Acts 2:14a, 36-47; Psalm 116:10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
No one is really sure where Emmaus was.
Luke didn’t make it up, not exactly. There are a few other accounts of a town called Emmaus, located somewhere near Jerusalem around the time of Jesus. The accounts disagree about the distance, so that we’re not sure if Cleopas and his companion walked seven miles or seventeen miles or more that first Easter afternoon.
We’re not sure about the distance or the exact direction. But in telling us they were walking toward Emmaus, wherever it was, Luke does want us to be sure they were walking away from Jerusalem. Away from the place Jesus had died. Away from the place he was buried. Away from the place they, and all who had followed Jesus, felt like fear, grief, anger, and doubt were going to bury them, too. They just had to get away. They’d had enough.
I used to have the perfect place to get away. When I was younger, still living at home, and I’d had enough of my little brother or my calculus homework or the myriad other things that upset a teenage girl, I would head over to my grandmother’s house, and after a quick but comforting hug, I climbed the stairs to my mom’s old room. It was blue and peaceful and filled with memories – my mom’s and my own. A huge bulletin board still displayed pictures of my mom when she was my age, her arms draped around high school friends who looked just like mine, ribbons from summer camp celebrating her skills on horseback, lift tickets from church ski trips, dried out corsages, and a collage she once made of now-yellowed magazine clippings of people in love. The shelves were full of original Nancy Drew mysteries, perfect for reading on the ruffled four-poster bed or the window seat that looked out over a backyard full of azaleas. My old dollhouse, which my grandmother had made, sat atop a table in mom’s room, and though I might not have admitted it to my friends at the time, I could still spend happy hours rearranging the furniture and tiny knick-knacks.
That room was a real escape for me, a place where I could get away in a thousand different wonderful ways, until I felt ready to face the world again. I knew my grandmother was downstairs waiting, that we could talk about whatever it was I had wanted to get away from, and that after another hug I could head back out into my life.
There’s not really a place I escape to these days – it’s difficult to get away in that sense, to go any particular distance or direction. So instead I escape in my own house with a pair of knitting needles and a skein of yarn. The clicking of the needles, the softness of the yarn, and the repetition of the pattern – knit three, purl three, knit three purl three – lure me from whatever it is I had wanted to get away from, and after a while I’m ready to face the world again.
I imagine each of us has a place we go to get away from it all, to get away from the fear, grief, anger and doubt that threaten to bury us from time to time. A place to get away from the stress in our lives, the expectations that aren’t met, the disappointments, the deadlines, the strained relationships, the obligations that seem to outweigh our abilities. Perhaps, for you, it is a place you can get to by a particular distance or direction: a special room in a special house, or a gym, or a car with the radio on and the windows down, or a trail through the woods, or a deer stand, or a museum with art you get lost in. Perhaps it is a place you can get to without going anywhere at all: a good book, an old movie, a sewing project, a recipe with lots of ingredients, picking out songs on a guitar. How do you get away?
Frederick Buechner has suggested that perhaps, in this morning’s gospel reading, Emmaus is not so much a place as it is a state of mind. That Emmaus stands for those times when the world is closing in on us, when we are overwhelmed by hurt, when we don’t know what to believe anymore. Certainly that’s the state of mind the disciples were in, just three days after witnessing Jesus’ death, three days after sealing him in a tomb, three days after seeing all that they had trusted in come crashing down around them.
So often we arrive here, in this place, on Sunday morning, the first day of the week, in something of the same state of mind the disciples were in on that first Easter morning. We are tired, preoccupied, distracted by the hurts and anxieties that have piled up during the week. We have been working hard, we have experienced disappointments, we are dealing with relationships that are strained or broken. Like Cleopas and his companion, we’re ready to set our feet toward Emmaus, away from it all.
And then an amazing thing happens. In this place, like Cleopas and his companion as they walked, we listen to the words of our sacred scriptures read aloud, we hear the stories of God’s saving work in the world. Hopefully in the sermon, but even more hopefully in our prayers offered for all people everywhere, we begin to see an intersection between God’s saving work in scripture and God’s saving work in our own weary lives and in the lives of others. The scriptures are opened to us, they make room for us, they include our stories, just as a stranger showed the two weary disciples that scripture included Jesus story and their story.
Is your heart burning yet? Do you see who’s with us? Do you recognize the road we’re on?
In this place, like Cleopas and his companion before us, we gather around a table to break bread. Like them, we remember that Jesus told us to remember, that Jesus told us we would recognize him in that most basic, most gracious, most life-sustaining act of breaking bread. Like Cleopas and the other disciple at that table, we clearly see the body of Christ in our midst.
Finally, in this place, as happened at Emmaus on the first Easter day, we say together that we must go back to Jerusalem, to the world, to the place we wanted to escape from. But when we go back through those doors, we will go nourished, we will go with stronger and lighter hearts, we will go with good news for all those who are as buried under the weight of their lives as we were when we set out.
As constant as the clicking of needles, as regular as the rhythm of knit three purl three, the pattern has continued from that first day of the week at Emmaus to this first day of the week at St. Paul’s, and on every first day in between in every place where the body of Christ has gathered to worship. We hear scripture read. We open its words to our lives through reflection and prayer. We break bread together. We go out into the world.
The pattern was established 2000 years ago and picked up by the fledging church, as we heard today in the book of Acts. But the presence of the risen Christ is not ancient history. It is not just a story we read, not just something we remember. Jesus Christ is as alive, he is as present at this table as he was at that table in Emmaus. When we allow our tired, distracted, dissatisfied, disappointed selves to become lost in the rhythmic pattern of our worship together – of reading sacred scripture, of praying, of breaking bread together – we find that Christ has been with us all along. He is not just in the stories. He is not just up there, somewhere, hearing our prayer. He is not just, somehow, in the bread and wine. He is living, he is present, he is with us all along because we have been baptized and bear his mark. We are sisters and brothers in the household of God, and members of Christ’s body.
The Reverend Joe Robinson, a priest of this diocese, wrote a song that has long been a favorite at camp and youth retreats. It begins, “We’re gathered here, the tired, the poor, the overworked, the lost, the lame. And though we bring a million faces, we are known by just one name.”
We gather here, in this place, on the first day of the week, a ragged collection of professionals, students, parents, children, young, old, comfortable, struggling. We gather here with a ragged collection of hurts, disappointments, disillusionments, doubts, fears, anxieties. But though we bring a million ragged faces, together in this place we are known by just one name: we are the body of Christ.
We are the body of Christ, and so we also gather here with a ragged but God-given collection of strengths, of gifts, of experiences to share with one another, with our community, and with the world. Joe echoes the words of St. Theresa of Avila in the second verse of his song, “Lord, we would be your hands, your heart, your feet, your loving arms, your warm embrace.” We may not see the person of Jesus Christ in the same way Cleopas and his companion did, but we can look around this place and see his body. We see him in the hands that carry our crosses and torches. We see him in the arms that assist people up the stairs. We see him in the women and men who teach classes, lead bible studies, cook meals, visit hospitals, sing in the choir, greet visitors, clean the building, serve on the vestry. We see him in the faces of those who greet us at the peace. We see him in those who kneel beside us at the altar rail, at that table, where all of us gather together to be nourished with that which we, as a community of faith, already are – the body of Christ.
We are the body of Christ, a mark we carry with us not just within these walls but every place we go – every distance, every direction. And so every moment, every encounter, carries with it the possibility of revealing Jesus Christ to someone in an Emmaus state of mind. The final verse of Joe’s song is one of the most beautiful prayers I know: “Lord, be with us in Spirit as we journey from the church into the street. May each meeting yield a neighbor, and each handshake bring Christ’s holy peace to greet. Every meal a great communion, every bath baptism be. Let us lose our lives in worship and then find them [as they have been all along] in thee.”
No one is really sure where Emmaus was. But we are very sure where Jesus is now – he is there in our sacred story, he is there at our table, he is out there through the doors, he is here in the mark we bear, he is here in our burning hearts, he is here, alive in our midst. Though we bring a million faces, together we are known by just one name – Jesus Christ. Amen.