When something truly terrible happens, one response is to try to get away – away from the people, the places, the memories we might otherwise have cherished but which have now become painful. At the same time, we are often quite eager to talk about our troubles. So another response is to want to talk about it, to want others to know just how badly it hurts.
That seems to be what the two disciples did in today’s gospel [ Luke 24:13-35]. They had followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, where the most terrible thing had happened. We all know what that’s like. We hope for something, work hard to get it. Then something goes wrong, and the path is blocked - by accident, or illness, or injustice. So it is no surprise that the two disciples decided to get out of Jerusalem as fast as they could – clearing out of town on Sunday, the day after the Sabbath. Maybe they had to get back to work! After all the excitement they had had and the enthusiasm they had felt as followers of Jesus, what a let-down it must have been to return to their regular, ordinary work!
But, however eager they were to get away, Jesus’ memory was still very much with them, and they couldn’t help talking about him to the stranger who had suddenly joined them. And the stranger let them talk. He listened to their disappointment and disillusionment as they told of the dream that had lifted them up – only to let them down. But then the stranger didn’t just listen. He also had an answer.
Of course, the disciples did not realize who the stranger was. Obviously they were not expecting to see Jesus. He was dead, after all. And dead with him were all their hopes for Israel’s future. In fact, Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. But, before they could recognize him, they had to relearn what it meant to be the one to redeem Israel, to be the Messiah. And who better to teach them than this stranger? Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.
We have a short version of what Jesus’ homily might have sounded like in Peter’s Pentecost sermon, part of which we just heard [Acts 2:14, 22-33]. What Jesus did on the road had quickly become the Church’s standard way of reading the Old Testament, understanding the Old Testament through the lens of the Risen Christ and learning to recognize Christ through the lens of the Old Testament.
In re-interpreting the familiar scriptures, Jesus was refashioning an image that of course, they already had – because, rather than see things as they are, usually we see things as we are. The disciples had seen Jesus through their existing image of a messiah. Now they had lost both him and that image. Without quite comprehending it, they had reached one of those crises in life when everything seems to break down and a change is required. Without yet recognizing him, they were getting him back. And he was giving them a new image to hold onto and have hope in.
And so they urged him to stay. They were beginning to get back their lost hope and didn’t want to lose it again in the night’s darkness. Once inside, the stranger revealed himself with a familiar gesture, which has since become the Church’s trademark. But this time they didn’t lose hope when he disappeared. He wasn’t gone. The darkness was. He had been with them on the road, a companion in their grief. He had been with them in his homily on the scriptures. And he was with them now for keeps in the breaking of bread. So now they couldn’t wait to get back to Jerusalem, that place of pain they had earlier been so eager to leave.
And there they heard from the others, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon.” Simon Peter, their leader, would proclaim Christ’s resurrection for the rest of his life. And so would these two ordinary disciples, ordinary people like us.
And how is the Risen Lord here today for ordinary people like us? The same way he was then with them – in the world we live in, in the people around us in whom we too fail to recognize Christ (and whom we may in fact fail to recognize at all). Our preoccupation with ourselves and our problems may hinder us from recognizing him. Still, he walks with us in our disappointments, hears and feels our frustrations, and keeps stride with us as we struggle to hope. He explains himself in the scriptures and stays with us in the breaking of bread, where we finally and fully recognize his Real Presence. And then he sends us, filled with the bread of his body, to announce to the world - in union with Peter and the rest of the Church - that our hope is not just a wish and is more than merely a memory, and that in spite of everything, The Lord has truly been raised – and lives with us still.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 4, 2014.