Third Sunday of Easter (Year B)

TEXT: Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24:13-16)

If you look up the word “radical” in the dictionary, you may see that (as an adjective, anyway), something is radical if it is:

  1. relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of perceived reality; far-reaching or thorough.
  2. based on thorough or complete change.
  3. very different from the usual or traditional: extreme.

I suggest that the entire Easter season is a radical time. Through Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Day, we encounter some very radical stuff: radical obedience, radical acceptance, radical despair and radical hope.

Radical obedience was what led Jesus to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey’s back, even though he knew it was carrying him to his death.

Radical acceptance was what Jesus came to after an evening of prayer in a garden, when he began by asking his Father to please take from him the cup of suffering—and finished by saying, “Not my will, but yours, be done.”

Radical despair kept Mary Magdalene from recognizing the risen Jesus when at first she encountered him. Radical hope was what she came to, after Jesus called her by name, and she then knew who he was. “Rabbouni!” she exclaimed, and embraced him.

Her radical despair was, in a flash, overcome by radical hope. But until that moment, she was absolutely convinced that he was gone forever, and she had not the faintest hope of ever seeing him again. The Messiah was dead. Defeated by the forces of evil he had come to overthrow.

If that’s not a cause for radical despair, I don’t know what would be. And I suspect that may account for her inability to recognize this man she knew so well; her brain would not permit her to believe what her eyes were seeing.

Perhaps something like that is happening in today’s gospel lesson. These two disciples walking toward Emmaus have not one shred of hope. They’ve heard the rumour about Jesus being alive … but they obviously don’t believe it.

Devastated and demoralized by the events of the past three days, they cannot recognize Jesus, either—even when he joins them on the road and engages them in conversation.

So clueless are they, in fact, that they begin to explain Jesus’ own story to him—how he “was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” and yet was betrayed, tried and executed.

“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say.

But now their hopes are dashed. Destroyed. As dead, they think, as their failed Messiah.

Like Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb, they are so convinced they’ll never see Jesus again … that they cannot recognize him, even when he’s walking right beside them. Their brains won’t let them believe what their eyes are telling them.

Maybe. Or perhaps there’s something else going on here. After all, Luke tells us that, as soon as they do recognize him—after he breaks bread at supper—he vanishes from their sight!

Poof. Gone. Vanished into thin air, like a ghost. Yeah. A ghost. Able to do ghostly things. Like walk right through walls; which seems to be what happens next, because—if you keep reading past verse 35, you hear a story that is best described as spooky.

The two Emmaus Road disciples—Cleopas and his companion—hurry back to Jerusalem. They find the eleven hiding behind what John’s gospel tells us were locked doors. And then they report what has happened to them, and how Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

That’s where today’s reading left off. But then—continuing on from the very next verse, we read:

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence (Luke 24:36-43).

Let’s recap. While they’re still telling their Emmaus Road story to the other disciples … “Poof!” (again) Jesus suddenly appears in the room. And they do think they’re seeing a ghost!

But then Jesus invites them to touch him, saying, “It is I myself … a ghost does not have flesh and bones like I do.” Just like last week’s gospel, where Jesus comes back so Thomas can touch his wounds, and believe.

Then he asks them for something to eat, and they give him a piece of fish. Ghosts don’t get hungry, do they?

So what is going on here? On the one hand, the risen Christ appears to be as real and solid and physical as we are. And yet he’s able to blip in and out of the physical world at will. How can that be?

I wonder if it all comes back to the idea of incarnation. Or the idea of at-one-ment. In Christ, divinity and humanity are perfectly reconciled. And in the risen Christ, we encounter someone who has all the qualities of God and all the qualities of a man.

Perhaps what we see here is a foreshadowing of our own future existence. Some commentators think that’s what Paul is hinting at in First Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 20, when he refers to the risen Jesus as “the first fruits of those who have died”—and when he talks about the perishable putting on imperishability, and the mortal body putting on immortality (1 Cor. 15:54).

Perhaps. However, those interpretations raise troubling questions of their own—questions which could fuel quite a number of blog posts. In a way, it’s as if the resurrected Jesus has become a rapidly-moving target: one that’s hard to keep in focus.

It seems to me that whenever we try to explain faith rationally—whenever we demand complete understanding of the things of God—we wind up frustrated. Perhaps the really important message of today’s gospel story is simply this: faith has very little to do with reason, and very much to do with experience.

I’m sure none of the disciples could make sense of this, either. And from the gospel accounts, it looks like they didn’t even try to figure it out. If they were attempting to write sensible, rational accounts, they surely would have glossed over—or omitted—the most bizarre details.

Jesus was dead … and then he wasn’t!

He had a physical human body, just like anyone else’s … except his could dissolve from sight in one location, and then re-materialize in another!

Of course it doesn’t make any sense. And of course it isn’t the kind of story you’d invent if you wanted to fool people. Or convince them that your claims are true. Why would the disciples record such unbelievable stuff … unless … it was because that’s what actually happened?

I think they had to write what they wrote, because anything else would have been, at best, a half-truth—and at worst, a lie. They had to report what they saw and heard and touched and felt, because that was their genuine experience. They had to write what they wrote, even though they knew it sounded ridiculous, could not be explained, and would be doubted by most.

Friends, this is radical faith. Yes.

Through the events of Holy Week and Easter, we’ve seen Jesus display radical obedience and radical acceptance; we’ve watched as Mary Magdalene’s radical despair is transformed into radical hope; and now we have arrived at radical faith.

Radical faith is born out of radical experiences. And experience has everything to do with perception. One may see a miracle where another does not. One may feel deeply blessed while another shrugs his shoulders.

In Ephesians, chapter two, verse eight, Paul says that faith is a “gift” from God. Often, I think, that gift of faith is offered through experiences that are—at one and the same time—profoundly holy and deeply subjective. And I wonder whether these sorts of experiences are there for us all the time, if only we will notice them.

Or, to put it another way, perhaps the risen Christ is walking beside us and we do not recognize him until something opens our eyes. Perhaps Jesus is sitting beside you right now. Or will be tomorrow, on the bus. Or riding in the bike lane.

See, I think the risen Christ shows up in our lives—and keeps on showing up—until we do recognize him.

I don’t think it’s very often as dramatic as the episodes we read about in the gospels. But I do believe he shows up. I believe he shows up in the life of every person—over and over again, trying to get us to notice him—because he knows he has something to give us. Something we each need, desperately, whether we know it or not.

For a man I know, Jesus showed up in his bathroom mirror. Yes. His bathroom mirror. This fellow was kind of unsteadily standing in front of the sink, trying to get his bearings after waking up drunk. Yes. Not merely hung over, but still drunk, after many hours of sleeping. And this was not unusual for him. His bleary-eyed countenance, viewed in the mirror, was a familiar face.

Except, this time, something about that face was different. This time, rather than simply the sad visage of a man who had given up on his life, he saw—for the first time—the face of the Christ he’d heard about long ago in Sunday School; the Christ whom he had, in baptism, put on as a teenager; the Christ whom he had, as an adult, turned away from.

But on this morning, looking in the mirror, he realized that Jesus had never turned away from him. And this experience was so profound—and so real—that it awakened in him a desire for new life, and set him on the road to recovery.

For a woman I once knew, Christ showed up in the face of her newborn daughter—who had come into this world addicted to the heroin her mother had used during her pregnancy; used because she didn’t believe she could stop using it.

But the sight of her child’s distress—and the realization that she was herself responsible for it—awakened in her a kind of love she did not know herself capable of. And for the first time in her life, she sought help and devoted herself to getting well.

Much later—after years of being clean and sober—she would speak about how her daughter “became as Christ for her.” Because, you see, that tiny girl literally bore her mother’s sins; and through bearing them, she removed them.

I also remember a man who—freshly released from prison—surprised me by making this declaration: “I don’t want to be a murderer any more.”

His words surprised me because I had never before considered that such a thing was possible. I thought that once you had killed someone, you were a murderer. And that’s what you would always be, even if you repented and were forgiven. But this ex-convict believed that Christ could make him—really and truly—“a new creature.” He understood that better I did. He knew that, if you’re walking with Jesus, your past does not have to be your future.

I hear stories like that—I witness things like that—and I think to myself, “Wow! That is radical faith!”

That is the kind of faith that not only changes a person’s life, but turns it upside down. That is the kind of faith you arrive at after you witness something you thought was impossible (or at least, impossible for you).

I also know people who hear those same stories and dismiss them as silly rationalizations by individuals who needed to trick themselves into doing the right thing.

But that doesn’t really matter. Because radical faith testifies to the truth—even if it brings ridicule, even if the telling of that truth comes with a cost.

As I said, some people see miracles where others do not. And some shrug their shoulders when handed a blessing. But even so, Jesus keeps on showing up. He shows up for each one of us—over and over and over again—until we either notice him … or pass from this life without ever knowing the priceless value of the gift of faith he wanted us to have.

So, my friends, if you have not yet noticed this Jesus fellow walking with you—then I urge you to stay alert. Keep your eyes open. Look at your life with open eyes. Wait on the Lord—and believe that you will see him. For on this day, Jesus is saying to you: Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20).

Brothers and sisters, the meal is ready. The table is set. Come, and take your places.

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