A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 30, 2017
Luke 24:13-35 GNT; Reading from Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
Stories. How important are the hearing and telling of stories to our lives! From our earliest childhood, we have memories of parents, grandparents, teachers, and others telling or reading us stories. The right stories can help shape and mold us into the person that we are. And, curiously enough, the importance of stories to our lives only grows stronger the older we become.
Have you had the experience of reading the same story time and again, and then one day when you read it again you see something totally different? I have read the Emmaus Road Easter story numerous times – too many times to count – over the years. But as I read it again the past couple of weeks, I read it in a whole different light. You see, when I have read the Emmaus Road story previously, I have focused primarily on the ending of the story, an ending that is positive and happy. And, I imagine, that is the way that most people choose to read the Emmaus Road story – focusing on the “happily ever after ending” that concludes with the two followers of Jesus recognizing the resurrected Christ when they entered the house and broke bread together around the table. “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,” the text says. With hearts full of joy and excitement, they run back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that they have seen the risen Christ alive!
Well, why wouldn’t we want to read the Emmaus Road story that way? After all, it is one of the most beloved Easter stories the early Church passed on to us. It is a warm and fuzzy story that makes us feel good inside. It affirms the early Church’s belief that the spiritual Christ could be experienced after his death whenever his followers gather in his name.
But if we do not get in such a hurry, but rather take time to enter into the beginning of the story, we look at the Emmaus Road story in a totally different light. We see it as the Emmaus Road of Disappointment. As we look closer, we see that the Jesus follower named Cleopas and his unnamed companion are walking a lonely road of defeat. It is obvious that they are sad, downcast, and hopeless. They share how that this Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had come to love and believe in as the One sent by God, had been tried, condemned to death, crucified on a Roman cross, and buried. That is not how the story was supposed to end. Many of Jesus’ followers had given up everything in order to follow him. They had pinned all their hopes on him. But “we had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set Israel free!” they bemoaned (Luke 24:21). Therein is the key to the tone of the story – “we had hoped!” But now, as they walked the lonely road from Jerusalem feeling lost and devastated, all hope was gone.
Jeffrey M. Gallagher, writing in Christian Century magazine, quotes Frederick Buechner who quipped that Emmaus is the place where “we throw up our hands and say ‘Let the whole [expletive] thing go to hang. It makes no difference anyway.’” Emmaus is the place of hopeless desolation.1
For each of us, the Road to Emmaus can be that lonely, sad road of defeat where all hope seems to be lost. Most of us, if we have lived long enough, have been on the Emmaus Road of Disappointment a few times. Election night when everything we had pinned our hopes on was lost. The hospital emergency room visit that wasn’t successful. The pink slip found on your desk at work. The late night phone call bearing bad news. The doctor’s office consultation that brought a devastating diagnosis. The relationship broken beyond repair. The rejection letter in the mail from the college or graduate school of your choice. The sad, lonely, hopeless roads to Emmaus are many and varied.
And when we walk that road of disappointment, it can make us feel like we are completely alone; that nobody knows what we are going through; that we are the only one suffering such an ordeal; that it is no use to try, so we might as well give up; that there is no light whatsoever at the end of the tunnel.
But one of the most comforting assurances of this story is that we are not alone on the road of disappointment; there is always a friend to walk with us. One of the points that Luke was seeking to make is that the early Church continued to have a sense of the spiritual presence of the risen Christ, which gave them comfort and courage to face the future. From this passage and others like it would develop the doctrine of the spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Father of Reformed theology John Calvin would develop his idea of the spiritual presence of Christ whenever the sacrament of Holy Communion is rightly administered, a belief adhered to by millions of Christians the world over.
In the surface story, of course, Cleopas has his companion who is walking and talking and commiserating with him. Such is a point whose importance is not to be missed. Walking and talking with a companion who commiserates with us over some life problem is great therapy. Each of us should be so lucky as to have a close companion with whom we can walk and talk and who can support us during those disappointing moments of life. And the good news is most of us don’t have to look far to find such a companion, if we have our eyes open to the possibilities – a spouse, best friend, neighbor, co-worker, fellow church member, or gym buddy even can be that companion to walk with us on life’s roads of disappointment.
There is another important point that we need to draw out of this passage: The Emmaus Road of Disappointment is a place to share our stories. It is interesting in Luke’s account that the risen Christ (whose identity is hidden to these two followers) invites the sad, downcast, hopeless disciples to share their story. And they do, as already noted. They share their shock, sadness, disappointment, and sense of hopelessness in losing the one they had come to know, love, and put their hopes in.
The opportunity of being able to share a story of sadness, defeat, and hopelessness is so important for us to embrace. For, you see, those who work with people who are suffering trauma, grief, or facing a terminal illness or grave medical diagnosis tell us that one of the things they most need, and one of the things we who seek to minister to them need to provide, is the opportunity to tell their story.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned in my sermon the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. As Gawande points out, “For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. . . . the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.”2 The primary point that Gawande is making is that when it comes to end-of-life issues, one of the most important things to be remembered in relation to those who are facing death is the importance of their life’s story and the opportunity to share and write their own ending to that story.
But I have learned over the years it is often important in the course of pastoral ministry to encourage people to tell their story or the story of their loved ones they have lost. Telling the story helps us move to acceptance and helps with the grieving process.
But regardless of our life stage, each of us needs a companion with whom we can share our story, and conversely, each of us needs to be the companion for someone else who needs to tell their story. As Jeffrey M. Gallagher observes, “Is this not the way God so often enters our lives? Not in the miraculous, but in ordinary taking, blessing, breaking, and giving. In the hug of a friend we haven’t seen in a while . . . in breaking a trail through the woods . . . With our eyes opened in the midst of this everyday reality, we are reminded that all is not lost. We are not defeated or alone. Love has won . . . We see, and we begin to understand – and in that instant, Emmaus is gone.”1
Yes, every now and then, all of us find ourselves on a sad, lonely, desolate road of disappointment and defeat. It is part and parcel with living. When we do so, we may think we are alone. But we aren’t really. There is always a companion to journey with us. And as we journey together, we share our stories. And being able to share our stories with another can make all the difference in the world. How important to be able to share our stories on life’s roads of disappointments. May it be so for each of us. Amen.
1Jeffrey M. Gallagher, “Living the Word,” Christian Century, April 12, 2017.
2Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014. Pp. 238, 243.