A Mission From God
For Immanuel Presbyterian Church, April, 2005
Text: Luke 24:13-33a
I saw the first Star Wars, what we now know as “Episode IV” 13 times…
The summer it opened, I was 12 and it was the last summer that I could get in the child price: $1.25. Since that summer I’m sure that I’ve seen it more than a hundred more times. I know that movie backwards and forwards. From “There’ll be no escape for the princess this time” to “You’re all clear kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home!” I know that movie.
Since that summer, I’ve learned much more, I know about the last of the V-8 Interceptors and that “if you want out of here, you talk to me.” I know that “it’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.”
I’ve learned important life lessons like: “never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line,” That “when someone asks if you’re a god, you say yes” and that if anyone ever asks “are you Sarah Conner?” you say no.
“I think that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” that “you just put your lips together an blow,” “we’re not in Kansas, anymore.”
I know all about “the Knights Who Say ‘Ni,’” and sometimes I think “of the immortal words of Socrates, when he said, ‘I drank what?’” I know that “I never wanted to do this…I wanted to be a lumberjack.” And most of all, I know that “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
In short, I’ve spent my life immersed in American popular culture. I’m a child of the movies and of television. I’m sure that one or more of those quotes rang a bell with some of you and set off a whole series of associations about not just the movie that they came from, but about your life, where you were when you first heard them, and the times that you’ve slipped them into conversation. We appropriate these lines into our lives; we use them as a kind of short hand, because we all know them, often even if we’ve never even seen the movie. I’ve never seen On The Waterfront, but I know that “I could have been a contender, I could have been someone.”
We do the same thing with the Bible; we take parts of it and bring them into out lives.
For many of us it starts with childhood, with our big illustrated books of Bible stories. We learn the exciting ones first, David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Moses and Pharaoh. And we learn the basics, The Garden of Eden, a kind of blended Christmas narrative, The Easter story, then maybe some fun ones like Zacchaeus up in that tree, or Joseph.
Many of these stories are so familiar that they’ve become part of our culture, people who’ve never been to church know about David and Goliath, and who hasn’t seen The Ten Commandments one of the million times that it has run on ABC?
And then, just like the movies, there are the quotes that everyone knows: “In the Beginning,” “The Lord is my Shepherd,” “To everything there is a season,” and “For God so loved the world.”
But, while it’s great to know about the Bible, I think that there is a danger in playing with it like we do with movie quotes, a danger of becoming too comfortable with the texts, a danger of thinking we know exactly what it is that the story is about, and it is especially dangerous when we think that we know the text so well that we know exactly what we are supposed to learn from it, how to interpret it.
In today’s scripture, we see two examples of these dangers.
First, we have Cleopas and his friend. They were both good Jews who knew their scriptures as well as the next man. Because of the political situation of the Roman occupation, like many of their time, they were especially familiar with the prophesies and other writings about the messiah who was going to come and redeem Israel. They knew exactly what those texts meant and exactly what that savior was going to look like.
They had thought that this Jesus was that man, but then everything fell apart.
Jesus refused to lead the crowd against the hated Romans, The priests of the temple rejected him, and worst of all, he died, not only that, but he died on a cross, the worst, lowest way to die. Didn’t the texts say, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree?” How could we be so wrong about him? He seemed like he was the one. What are we going to do now? What’s going to happen to us? And what is that those women were talking about? What happened?
So, the protagonists of today’s story are stuck in an interpretive rut. Unable to break out of what they “know” about the coming messiah. Unable to look with new eyes and to see the new thing that God was doing in their lives and in the world.
But, there is a second place today where we encounter the danger of thinking that we exactly what a text is about.
We see it in our culture today. I bet that, when you heard me say that today’s text was the walk to Emmaus, some of you immediately knew exactly what I was going to say, what this sermon was going to be about.
This story has definitely been co-opted by our culture to mean one thing. This is about a personal faith journey.
If I was going to give the set sermon for the Road to Emmaus, I would talk about a time in my life when I felt lost and adrift, when I really struggled with where God was and where I was going. But, then when I got to the end of that time, I would have a great revelation about how God was there with me and had been through out the whole journey. And I would then talk about how that had changed my life forever, and how it could change yours, too
There is nothing wrong with that sermon. I could preach that sermon and I could tell you that story, just from the last six months of my life. And my finding God at the end of it would be true.
No, there is absolutely nothing wrong with interpreting the road to Emmaus that way. The problem starts when that becomes the only way that we interpret it. The problem starts when we close our minds to the power of the Holy Spirit to show us the text in new ways.
Then we have the same problem that Cleopas and his friend had. They knew the texts and the stories so well, and knew so well how they should be interpreted that they were blind to the fact that God was doing a new thing. Something different was happening, but they couldn’t see it.
It wasn’t until they met this stranger on the way who explained it all to them that they began to understand.
For us today, maybe it will help to make a conscious effort to let go of how we have always looked at the text.
For me, one obvious way to go would be to let go of our personal, individual viewpoint and ask what this text tells us about the church and about its relationship to the world.
And I think that the lesson for the church is the same as it was for the two travelers and for us as individuals: We should never stop looking for the new things that God is doing in the church and in the world. As the church travels down this road, it must always be looking at itself and what it is called to be, but it also always needs to be looking out into the world to see what God’s mission for the church is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “the church is the church only when it exists for others.”
The church can never become complacent that we know exactly what God is doing in the world, or even that we know exactly what the bible says and means. We must always be willing to look with new eyes and with hearts and minds that are receptive to the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.
Now, I imagine that some may ask, “Do we have to accept every idea that comes down the road? Does this mean that there’ll never be anything solid that we can hold on to?”
My answer would be to quote Paul and say, “mh genoito” mh genoito is a handy Greek phrase that your pew Bibles translate as “may it never be so.” But which Charlie Cousar, New Testament Professor Emeritus at Columbia translates as “not just no, but hell no.”
No, we don’t have to accept everything that comes down the road. What we do have to accept is that our journey down the road never ends. We always need to remember that we always need to be moving on.
Cleopas and his friend needed to go and tell what they had seen. We in our lives need always to be looking for where God is working now in our lives and where God is leading us for the future. And as the Church, we need to always be asking those same questions.
It sounds really very tiring doesn’t it? Never being able to stop, always need to look forward, always looking for the new thing. It makes me tired just thinking about it.
Well, fortunately for us, the text gives us some help there too. For the two travelers, it was a revelation of who their traveling companion really was. For us and for the church, it is the first celebration of Communion, God’s eternally new gift to us and to the church.
Just as the two men in the text saw Jesus revealed in the breaking of the bread, with each celebration of the Eucharist, we are brought anew into the presence of our Lord and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
What could be a better rest stop along the way? What could be better to recharge us, to give us strength and comfort, and to send us back out into the world to say “we’re on a mission from God?”