I preached this sermon on Sunday at our 4:00 jazz service. The text is Luke 24:13-35.
This has become one of my favorite stories in the entire Bible.
On the one hand, it evokes a really nice memory for me of a church camp my high school youth group back in Florida would retreat to. It was right on the Gulf of Mexico in Panama City Beach. There were some old buildings that we stayed in and had our meetings. But the best part was being out on the beach. Of course we would play in the sand and the water and have a good time. But we also had this activity that our leaders called the “Road to Emmaus.” It was super simple, but it was also a more contemplative experience than often happens on youth retreats. Each of us would walk along the beach by ourselves—though the point was to recognize that we were not by ourselves. We were to think about Jesus walking beside us and what we would talk about with him. It was a form of kinetic prayer that helped us focus our hearts and minds on the presence of God. It was a way for us to envision that God was right there with us in the form of Jesus. Every time I hear or tell this story from the Gospel of Luke, I think of those walks on the beach. I think about how real Jesus was to me in those moments.
Then I went to college and was introduced to the critical study of religion, the Bible, and theology. For the first time, I learned that the historical figure of Moses probably didn’t write the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. I learned that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were names attached to the gospels at a much later date, probably not the names of the people that wrote them. I learned about the so-called search for the historical Jesus, carried on in today’s world by people like the Jesus Seminar. This approach to Jesus tries to parse through the layers of pious church tradition to determine who the historical figure of Jesus really was. What can we really know about Jesus? Are the gospels reliable historical sources, or do they embellish the story to drive home theological points? Is the Jesus of the gospel stories the same as the historical Jesus of Nazareth?
This way of encountering Jesus has less to do with the Jesus I walked with on the beach as a young person. This Jesus is grounded in history, not sacred story. This Jesus is discovered through scholarship, not faithful imagination. This is a Jesus we know with our minds, not a Jesus we believe with our hearts.
Then I went to seminary and became a pastor. These two ways of knowing Jesus deeply informed my pastoral education and my first forays into ministry. I must confess that I often have trouble reconciling the two. The Jesus of my childhood faith is safe and reassuring. The Jesus of my critical studies is more of an enigma, and the difficulty we have knowing with certainty who this Jesus was can strain our faith.
But in seminary, I began to learn about Calvin’s notion of the real presence of Christ in our worship. I began to reflect more deeply on the image that begins the Gospel of John, this idea that Jesus is the Word of God. If Jesus is somehow the Word of God, and the Bible is somehow the Word of God recorded in the words of humanity, then Jesus must somehow be present in worship when we read scripture and preach sermons.
I also began to reflect more seriously on the words we say at communion, that the bread is the body of Christ and the cup is his blood. Without drifting into a non-Protestant understanding of what happens in communion, we nonetheless believe that Jesus is present in this bread and this cup. It is a mystical presence that defies definitions and explanations. It is, I suggest, the kind of encounter that the two men who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus had with him once they arrived at their destination and broke bread.
If I were to represent these two ways of encountering Jesus, I would use this picture to describe the first experience. This is a painting of Jesus that hangs in countless churches and homes. How would you describe this picture of Jesus?
For me, this is the Jesus of common Christian faith. He’s a loving, tender Jesus that cares for us. He’s the kind of Jesus we sing songs about. He’s the kind of Jesus you would want for a friend. He’s the kind of Jesus you might want to walk on the beach with.
If I were to represent my second experience of encountering Jesus, I would use this picture. It is a forensic model of what a Jewish man from the first century might look like. It was created from the skull of a first century Jewish man that was excavated somewhere in Israel. This is CSI kind of stuff. So, how would you describe this picture of Jesus?
For me, this is represents the historical Jesus. This is probably closer to what Jesus actually looked like. They didn’t animate this model with much expression, so he looks kind of blank and cold, but I can imagine this face coming to life. And it is very different from this other way of encountering Jesus.
If I were to represent the third way of encountering Jesus that I have described, I wouldn’t use a picture at all. I would use this—the loaf of bread from our communion table. This is a way of talking about Jesus that is rooted in metaphor. This bread is the body of Jesus. This cup is the blood of Jesus.
Yet it is also more than metaphor, it is something you can touch. Something you can feel. Something you can smell. Something you can taste. This is something tangible. This is something you can hold in your hand. This is more than a memory. This is more than an idea.
On the very day of Jesus’ resurrection, two men were walking along the road to a place called Emmaus. They were talking with each other about all that had recently happened—about the arrest and execution of Jesus; about the rumors that he had risen from the dead and was seen by some of his followers.
Suddenly, Jesus himself appeared and joined them, but they didn’t recognize who it was. They continued to talk about what they had seen, and the difficult time they were having understanding it all. After watching him die on a cross, could they really believe that he was the messiah sent by God to save the people?
Though they still didn’t know who he really was, Jesus began to teach them. He walked them through the sacred scriptures and offered an interpretation that connected these ancient words to their experiences of Jesus. Yet still, they couldn’t piece together that he was standing right beside them, walking with them. It wasn’t until they sat down together and broke bread that their eyes were opened and they realized who he was. They had an encounter with the living Jesus that transcended their memories; it transcended their study of the Bible; it transcended what they had heard from others. It was an immediate experience of the living Christ, made known to them in the breaking of bread.
Do you remember that wonderful science fiction movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind? This title—Close Encounters of the Third Kind—has always stuck with me because it is kind of a strange title for a movie. It is based on a classification system developed by astronomer and UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek, who tried to add some scientific legitimacy to the search for extraterrestrial life.
According to Hynek’s system, an encounter of the first kind involves the sighting of one or more unidentified flying objects, like a flying saucer or strange lights in the sky. A close encounter of the second kind is seeing a UFO and some kind of physical effect that it produces, like a crop circle or electromagnetic interference. A close encounter of the third kind involves witnessing or interacting with what Hynek called an “animate being”—an immediate experience of a living creature.
I don’t really have an opinion about extraterrestrial life, UFOs, or aliens—I’m a theologian, not a ufologist. But I do find this classification system interesting, and I wonder if there might be an analogy to the kinds of encounters with Christ that I have been describing.
A Christ encounter of the first kind is our attempt to understand the Jesus of history. There was a man named Jesus from a town called Nazareth. He taught others and gathered a following. He was viewed as a threat to people in power and was executed on a Roman cross. Much of the stories we know of this man are beyond the limits of historical inquiry.
A Christ encounter of the second kind is our experience of the Christ of faith. It is said that on the third day after his execution he rose from the dead and was witnessed by many of his followers. This is beyond what we can know in a historically verifiable sense, but it is something we can believe. We can see the effect that this belief has had in the world. Very quickly, Jesus’ followers gathered together, lives changed by their encounters with him, and set about to spread his story, share his love, and change the world. They risked their lives to hold onto this faith and share it. Some even died for it. This Jesus lives on in the faithful imaginations of his followers. We tell stories about this Jesus. We sing songs about him. We worship him.
A Christ encounter of the third kind is what happened to these men when Jesus broke bread with them. It is what happens when we break bread together. It is what happens when we become, as we say when we break bread, the body of Christ for the world. It is something we can touch, feel, hold in our hands. It is what happens when we reach out in love to others—when we touch them with the love of Christ.
When we break bread together, Christ becomes more real to me than either the Jesus of history or the Christ of the church. Just like the two men on the road to Emmaus, I don’t have to understand history or theology to encounter Christ in this way. More than academic learning, more than the pious words of liturgy, Christ becomes real in this tangible experience. Christ transforms who I am and sends me out into the world. And in the world, I encounter Christ all over again in the people I touch with his love.
What a glorious, amazing, mysterious thing this is—this Christ encounter of the third kind.
It is said that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”