The Road to Emmaus

This Sunday at the 9:15 service, Bp. Smith confirmed and received almost fifty of our youth and adults into the Episcopal Church. This sermon was preached at the other services, at 8am, 11:15am, and 5:30pm.

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son did manifest himself to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open, we pray thee, the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

The road to Emmaus is one of my favorite of the resurrection stories, because it makes Jesus seem like he has such a good sense of humor. I can just imagine him grinning to himself as he walks along the road with these disciples: they haven’t gotten the joke yet, they don’t see yet that it’s him, risen from the dead, walking there with him. But it’s not a cruel joke: he takes time to explain to them what’s going on: he takes the whole journey in fact. And so warmly do these disciples feel towards this mysterious companion that they beg him to say with them that night.

It’s a wonderful portrait of Jesus’s light-heartedness, and the affection he elicits from people just in the course of conversation. At the same time, I think the road to Emmaus functions in a really important way for all of us, as we think about the task of Christian learning in the first place. April is almost over and May is coming: the end of the school year looms in front of us. At the 9:15 service today, the Bishop will confirm almost fifty students and adults in the next step of their journey into the life of the Church. Learning and its tasks are in the forefront at such a time as this.

When we think about learning, especially in the Church it seems, we think about learning things: facts, figures, stories, reference points, processes. How many eyes does a seraph have? Why do we have four Gospels? What does salvation mean? Why do different churches add or subtract certain books from their Bibles? What is heaven about? How about the Trinity? The Sacraments? 

We learn all these things in the course of our lives as Christians, and continuing to learn more and more is an essential component of growing in faith. But increasing the sheer quantity of information in our brains is emphatically not the point of Christian learning; I might argue it’s not the point of any other kind of learning either. The Road to Emmaus for me is the clearest illustration in Scripture of what learning is really about, of what growth as a disciple is really about.

When Jesus appears alongside them, he presents the question that cuts to the quick: what is this all about? It’s almost a test – tell me what you know, tell me what you make of all these events. And they tell him plainly, that they don’t know what to make of them all: they had believed Jesus to be the Messiah, they had been prepared to believe he would deliver Israel. But their grief is all the greater because they don’t understand how to make sense of his crucifixion.

So Jesus teaches them on the road. He opens the Scriptures to them, he goes through the whole thing, showing that from the Books of Moses on forward, all the prophets bear witness to himself. What always strikes me here, is that even after spending an entire day alone with Jesus, hearing all of these things explained to him, they still don’t recognize him. They know they’ve been affected, they say later their hearts burned within them, but they still cannot see what is there to be seen. 

Only when they beg him to stay with them, and they sit down to dinner, where he blesses the bread and breaks it; only then are their eyes opened and they see. This is the point of the whole operation. Only when the disciples invite Jesus to stay with them, only when they invite him to share this meal, this mundane but intimate encounter, only then are their eyes prepared to see what has been there all along.

This is the point that I want to make about Christian learning and growth in discipleship. All the doctrine in the world, all the most brilliant explanations and arguments, all the facts and figures, knowledge and data, finally do not avail. They cannot bridge the gap between earth and heaven. All that knowledge can do, all that learning can achieve, is to prepare us for the encounter with Christ: it can only ready the ground in our hearts to behold him alive for ourselves.

This is why, when it comes to faith, we cannot rely merely on books, why prayer is absolutely the central companion of Christian discipleship. Because knowledge is nothing without encounter, without the actual personal encounter with the risen Christ, who transforms our lives and our world.

The disciples dropped everything and ran all the way back to Jerusalem when they recognized Jesus. Knowledge alone cannot achieve that kind of transformation. It can only prepare us, as it prepared them, for encountering Christ himself, for recognizing him right in their midst, as, himself, the only explanation for all their wondering, all their confusion.

So it is with us: Christian life is meaningless, Christian learning is meaningless, if it is not ultimately oriented towards Christ himself as the final source of all meaning, all knowledge, all life. Seeing him, recognizing him, loving him.

This Easter, you and I are invited afresh to let all our learning, all our growing point us finally toward Christ himself, to let all our striving teach us not to be satisfied with mere facts about him, but to long for his presence, to love him more and more: in the bread that he breaks for you and me, the bread that is his body, which gives life to the world; and to love him in all the places where he himself has said he would be: in the Church, in our neighbors, in our enemies, in the needy.

This Easter let us look for him himself, and be satisfied not with any amount of facts or figures, but only with love. As we grow in love, let us see him more and more clearly; and as we see more and more clearly, let us love all the more, and find the world shining with his glory to the ages of ages.

Amen.