Pilgrims. For some of us it invokes images of the founding of this country, or at least the people with the funny hats with buckles on them. Pilgrims. It’s a good Christian word that describes those who are on a journey for religious purposes, usually devotional in nature. Pilgrims. Through the ages, Christians have trod to various holy places: the Catholic goes to Rome, the Episcopal go to Canterbury Cathedral, and the Baptists go to wherever the potluck is. (No, seriously, as a congregational movement, we have no sacred site that inspires pilgrimage on the same level Perhaps for American Baptists; we might go to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the denomination’s main mission center is located. It’s a circular building, forever known as “the Holy Doughnut,” though it’s debatable how well a pilgrimage might go as you’re always walking in circles.)
Kerry and I have been to Rome and to Canterbury Cathedral (no; we weren’t church shopping!). One of the things that impressed me about Canterbury was the long flight of steps into the building. Well, it was impressive until I tried to walk up them. For years turned to decades and centuries, this old set of steps has been walked by generations of the faithful. Thus, the stone of the steps had started to wear a groove in the steps, a smooth, nearly polished surface that spoke well of the historic devotion but nearly dangerous to walk on nowadays. I gripped the railings at the side for dear life!
The disciples who walked to Emmaus were gripping the railings when Jesus found them. They were leaving Jerusalem with heavy hearts and did not know how to journey on. In the biblical narratives, there are affirmations of how great it is to travel towards Jerusalem, where all of the religious hope is centered in the worldview of the scriptures. Festivals, sacrifices, great celebration. Jerusalem was a place as much in the heart as it was on the map.
And yet, here are two pilgrims traveling AWAY from Jerusalem. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was killed by the powers that be. They haven’t picked up a water bottle for the last leg of the journey; they’ve thrown in the towel.
Yet, this stranger encountered on the road is the Lord himself that they mourn. As Luke notes, they did not see him, for “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” That’s an odd little statement. Jesus is standing there right in front of them, and yet they do not see him. It sounds puzzling, yet it is not a physical ailment, but one more of the heart. When they tell “this stranger” about Jesus, this is what they say: “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
At first, one might take these particular words and see the beginnings of a confession of faith. Christians throughout the centuries have taken words to shape their faith and give praise to God, and some of the hopes held by the Emmaus disciples might be the beginnings of a pattern to help shape a confessional statement: Jesus as a prophet, redeemer of Israel, yet in the midst of all these words, there’s an impasse when they get to the notion of the crucifixion. The disciples speak to Jesus’ teachings and acts, yet they find an impasse at the cross. They have heard of the women who come from the tomb proclaiming the resurrection (and in Luke’s Gospel, these women in his telling “get it” atthe outset and go forward proclaiming—yes, it’s different than Mark’s ending, but then again, this is Luke’s story, so we live in the tension of four Gospels that nonetheless tell the story differently). They have heard the story, yet they have not made the connection with what really matters. They have not yet seen the risen Christ with their eyes or their hearts!
Pilgrims. One might wonder why somebody would take a week off from work, get in the car or board a plane, and just go walking towards a place that is considered sacred. What brings some people to church? In the ancient cathedrals of Europe, there’s never a quiet moment in the tourist season. People flock to see the ancient treasures, take pictures, buy a postcard in the gift shop, but few are spotted lighting a candle or pausing in the summer’s day for a time of prayer.
There are many people who pass by a church, yet they never realize that they are on holy ground. Nora Gallagher, a religious writer that I like, spoke of being “outside” the church for many years, until she went to a place where she felt something different. Her wonderful line is that she came to the church “as a tourist, but stayed a pilgrim.” Over time, her time in church became less of attendance and became participation, and her faith less a matter of inquiry and more of belief. The beauty of her writing is not skill but of depth: the depth of belief and experience growing in the faith in the care of a congregation that did likewise. Jesus takes these disciples to task and begins a time of “bible study” while walking alongside them. He guides them through the texts that speak of what God had in mind through the patriarchs, prophets, and other writings. Jesus walks them through these narratives so that when they have made the trip, they will see the Savior who weaves all of these threads together.
When I was in seminary, I helped with a congregation in transition. They had endured a nasty church split, and the folks who “left” formed a separate congregation. The immediate problem, however, was the fact that they had no place to worship in. They were fortunate to find an old church that had been turned in a community outreach center. The current occupants had kept the pews, pulpits, and the stained glass, so it was quite a good rental opportunity. However, as the church folks settled, they realized that they were missing more than (literally!) a roof over their head. They had to create and recreate a number of things that they didn’t realize one took for granted, including curriculum. How could they teach the young children without what they used to have? I sat in on a Christian education meeting where they wondered what direction to go.
I suggested that they could do something without spending any money. The congregation had these beautiful stained glass windows with a bible story in each one. And so the next Sunday, the children got led around the sanctuary of this old church, the stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden, Noah’s Ark (a crowd pleaser for the tots), Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac (not a crowd pleaser for the tots!). Moses on the mountain with the two tablets, and so forth. As they rounded the sanctuary, the kids were asked who this person was in the last stained glass. They said, “Jesus!”
That’s the sort of work that Jesus did on the road to Emmaus, building up the knowledge among those who needed to be acquainted with the texts that led them to this point on the road to Emmaus. It’s drawing close to evening by this point, and the disciples invite him to stay for dinner. Jesus consents, though he is ready to go on the way. (Another sly Gospel shorthand: if the disciples cannot “see” Jesus, they also cannot go “on the way” with Jesus either!) They gather at table and have a simple meal. It’s when Jesus breaks bread that these disciples finally “see” Jesus.
For those perplexed why food and not words get the message across finally, read Luke and its companion, the Book of Acts. There is a great deal of eating that happens in these two books. There are scholarly books that trace the importance in Luke/Acts of the Christians and their meals, because in the breaking of bread, something so simple, the abundance of God becomes clear. In particular, recollect how Jesus breaks bread in the Last Supper, and notice the repetition here at Emmaus: Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them. In the Last Supper, Jesus foretells of his broken body in the symbolism of the last supper. In the Emmaus meal, the same words and actions are used. And over in Acts, when the early Christians break bread as part of their prayers, proclamation, and sharing in common, they call it not “suppertime” but “Church.” And when it happens at that table in Emmaus, it’s not just a meal. It’s “belief!”
“Were our hearts not burning eagerly within us?” these disciples ask. This experience of the risen Lord prompts them to get up from their table and head back to Jerusalem. They went home despondent, and now they run back to Jerusalem with the news.
Pilgrims. You go to a church service, and you see them out there in the pews at worship. They might light a candle, read the pew Bible, or sit or kneel in prayer. They come in all shapes and sizes, all walks of life. But there’s one thing that sets them apart from the tourists.
What is it that does that? They have seen the Lord.