Emmaus Road

Easter feels a long time ago. The weariness of the lockdown wears on and on and, I don’t know about you, but it’s grinding me down. For instance, one of the highlights of my week last week was to sit in my car in the carpark of a local McDonalds eating a Sausage and Egg McMuffin listening to a podcast. It’s not usually my idea of an amazing time, but was so good just to be out of the house!

It’s a sad time, simultaneously worrying and dull. It is liminal time, threshold time – balanced between the well-known past and an unknown future. The past had its problems, but at least we knew where we stood. The future hasn’t happened yet – well, obviously. But it’s even more distant than usual, because our quarantined present is so very strange, so different from what came before, and, we devoutly hope, whatever comes next.

In theological terms, it seems like an Easter Saturday moment. All that time watching the disease overseas, wondering if it would affect us, and then, when it did, all that wondering whether we would go into lockdown, and if so, when; No all those arguments and uncertainty, are over. All those decisions, made at speed with incomplete information are now locked in.

And now, like the disciples after Jesus’ crucifixion, we wait.

We’re like Jonah, stuck in the belly of the whale. There is nothing to do but wait and pray.

That first Saturday after the crucifixion, no-one knew it was Holy Saturday.

There is, perhaps, a strange sense of anticlimax. We are, of course, pleased that things aren’t any worse than they are, and devoutly glad to be in Australia where the infection and death numbers are so low.

The image in my mind is of the empty hospitals, cleared of all bar the most urgent treatment. I used to sit in the café on the ground floor of the Austin and marvel at all the people coming in – the best day in some lives, the worst in others, and for yet others, just another day at the office. But now – even if the café were open – it would present a very different aspect. A weird pause. The sea is sucked back and we stand, poised, waiting for the surf to come crashing in, but nothing happens.

Meanwhile, we count the cost in opportunities lost, of businesses going to the wall, taking their owners dreams and savings with them. People losing their jobs, or having their incomes radically slashed. Of people who really should be in hospital, but have to wait. Tests delayed, optional surgery delayed, lives on hold.

It’s almost possible to forget it’s going on. Until we want to do something unutterably normal – say to go out for a coffee with a friend, and realise that we can’t. Then it all comes back to us. The crisis continues. We don’t know how it will end, how long it will take, what the world will look like afterwards.

Where is God in all this strange silence?

Cleopas and his unnamed companion – tradition suggests that it might have been his wife, perhaps the one named as Mary in John’s gospel[1]– are in a similar situation. The drama of the crucifixion is over, and the day of Sabbath, which must have seemed endless, has passed, and it is now possible to travel again. They are walking down the road, discussing the events of the last few days.

I recognise that feeling. When Anne and I go out for our daily dog walking expeditions, we obsessively discuss the Coronavirus. Neither of us has anything particularly novel to say – we both, after all, have access to the same news sources, and have our basic personalities which largely dictate how we respond to situation. Nothing startlingly new or original is said, but we go around and around with it, worrying at it like our dog Daisy with a bone.

Around and around the conversation must have gone. About the last few days. Didn’t that procession into Jerusalem mean anything? Maybe Jesus shouldn’t have driven out the money changers! What about that final dinner? Do you know what happened to Judas, to Peter?

Question about the crucifixion: What did Jesus say to Mary and John? What does it mean that Jesus prayed “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why did he have to die? Surely he was the one to redeem Israel – wasn’t he?

And now, from this very morning, the strangest rumours of all. That the women had seen the empty tomb and the vision of angels, and that the men had gone and seen it too. But what on earth does it mean?

I can easily imagine the hours being swallowed up with it all, so preoccupied that they didn’t really notice the figure gradually overtaking them.

Life’s like that for a lot of us at the moment – at least I know it is for me. I’m so preoccupied with trying to figure out what’s going on that Jesus could be tapping me on the shoulder and I wouldn’t notice.

Other people are, of course, having other experiences. I know that for a lot of us, our usual occupations are gone, and lockdown is creating great slabs of un-structured, un-interesting time which used to be spent going out and engaging in life. Perhaps forcing a greater inward journey than might have otherwise been the case? A time of waiting and watching and hoping. Again, like Jonah’s three days in the whale. Nothing to do but to wait.

Where do we find Jesus? If Jesus was coming up the road behind us, would we notice? Or would we move to the side to let him past, observing careful social distancing protocols?

The disciples had seen Jesus die: he was utterly remote from them. They didn’t know it was the first Easter Sunday. We know how their story goes, and we wonder how they could have been so blind. I think that’s why Jesus has no beard in Caravaggio’s picture of the dinner at Emmaus. If you shave a man’s beard off, he’s going to look different.

The thing is, though, that Jesus is difficult to recognise. We find it every bit as difficult. We like to think that if we were literally walking along the road with him for hours and then ate dinner with him, we might be a bit quicker on the uptake, but, frankly, that’s probably not true. There are a lot of ways of not noticing God at work in our lives. So many distractions, so much going on. It takes time and practice.

In a way, these times are unprecedented for the church. Christianity is clubbable. We’re church– a gathered people, an assembly, a community. In times of trouble, we want to gather together more, not less. When there’s a catastrophe, we want to fling open our places of worship, and welcome in the poor and needy and grief-stricken.

Even at a practical level, we want to get stuck in, just like in the Middle Ages, when the church was the organising force behind a lot of social response to catastrophes of all sorts, including plagues, risking life and limb to bring comfort and help to the sick and dying.

But our atomised, scientific, consumerist society has its own way of doing things, and the result is that the church can find itself feeling surplus to requirements – and worse, perhaps even a danger to public health. Surely, culture says, we can stream church services online, and that’s the same thing? Gathering together regularly, even if we aren’t in the mood, even if it’s raining, even if we find ourselves at odds with our fellow worshippers, even if it means missing brunch or something good on TV – it was already very countercultural before Coronavirus. Now it seems bizarre.

But gather we do. Even if it’s not in the ways we’re used to, even if we are painfully aware of the ways in which we are excluding people. Not just that, it is… odd, gathering together like this. We’re all “here” together, but in such a disembodied way. Our senses, so finely attuned to really seeing each other, are much less adept at engaging with each other via video link. There is something hard to put into words about being physically present with each other as embodied people which feels stretched like mozzarella on a pizza. Trailing, prone to breaking, a little unsatisfactory.

So, where do we find Jesus?

In the story, Jesus walks with them and unfolds the Scriptures for them. Later, they would say that it made their hearts burn within them. And then, when they ate together, Jesus, both guest and host, broke the bread, blessed it, and gave it to them – and their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.

We are doing almost precisely what those first disciples did, and what Jesus’ disciples have been doing ever since. We gather to hear the Scriptures unfolded, to break bread together. And that is where we find Jesus.

One of the points of Luke’s story, part the reason he includes it, is, I think, to emphasize this fact. That it is in gathering together, through Scripture, and through breaking of bread that Jesus – the risen Lord – is revealed to us.

Scripture says that we are the body of Christ, and all of us are corporately members of him, and we that we meet with him here. I’m not saying that this is the only thing we should be doing: a life modelled on Jesus will have plenty of time of personal prayer and spiritual discipline to help us to tune into Jesus and his ongoing action in the world. But there is something central to our faith about gathering together.

In fact, what this quarantine experience reveals to me, and, I imagine, to you too, is the importance of physical presence. That, vital as our digital lifelines to one another are, they are not the same. That our faith is a physical, visceral, embodied thing. Meeting digitally is better than not meeting at all, and we have to do what we can to reach out to those who can’t meet with us like this. But I devoutly look forward to us begin able to physically gather together to share a meal or a cup of post-service tea.

But, nonetheless, even here, even in our homes, gathered around the bluish light of our computer screens, or reading this sermon on our own, in what Peter might call our “time of exile”, we are still gathered together, and the risen Christ still meets us.

This will one day be over. Jesus rose from his tomb. Jonah was spat out of the fish. This time of waiting will be over.

Let me give Scripture the last word. This is a slight paraphrase of our first reading, from the first letter of Peter. “Now that [we] have purified [our] souls by [our] obedience to the truth so that [we] have genuine mutual love, [let us] love one another deeply from the heart [because we] have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”[2]

A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA via Zoom on 22/4/2020 for the Third Sunday in Easter, mainly on Luke 24:13-35

[1] John 19:25, assuming that John’s Clopas and Luke’s Cleopas are the same person

[2] 1 Peter 1:22-23

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

One reply on “Emmaus Road”

Thank you for the thoughts about our difficulty recognizing that Jesus is trying to get our attention in all this. And I liked: “the importance of physical presence. That, vital as our digital lifelines to one another are, they are not the same.”

I worked with high school students before this, a semi-retired teaching assistant in geometry and algebra classes, and my take on the attempted distance learning is that the teacher-student relationship of give-and-receive cannot be simulated or televised – as well as the in-classroom setting.

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