A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, April 3, 2016
Luke 24:13-35 CEB
I would like to make one thing clear from the start: I have never heard God or Jesus audibly speak to me. I have never heard a loved one who has passed speak to me. And I have never seen a ghost. So I have no personal experience with such things.
However, I have known people who have claimed to have heard the voice of God. And I have known people who claimed to have heard a loved one who had passed speak to them. And I have known people who claimed to have seen a vision or image of a loved one who had passed—a ghost, you will.
In one church that we served, we had two members who shared interesting stories with me. Both of these members were sane, honest, upright, and trustworthy members. One was on the church board, and the other a Sunday school teacher. I had no reason whatsoever to question the stories they shared with me in confidence. And since they shared their stories in confidence, I would never reveal their true identity.
One member shared how that some years after her mother had passed, she was sitting alone on a bench in a beautiful memorial garden when she heard a voice behind her speaking to her, calling her by name. She recognized it as the voice of her mother. She turned to look, but there was no one there.
The other member shared how that during the baptism of one her children, she looked to the back of the sanctuary and saw the image of her father standing there as I was baptizing her baby. Her father had been dead for some years.
Now, as I said, these stories were shared with me in the strictest of confidence and independently of one another. And because I knew these two members well, I had no reason to question their stories or their sincerity.
Well, I was reminded of these two stories as I reflected on Luke’s story about the road to Emmaus. This story, by the way, is probably my favorite of all the Easter stories recorded in the four gospels. The road to Emmaus story is a “warm and fuzzy” story. But if we try to interpret this story as being 100% literally, factually, and historically accurate, it might perplex us a bit. For instance, Luke says this happened “that very day,” the day the followers of Jesus found the empty tomb. Two of his followers were walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. Jesus happened along and joined them. But they did not recognize him. Why was that? Why would they not recognize the very one they had known and were talking about as they walked? But then we are told that after persuading Jesus to go into the house or inn with them (for it was nearly evening, and the day was almost over), they did recognize him when he took the bread, blessed it, and broke it. Then he vanished from their sight. Even though it was evening, the two followers returned the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples. That is a total of 14 miles in one afternoon and evening! It is possible, I suppose, but it is curious.
However, Marcus Borg contends that this story is more of a parable than an actual historical event. Borg suggests that the true meanings of this story lie deeper than the literal words on the page. As a parable, this story is intended to mean, according to Borg, that:
- “The risen Christ journeys with us, is with us, whether we know it our not.
- Sometimes there are moments when we do recognize this.
- One of the ways the risen Christ comes to us is in the blessing, breaking, and sharing of bread. The Eucharistic overtones of this story are unmistakable,”1 Borg reminds us. Indeed, the main point of this story has to do with the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, or Communion. In other words, as the early followers of Jesus shared the bread and the cup as he had done with them, and in remembrance of him, it was as if they felt Jesus’ very presence in their midst. And such is one of the reasons they felt like Jesus continued to live.
Such may also be why Protestant reformer John Calvin developed his theology of what is called by those of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches “the spiritual presence of Christ in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” Whereas those of the Catholic Church had taught that the bread and the wine are miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ, a doctrine called transubstantiation; and Luther developed his own theory of what happens in, around, and under the bread and wine in Communion called consubstantiation; Calvin believed that nothing miraculous happens to the bread and wine or juice, but the “spiritual presence” of Christ is somehow especially present whenever Holy Communion is rightly administered. And Calvin had biblical support for believing it so.
Now, I leave any belief about the miraculous involving the celebration of Holy Communion to each of you to decide for yourselves, just as I leave it to each of you to decide the merit of Calvin’s teaching about the “spiritual presence of Christ” when Holy Communion is celebrated.
But perhaps all of us can relate to the experience of feeling like a loved one who has passed is still present around the table at family gatherings. Even though that person has died, because of the memories you have of them, the image of their face and smile you will forever hold dear in your mind and heart, how they were such a vital part of your family circle, the place where that person sat at the table, and so on—because of all these things it can feel like the person is spiritually present with you.
Frederick Buechner gave us a beautiful piece in this regard, a piece that I often use at memorial gatherings and graveside services. Buechner wrote, “When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”
Maybe that is what the two church members I cited earlier did. Maybe they were able to summon back their loved one, they could still see their face and hear their voice and speak to them in their hearts. I don’t know. But there was a special something that enabled one to hear the voice of her mother and the other to see the image of her father.
As we read the post-Easter stories of Jesus and his followers, there is a lot of mystery and there are a lot of unanswered questions that we would like answered. Maybe Frederick Buechner and his comforting words can help us to understand how at least some of those early disciples could still remember the Jesus they knew; they carried something of him with them; they could summon him back to their minds, especially when they broke bread and shared the cup as he had done with them previously. It means that even though he had died, they could still see his face and hear his voice and speak to him in their hearts.
In such a way, they could all say, “Jesus lives!” Perhaps it is a perspective worth considering. Amen.
1Marcus Borg, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most. New York: HarperOne, 2014, pp. 128-129.