The other day we had a Bible Study at Briarwood as we do every month. That Bible Study is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job because of the astute people who attend, including our staff people Loyall, Justus and sometimes lay leaders Fran and John, plus the folks who live at The Briarwood Residence. Among the notables who regularly attend is Gene Schofield who will be 99 in May and has much wisdom and insight. Please feel free to join us any time, the fourth Tuesday of every month, it’s fun, challenging to the mind and all are welcome.
This week at Briarwood, as we have done here today, we read aloud the Road to Emmaus account from the Gospel of Luke. It is a fascinating retelling of an experience that begins with two men who were just walking along on a road, talking things over, like anyone might do with a friend. However, they are in special circumstances because they were on a road headed to a town named Emmaus - just the two of them.
The location of the biblical town of Emmaus has been a source of controversy. There are nine candidates for the site of this encounter between Jesus and his two Emmaus disciples. However, only four sites can be considered serious candidates. The word Emmaus means “warm well,” and since the name suggests there must be a well or natural spring near the site, some (towns) can be eliminated. The other clue to the location of Emmaus is found in the biblical text that records the distance of Emmaus from Jerusalem. Most translations of Scripture record the distance as a little more than seven miles. (Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2008, volume 34, #2: “Emmaus Where Christ Appeared,” by Hershel Shanks)
Wherever the town may have been, all of a sudden, a third man joined them on their trek - seemingly out of nowhere. The Bible doesn’t say where this third person came from, it says, “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them.” Notice it says “he came near” rather than he moved in close side by side or in between the two. He was keeping a certain distance for some reason.
The writer of Luke doesn’t hide it from us that the third man was Jesus, but the two walking and talking did not recognize him, which is very strange. It’s maybe a little less strange had you read the Gospel of John where Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus either and mistakes him for a gardener. It seems there was a lot of not recognizing Jesus going on those first days after the Crucifixion! Since we are well versed in Jesus in 2017 this may seem absurd, like who doesn’t know Jesus? But as one of the Briarwood residents, Martha, was quick to remind us at Bible Study the other day, the entire region had just been through the brutal assassination of Jesus and now had to come to terms with his resurrection three days later. It could be that the people who were directly subjected to this were experiencing some kind of psychosis or hallucination as a result of the experience. In other words, perhaps they had a kind of Post-traumatic Stress reaction, which affected their ability to identify Jesus, even though he walked nearby to them and started to converse. We, the reader don’t know why, we just get to ponder it and put it in our faith bucket.
What exactly is a faith bucket you say? (pull up two buckets) This is a quasi-scholarly device that I use to separate my academic understanding of the Bible and my faith. The more you study religion the more you realize three things;
There is way more knowledge, metaphor and history in the Bible than anyone can ever hope to fully understand.
For every theory of what Jesus did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say written in Greek or Aramaic or Hebrew, there are many more brilliantly researched theories to dispute the one you agree with.
If you feel you know all there is to know about Jesus and Christianity, read the Bible again or take a new Bible course, because there are no finite answers to the mysteries of our man Jesus nor the writings about him. There just aren’t.
Now, I realize there are a whole bunch of people who feel their belief is it, the end game, the definitive interpretation of Bible and Jesus. Some who feel that way may be sitting right here in our church! I am going to say in the nicest way possible, that the notion supporting only one perspective of Christianity is up for considerable debate. No one has a corner on the market of understanding the Christ which means “the anointed one” or to Christians the manifestation of God on Earth. No one, not the most sophisticated theologian, not the Pope, not the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the Dalai Lama. So, you can relax if you think someone else has it over on you. Not so. What do I do when I learn something new that is in contradiction of my traditional understanding of God? I put it in my faith bucket. I label it mystery and carry it in my heart to think about and mull over.
It does NOT have to change my faith every time I turn around, because a.) it’s exhausting and b.) the intellectual or academic understanding of God is way different than my experience of God. For me that experience is through Jesus the Christ because it rings true for me. Yep, follower of Jesus is the road I choose, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has to feel the same way, in order for me to feel love or respect for him or her. I can only tell you what is true for me and I have my academic bucket here and my faith bucket over here!
I have been thinking an awful lot about the concept of the road for quite some time. Roads are tricky things because they have signposts as well as potholes. Signposts are essential for finding your way but they can get turned around and unexpected potholes may pop your tires. You never know whom you are going to meet on the road and being on the road can give one an opportunity to think about things in new ways and to see with new eyes. At our church, we think a lot about this location, which we support with our money as well as our personal time. This is a good building, though it does have some mysterious paths which swallow up new people who try to find their way around it, and it surely does swallow up a lot of cash. I think the love people have of this church is wonderful and having been a part of a number of beautiful churches and owning a home, I completely understand how we get attached to them. Our churches become sacred spaces in which we express our love for God and care for our friends. There is nothing wrong with that – not one bit. I showed a short film on the concept of church to our Church Council the other night and I thought it would be good to share it with you all too, on this our Annual Meeting Sunday. I think it invites us to think of church in a new light.
So, reactions? Questions? A church, any church, but especially Greendale People’s Church has a tradition of being the community church, the place where everyone and anyone can come together to worship. It is also a place to just be together to have coffee or listen to music at a coffeehouse or go to a self-help meeting or attend a concert or serve on a committee. No matter where I go, when people ask what church I serve as Pastor, when I say Greendale People’s Church they say “oh yeah! I have heard of that church.” Or “My mother was married/baptized/buried at that church.” And yet, I do not see all those people here today. I see those of you who have come faithfully year in and year out and who love 25 Francis Street deeply.
I have suggested it before and do so again today. Our church is YOU. You are the church and you are challenged to hit the road and be the church in and of Worcester and in the world outside of this building. When you venture outside our walls, who knows whom you might meet along that road? Like our friends on the Road to Emmaus, you might just meet the most important person in your life. You might end up inviting that person to your home or to break bread together in a way that reminds you of who you both are and why you are in God’s world. If you truly believe God is everywhere, as I do, you not only find God here in our Sanctuary and Chapel. You may find God walking alongside of you, living under a train trestle or in the kindness of spirit you yourself offer to people you meet. The story of the Road to Emmaus is not just an ancient Bible text. It is the story of life and life’s unexpected turns, the people you encounter and the dust and potholes you must traverse along the way. That’s what makes it exciting to read the Bible and to take the path of God. It is alive today! Just keep walking continue to practice God’s great commandment to love one another along the way.