A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter preached online by David Barton on 26 April 2020.
Luke’s beautifully crafted story of the road to Emmaus pivots around the idea of the stranger. It’s very familiar. So much so that we don’t always pick up the differences in attitudes towards strangers between our society, and the society of ancient Israel. In our society the idea of the stranger has negative connotations. It was not so long ago that a campaign aimed at keeping schoolchildren safe had the strap line “Stranger Danger”. And more recently those of different nationality and language in our society have been subject to negative political comment and even direct hostility. But in the world of today’s gospel strangers deserved respect. Stranger was the technical term for a gentile who accepted the teaching of Judaism.. It was remembered that Abraham received the promise of God from three strangers. And Jacob wrestled with a mysterious stranger at the Ford of Jabbok to be named the father of a great nation.
All of this feeds into Luke’s story and perhaps explains why the disciples are ready to share their deepest anxieties with this mysterious stranger. And why they stay with him. Because he is an awkward presence. It’s not so much that he doesn’t know what has happened in Jerusalem over the previous days, as that he reads these events disconcertingly differently. He is out of step with them, his clarity countering their confusion. But as the journey progresses they find themselves drawn in, their steps gradually measuring with his.
When they get to Emmaus they persuade him to stay with them, though it seems he must go on. Other things to do, even though it’s late. He stays, and, surprisingly, he, the invited guest assumes the role of host, presiding at the meal they share together. He breaks the bread. And in that breaking their minds are broken open and at last they see clearly. It is as if in this moment everything is given back, made new. All is simple, as plain as the bread on the table. Indeed night becomes day because “in that hour” they take the long walk back to Jerusalem to share the good news, a place they were once glad to leave. But it has already arrived. The stranger did have other things to do.
In that last scene Luke wants us to see the persistence of God’s compassion, which follows us wherever we go. But the story is also about the counterintuitive, unexpected nature of resurrection faith. This stranger forces an uneasy conversation about suffering. He won’t let us divide experience into good moments and bad moments. It is all one whole to him. Darkness and light to him are both alike. The disciples must look again at the cross, and the sense of loss and abandonment they feel. They are not alone. Even though they do not recognise him, he is there …with them,. That’s reality, their blindness is not. “You were with me, and I was not with you,” Augustine writes in the Confessions. A line for all of us. So many of our certainties are really illusions. Christ comes to shatter them, so that we might see.We can’t forget of course that these times are hard, and for some people they are dark indeed. This narrative grows out of just such darkness. But Luke wants us to let ourselves to be ambushed by the great simple truths: light is greater than darkness, there is nowhere Christ is not. Resurrection is the life changing moment when we recognise that and allow its light to flood in. In his Confessions Augustine goes on to say, “You were radiant and resplendent, and you put to flight my blindness”.