Recognizing Jesus on the Road

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May 8, 2011 sermon by Matt Staniz.  Scripture: Luke 24:13-35.  (May 8, 2011 was the first Sunday after the death of Osama bin Laden was announced)

In these 50 days that make up the season of Easter, we continue to gather around the stories of Jesus–after the resurrection–appearing to the disciples. They are strange and wonderful stories, to say the least. Jesus shows up and, time after time, the people in the story don’t recognize that it is Jesus. At the empty tomb, Mary thinks it’s the gardener. Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem and the disciples think that he’s a ghost.

Today we get the wonderful story of two disciples walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus and talking about all the things that had happened. It had been quite a weekend in Jerusalem and they were walking the seven miles to Emmaus and back into their lives now that Jesus had been killed.
During their 3 hour walk they had plenty to talk about as they tried to make sense of what had happened. And then, we’re told that Jesus himself approaches them. Only they do not know that it is Jesus. It doesn’t occur to them that Jesus is there with them on the road.

Jesus asks them what they are talking about, and it stops them in their tracks. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place?”

When I hear that moment in the story, it reminds me of a very specific moment in my life. It reminds of a moment on September 11, 2001. I’m sure we all have pretty defined memories of how that day unfolded for us. I imagine that—to some degree—they’ve crossed our minds this past week.

The moment I remember as I hear of this encounter along the road to Emmaus happened late in the morning on September 11. I had been watching the story unfold on TV and passing word along to others on the campus of our seminary in Philadelphia. It was at least 11am–very late in the story of that morning–when I came outside and a classmate came up to me and asked “What’s going on?”
I began to give her the latest update. By that point it amounted to the news that planes that were unaccounted for had been located.

And then she reached out, grasped my arm, and said, “No. Matt, wait. I don’t know what happened. What’s going on?”

And like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, it stopped me in my tracks as the thought flashed through my mind that I actually had to be the one to tell this terrible story.

This past week has brought with it a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings on the news that Osama bin Laden was found and killed. Anger and grief from 9/11 has resurfaced; sadness has resurfaced. Feelings of relief, satisfaction, even excitement, are tempered by uncertainty and the unsettling knowledge that there is nothing nice about this story.

As I’m absorbing the news, I’m reminded that our mission and purpose is the same as it has always been: God calls us to be instruments of love, grace and peace. God wants us to resist every form of evil and to protect each other. Yet, as we seek to be followers of the God revealed in Jesus, we are constantly reminded that our ideas of peace and justice–and our understanding of what God is like–must never be pulled into the same dark places that can lead people of any faith to do the things Osama bin Laden did.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus had a difficult story to tell. But tell it they did—without even knowing that the person in the story was right there with them. Jesus was with them on the road and they didn’t even know it.

I think this story of the road to Emmaus is wonderfully important to us today, because the same thing happens to us as we walk the roads that make up our lives. Like those disciples, We don’t quite expect the resurrected Jesus to show up. We don’t quite expect resurrection to actually be true. We don’t quite expect light to shine from darkness. We don’t quite expect our sins to be forgiven. We don’t quite expect to be given new life; to be reborn. We don’t quite expect that love will actually win. We don’t quite expect the resurrected Jesus to show up.

Like the disciples, it’s easy for us to walk along the roads that make up our lives, and be consumed by the stories and circumstances that make up our lives, and not even notice that Jesus is right there walking the road with us.

When have you not noticed God walking beside you?

When the disciples finally recognize that it was indeed Jesus, they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”

“Were not our hearts burning within us?”

I’m pretty certain that they weren’t talking about acid reflux.

They finally realized that they knew, deep in their hearts, that something was happening along that road. I pray that we can pay attention to the moments when our hearts are burning–those moments when we sense that something more is happening than just another walk up the road or another story that is hard to deal with. I pray that we notice the resurrected Jesus walking with us. Jesus might be a neighbor, a friend, co-worker, or family member. Jesus might even be a stranger along the road. I pray we can sense the nudges that something more is happening, and that it might be Jesus.

Even in this moment, as we gather in community and worship, I pray that our hearts will burn within us while the risen Jesus opens the scriptures to us and is revealed to us in the breaking of the bread.

May our hearts burn with knowledge that Christ is with us. May our hearts burn with joy because Jesus walks with us. May our hearts burn with hope for the road that lies ahead. May our hearts burn with the good news of the gospel. Amen.

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