What do you do when it all gets too much for you? For some of us, it’s comfort-food ... I’m a bit too fond of pasta for my own good, and if you see me tucking into a super-size bowl of spaghetti marinara it’s a sure sign there’s something I’m not dealing with. In the old black and white Hollywood tear-jerkers, if he did something wrong she’d be back home to mother. Home can be a good place to go when you just need to be yourself. In all my favourite UK soapies it’s the pub, the place to hide out and drown your sorrows, for a lot of Aussie males it’s the back shed but the point is we all have our own variation on the theme, our own way of retreating into ourselves when it all gets too hard, the place we go for reassurance or just avoidance, and for two of Jesus’ followers this morning, it’s Emmaus.
There’s an old saying that a journey implies hope – the act of going somewhere means you hope for something when you get there, but for Cleopas and his companion – maybe Mrs Cleopas since in the Gospels the ones without names are so often women – for these two the only real hope seems to be that of retreat, trying to put some distance between themselves and everything that had gone wrong, trying to forget the hopes and dreams of the last few years that had suddenly and unaccountably turned to ashes, putting some distance between themselves and the shame of their own failure in the horrifying last week of Jesus’ life. We don’t really know where Emmaus is, archaeologists tell us there are three possible sites for the ancient village of Emmaus, within a day’s walk from Jerusalem – perhaps Emmaus was for these two the first stop on the long journey home to Galilee, the backwater region of fishing and subsistence farming they had left to follow Jesus.
Writer Frederick Buechner talks about the ways we try to find a place, an Emmaus, to run to when we have lost hope or don't know what else to do - a place of escape, of forgetting, of giving up, of deadening our senses and our minds and maybe our hearts, too. We go to Emmaus when we can’t endure the wild burden of hope any longer, and each of us, Buechner claims, has our own variation on where Emmaus is. For some, Emmaus might even be in church – a place not of vitalisation and re-invigoration but of anaesthetisation.
Like all of the resurrection stories, today’s Gospel reading follows a powerful theme – the experience of a community, of believers, doubters, and strugglers gathering together and breaking apart, coming together again and telling the stories of their experiences, sharing their memories of Jesus – a powerful mix of self-pity and shame, nostalgia and fear and the glimmer of understanding that something new and unimaginable has happened to reshape and re-imagine who they are. And the resurrection stories retrace the pattern we all have to follow as people of faith – people who when everything else has fallen apart have no choice but to shine the light of Scripture on the shattering experiences of our lives in order to seek understanding, people who have no choice but to come with our unique burdens of joy and heartache and hope and despair to sit together at the table and break bread, to open our hearts to one another and receive from one another an unexpected blessing. The resurrection stories are of course the ground zero of our faith, and they tell us what our life as a Church is supposed to be.
Things have been moving too fast for Jesus’ friends. If their world has been turned upside down by the call to follow, by the simple call to be a community of faith and forgiveness, by the life-changing acts of love and compassion that Jesus has modelled for them, then think how the bottom must have dropped out of their world with his death. And they haven’t has time to absorb the shock, even as they retreat to find a place where they can think and grieve and feel again, they are interrupted by the wild and unreasonable stories of resurrection. They have been denied time to process and integrate all that has happened into their lives, to find peace and balance and seek new understanding.
If real-estate, according to the experts, is about location, location and location – then the Bible is about hospitality, hospitality, and hospitality. Time and time again ordinary men and women are transformed, see themselves and one another in a new light, encounter the God of creation through the blessing of strangers. Too often, we prefer to see hospitality as a dutiful sharing of leftovers, of whatever we can do without – the hospitality of the Bible is a fundamental openness to sharing the substance of who we are, the practice of openness to others that implies an orientation towards the future, a willingness to learn and to be changed, however painful or uncomfortable that might be. Hospitality is incompatible with complacency or self-obsession. Hospitality and openness make it possible for men and women to recognise and to share the blessings of God, to recognise on another as the bearers of God’s blessings, and to accept the vocation of being catalysts, agents of transformation. The practise of hospitality also reminds us that we belong together, increases our commitment to one another, and builds us as the body of Christ.
Some pointers towards our own practise of hospitality arise from the journey to Emmaus. We are all of course on a journey, whether we know it or not. Sometimes in our comfortable lifestyles it doesn’t much feel like we are on a journey, with its discomforts and sacrifices, but our lives are taking us in one direction or another, towards self-preoccupation or towards self-giving; towards destructive habits and debilitating anxiety or towards freedom and peace. And the Gospel tells us Jesus falls into step with the two, lost as they are in their own worry and regret. This is the first fundamental practice of hospitality – to share the journey of another, to fall into step with them and share their experience, to see the world through their eyes. As a Church, we are called to be a community of fellow travellers, people whose paths not only intersect, but who commit to travelling together. It’s a big ask, especially for a back-seat driver like me. It means listening to one another, allowing someone else to set the agenda and plan the route, to trust that in the journey together we will both get where we are going.
Jesus listens; he asks them why they are downcast, and he listens. In the Book of Job, the friends of Job are revealed as fair-weather friends, friends who aren’t prepared to go the distance, who don’t really listen to Job’s complaints and basically tell him to snap out of it, he shouldn’t be feeling this way. But of course before they even open their mouths, Job’s friends have sat with him on the ash-heap, in silence, for seven days, listening to his mute distress. If these are fair-weather friends, I wonder what that says about our modern willingness to listen to one another? Jesus listens; he hears what’s really going on for them, the anguish that comes not just from dashed hopes and disappointed expectations but from deep self-recrimination and shame. And he listens without judgement or condemnation. This is a fundamental practise of hospitality.
And then he teaches his friends. He helps them do the job of the community of faith, to open and to shine the light of the scriptures and to seek together an understanding of where God is in the experiences of our everyday lives. To deepen our faith by struggling together toward an understanding of the Word of God in scripture, and the Word of God in our own life. And this too is a mark of Christian hospitality, to open ourselves to one another in studying and being formed by the Word of God as a community.
When they reach Emmaus, the travellers need to rest, to seek refreshment, but Jesus, it seems, had set his sights on a more distant goal. Is this just politeness, to pretend you’re going further while waiting for the invitation to stay? Perhaps, but when the travellers ask him, Jesus agrees to remain with them in Emmaus for the night. Our journeys need to be interruptible. Our plans and agendas need to be interruptible so we can respond to the needs of others, and indeed, so we can be receptive to the blessings of the shared moment. This also is a mark of Christian community, a community of people who balance their individual goals and needs with the need to stay and refresh each other, to be open and receptive to one another.
And, finally, Jesus breaks bread with his fellow travellers. This, of course, is intended to remind us of the Eucharist, of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on the night before he died, and of his practice of eating and sharing the hospitality of the table that has been the consistent pattern of his ministry. The meal gives us the pattern of sharing at a deep-down organic level, the stuff of our organic, physical lives – the food that we work to put on our tables and that, for first century peasants was especially hard-won. Hospitality means the sharing of our physical resources, giving deeply of ourselves in order that others might have enough. And being formed by what we share, becoming, in a fundamental sense, what we eat together.
Jesus friends recognise him, when it comes down to it, not by what he looks like, but by what he does, by his actions that are consistent with everything that he has taught and modelled for them. That’s how it usually is, when we remember somebody we have loved, what comes to mind is not so much what they said but what they did, the actions that remind us who they were and how they expressed their love for us. It’s also how people will recognise the risen Christ in us – not because we proclaim it in words but because we proclaim it in how we live, in the practical and everyday acts of hospitality and love that identify who we really are.
And the final thing is this: when Jesus’ friends recognise him, when they recognise his risen presence with them and come to realise who they themselves are – they run. Resurrection life, when we recognise it, sends us scurrying – away from Emmaus.