Through stranger, scripture and a meal shared our hearts may be set on fire. (Listen.)
They were devastated. The one on whom they’d pinned all their hopes and dreams had been executed and their hopes had died with him; now, even the body was gone. There was a rumour going around that the women had seen him: but it seemed to them an idle tale. So they left. They walked out of the city, away from all the terror and confusion, and as they walked they talked through their grief and fear, scepticism, bewilderment, perhaps even their sense of betrayal.
While they were walking, they met a stranger. He came alongside them, and he asked why they looked so sad. So they told him their story and poured out their pain; it sounds a bit like the act of confession.
The stranger listened to them carefully. Then he did something interesting. He took what they thought they knew and placed it in a much bigger story, revealing the limitations of their understanding. Where they had seen only immediate loss and devastation, he pointed to a long tradition, a sweeping narrative, a great arc of liberation. Where they had seen only suffering and death, he pointed to full and flourishing life. He drew their attention to the scriptures relating only to himself and changed how they heard them; where they had been distracted by a faith-based nationalism, he pointed them to something larger, something new. And all this interpretive work sounds a bit like the ministry of the word.
A few weeks ago, someone said to me, ‘Why do your reflections have to be so challenging?’ They’re not always easy to hear, and nor was Jesus. His word rebuked them. It disoriented and disrupted them; it transformed their understanding and reset their worldview. But perhaps everything was not lost, after all. Perhaps life was only just beginning. Perhaps the story they were living was just half a breath in God’s vast cosmic plan; for as they listened, their hearts began to burn within them.
Then it gets even more interesting. When the travellers came near to the village, the stranger went to walk on. He didn’t impose himself on them; he didn’t invite himself in. Instead, he granted them the freedom to part ways: but thank goodness they didn’t. For, ‘Stay with us,’ they urged, ‘for night is falling.’ At their insistence, he came inside and joined them at the table. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it: and in this simple, ordinary act they finally recognized Jesus—an act which sounds a bit like communion.
He was the same, yet entirely new; their friend, yet found in a stranger; familiar, yet radically different—and then he vanished from their sight. Perhaps they could only bear a glimpse; perhaps they saw him in themselves. We don’t really know. But we do know that they were changed. Rather than bunkering down in the village as planned, they rushed out into the night. Risking wolves and robbers, they headed back to the site of despair. There, they told everyone about everything, and how death does not have the final word and nothing is at it seems: and this sounds a lot like going out and bearing witness.
And when we put it all together—gathering, confession, interpretation of the scriptures, and breaking bread, then sharing resurrection life with others—it all sounds like the movements of a typical worship service. Because it is!
We organize worship in this way because we seek to embody this story. We all know darkness, disappointment and dread. We know what it is to have our hopes dashed. We see the horror of the world, and the evil which so often seems to prevail, and how political, religious and financial institutions collaborate in oppression and violence. We know the sense of futility and hopelessness; we know the inadequacy of our efforts and the smallness of our lives; we all live under the shadow of death. Sick to the heart, we want to run from it all and shelter in a safe place.
And so this story has become our template. We gather to embody this story of grieving, doubting, horror stricken disciples because they are us. And when we gather together, name our pain, attend to the Word, and share in bread and blessing, we encounter the One who shatters our expectations and surprises us again and shows us the world anew. Our hearts are transformed, and we are emboldened to go back to dark places to share resurrection life with others.
It’s a profound paradox that, through familiar rhythms and stories, our false hopes are disrupted and our illusions are shattered. What we thought we understood becomes mystery; what we valued is shown to be worthless; what we scorned is revealed to be infinitely precious. Through stranger, word and table, God speaks again and again, and sets our hearts on fire. In awe and wonder, we glimpse the beauty and joy of a new creation where death has no more dominion; we taste a fullness of life so much greater than we ever could have imagined.
So in all life’s terrors and distractions, disappointments and doubts, keep gathering with disciples. Be honest about your lack of faith, your false hopes, your poverty of spirit, your fear. Attend to the Scriptures, and interpret them always through the lens of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Let your assumptions be exploded; let your worldview be transformed. Bless bread, bless wine, eat and drink together. Notice when your heart is set on fire, and the newness and joy that this brings. Leave, and tell people in dark places about it. And then repeat.
Because darkness is not enough. Depression is not enough. Hopelessness and futility and despair aren’t enough, and the way things are certainly isn’t enough. So let’s keep choosing the mysterious Emmaus Road, that we might keep encountering our elusive, disruptive, Risen Lord Jesus; the One who makes all things new; the One who challenges our thinking and transforms our vision and sets our hearts on fire.
Let us pray:
Hidden Jesus, when we run from darkness, you come to us in the face of another. As we hear your word and eat your bread, set our hearts burning within us, that we might find the courage to return to dark places and there witness to resurrection life. In the name of Christ, we pray: Amen. Ω
Reflect: What are your darkest places? What good news might you share there now?
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Luke 24:13-35 given to Sanctuary on 30 April 2023 © Sanctuary 2023 (Year A Pascha 3, one week out).
Sanctuary is based on Peek Whurrong country; full acknowledgement here. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all.
If this post stimulated your thinking or restored your equilibrium, why not share it on social media? And why not flick a double shot coffee our way, to support our ongoing thinking, writing and praying. We are a small young faith community seeking to revitalize tired faith. Your contribution helps keep us awake.