Sunday, May 4, 2014

God's Mystery Machine

13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from 14and talking 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
with each other about all these things that had happened.

28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
photo from picgifs clip art

As I was reading the Road to Emmaus story over and over again this week, it reminded me of a cartoon that I used to enjoy watching as a child. I wasn’t too big on cartoons, except, I really liked Scooby Doo. Every week, the gang loaded into their van called the Mystery Machine to solve a case. Every week
Scooby and the gang were faced with a new problem that they always managed to solve.

Now, I don’t want to spoil things for you but there’s a rumor that the person responsible for the shenanigans in Scooby Doo is often the first person that Scooby and the gang encounter. The person who explains the mysterious happenings and the last one they suspect. I don’t know if that rumor is true or not, but I can’t help but thinking that the Road to Emmaus story is similar.

The road walkers know that Jesus has been crucified. They know that the tomb is empty. There is a mystery. But what they don’t know is that the man they encounter, they man who seems to know nothing about the events, is actually the resurrected Jesus. He is the last person that they expect to encounter as they walk dejectedly out of Jerusalem. After swapping stories the mystery of what happened to Jesus' body is solved. In the breaking of bread they recognize the man with them is Jesus. Then poof. He’s gone again—vanishing from their sight.

Comparing the Road to Emmaus story to a child’s cartoon may seem a bit simplistic, but when a story’s structure is so easy to understand that it works for children, that structure is powerful. When a story structure is so common that its found in cartoons and the Bible, it generally reveals something basic about our human nature.  The Road to Emmaus story and Scooby Doo reveal something that is deeply embedded in our humanity. 

In the face of mystery, we want answers.  In the midst of chaos we want order. When big things happen in our lives, we gather together and talk about them over and over again, telling stories and making meaning.

We do this when someone dies. We gather at funeral home to formally honor them and gather around a meal to tell stories about their life. We do this when we have babies, new moms tell the birth stories over and over again. Even after twenty years, I’ll still tell you the stories about the birth of my kids or the traumas of parenting young children.  

The road walkers are talking about what happened in Jerusalem. They are trying to make sense of it when Jesus approaches them and asks what they are talking about. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 

Ironically, Jesus is the only one who actually does know what took place over the last three days. 

Cleopas asks him how he could be so clueless when in reality it is Cleopas who is clueless. And so they swap stories. First Cleopas tells the story of the last days of  Jesus’ life and the mystery of the missing body. Then Jesus tells the age-old story of God and Israel. Jesus reveals the scriptures about himself.  Jesus puts their story in theological context. He shows them how to make sense of the events in their lives.

This is the way we make meaning of our lives. We live though an event, share it with other people and then we try to figure out why it happened or what it means.

On the road to Emmaus the travelers were talking about death and empty tombs. The reveal WHAT happened. Jesus explains WHY it happened.

It’s like our brains are wired for this bigger picture, to understand why things happen. Sometimes though, we don’t have all the answers and so we stay in story mode. We tell the same story over and over again trying to make sense of it. There’s nothing bad about that. It’s just us. It’s an ongoing process to try to figure out life—and death.

I’m guessing that’s why you go to church. You are living the story of your life. You are experiencing the day-to-day events—some good, some bad, some mundane. But you come here to church because you want to know how to put those events in context. What do the scriptures say about your life? About your story?  Who are you in relation to God? Where do you fit in God’s story?

We already know what happens in the Road to Emmaus story, so we see what the main characters don’t: Jesus is the stranger with them. It’s not until they have a meal that they realize that Jesus is present. The Bible says: 

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

It was through ritual of a meal together that they recognized Christ among them. When we hear those words—he took the bread blessed, broke it and gave it we, too, recognize Christ in the ritual. It’s a reminder of the mystery of our faith—that Christ died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.

We gather around the communion table and tell the same story that's been told over thousands of years. The sacrament of communion is a powerful mystery in our lives and in our faith. It’s a reminder of Christ among us, but it also lifts us into the presence of God.

Over time, we as Christians have been trying to figure out what it means. Some believe that the bread and cup are nothing but a symbol. A visible sign of the promises of God for redemption. Others believe that the bread and the juice actually become the body of Christ. 

Most of us are somewhere in the middle, believing that the sacrament is about more than just eating some plain ol' bread and having a swig of juice, yet not going as far as to believe the bread and juice actually turn in to the body of Christ. Most of us recognize a reverent holiness that accompanies communion. Many of us have felt more connected to God, or to each other or to the saints throughout history when we participate in communion.

Occasionally we feel the sacrament lift the veil between heaven and earth. Sometimes we feel our hearts burning within us. Sometimes it allows us to see Jesus more clearly. Sometimes it allows us to serve our neighbor by handing them the bread and the juice.

The sacrament of communion is a mystery, a story/act whose deep meaning we are still trying to figure out. We gather to retell God's story of salvation, to reflect on the story, to encounter each other within the story, and use it to help make sense of our lives.

Sometimes this retelling causes us to change or turn around as the men on the road to Emmaus did. At the beginning of the story they were heading away from Jerusalem, back to their homes. But after their encounter with Jesus they turn and head back to Jerusalem, joining the disciples there. 

Once they recognize the resurrected Jesus, they have a new story to tell--and some more figuring out to do. Their experience with Christ links them to something bigger than themselves. It links them to the remaining apostles. It hooks them in to a bigger story. Returning to Jerusalem to the community of new believers gives them a group of people who could help them make sense of their new experience.

As a community of believers we gather for worship to glorify God. But we also gather for that guidance Jesus offered on the road to Emmaus--making sense of events in light of scripture. We gather to make sense of our lives. We tell our stories. We evaluate our lives in light of our faith. We seek to interpret our lives in light of the scriptures. We break bread together to celebrate Christ in our midst.

Like the travelers on the road to Emmaus, our encounters with Christ change the directions of our lives. Our encounters may call us deeper into our community. It may give us insight as to why things are happening. It may warm our hearts and inspire us to share the good news that in Jesus Christ we are loved and forgiven.
 Will we achieve complete understanding? Will we solve the mystery? Not in this lifetime. 

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