April 26, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
How did we get here? I have been reading a lot about what has brought us to this crisis, the breakdown of systems that has left us vulnerable to this disease. I have also been reading about the dedication and sacrifice of those who are doing their best to save lives and provide for the needs of others. I am grateful for those who are helping me understand how all that is happening connects to the larger story of who we are. And this story of an encounter on the road to Emmaus draws similar connections between the intense events of that week in Jerusalem so long ago, and the long history of God’s work of salvation.
This passage from Luke would actually fit chronologically before the story from last week. In Luke’s telling, the women who go to the tomb in the early morning see only two men in dazzling clothes; they do not encounter the risen Jesus. This journey to Emmaus reflects the ambiguous time between the empty tomb and the appearance of Jesus to the disciples and Thomas behind locked doors.
As they travel, the two disciples converse about the dramatic events of the past few days. When the stranger joins them, the recount the mission of Jesus and the events of the passion, but without fully understanding their meaning.
Luke’s Gospel sets the entire story in the context of journey, the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and in the following story of Acts, the journey of the early community from Jerusalem “to the ends of the earth.” The early Christians were known as the people of the Way, or people of the journey. As one scholar describes it, “For Luke the journey of Jesus and of the church itself expresses the unfolding history of salvation that finds its origin In Israel and through the Spirit extends salvation to the ‘ends of the earth.’”
What Jesus interpreted to them from the scriptures, from Moses and all the prophets, is the story of God’s saving work revealed through the people and history of Israel. God’s story is one of life emerging from death, of the journey of renewal, reconciliation, and transformation. As Jesus reveals the connections between the story they know and the story they have just witnessed, they begin to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is some of what they might have heard.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a story of bondage, liberation, a journey, and a destination. It begins with the Hebrews as slaves in Egypt. Daily life was hard labor with perhaps enough food to survive on, but not much more. By means of the plagues, God liberates the people from Pharaoh. They are led into the wilderness by Moses. There they journey for forty years toward the Promised Land.
This story suggests that the human condition is slavery or bondage. You and I are in bondage to many things, such as cultural messages about what we should be like, what it means to be successful, attractive, and to live the good life. We can also be enslaved to fears, addictions, or other kinds of oppression. We might be trapped by debt, or the fear of losing employer-supplied health insurance. The story of Moses and the people seeking freedom remains a particularly poignant one for the descendants of African slaves in America.
God’s salvation comes as the people are led from bondage to liberation, leaving Egypt and Pharaoh. It also involves a journey through the wilderness. It is in the wilderness where God is encountered and known. It can also be a place of fear and anxiety where we sometimes find ourselves longing for the security of Egypt, of the familiar things of the past. But the wilderness is also a place where we are nourished by God and where God journeys with us. The destination is life in the presence of God.
We might think our current situation is bondage, trapped in our homes by fear of the virus and the need to slow the spread so that our hospitals are not overwhelmed. But maybe we are really in the wilderness, a journey of the mind and the spirit, experiencing anxiety and a longing for what we had before. But in the wilderness, we might find ourselves sustained by the manna of God, the efforts of our family and friends to reach out over the phone and the internet to support one another. And the end of this journey may reveal a new way of living more carefully with one another, more grateful for the opportunity to gather, and more blessed by the touch of a hand or a hug.
Through the prophets we learn of the exile. The exile began in 587 BCE, when, after Jerusalem and its temple were conquered and destroyed by the Babylonians, some of the survivors were marched into exile in Babylon some 800 miles away. There they lived as refugees, far from home and oppressed. Fifty years later, the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persians, who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.
We live in a time when millions of exiles and refugees know this experience firsthand. It is an experience of separation from all that is familiar. People contend with powerlessness and often oppression and victimization. There is sadness, loneliness, and grief. It is a yearning for home and a place where we belong. It can also mean the loss of meaning or a sense of purpose. These feelings may be familiar to us in this time, when familiar ways of working, learning, gathering, and traveling have changed.
God’s salvation from exile leads the people on a journey of return. The religious life is a journey to the place where God is present, a homecoming, and God assists those who undertake the journey. We may not be able to return from our exile yet. But there will be a return, a time to gather once again in familiar places with friends and family. As God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” As the days of our quarantine stretch into weeks and months, we may ask, like the exiles, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Perhaps in the days ahead we will sing a new song, a song of joy as we gather together again.
Another way in which we understand salvation comes from the days of the temple, the priesthood, and sacrifice. It is a story of sin, guilt, sacrifice, and forgiveness. When we people turn away from God, we are in a state of sin and brokenness. When we are lost from the ways of God we need to return to God, to repent, to be cleansed, washed, or covering over. When we have done wrong, we need forgiveness. We need to sacrifice to God to make up for what we have done wrong. Since the early Middle Ages, some Christians have understood Jesus as the dying savior whose death is a sacrifice for our sins, thereby making our forgiveness by God possible. “Jesus died for our sins.”
This image of Jesus is powerful, and can be a sign of God’s great love for us, as we know from John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The message is simple, direct, and radical: we are accepted, just as we are. Our own sense of sin, impurity, and guilt need not stand between us and God. New beginnings are possible.
Each of these stories is part of the grand story of God’s work of salvation. For some of us, the need is liberation; for others, the need is homecoming; and for still others, the need is acceptance. Each of these stories helps us to understand what it means to be Christian, living life as a journey whose central quality is a deepening and transforming relationship with God.
Where do we go from here? The story doesn’t end with supper that night in Emmaus. That was a moment of revelation, a vision of the living Christ in the breaking of the bread. It was also a moment of understanding that their journey was not ended, but just beginning.
The story of Jesus is the story of discipleship. The word disciple means “a follower after somebody.” Discipleship is a following after Jesus, a journeying with Jesus. It is a journey, not alone, but in a company of fellow disciples. The Christian life is about being in relationship with God, which transforms us into more and more compassionate beings, changing into the likeness of Christ.
Our journey also continues, and though we can’t yet leave our homes, we can think about what is coming down the road. Things won’t be the “normal” we had before. The disciples didn’t just go back to fishing. We will make changes in our lives. If nothing else, we will begin to see and appreciate more of the people who make the world work, the grocery clerks, truck drivers, farmers and field hands, janitors, meat packers, mail carriers, and others who are more essential than we realized. We’ll have a greater appreciation for doctors and nurses, lab techs and EMTs.
I hope that down the road we will realize our interconnectedness in new ways, and be more grateful for all the people in our lives. I hope that when we break bread together, the living Christ will be made known to us. And I pray that we will continue on in the Way, the journey which takes us ever-closer to the One who saves us. Amen.
 Acts 1:8. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the
Used by permission. All rights reserved. U.S.A.
 Donald Senior, Exegetical Perspective on Luke 24:13-35 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 421.
 Jeremiah 29:14.
 Psalm 137:4.