When did God become for you more than just a name?
Think about this for a moment: do you remember a time in your life when all the Bible stories you’d heard finally made sense to you? Was there a moment when you spoke of God and realized that you were not speaking in the abstract but personally; talking in the same manner as you might speak of or to another person? Or maybe an event or circumstance when you came to the awareness that prayer was no longer for you merely an exercise in proper reverence but in fact a means of conversation with God? In other words, when did God – the living God – become a presence in your life?
Friends, if you want to really know what someone is deep down all about, these are the questions you want to ask! Because the answers you’ll get are both amazing and revealing: from the people who will tell you how that awareness of God’s presence triggered a sudden and dramatic shift of everything they ever knew to be true about life and living, to those who’d be hard pressed to recall any kind of awareness of God in their lives; from the ones for whom God’s always been that day to day reality to others who continually struggle with what, if anything, they believe. Trust me; these are the kind of revelations that keep the conversation lively!
All of this actually touches on a very important truth: that ultimately, faith is not an intellectual exercise, nor a theorem to be proven or disproven. Rather, faith has to do with believing, and as theologian Kathleen Norris has said, “’to believe’ is not a matter of the mind, but a matter of the heart. For what we ‘believe’ is what we ‘give our heart to.’” In other words, if believing is seeing, then it follows that in faith, we see not so much with our eyes, but with our hearts.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t immerse ourselves in the exploration and study of our faith; that, too, is an essential component of our spiritual growth. But here’s the thing: we can read the Bible from cover to cover and subscribe to all the precepts and philosophies contained therein; we can come to church, follow the liturgy in a proper fashion, even listen intently to the sermon (!); but unless this all somehow becomes a part of us, unless there’s something inside of us that’s burning as a result of it, all this ultimately amounts to is, well… self-help: an exercise in warm, fuzzy philosophy and merely another good way to spend a Sunday morning. It won’t be anything that’s life giving nor will it be life changing; and there certainly won’t be any deeper understanding of spiritual realities amidst the mysteries of life because of it!
In the end, you see, all these things require seeing through the eyes of faith, because ultimately, faith is something personal; it is our own singular recognition of who God truly is, and by extension, who we are in relationship to God; and for us as Christians, recognizing God comes down to recognizing the risen Christ. It’s that truth that lay at the very center of our Christian faith; and it’s what makes Easter the quintessential celebration of everything we believe. For us, you see, this business of having God become a real and living presence in our lives has its focus in the resurrection; because when we see Jesus Christ risen from the dead, we see God!
Which makes it all the more interesting that there are so many who don’t see that; so many who have some measure of spiritual blindness, as it were. And not just “non-believers,” either; the fact is, there are those who do “know the truth” and yet don’t really see God in the midst of that truth; people who do yearn for that strong, living presence of God in their lives; and yet never seem to be able to see clearly enough to make that leap from knowing to truly believing.
What’s to account for that blindness, who knows; perhaps it’s the weight of all of life’s many burdens, or its creeping doubt and cynicism; or maybe it all comes down to being too preoccupied with other things to notice. But whatever the reason, there are people – maybe even some of us here this morning – who find ourselves on this Eastertide walking down life’s Emmaus Road unable or perhaps unprepared to actually recognize the risen Christ.
Well, that’s what our reading for this morning is all about; Luke’s account of two disciples who did encounter the risen Christ, and yet, at least for a while, never knew it (!); and as such, it’s actually a story that’s as much about us as it is about them!
It all unfolds on the road to Emmaus, which is a seven-mile stretch of road going west out of Jerusalem; and that in and of itself is significant. You see, if you lived in 1st century Palestine, most likely you’d know this road by its more common name; it was called “the Way,” which, of course, was also how the earliest followers of Christ where known: “Followers of the Way.” Given that, it sort of makes sense that this would be the place where these two disciples might meet up with the risen Christ; however, the truth is that late on this particular Sunday this was most certainly the last thing the two of them were expecting or even looking for; in fact, more than likely the whole reason they were on this road in the first place was to walk away from it!
Thomas Long, a wonderful writer and preacher, says that this “is a story about ordinary despair, and ordinary Monday morning drudgery;” it’s about what happens when your heart is broken and your life is shattered but life still has to go on. Sure, a couple of women had returned from the tomb in hysterics, going on about how “they did not find his body there,” and how they’d seen “a vision of angels who said that he was alive;” but no one was going to convince these two disciples of anything like that! Nothing, you see, hurts quite so much as shattered hopes; nothing is quite so painful as the stark reality of what’s left behind in a dying dream, and no amount of wishful thinking would change that; indeed, these disciples knew that the best thing they could do under the circumstances was to just get out.
But then there was that stranger…
…the one who joined them on the road and walked with them “on the way;” the one whose face they didn’t recognize and yet whose words sounded strangely familiar; this one with whom they immediately felt comfortable in pouring out their hearts.
And the thing was, the more they talked with this stranger the better they seemed to feel; it was as though the door of their hearts was being opened so that their very burden could be released. Something like a flame was being kindled within them, they could feel it; and even in the midst of all the despair, the confusion and grief – perhaps in utter defiance of it – their hearts were strangely warmed in this stranger’s presence.
And it’s only at the end of the day; when they’ve come to the village and need to stop for the night, and they’ve sat down at the table with him for the evening meal; only in the familiar intimacy of breaking bread with Jesus that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” And, of course, now it all comes together: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” He’d been with them all along; they’d felt it, but only now could they recognize him for who he really was! And now that they realize that, almost immediately the two of them are on their way back to Jerusalem; a journey that had begun in despair now continued in hope and renewed faith. And why wouldn’t it(!); after all, there’s good news to tell, and a new life to begin!
This is how God comes to us, beloved: encountering us on the way; coming to us on the very road we’re walking on, whether we’re aware of it or not! Whether we profess to believe it or not; whether we are faithful in our walk or find ourselves veering off the pathway; the good news is that the divine seeks us out; the good news is that God is always with us, even when we are not always with God! This is revelation, beloved: that we come to recognize God not by sight but by the warmth we feel within our hearts; truly, it’s the graceful love which burns in our hearts that opens our eyes. This is the gift we’re given in the risen Christ, and it’s what shapes and guides our lives even now as “the Way” continues for us.
Several years back Lisa and I were having dinner at the home of some friends and they happened to show us one of their little mementos they’ve kept over the years: an old, dog-eared and unused ticket to a performance by Elvis Presley at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine back in the summer of 1977. Now for those of you who aren’t Elvis afficionados, let me tell you that there is some significance to that, because this was the concert that never took place; on the morning of that concert in Maine, Elvis Presley died in Memphis, Tennessee. So it was quite a souvenir our friends had, albeit one that was pretty well weather-beaten. I tell you this so you might understand a little better that I didn’t mean to but as I was holding this ticket in my hands, the last perforation that had connected the ticket stub to the rest of the ticket gave way and detached from it! I felt incredibly bad about it, especially considering that somewhere on that ticket are printed the words, “NOT GOOD IF DETATCHED!”
Now, gratefully, our friends were not at all upset with me (in fact, we all joked a bit that this simply meant they’d be unable able to get in to see Elvis now, but since “Elvis had left the building,” well…! ), but I never forgot it. It actually brings to mind something said by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great American preacher of the early 20th Century. Periodically, you see, Fosdick used to hold up just such a ticket as a reminder that as Christians, we are like the stub connected to a ticket; we are connected to the community of the church, we are connected to our baptism of faith, we are connected to our relationship with the Lord. But that connection, like the ticket to its stub, ends up no good if detached!
That may be true; but here’s the good news in Jesus Christ: wherever we happen to be walking in this life, beloved; whatever road we’re taking as we walk, we do so not alone, but in the constant presence of the Risen Lord. He’s walking with us along the smooth and easy pathways, and also as we try to conquer the rugged terrain; and every step along our way, he’s trying to open the door of our hearts so that he might kindle a flame within us. Even when we’ve managed to for whatever reason to detach ourselves from him, he’s seeking to bring us back together with him, and to give us the wonderful promises of God; it is his purpose, you see, that we might truly know God as a real and living presence in our lives.
There are times in our lives when suddenly we’re aware of something… something real and powerful that intervened for us at a time when we needed it the most: calmness at a time when panic is the natural response; courage when fear threatens to paralyze; joy and peace even when the world seems to be crumbling around us, and we’re too tired even to speak. These are the moments when despite everything else, we feel strangely warmed by a presence; and it’s then we’ll see… truly see that the Lord was there all along!
That is the blessing of this Eastertide, beloved; and my hope and prayer that each one of us might just encounter the risen Christ along the Way we’re walking this week; because remember, even if we might not be seeking him out, even now, in great and graceful love, he’s seeking us out. May we have the eyes… and the heart… to recognize him!
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry