for them were the Old Testament. He may have spoken of Moses saying that a prophet would come whom the people should listen to. He may have spoken of Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53. He may have spoken of the story of Jonah. ‘As Jonah was in the belly of the whale, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.’ He helped them to see himself in the scriptures in a way that had not experienced before. Now for us today, we can find Christ in the scriptures too, but for us this happens primarily in the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These four lives of Christ make the Life of Christ present to us now. Only what we need is to ask the risen Christ to be our teacher as we read them, just as he was on the road to Emmaus.
Second, Christ is present in the sacrament of communion. He was known to them ‘in the breaking of the bread.’ This is why I always want us to have communion at the praise service each week. The bread and the cup make Christ present. I think the Episcopalians, Catholics and Disciples of Christ are right: we should have communion weekly.
Third, Christ is present in silence. This is more implicit in the Emmaus story, but I imagine there were periods of silence as they walked along the road and as they sat at table. And the silence helped them eventually to perceive the presence of Christ with them. This is something I have learned from the Quakers. For Quakers, the practice of silence invites the presence of Christ.
John Woolman was a Quaker in early America. He lived from 1720 to 1772. He is known today for a beautiful spiritual autobiography he wrote, which is been in print for over two centuries. He is also known as an abolitionist. John Woolman went on journeys all through the colonies, gently, lovingly trying to persuade his fellow Quakers to free their slaves. He was one of the few whites in early America who saw that the practice of slavery was incompatible with the gospel of Christ. He faced opposition, but largely through his efforts, Quakers eliminated slavery among their members. One night Woolman was staying in a Quaker home in Burlington, New Jersey. He was asleep in a bed in a room. It was a moonless night. He woke up in the middle of the night, and in the silence he began to pray and meditate on the goodness of God. Suddenly there was a shaft of light at the foot of his bed. It was nine inches wide, and brightest in the center. The light didn’t make him afraid or surprise him, he says. Then he heard a voice, not an audible voice, nor just his own thoughts, but the voice of the Holy One speaking to him. The voice said, “Certain evidence of divine truth.” The voice repeated this. Then the voice and the light went away, and it was all silence again. I believe in the silence, the light of Christ was present to him, encouraging him in his ministry. He got a glimpse of Christ on that moonless night.
A last word: Tomorrow you will get up and do the things you need to do. Remember that Christ is present with you unseen as you do them, and know that you may get a glimpse of him. Amen.