When something 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. Another common coping mechanism is to want to talk about our troubles. We want others to know just how badly it hurts.
The two disciples in today’s Gospel [Luke 24:13-35] 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 away as fast as they could – on Sunday, the first 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 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 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 high hopes for Israel’s future. In fact, Jesus would prove to be the one to redeem Israel. But, before they could recognize him, they had to relearn what that meant, what it meant for him to be the Messiah. And who better to teach them than this stranger? So 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 in today’s 1st reading [Acts 2:14, 22-23]. What Jesus did on the road quickly became the Church’s traditional 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.
The disciples had interpreted Jesus through their existing beliefs about the messiah – because, rather than see things as they are, usually we see things as we are. In the secular world, we speak of “confirmation bias” – our tendency to interpret new evidence as confirming our already existing and established beliefs. Now, 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. 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 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, “The Lord has appeared to Simon.” Simon Peter, their leader, would proclaim Christ’s resurrection for the rest of his life, beginning with the Pentecost sermon we just heard. And so would those two ordinary disciples, ordinary people like us.
And how is the Risen Lord here today for us? The same way he was with them – in the world we live in, in the people around us in whom we frequently fail to recognize him (and whom we may 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, April 30, 2017