Title: Emmaus, Strangers as Companions
Text: Luke 24
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
Date: January 31, 2014
Event: MCUSA People of Color, “Hope for the future”
Place: The National Convention Center, Leesburg, VA
A stranger in Jerusalem
These two disciples, on the way to Emmaus, have been with Jesus. They have walked with him before, from village to village, town to town, city to city. They’ve fished together, lingered around campfires late into the evening, talking. They’ve shared table fellowship, eating and drinking. If anyone should be able to recognize Jesus, it should be Cleopas and the other disciple. They know Jesus. They know what he looks like. They know his voice, his accent, how he inflects his words; they know his quirks. But, even though they know him, they don’t recognize him, at first.
And if they don’t recognize him, then what makes us think we can? What makes us so sure that we know what Jesus looks like, what he sounds like? — walking with you, on a sidewalk; bumping into you, in the grocery store; sitting beside you, at church, across from you, right now. What makes us so sure we are going to be able to recognize him when he approaches us? What makes us so sure we won’t ignore him? What makes us so sure that we haven’t already ignored him?
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize Jesus because he doesn’t look like the Jesus they remembered. He doesn’t look like what Jesus is supposed to look like. He doesn’t sound right. His appearance is strange. His words sound odd. He looks like a foreigner, like he doesn’t belong on that road — his face is too dark, too light, too masculine, too feminine, too ordinary, too exotic. Whatever he is, he doesn’t belong. The disciples know that.
They call him a stranger, a foreigner, an alien. The word in Greek is paroikeo, a word to call someone who is away from home, a pilgrim, a sojourner, a migrant. Listen to this definition of the word, from the lexicon, the dictionary of Greek words: paroikeo, “the state of being in a strange locality without citizenship.”
Cleopas says to Jesus — this is verse 18: “Are you alone so much of a stranger in Jerusalem that you do not know what everybody there is talking about?” [i] It almost sounds like he’s annoyed by this stranger, annoyed with the way this foreigner interrupts his walk with his friend, annoyed with the way he barges into conversation where he doesn’t belong. Cleopas thinks this foreigner on the road is ignorant, that this stranger is a nuisance.
But why? Why are they so rude? It sounds like Jesus is just being friendly, like he’s trying to strike up a conversation on the long trip. “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” he asks. What are you all talking about?
For the disciples, Jesus is an intrusion, an interruption, a disruption. He’s a visitor who insinuates himself into a relationship, where he doesn’t belong because he’s an ignorant foreigner, an uninformed stranger. He’s unwanted. He isn’t invited. But he becomes a fellow traveler, a conversation partner, a pilgrim on the way, with the disciples, alongside.
Now this is what grace looks like. This is a story of what God’s grace looks like, what God does, how God comes to us, despite our resistances and rejections, despite our impatience and confusion, despite our bad vision, our inability to see clearly, our inability to see people, to see foreigners and strangers as welcomed gifts, as gifts from God, as grace for us, as messengers from God, as images of God, as God’s presence for us, as people who invite us into God’s presence. In the story, God’s grace happens in the presence of a stranger who turns out to be a friend, a foreigner who turns out to be our savior.
Like I said, this episode from Luke’s Gospel, this story of the disciples and Jesus on the road to Emmaus, is a snapshot of what grace looks like, a snapshot of what God’s grace looks like, in our world: God’s grace becoming flesh, in Jesus, walking, talking, eating — God’s grace made ordinary, God’s grace transfiguring our ordinary lives, God’s grace made flesh, made human, in this grace-filled encounter, in grace-filled relationships.
But, the disciples, on their own, would have missed him. They would have passed him by. Grace means that God acts first, that God finds us, that God engages us, that God wants to walk with us. And we, like the disciples, are always learning how to open ourselves to receive grace; we are always on the road, in the process of opening ourselves to receive God, to welcome God — the God who doesn’t look like what we thought God was supposed to look like, the God who doesn’t act how we thought God was suppose to act.
The truth is that we, like the disciples, are always misrecognizing God, we are always misrecognizing foreigners, misrecognizing strangers — misrecognizing the God who is strange, who is foreign, who is alien, who is “wholly other,” to use the language of the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth.
If we are always misrecognizing others, mistaking them, misunderstanding them, dismissing them, because of our predispositions, our stereotypes, our ideologies that blind us, because of the ideological blindness that comes with our confidence about what God is supposed to look like, what God is supposed to do, who God is supposed to use, the people who God offers the church as gifts — if we are always dismissing others who appear too strange, too foreign, too different, too other, then how do we know haven’t ignored God, how do we know we haven’t dismissed God, the one who is wholly other?
The disciples misunderstand God again and again. Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel is a comedy of mistaken identities, of misrecognition — a record of the disciples’ misunderstanding, a record of their failures to see Jesus, to see resurrection, to see the gospel, a record of their failures to recognize the movement of God in their midst.
The failures start in the morning, after the group of women visit the tomb of Jesus, discover that it is empty, and hear the good news from the angles — that on the third day, Jesus will rise again. The women return to the apostles, the other disciples, including Cleopas, and they share the good news of resurrection, the women preach the gospel, but the men, the other disciples, don’t believe the women, they don’t believe their testimony. They think in unison, with confidence — this is verse 11: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
This was their first failure, the failure to recognize women as bearers of good news, the failure to trust the testimony of women, the failure to receive from their ministry of women. Sexism has always been a struggle for the church, for us. It’s rooted in the male disciples inability to see beyond their stereotypes, beyond their cultural framework, to break through their social lens. In their time and place, the testimony of women was not allowed in courts; their testimony wasn’t not considered valid. Women were not trusted as truth tellers. As we heard the disciples put it in the verse I just read, they heard the words of the women as “an idle tale,” empty speech, frivolous words, fairy tales. That was the first failure to recognize — to see, to hear the good news, to receive the gift of grace, the message of resurrection.
Now, verse 13: “On that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus.” Cleopas and his friend, the disbelievers, are walking and talking, and a stranger interrupts their conversation — and this is their second failure, the second time they fail to recognize the good news, to recognize Jesus, because he looks and sounds like a foreigner, a migrant, a non-citizen, someone who doesn’t belong, someone who is other, different, strange.
Ethnocentrism has always been a struggle for the church, for us. It’s rooted in their, in our, inability to welcome outsiders — and not just welcome, but to learn from outsiders, to sit at the feet of strangers, of foreigners, to receive the gifts others want to give, to learn the languages of others, to speak and think in different tongues. That was the second failure to recognize, to acknowledge: the failure of ethnocentrism, of stranger anxiety.
Now, for the third failure. The resurrected Jesus, still misrecognized, tells the two disciples that they are “foolish” and “slow” when it comes to their ability to understand the bible. They know the scriptures, but they don’t understand them. They can quote all the right passages, but they don’t know what they mean. They think they do, but they don’t. So, it says in verse 27, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
This third failure has to do with scriptural interpretation, with how we read the bible. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus know their bibles. They’ve read the law and the prophets. They’ve prayed the Psalms. But they can’t see what should be obvious: that the bible is a lens that is supposed to help them see Jesus, the Jesus who is walking with them, the Jesus who is speaking to them.
Our scriptures are an invitation to see Jesus, to get to know Jesus. Our bible is an invitation into a relationship with Jesus. But for the two disciples, they’ve misunderstood the scriptures. Despite their pious interpretation, their careful exegesis, they’ve missed the point. The bible has done nothing for their ability to see Jesus, to recognize him. Even with the bible, they can’t see who is standing in front of them. They can’t see the one who is looking back at them.
That was their third failure to recognize: the failure of biblical interpretation, the failure that comes with refusing to struggle again and again with scripture, to think and rethink, to change your mind, to discover new meaning — the failure that comes with being comfortable with what you already think this or that bible passage says, comfortable and confident with your interpretation, with the interpretation that has been passed down to you, what the loudest voices of the tradition have said, what the most powerful people of the past have written about the bible, about theology, about people.
For example, there are very clear statements in scripture that have authorized oppression, passages written by the apostle Paul. Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” Paul says it again, just so we know that he meant it — Colossians 3:22: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.” And it’s not just one of Paul’s teachings, but we hear the same thing from another New Testament author, in 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”
These commands are straightforward. The plain meaning of these verses is clear. But we’ve learned to rethink the obvious meaning of those passages. We’ve learned to believe the opposite of what those verses say — that slaves should not obey their masters. The abolition of slavery here in the United States is a living testimony against the plain meaning of those Scriptures — living testimony that bible verses can lead us into racism and oppression.
There are ways of reading our bible that lead us astray, ways of reading that lead us away God’s call. It’s not enough to know our bibles. It’s not enough to quote a bible passage to justify our position on this or that issue — that’s what slave owners did in this country, and their pastors, from the pulpit, and they had some Bible passages on their side.
Biblical interpretation can fail us, when it comes to following Jesus, when it comes to recognizing Jesus. Like I said, that was the third failure of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They know their bibles, they know the scriptures, but they still misrecognize Jesus. They read their bibles, they can quote scripture, but they still do not understand. They need more than the Scriptures. It’s all too easy to misunderstand our Bible. We need all the help we can get, friendships that lead us into the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, strangers who help us rethink the convictions that blind us from the Word, from Jesus Christ.
Now, their fourth and final failure — although, this one is not quite a failure like the others. In fact, it might be too much to say that it’s a failure, because the disciples do recognize Jesus, but they misunderstand what they see.
Here’s what happens. After their long walk, the two disciples and Jesus are hungry for a meal. They are gathered around the table, the two disciples and the stranger. Jesus takes the bread, breaks it, and feeds Cleopas and his friend. “Then,” it says in verse 31, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”
In the meal they catch a glimpse of Jesus. They recognize him. But, if we read a few verses later, when they catch another glimpse of him, they misunderstand Jesus’ resurrected presence, because they think he is a ghost, a haunting presence, not flesh and blood. “They were startled and terrified,” it says in verse 37, “and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” They see him, but they don’t see him. They recognize him, but they don’t. They think he’s a ghost, not a human, like they are. Not resurrected flesh and blood, but a ghost. Jesus, yes, but not a human Jesus, not Jesus fully alive.
We could say that this final failure, or this half-failure, is a culmination of all the failures, all the previous misrecognitions. Because, finally, with unveiled eyes, they see him, they recognize him, but they refuse to believe he’s real — they refuse to believe that he’s really Jesus, truly human, fully human. They would rather think of him as a ghost, a spirit without flesh, without flesh like their flesh. They think of him as fundamentally different, fundamentally other, fundamentally strange — someone to fear. They were “startled and terrified,” it says. This stranger is a ghost, somewhat like Jesus but so different that he is unsettling, a dangerous presence to guard themselves from, so strange that he is threat, so strange that they need to protect themselves, and their communities.
“They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” They couldn’t get Jesus more wrong than this. At the moment of their recognition, they misunderstand. “Peace be with you,” Jesus announces. But they experience him as terror, as peril, as menace, as threat — at least, those are their first impressions, which is the same for us.
At first, we fear strangers. At first, we fear that which is foreign, those who are foreign to us, to our communities, to our churches — we protect ourselves from people who are foreign to our way of doing things, because we are afraid of losing what we have, afraid of losing what we think is essential to who we are, to what we do. To call someone a ghost is to think of them as unnatural, not quite human, deficiently human, at least not human like I am, like you are. That’s why Jesus invites them to touch him: “Touch me and see,” he says. Come close. See my life. See my body. It’s like yours. “Touch me and see.” Jesus invites intimacy. He invites his friends to see him as a stranger who is a friend, a foreigner who is a brother, an other who is the same.
Stay with us
I walked us through the disciples’ failures because I think their lives are mirrors for us, mirrors that help us see our own lives. In them we see ourselves, we see our tendencies. But, they also offer us a moment of hope, because, in the story, they get the most important thing right. And in that moment, they invite us into hopeful possibilities; they invite us into a posture that makes life in the church possible, for all of us. They invite us into their hospitality, which is the way of life for disciples.
We read ourselves into their story, we are summoned into their story, when the disciples invite a stranger to stay with them, when they invite a foreigner to eat with them. They model for us the kind of life we are to live — a life of hospitality, of openness to strangers and foreigners.
At the crossroads, where they were to part ways, where they were going to choose different paths, the two disciples make a decision that opens up the possibility of life with Jesus. At the crossroads, it says in verse 29, “They urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us.’ ” The disciples don’t just offer an invitation. They urge the stranger to stay with them. They urged him strongly, it says. They do it because they want to, because they need to, because they desire fellowship with this stranger, they want this foreigner to eat at their table, they desire his presence, with them, at their side, they want to be at his side.
“Stay with us.” This is what we want to hear. We want someone to want us. We want to be desired, to be acknowledged, to be recognized, to be invited — for someone, anyone, to look us in the eyes, to know us, and to say, “Stay with us.” This is what I heard when I wandered into a Mennonite church ten years ago. They wanted me to stay, and I have, much longer than I thought I would, because we have found life together, because we have found Jesus together.
“Stay with us.” This is how we become church. We stay together — you stay at my house, I stay at your house, you worship at my church, I worship at your church. We turn to each other and say, “stay with us,” because we long for communion, communion with Jesus, which happens when we eat together, when we worship together, when we sing and prayer, when we to listen for the Holy Spirit, speaking in each other’s tongues, speaking in the languages of foreigners, of strangers, strange words from strange people from whom we never thought it possible to hear the gospel — to find ourselves drawn together as sisters and brothers.
The apostle Paul frequently opens and closes his letters with confessions of his longing for communion with others in God’s presence, his longing to be with his sisters and brothers in Christ: “I long to see you,” he says at the beginning of Romans (1:11). And, again, towards the end of the letter, “I have been longing for many years to see you” (15:23). “Pray,” he writes, (15:32) “that I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed.” That’s what it means to desire communion, to be with one another, to say, no matter how strange we may appear to one another — to say, “Stay with us.” Or, as Paul puts it in his letter to the church in Philippi: “I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8).
Despite our differences, despite our disagreements, despite our cultural distinctives, what if we made this affection, this longing, central to what it means to be faithful, central to be faithful disciples, central to be a faithful church? — for this longing, this invitation, “stay with us,” for this to be the prerequisite for our plans for future, for this to be the fundamental truth that makes everything else possible — this hospitality, this openness to strangeness.
“Stay with us.” Now, staying is not easy. It takes patience, long-suffering. Because we will misunderstand one another. That’s bound to happen, again and again. We will misrecognize one another. We will misinterpret what we say to each other. Because we are always looking at one another through lenses, through racial lenses, through cultural stereotypes — ways seeing each other that have been taught to us by our friends, by our family, by our teachers, passed down by the church, even. We can’t help but see through these lenses, we can’t help but struggle against them — and that’s what life is like in the body of Christ, a struggle to see clearly, to see each other as gifts, to recognize the person before you as an image of God, a representation of God, an ambassador of God, to open yourself to someone whose strangeness invites us into the strangeness of God in our midst. Because God is strange, always surprising us, and so are we, so are you, so am I.
There’s a prayer, an Irish hymn from the 8th century. Christians would sing this song, they would pray this prayer, as a way to open themselves up to Christ, as a way to welcome the Christ who comes to us in the people around us. This hymn fuels a spirituality of hospitality. I will leave us with the prayer, as a way to orient our lives, this prayer as a guide — as an invitation to learn to see one another, as an invitation to see strangers as Christ, to see the world, full of strangeness, as transfigured by Christ’s presence.
Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ at my right,
Christ at my left,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in silence,
Christ in danger,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.