I want to start this reflection with a very difficult story told by Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury in his book called Resurrection. It’s a story which fits into our experience of walking along the road to Emmaus. This road offers a time, place and activity with which many of us are familiar, as we journey between grief and hope, stillness and action, resistance to change and openness to transformation by Christ, on a daily basis.
We are Christians who recently shared a pilgrimage together. We were horrified by the crucifixion which took place a couple of weeks ago, and now we are gathered to celebrate once again, the resurrection and give thanks. In our recent journey experience, we know God has shown us it is possible to turn away from dead acceptance of the world as our only option. We can choose to turn away from loss and despair, into the beginnings of a restlessness, a struggle for truth and justice which has driven us, propelled us, along the road to Emmaus, seeking but not yet knowing, glimpsing, but not yet seeing clearly, and then as the resurrection reality dawns, we can live into God with passion and engagement, active in God’s kingdom leaning into eternal life.
Rowan Williams tells the story of a mother in Belfast, who noticed her teenage son was in obvious distress and fear. When questioned, he admitted he was involved with a Protestant paramilitary group which had ordered him to perform a killing locally; or face ‘execution’ himself.
While this occurred in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the times of the troubles, it’s a story familiar to any town or city, where we too can find ourselves among the killing crowd outside Pilate’s house choosing death, or wondering and hoping beyond the despair and shame of the immediate circumstances and consequences of our choices, about the news something extraordinary may have happened and do we dare to believe.
The young man’s mother was able, eventually, to say that being killed was preferable to killing. Her son, not seeing a way out of the terrible choice with which he was confronted, instead protested in the only way he was able.
That night, her son hanged himself.
Like Jesus, he saw the world in which he lived as offering intolerable and unacceptable choices; he decided not to go on abusing his humanity by colluding with what the world demanded and expected. As a working-class boy in Belfast, he could not see any other way out; but his protest, his act of refusal, fiercely protesting against collusion with the world’s violence, was an act of conversion, so tragic and so obscure, as to be barely understood as this, yet it was still a statement his mother was able to see and understand.
Her son, like Jesus, knew the choices presented by the world were not acceptable in any definition or experience of love. This young man had turned away from living in a trapped, hating and fearful world to hear his name spoken by Jesus.
The road to Emmaus which we find ourselves walking along today, is a time and place caught between knowing and not knowing the resurrected Jesus.
Two people were walking along the road, arguing between themselves, on that third day after Jesus had been murdered, and we’re told only the name of one, Cleopas. Some commentators suggest the reason the other person has no name is because, based on the evidence, the unnamed individual is a woman. Whether or not this is the case, the lack of a name allows us to be Cleopas’s companion, to be in the story, walking with Cleopas, propelled by shared grief to get away from Jerusalem and the terrible events, away from the fear, guilt, shame and horror, still disbelieving, arguing, and sad. Into this confusion and disputing comes Jesus.
This is Jesus who accompanied the young man when he made his choice in Belfast, made his protest, and it’s the same protest made by Jesus and all who have seen and experienced both the crucifixion and the resurrection and yet believe in God. This protest and choice confirm our hope there is a name for the nameless, a face for all the lost; good news for the poor, the oppressed and those in prison. Jesus’ death and resurrection gives life not death to all of us.
In recent weeks I’ve spoken of the choice Jesus made to continue God’s work of love and in making this choice to live out God’s love, his death at human hands became inevitable. So it is on the road to Emmaus we encounter Jesus, at first sight, unknown and unrecognisable by us as we have not yet turned fully into knowing God and trusting God, glimpsing, but not yet seeing clearly, before the resurrection reality dawns.
We find ourselves then as resurrected people when we walk together with Jesus, arguing over what it means and why it happened, listening to Jesus’ answers, we share food with him and find ourselves surprised. Like Thomas, in such moments we fall to our knees and declare: ‘My Lord and my God! Our conversion story also brings us one more surprise along the way.
Whatever has happened to us on the road to Emmaus and over the supper table with Jesus the stranger, the story is not over, it is not ended, the protest against the world’s expectations of life ending in death, has only just begun. Repentance and forgiveness now and forever will be spread by Jesus’ disciples, by you and I, as we share the story of hope and trust and of being saved. It makes possible the experience of trusting God. It makes possible the reality we can see the Risen Lord together with the young man who was crucified in Belfast along with Jesus.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels Luke, Vol. 2 Chapters 12-24. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Williams, R. 2002. Resurrection Interpreting the Easter Gospel. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd. London, UK.