Luke 24:13-31; I John 1:1-5
Active Christian faith requires an ongoing conversation between scripture and reality, a continual holy dialogue between text and context.
The text today is Luke’s gospel account of the resurrection walk to Emmaus. The context, our context, is a city on edge. An angry city. A grieving city. An anxious city. An exhausted city. Another name has been added to the list: Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, George Floyd, and, now, Daunte Wright.
Minneapolis is serving as the national test case for whether real change is coming to law enforcement in America. The police killing of Daunte Clark a week ago in Brooklyn Center, during the murder trial of a former Minneapolis police officer, tells us what we already know: no matter the verdict, accountability in policing toward Black Americans and people of color is not coming soon enough.
The day the trial started 13-year old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by police in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, where I served a small Hispanic church for several years during seminary. Adam and Duante were not the only ones. According to The NY Times, an average of three people per day – more than half Black and Hispanic – have been killed in encounters with law enforcement during the trial in our city.
But it’s not only the police, nor is it all police. Law enforcement and the justice system are merely the presenting and most visible edge of the racism deeply embedded in our culture. Collectively, we have a long way to go before seeing real transformation in our land.
The context. Our context.
Another mass shooting, this time in Indianapolis. Since March 16, only one month ago, there have been 45 incidents when four or more people were injured or killed by firearms in our nation. By that definition, that’s more than one mass shooting a day. We were expecting a new normal after Covid; it looks as if the old normal, at least with respect to gun violence, is back with a vengeance. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/16/politics/mass-shootings-america-guns/index.html
During the pandemic year, more than 23 million firearms were purchased in America, a new record. We are awash in guns. This is our context. For every 100 residents in our nation there are now 120 firearms. Combine all that weaponry with the anger, the fear, the distrust, and the hatred swirling through our land, and all of us, including the police, find ourselves living in volatile, dangerous times.
How do we as people of faith respond to all of this – to the violence, the racialized and gun-wielding violence, of our American life? We support – along with the vast majority of Americans – common-sense legislation to help limit gun violence. We support efforts to rethink law enforcement and instill accountability in public safety. We commit ourselves to do the hard work of truth-telling about race in America. We persist in those efforts.
And, as active Christians, we look to scripture to provide wisdom and encouragement along the way.
Preachers like to think we mine the Bible for its gems, but on our more modest days we know that scripture exegetes us, and the times in which we live. The Bible’s power comes in its ability to unpack realities in every age and in every place, and to help believers understand their context in ways they might not have otherwise, if not for the text.
So it is with the story of the walk of the risen Jesus to Emmaus. On the way he joins two disciples discussing the report of the women who had gone to the tomb of Jesus that very morning. They said the body wasn’t there and a vision told them that Jesus was alive.
Those two disciples carry many emotions as they walk – sorrow, anguish, confusion, hopelessness, fear. Jesus is a good listener. The two don’t notice who their new companion is.
When he has a chance, Jesus himself does some walking and talking. He begins with Moses and works his way through scripture, through the texts, to interpret it in light of who the Messiah is to be. The two listening to Jesus are captivated by this ambulatory Bible study, and when they reach Emmaus, they invite the stranger to stay with them.
Luke tells us their hearts “were burning” as they listened to Jesus. That’s what a heart being pried open feels like. That’s what a conscience being turned around to see reality in new ways feels like. Their hearts are burning. That’s what a lifetime of cultural assumptions feels like as it’s being deconstructed. Their hearts are burning. That’s what a world being transformed feels like.
A flaming heart in an open hand was John Calvin’s personal theological symbol, the 16th century “brand” of the founder of the Presbyterian tradition. His world was transformed by a new way of seeing things. He came to that life-altering burning heart because his faith in Jesus Christ took him there.
Are our hearts burning? Are they being pried open? Is our faith taking us to places and perspectives that cause us to see things we never saw before, or to see them in a new light?
Text and context.
At the dinner table that evening Jesus takes bread, gives thanks for it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. The disciples remember this same scene from only a few days earlier, at the Passover meal with Jesus. In that moment in Emmaus, the scales fall from their eyes and everything changes. Their vision suddenly clears. Their ears unstop. Their minds and hearts open, and they recognize their mystery guest.
Jesus then vanishes. His work is done. He has finished what he came to do – to open their eye and set their hearts on fire. Luke tells us, and the disciples don’t waste any more time in Emmaus. They get up and hurry back to Jerusalem to tell everyone about the risen Jesus, just like the women coming back from the tomb. Let’s listen to them on the road: “How could we walk all that way with him and listen to him and feel a flame inside and still not see who he was? What else have we missed? Where else have we been when we haven’t seen something or someone? What else have we been ignoring that was before our very eyes?”
Those are the right questions. Gospel questions. What are we missing?
That Emmaus experience must have been jarring for the disciples, but also liberating. With Jesus, that’s how it is – he helps us come to terms with our own blind spots, our own brokenness. He helps us tell the truth to ourselves and to our communities. He helps us face what’s troubling us, whether it’s something personal – a fraying relationship or a struggle with alcohol or some other substance, nagging doubts about our self-worth, a fear of failure – or something in the community, maybe a sense of hopelessness that things will never change.
Those two disciples were given a gift that day by Jesus, and so are we: open eyes and hearts ablaze. They were newly empowered to go back to the place where all had seemed lost and out of control and stacked against them. They were discovering the light no despair can overcome. What a gift that is.
At a prayer rally in front of the Hennepin County Courthouse yesterday, speaker after speaker told of their anguish and anger and grief, but also of their resolve not to let go of the hope found in faith, no matter what happens this week or next. The journey is long. The road not straight and smooth. The way not always clear. Shadows lie across the path. But there is a light that burns through the night, and it will lead us home.
For us, that light is Jesus, and we see the light everywhere in the gospel when we look through the lens of Emmaus:
When Jesus approaches people living with leprosy and his followers cringe, he wants them to see what they are missing: another human being, no different from them.
When Jesus heals a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and the disciples don’t understand what he is doing, Jesus is showing them what they are missing: another human being, no different from them.
When his followers find him at a well in a conversation with a foreign woman, a hated Samaritan no less, they are surprised, because they had not seen her as someone worthy of attention. Jesus wants them to see her in a different way: another human being, no different from them.
When little children come to Jesus and the disciples try to stop them, Jesus says to let them come. He’s trying to help them learn what they have been missing: that children are meant to be loved, not ignored, or shooed away. Each one of them is another human being, no different from them.
And when Jesus describes the Final Judgement in Matthew 25, he returns to the same theme: Do you see me in the least of these, or not? Each one of them is another human being, no different from you. Have your eyes been opened, or not? Is your heart on fire for the most vulnerable among us, or not?
Jesus liberates us to see what has been there all along, but what we have been missing:
Every human being is a child of God that bears the image of God.
Every human being deserves to be treated with respect and dignity and given opportunity to live into the abundant life God promises.
No one is better than anyone else, and any system or structure that says otherwise is antithetical to the gospel.
“We declare to you what was from the beginning,” we read in I John,
“What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…that God is light and in God there is no shadow at all.” (I John 1:1,5)
Our faith in the risen Jesus, who opens eyes and changes hearts calls the question. What are we missing?
White Americans, what are we missing? We live in a land where 400 years ago Europeans and white colonialists brought Africans here as enslaved people. Our Constitution, written by white men, in its very first Article, defined those enslaved persons as only three-fifths of a human being.
When the shackles were removed it did not take long for white people to create new ways to oppress and subjugate and perpetrate violence against Black Americans. That recurring violence was relentless in the last century, and it shows up still, in so many ways in our time, even here in our beloved State of Minnesota. In our context. Can we not see it in the futures robbed from children in sub-standard schools, or in the lives of young adults with little opportunity, or in families with negligible household wealth, or in unrelenting police violence, or in generational trauma handed down life after life after life?
What are we missing here? Why do we keep ignoring what Jesus has been trying to get us to see, now, in our time: that Black Lives Matter? That we are all human beings no different from one another.
We’re like those two disciples if their eyes had never opened, and they had never seen the risen Lord, had never known that death had been defeated, had never understood there was a power greater than all earthly powers, had never learned their hope for justice had not been in vain.
Text and context. Today, they merge: we are on the road to Emmaus, you and I, in a city on edge, and Jesus is trying to get us to discover what we are missing – to open our eyes and our ears and our lives, so our hearts might begin to burn for a world reimagined.
Thanks be to God.