by William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia
Lectionary: Luke 24:13-35
What a wonderful story! It celebrates Easter. It invites participation. It is in the best sense a faith legend. The risen Jesus appears and just as suddenly disappears. We are not in the realm of a literal understanding of resurrection which would have Jesus brought back to life (like Lazarus) and living a normal life. It is not that Jesus was hiding behind the bushes and slipped in behind and then beside these two disciples while they were walking with his face half veiled to avoid recognition. It was not that he slipped out the door later while they were not looking.
Luke invites us to imagine something more mysterious: a materializing and dematerializing risen Jesus who makes appearances and then vanishes. This was consistent with how the early traditions understood Jesus’ resurrection - and ours. It is the same person, embodied, but now transformed or transfigured into a new way of being and being embodied. Paul speaks of it in 1 Corinthians 15 as being a spiritual body.
Whatever actual experience may lie behind the story, it is now an invitation. It invites us to join the journey. A nice creative tension develops as they wander down the road. It arises because according to 24:1-12 the reports of the women had not convinced the disciples. So Luke’s congregations, hearing the story, know the resurrection has taken place. They (and we) comprehend a good deal more about what had happened than they did. We want to tell them - climb up on stage and whisper what we know or shout it! Already the story is inviting affirmation.
Then Jesus comes on the scene. Luke probably intends us to imagine some divine control preventing recognition, rather than a ploy on the part of Jesus. This enhances the dramatic effect: their conversation prompts us even more to mount the stage. It is an interesting conversation for what it does, in fact, say. These disciples were hoping that Jesus would bring liberation for Israel. That hope took many forms, some military, some peaceful, but it underlies all of Luke’s story. It is already the theme of the songs of Mary and Zechariah in the birth narratives. The disciples will press the same question in Acts 1:6, "Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Far from being a stupid question, there or here, it expresses what remains a central hope for Luke. Luke envisages a future which brings peace and liberation for Israel and all peoples: "Peace on earth!" "Good news for the poor" will become a reality.
Luke has constructed the story so that we really do want to jump into the conversation, but he is also inviting us to listen to Jesus: the suffering of the Liberator was not tragic derailment of the hope, but part of it and meant to be. This is confusing to anyone believing in the military model. Luke invites us to think alternatively. By the time Jesus is about to leave them, we have rehearsed the resurrection story. The disciples repeat what we know from 24:1-12 and Jesus describes his journey through hardship to glory, a motto for human life which was widely revered at the time. But Luke’s Jesus will not stop there, but will come to achieve the goal of liberation, however that is imagined (Acts 1:11 imagines it as the reverse of the ascension, not unlike Paul in 1 Thess 4:16-17).
The conversation might have been enough. I wonder if Luke’s people would have heard echoes of Jesus’ wanting to walk on past the boat on Galilee (Mark 6:48) or of its inspiration: Yahweh’s walking on past Moses on Sinai and revealing only a little? Traditional hospitality ethic prevails and Jesus joins them for a meal. We and Luke’s hearers know much more is at stake. Countless generations have seen in the breaking of the bread an allusion to their own Eucharists - probably rightly so. If you were hearing the whole of Luke at one sitting, it would have been only five minutes or so earlier that you would have heard of the events of the last meal. I am sure the effect of Luke’s story for some would have been that they, too, would have acclaimed: Christ is with us, too, whenever we break bread - and rightly so.
The surreality of the invisible man invites us beyond preoccupation with historical reconstruction to engagement with ourselves and Christ’s presence in our own communities. Luke’s Easter legend is pointing to an abiding reality and inviting us to the same journey and the same table. When Luke reports their realization that their hearts were burning, he doubtless wants us to be able to affirm the same, both as we understand scripture and as we hear his story and gospel. His story needs his gospel for its setting; and the whole needs the hope for liberation as its context, without which it could just be like any other religious ‘high’ or warmed heart feeling and serve to distract us from the vision of change.
The final paragraph of today’s passage brings our story back to where Luke knows it all began: "The Lord is risen indeed and has appeared to Simon" (24:34). Paul also knows very early tradition which lists Peter’s vision first (1 Cor 15:3-5). Mark appears to know Peter’s role similarly (16:7). If historical, the experience of the women at the tomb is earlier still and may be unlisted for reasons of male myopia. Myopia is not in dispute, but in this case the historicity is. More importantly Luke is connecting us back to the tradition and deliberately using a very old affirmation. He has been telling the Emmaus story to engage with this risen Christ. If we could not mount the stage and join the conversation, at least we can join the meal and share the hope for transformation which it embodies - and pours out.
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