He walked ahead as if he were going on. (Luke 24:28)
These words seem innocuous, deep in the story of the road to Emmaus. But pay attention, and they rocket off the page. Two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem when a stranger joins them on the road. The storyteller lets us know that it’s the resurrected Jesus, but the disciples don’t realize it yet. It’s only after they have ‘strongly urged him’ to stay with them that he turns back, comes inside and shares bread with them, and they recognize the Risen Christ.
Jesus is deeply committed to our freedom. He does not impose himself on us; he does not invite himself in; he does not demand a place at the table. In this story, he doesn’t even suggest it. Instead, he makes as if he is heading on down the road. It’s only because the disciples ‘strongly urge him’ that he joins them for the meal.
Think of it. This traveller has already made their hearts burn within them as he opened their minds to a new way of reading scripture. It can’t have been easy to hear. Now, at the door, they need to decide. They can risk this stranger in the building, the guest at the table, and further disruptive, potentially painful, conversation. Or they can simply farewell the stranger and go back to the familiar if shrivelled life they already know.
If you think that he would have gone in anyway, think again. In Luke 4, Jesus speaks at the synagogue in his hometown. At first the listeners approve of his words, but then the generosity of his vision begins to enrage them. They rise up in a mob and drive him out of town and try to hurl him off the cliff. ‘But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.’ (Luke 4:28-30). Hear that? He was in their midst, but when they rejected him he simply moved on.
You might like to go back and read the Emmaus story in a time of personal prayer and devotion: and I’d certainly encourage you to do that. But notice, too, that both these stories from Luke tell of gathered people: two on the road; a congregation in Nazareth. In John of Patmos’s wild prayer-dream, Jesus addresses a church: ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.’ (Revelation 3:20). It tells us that even churches don’t always recognize his voice; even churches have to choose to invite and welcome the discomfiting stranger in.
But the Emmaus story suggests that those who do will leave the road of hurt and despair, and glimpse the beauty and strangeness of resurrection life. So what does it look like for us or any congregation to invite the stranger in? Do we hear his voice? Do we urge him strongly? Do we speak the words Jesus is patiently waiting to hear? Or do we let him pass us by and head on down the road, without us?
Emailed to Sanctuary 3 May 2023 © Sanctuary, 2023. Photo by Kai Dahms on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Whurrong country. Acknowledgement of country here.
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