The Road to Emmaus story is beautiful. It is the most beautiful of the resurrection stories about Jesus. Luke, the writer, has put the story together in a lovely way. It is best not to think of Luke as a reporter writing for a newspaper, trying to get his facts and quotes accurate. He is more a dramatist, and this is a scene in his drama about Christ. There is a message he wants to communicate to us in this scene.
Two disciples of Jesus are walking along the road. It is evening on the first Easter, so about 48 hours since Jesus has died. Their emotional state, we are told, is deep sadness. Their teacher, friend, mentor Jesus has died a violent death.
When someone close to you dies, it’s like you are in a train wreck. Afterward there is all this wreckage around, and a loud ringing in your ears for days. It is disorienting, to say the least. This is where these disciples are now, with a loud ringing in their ears, walking along in sadness.
A stranger comes up and walks with them. We know it’s Jesus, but they do not. (This is a dramatic technique.) They begin a conversation. They tell him about the awful things that have happened to them lately. He listens patiently, and then he interprets their experiences to them using the holy scriptures. He helps them understand what has happened. This encourages their hearts.
Later, at a meal together, they are struck by how the stranger handles bread. There is something familiar in the gesture. Suddenly, the realize it is Jesus. Finally, the recognize him. Then he vanishes.
Luke, our dramatist, is telling us how we experience the risen Christ today by means of this story. I will have more to say about this in a minute. But first, I want to talk a bit about resurrection. What is the resurrection of Jesus?
There are two traditional ways of understanding the resurrection of Jesus. Each has a long history; neither is new (although they get stated and packaged in new ways). One sees resurrection as miracle, the other sees it as metaphor. Call them Option One and Option Two.
Option One goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. After his death, Jesus’ tomb was found empty, his body missing. Then he appeared, in some form, to his followers in various places. He was the same, and different; recognizable, and not recognizable. He had been raised and changed.
Please understand resurrection is not a resuscitation. The two are different, but often confused. If my heart stopped beating and I collapsed, someone could resuscitate me and bring me back to life. (Hopefully they would!) But I would not be resurrected.
To be resurrected means to be raised from death into an entirely new form of embodied life. St Paul called the resurrection body soma pneumatikos, which means a body animated by the very breath of God. Option One says Jesus had such a body after his resurrection, and we will as well at our resurrection. Jesus was raised in this way, transformed, leading his disciples to be transformed as well.
Option Two dates back about 300 years. It may have been present earlier, but it didn’t get traction in the church until the rise of English Deism in the 1700s. Deism was a form of Christianity that was deeply skeptical of miracles. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist; he literally took a knife and cut all the miracles out of the Gospels, leaving only the ethical teachings.
Deism was a response to the rise of modern science, with its empirical worldview. What is real is what we can observe with our senses, measure with our instruments, and study in a laboratory. Anything beyond this is less real, less important, and less trustworthy.
So in terms of resurrection, it must be a metaphor. Dead bodies don’t magically come to life again; this is empirically verifiable. The dead body of Jesus was laid in a grave where it decayed like any other body. (Or was eaten by wild animals, another option.) But this doesn’t matter because his followers experienced his continuing presence with them. They told these resurrection stories as myth and symbol of this continuing presence of Jesus. The resurrection then serves as a metaphor of the new life we can experience now.
What matters is not what happened to Jesus; what is important is what happens now. Paul Tillich, in the 20th century, summed up this view of resurrection: “Resurrection never happened, and it always happens.” Not miracle, but metaphor.
Today, Option One is taught by N.T. Wright, a British scholar, and Option Two is taught by American Marcus Borg. The two are good friends, although I think each is pretty appalled at the beliefs of the other.
So where am I? I am an Option One person. There are reasons. To begin, it doesn’t make sense to me that the disciples would be transformed if Jesus had not been. If they knew his body was mouldering away in a grave, I don’t see how they would have been changed in the way they were. That doesn’t seem logical to me.
Beyond this, there are two reasons I am in Option One. The first comes from Barbara Brown Taylor (which is ironic since I think she is more Option Two). She asks a simple question: “What is keeping you alive right now?” Good question to ask.
For me, in light of all that’s happened in the last year or more, what is keeping me alive is resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection and our own promised resurrection. But for it to keep me alive, it needs to be more than a metaphor. Death is not a metaphor; it is an ugly fact. If resurrection is God’s antidote to death, resurrection needs to be more than a metaphor too. It needs to be actual, tangible. That makes me Option One. (I understand this stems from my need. I own that.)
The second reason I am Option One comes from biology, strangely enough. Biology teaches me about an amazing transformation. We are all here living organisms. We are mammals. But once, a long long time ago, we were bacteria. All life, including our life, started out as bacteria, in a mud puddle somewhere.
Later we evolved into being fish. But we were unsuccessful at being fish. We failed at fishhood because we kept flopping out of the water. We wanted to develop legs so that we could go places. And in time, a very long time, we evolved into being human, as we are now.
This transformation is astonishing, from bacteria to fish to human. It is a miracle, you might say! So science invites me to believe in this amazing transformation of life and bodies on earth; and along comes religion and invites me to believe in another transformation, one that happened to the very body of Jesus on the third day. If I believe in the first transformation (of science), what is to prevent me from believing the second? I can believe in both and still be a thinking, modern person. Actually, postmodern, but that’s another sermon.
So this is my reasoning about being an Option One person. But it doesn’t mean I take the Emmaus story at face value. I don’t. OF COURSE the story is symbolic. It is dripping with symbolism. Luke, the writer, the dramatist, is dramatizing for us how we experience the risen Christ here and now.
In a word, we experience Christ liturgically. We find Christ in the acts of common worship, as we are engaging in them right now.
In the Emmaus story, Christ is revealed as the scriptures are opened. So here in common worship, the scriptures are read, opened, interpreted. In the Emmaus story, Christ is revealed in the bread and the common meal. So in worship, we share communion together and experience Christ. The Emmaus story does not add explicitly, but I would add that in the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, the anthems we sing and hear, the music that is played, in all these acts of common worship Christ is present to us as well.
It is here in common worship, week by week, that Christ draws alongside of us as the stranger we do not know. Here in worship Christ teaches us, feeds us, lifts us. Christ encourages us and enlightens us. Christ meets us here.
What is the result? We no longer need walk in sadness, with a loud ringing in our ears. Instead, we walk in beauty, because Christ walks with us.