Experiencing Life in the Midst of Death
In today’s gospel, we are reminded of the joy of the Easter Season, the promise and fullness of the resurrection, and yet, in the midst of this season of joy, we still experience the breathtaking swiftness of death and grief. This week we were struck by the news of the sudden death of our dear friend Chris Wells. Our security specialist and our ear to the ground in the community, as he liked to say.
This kind of grieving, this deep place of pain in us, at first seems to be in conflict with the joy of the season, but today’s Gospel, more than just celebrating the joy of the resurrection, call us deeper into this tension of experiencing life in the midst of death. It calls us to something more than our own ability to explain why things happen and to understand them. It calls us, on this day, when we find ourselves very clearly in the space between life and death, to a much closer examination of our grief and our deepest places of pain and sorrow.
Today we meet two disciples, not two of the twelve that we know so well, but two professed followers of Jesus all the same. They, like so many others, had come to Jerusalem the week before to celebrate Passover and had probably welcomed Jesus into town with rousing calls of Hosanna. They had then, just days later, stood in stunned sorrow as they watched the one in whom they had put so much hope be bound, and mocked and crucified. And just like that, it was breathtakingly, swiftly, over. They had then woken up those three days later to the shouts of women returning from the tomb, bringing news that the body of their beloved prophet, teacher and friend was gone. And then, just as quickly as they had entered a week before, full of hope and gladness for the coming feast, they packed up their things and started back on the day long journey to their home in Emmaus. Turning away from Jerusalem, now a place of deep personal grief and pain and sadness.
We all know this kind of deep, gut-wrenching pain. It weaves its way in and out of our lives, and leaves behind these deep pools of sadness and sorrow within us. So what are we to do with these deep reservoirs of pain and grief? Well, we can start by looking to the Gospel, because the story of these two men’s deep sadness doesn’t end with them walking away dejected and hopeless. We need to pay close attention to their journey, because their journey tells us something important about our journey.
First, these two disciples set out on their journey trying to move away from the tragedy and pain that just took place in their lives. In the immediate aftermath, they put all of their energy into discussing what had just happened, and trying to put the unthinkable into some framework that they can understand.
Then they are met on the road by a mysterious figure who has no idea about what has happened, much less any answers to help them understand it. After explaining their tragedy in great detail, and all of its implications for their hopes for their lives and their salvation, they are implored by this stranger to pay attention to what they have been told and shown in the past. The person reiterates the message of Jesus, and explains how this has all been part of the plan. He tries to explain to them that salvation doesn’t look like what they were expecting it to. They recognize the truth of what he is saying and they can feel their hearts burning inside of their chests as he explains it all to them.
When the disciples reach Emmaus, their original destination, this person appears to be continuing beyond the village, which prompts the two disciples to urge him to stay with them and they invite him into their home. When they are inside, their mysterious companion breaks bread and blesses it, and their eyes are opened and they recognize this person to be the risen Christ. Then, as soon as they recognize who this figure is, he vanishes, become invisible, and all they know to do is run back to Jerusalem as fast as they can, in that same hour, a trip that had taken them almost all day, and tell the others what they had experienced.
So what does this journey teach us about our journey? It shows us that on our own spiritual journey from pain to wholeness God will do almost all of the work. God will find us, walk with us, open up truth to us and set our hearts on fire. God will even walk with us all the way to the place we think we need to go, to the place we first set out for. The place we thought we needed to go to heal, and get away from the pain.
What we find out on the way, though, is that our journey is not just about being able to understand and explain everything, where we can put it in a little box and feel in control. This kind of security is fleeting, and only serves to separate us further from our inner reality. Nor is our journey just about knowing everything there is to know about Scripture and the ins and outs of our faith tradition, though there is certainly truth in them that sets our hearts burning in our chests, and reminds us of the promises of peace, joy and freedom set before us.
These are important steps on the journey, but, by the grace of God, what we find is that there is no healing, no transformation without an experience of intimacy and communion with God. As Christ prompts an invitation from the disciples to stay in their homes, so are we compelled to invite God to abide in our innermost dwelling place, to be in communion with us one on one in love and intimacy. At some point it is up to us to invite God in and in that invitation, God works in our most inward parts and somehow opens our eyes to the reality of Christ sitting right in front of us, and in us and in the world all around us, and only then do we recognize our real destination, our real mission. To venture back to Jerusalem. Back to the original place of pain and sorrow and heartache.
To dive headfirst into that pool of suffering deep within, knowing that only in that place is there truth and reality and beauty and wholeness because only there can we actually experience death, and resurrection and transformation.
And all we can do is go back there, in that same hour, without hesitation, without delay and tell everyone we can about what has been done unto us.
Because while our suffering is truly painful and hurts deeply, it is also the beginning of our journey to back to God and to ourselves. It is only through suffering that we are able to realize the infinite reach of this Christ mystery that has been with us all along, the truth of the promise of death and resurrection in everything around us. Because, maybe, when the disciples recognized the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread, it wasn’t that he disappeared and went somewhere else, but that the illusion of Christ being separate from everything around him was stripped away and they finally recognized Christ in everything, not just in the person of Jesus, but in the very room they were sitting in, in all of creation and in every person they met on their journey back to Jerusalem. A journey they knew they had to make, because of all the places they finally recognized Christ, it was in that place of suffering that they recognized him the most. See, this was never the story of the road to Emmaus, it is was always the story of the road back to Jerusalem.
A road that we don’t just travel once, but that we must make take over and over again, as we continually heal and suffer and heal and suffer. And it is through this suffering that slowly God works with us, and breaks down our walls, and meets us in our inner depths of pain and sorrow, and reveals to us God’s presence in ourselves and in everything around us. Travelling back and forth between Jerusalem and Emmaus. Back and forth from suffering to transformation, from forgetting to recognizing to forgetting again. Always trying to leave our wounds behind and always realizing that it is only through those same wounds that we are ever healed. So, today, as we continue to feel the pain of losing our dear brother, Chris, and knowing that there is still more unknown suffering that the future will bring, let us walk together on this long, familiar, well-worn road to Emmaus, remembering God’s promise that we will always find grace sufficient to lead us back to Jerusalem.