Rev. Rebecca Stelle, Becoming Church
Guest Preacher at New Community Church,
Sunday April 30, 2017
Luke 24: 13-25
When the anticipation of celebration is upended by grief, people are traumatized. Think of November 9 of last year- Do you remember the emotion which has now largely subsided? On November 8, millions of people were poised to celebrate a win, and the next day, millions were outraged, terrified, offended, bewildered and humiliated. Even if you weren’t one of them, can you viscerally recall the intensity of that expectation gone wrong?
As they did each year, pilgrims descended on Jerusalem for Passover. This year, some were also excited to catch a glimpse of Jesus, the charismatic, brilliant, prophetic revolutionary from Nazareth. What a fun holiday weekend! And then, three days later, the holiday at which they intended to both commemorate liberation past and anticipate liberation to come was upended by a mockery of justice and the lynching of their promising leader. Even now, the slain leader’s friends were hiding for fear of their lives. Not what they had expected. Can you feel the visceral intensity of that?
“Two of them,” Luke says— which means two of the people who hung out with Jesus and the disciples (some think it was two men; others suppose it was a married couple; one of them was named Cleopas)— are now headed home to Emmaus, seven miles away. Like other Passover pilgrims who wouldn’t have traveled on the Sabbath, Cleo-plus-one are traveling on Sunday afternoon- three days, by their count, after the crucifixion. On their way home, they are doing a lot of processing. They must feel disoriented, dejected, humiliated, angry and scared.
It is not out of order for another traveler to saddle up and join the conversation, but apparently his opening line, “Hey, what are you guys talking about?” is startling.
And so Cleo-plus-one respond: [per scripture’s account, they first stop in their tracks and look sad]… [and then, per my transliteration]: “Wait. Are you the only Passover pilgrim who doesn’t know? Did you hear that Kennedy was shot? That Dr. King was killed? That the Twin Towers fell? What do you mean, what are we talking about?”
And then the two break it down for the stranger: “Israel is under Roman occupation. It isn’t going well. We have had our hopes on this guy from Nazareth. But over the weekend, the guy was killed. What’s worse, it was an inside job. We had hoped he could liberate Israel, but our own religious leaders- our own chief priests- had him set up and knocked off on Friday, in cahoots with the Roman state. Completely crushing. And then it got weirder. This morning, the women told us that the body went missing. They said angels were involved. Some say he’s alive but he seemed pretty dead the other day. A few of us checked the tomb before we left town, and sure enough, the body is gone, but no one has seen the Nazarene alive. Anyway, that’s what happened. Happy Passover, dude.”
I don’t know about you, but I can’t come down too hard on Cleopas and his friend. I can feel their pain and would’ve given an inquiring stranger a similar report. I would not have said, “It was a decent weekend- Our friend got violently mob murdered by our priests, but he was expecting it, so we respect that.” I would have been much more, [Stop; Look sad] “We are crushed.”
But Jesus— who is the stranger walking with them, only they don’t know that yet— does not appreciate their spin. And Jesus does not let them off the hook. He proceeds to school them in what’s up. “Look, you knuckleheads. You say you want liberation, and there is only one way to liberation. Together, we are on the way.”
Neither “non-violent action” nor “the way of the cross” are terms that had been invented yet, but that’s what Jesus is talking about. He is talking about the non-violent way of God, carried by the power of the Spirit.
(My interpretation of) Jesus continues: “You are grieving as if this story is over. But let’s be clear: Receiving the blows of a violent empire does not shut down a non-violent/Holy Spirit-led strategy. Receiving the blows of a violent empire is a critical component to advancing a non-violent/Holy Spirit strategy. The violence had to happen- Rejoice and be glad! This game is on!
“If you don’t believe me,” incognito Jesus says, “Consider scripture: Isaiah doesn’t look for an arsenal to free Israel from exile, but for one who can receive blows of violence—a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief, who was despised and not esteemed. According to our own tradition, the Liberator is not one who fights violently, but one who lays down his life; who shames the violence of the system by exposing it for what it is.”
(Jesus probably didn’t say this part, but I’m pretending he did: ) “What happened the other day will never be called Fun Friday because it was not fun. But Good Friday will be forever remembered as redemptive and good because on the cross, divine love endured the worst of human violence and hate, and came out strong, still loving. Good Friday + Easter Sunday = Love wins.”
“You, friends, are slow of heart to trust what the scripture says. Didn’t the Nazarene tell you it had to happen this way? What I’m trying to say is: Yes, we are at rock bottom. But do not confuse rock bottom with the end of the story. Rock bottom is necessary. Despair of ourselves is where trust in God begins.”
Jesus sneaks up on us. Sometimes Jesus sneaks up on us physically, incognito- in an exchange, in a walk along the road. That happens.
But that’s not the only way he sneaks up on us. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus sneaks up alongside, but he also sneaks up from the inside, as through the layers of an onion. Rather than peeling off the layers of an onion, imagine how we layer them on: “This is hard,” is one layer. Another layer is, “That sucks.” And then, “A bad thing is going to happen.” “Jesus died.” “Our priests did it.” “All hope is gone.” We bury ourselves under layer upon heavy layer. We can’t get out.
But Jesus, who lives at the center of every onion, has the crazy, God-given capacity of the Holy Spirit to sneak up on us, go “Bam!” and obliterate the onion! All of a sudden, it’s just us and Jesus. He does that sometimes!
Jesus sneaks up on us from the center of the onion of our being when he says to us, “It had to be this way.” Jesus doesn’t say, “It had to be this way,” as in, “You just weren’t able to pull it off,” nor is he saying, “You two were never a good match anyway.” Jesus isn’t saying, “It had to be this way,” as in, “Meh, sour grapes,” or, “You should’ve prayed harder,” or, “Everybody has to eat dirt from time to time.” Any of those lines would be adding layers of onion to our darkness, and that’s not what Jesus is doing.
Neither is Jesus saying, “It had to be this way,” as in, “My Father needed me to be killed in order to satisfy his thirst for justice against human sin,” Anselm’s thousand-year old, violent premise notwithstanding. God is less violent, and more creative and resourceful than that.
When Jesus says, “It had to be this way,” what he is saying is, “Just like there is exactly one road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, so is there is exactly one road from the sin of spiritual darkness and all its psycho/socio-implications to the gift of enduring freedom and abundant life. It is the road of death and resurrection. I have gone before you on that road. And now, Cleo-plus-one, you are on it. Don’t fight it. It’s inevitable that we pass this way.
“The road is costly. It’s both joyful and poignant. The road is long and bumpy and dirty. On this road, relationships are blessings, and relationships are complicated—especially relationships between us and the dominant culture. You will have a yoke and a burden on this road, and sometime they will feel cruel and heavy. And at the same time, the yoke will be easy, and the burden light.
“This is the road! It is the strategic road of non-violence and Holy Spirit. It is the Turn the Other Cheek Road. It is, Forgive Them, They Don’t Know What They Do.
“It has to be this way. You are right where you should be. Take the next step.”
In our congregation’s work with mass incarceration, we are trying to figure out what it looks like to follow Jesus as relates to our nation’s broken system of justice. What is clear is that we need to create public systems that practice restorative justice. Then we will need to employ non-violent methods in order to persuade the dominant culture to use the systems and methods that restore people, instead of the retributive methods that do further harm. Given how many profit off of the entrenched retributive system, we may need something like King’s bus boycott in Montgomery to change hearts and minds toward restorative practices. Maybe, for instance, those who have been incarcerated will be led to go on a strike. But whatever we are led to do, we will need to be clear up front: If we use non-violence/Holy Spirit guidance to oppose sin’s system, there will be consequences. We should expect to be spat upon, reviled, mocked and punished. Expect to be re-incarcerated. As we endure the consequences of opposing the empire, it will appear- as to Cleopas- that injustice has prevailed. Our onions will be tempted.
For Jesus, the consequences of non-violent, Holy Spirit action were many, with a crowing consequence of a rigged death sentence. When the Body of Christ participates in God’s saving work, unpleasant consequences- along with a host of joys and blessings- are precisely what we are signing up for. Resurrection is on the other side. The only way is through.
Incognito Jesus schools the two on all this, and finally the three get to Emmaus where Jesus accepts their hospitality. At the Emmaus meal, the guest becomes the host. It is safe to imagine that Cleopas and his companion were in that upper room a few days earlier, when Jesus took the bread, broke it, blessed it and said to his friends, “This Passover meal- this unleavened Passover bread- this symbol of liberation is me. When you eat it, remember me.” But after all the drama, the layers are thick. No one has that moment in mind. Cleopas and his companion come away from the weekend in Jerusalem feeling completely devastated, meet a guy who causes their hearts to burn within, who challenges them to keep hope alive, and who, at the table, takes the bread, breaks it, blesses it and is revealed to them as the Liberator they had given up for dead.
We bury Jesus again and again. Sometimes the limits of the grave and the layers of our onions are indistinguishable. Jesus’ capacity to break through either can seem equally unlikely. But Jesus does it- He transcends the limits of his own death; he transcends the limits of our despair, and he offers himself again and again as a celebratory liberation meal. Wow- Passover accomplished.
And then he’s gone.
When Cleopas and his companion realized what had happened, they couldn’t help it. Minds blown, spirits lit, they got up and ran back to Jerusalem. Jesus had snuck up on them. They had to tell somebody.
When Jesus sneaks up on you and on me—incognito, in unpredictable ways—the grit from the road, the morning’s grave dirt on our hands and the scraps of exploded onion on the table will make for a messy meal. But in hindsight, we will know it had been him. Our hearts will have been ignited. Layers of grief will, in that moment, be undone. The Liberator we thought was out of the running turns out to be ahead of us, setting the table for freedom and paving the way for us to follow. Minds blown, spirits lit, we will be encouraged again to take another step on the only road that gets us there.
As crazy as it all is, we will have to run and tell somebody.