The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Hello everyone. Again, if you’re just joining us this morning, the bulletin for this service is linked just below this video here. And we’re glad to have you.
We’re now in the third Sunday of Easter. Easter is a fifty-day season, sometimes called “Eastertide.” I love those old English words for our church seasons. Eastertide, Ascensiontide, Yuletide. “Tide” just means period of time, but it lends (to me) a special, festal note to the occasion. We begin Eastertide by reading some of the stories of Jesus’ appearing to the disciples after the resurrection. Last week it was his appearance to Thomas and to the twelve. The week before, Easter Day, to Mary Magdalene in the garden. Today we have one of the best-loved of the Easter appearances, the supper at Emmaus.
Two disciples, Cleopas, and another who isn’t given a name, are walking from Jerusalem to a village, Emmaus, on the evening of the resurrection. Liturgically we’re two weeks out from Easter, but in Luke’s sequence of events, we’re still on Easter Day, the evening of that day, the day of the resurrection.
As these two are walking, another man comes up alongside them. He wants to know what they’re talking about, so they tell him of the events of recent days: the trial, the crucifixion, the sighting by the women of Jesus alive that morning. When they get to their destination and are about to part ways, the two men invite their mysterious travel companion to join them for an evening meal. They sit down, the stranger breaks the bread, and it’s in that act that they realize they’ve been all this time with their friend, with Christ himself.
What a wonderful story.
In church tradition, we understand it as being about the Eucharist. When we come to this table together each week, we bless, break, and receive the bread, and in so doing, encounter our risen Lord. Any normal year, and I might say more about that. But this year, when we’re all having to fast from Communion, it’s almost too hard to go there.
More simply, though, this is a story about encountering Christ, and that can happen in many ways and in many places.
Emmaus, the holy site of Emmaus, was one of the stops on our recent parish Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was on the very last day–in fact, I think it was the day we went to the airport to fly home–so we were all pretty exhausted by then. Our bus dropped us off at a dusty roadside stop, where we followed a gravel path that led us past a gift shop (there’s always a gift shop), and then past a large wood cutout, (you know) like the kind you see at a circus or a county fair, where you put your face through the hole and it looks like you’re in someone else’s body. I found out this week on a trivia podcast that there’s a name for these: face-in-hole boards. That’s really the best they could come up with.
On this one there were three figures–Jesus in the middle, and the two disciples from the story walking on either side of him. Because one of the men in the story isn’t identified, he’s supposed to be any of us. And so that one figure had a cut out face that you were supposed to stick your head through–and voila! There you were, with Jesus and Cleopas. It was so preposterous a thing to have at a sacred site (it seemed to me) that I thought I might have dreamt it. But I went back to my photos and found this, that I took of Deacon Susie.
Susie, this is what you get for not being here!
Mind you, there were more transcendent moments at our visit to Emmaus. We did a Eucharist. We scrambled around some ancient ruins; we checked out the church on the site, not very old, but pretty, and a small museum nearby. Then we ambled back down to the gift shop before heading back to the bus.
I know that not all the pilgrims share my outlook on it, but Emmaus for me was among the least inspiring of our stops. It was raining; it was out of the way; we had a long flight ahead of us.
And besides all this, Emmaus is a spurious holy site to begin with. No one knows where it is. There are in total nine different towns that have been identified as the Biblical village Emmaus. Ancient Gospel manuscripts don’t agree on the distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus; some say seven miles, some twenty. Emmaus (moreover) was such a common place name at the time that there was confusion probably from the very beginning over where it was. The Biblical Emmaus will probably never be known.
Part of the story’s meaning lies in this very fact. One of the two men in the story has no name, because he’s supposed to be you, me. And the lack of a physical town Emmaus makes an Emmaus of anywhere. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg said of this story that “Emmaus is nowhere, because Emmaus is everywhere.” “Emmaus is nowhere, because Emmaus is everywhere.”
Emmaus is wherever we encounter our Lord. And that can be in so many places; not just one, we all know. Now more than ever we need to hear this. In this time when we’re separated from our church, and places we typically consider holy, today’s reading tells us that we can encounter Christ in many ways, and in many places. We can even encounter Christ within, because we are (in Paul’s metaphor) each of us, Temples of the living God.
Emmaus is inside. Emmaus is all around. God, in the presence of Christ, is everywhere.
Lord, especially in these times we’re living in now, open our eyes to behold your presence wherever we are. Amen.