Salvation on the Road to Emmaus
[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]
Really there are two main ideas from the Emmaus story that struck me right off the bat. One, we’re not in control of receiving salvation. Of seeing the risen Christ. God has to open our eyes. But secondly, God isn’t going to open our eyes until we let go of that attempt to be in control, and let him become our host. Only then will we be able to see the saving nature of his suffering.
It tells us right at the beginning of the story in vs. 15 that:
As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.
Now, this last line, “They were kept from recognizing him,” is not a very comforting line. It almost sounds like God was playing tricks on them or trying to deceive them and manipulate things. But I think it’s very important for us to note that neither God nor Jesus is mentioned in this verse as the agent, or as the subject, the one who is preventing them from recognizing Jesus. This is no small detail. Because Jesus doesn’t force his way in. It’s just not his style!
Because we know what this is like — to be in a state when we’re just not open, we’re just not receptive or ready to hear certain things, or to learn something new. We’re just closed off, and no matter what we hear, or how many times something is explained, we’re not going to understand or change our thinking.
And when we’re in this place, it’s funny, no one is forcing us to stay that way, or to stay stuck or closed off, or tunnel-visioned, and yet, it certainly feels like we’re trapped and we cannot help the state that we’re in. We’re powerless to change it. We’re not on control.
And what was the particular fixation of these travelers, these disciples (not of the 12, but a broader group of Jesus-followers). What was “blocking their view” of Jesus? They have met the resurrected Jesus at this point in verse 21, but they say, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” That had their own idea and assumption about what salvation was supposed to look like.
Many of the Israelites in Jesus’s day were wanting their group, their nation, their religion, to get back on top — that was their idea of salvation — economic and political liberation! — because they were controlled by a pagan Roman regime.
And to make this expectation more complicated and confusing, they weren’t wrong to think this. If you just go back and read the Old Testament prophecies, it’s perfectly reasonable to interpret them as saying that, this is exactly what the Messiah was supposed to do! To overthrow Israel’s enemies once and for all.
These two disciples were staring at Jesus in the face, and they were incapable of realizing it. They he opened the Scriptures to them, and they still didn’t get it. And by “opened,” they didn’t mean that literally — they didn’t actually have a Bible with them. The word “open” is metaphorical. Jesus had to show them the heart of the meaning of the Scriptures! And how they were pointing to him all along.
This has been a crucial lesson for me. It’s much easier that you’d think to make Scripture say what we want it to. And it’s easy to miss the big picture, to lose sight of the forest and get lost in the trees. And many times, the way people read the Bible tends to simply be a reflection of their own hearts rather than God’s.
The Bible doesn’t just interpret itself. It takes a community, it takes the Spirit, and it takes wise and studied counsel. Unfortunately, sometimes we’re so insulated in a particular group’s way for thinking — a group whose thinking is a lot like us — that our assumptions almost never get challenged, or our way of seeing the world is constantly being reinforced by an echo chamber, so that when anything oppositional view is put forward, we dismiss it — we block it out.
People who want a violent, revolutionary Jesus, tend to read about a violent, revolutionary Jesus. People who want a strictly inclusive, passive, tolerant Jesus that never calls out anyone’s sin or threatens people with judgment — that’s the Jesus they see in their Scriptures. Sometimes our beliefs about Jesus say more about us than they do about Jesus.
But remember what Jesus himself say to these two followers:
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”
No matter how many times we hear this, no matter how many times I hear this, it challenges me. It challenges us. Because it totally goes against our nature. Is this not why these two disciples think that Jesus’s whole mission had failed? Because he had been defeated by Rome, and crucified? … The enemy state of the Jews? Because he wasn’t strong enough? Wasn’t powerful enough?
And yet, we also know it wasn’t really the Roman’s idea to crucify Jesus. As the travelers say, some of our rulers handed him over…Yes, the Romans killed him, but they we weren’t particularly worried about Jesus. They would kill anyone. and Pilate, the Roman governor, recognized that Jesus wasn’t a real threat.
It was the religious leaders that really hated Jesus and conspired against him.. The reading from the book of Acts a moment ago made this clear:
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you [Israel!] crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
And it’s not necessarily because they were Jews. They could just as easily have been modern-day Christians.
The point is, Jesus didn’t meet their expectations about salvation either! Because salvation for the religious leaders was what? Keep the law! (And this is based on a fairly straightforward or surface-level reading of many parts of Scripture as well!)
And abiding by a moral code in order to be saved is not a uniquely Jewish tendency. Legalism is legalism. And all human beings tend toward it — we just do!
But it goes deeper than legalism. Legalism is only one way of trying to stay in control. There are lots of ways of trying to control things.. You can throw the rules out the window, and write your own, in order to be control, or you can try as hard as you can to follow them.
The lesson regardless is this: As long as we think our well-being, our happiness, our security or our worth is something that’s ultimately in our own hands, we’re never going to be in a place to recognize Jesus and to receive salvation. To experience and enter fully into it. Because it calls us to a posture of letting go, accepting the reality of suffering, and our lack of control of that reality.
And it feels like loss when we do this! It feels like dying, like giving something up, like losing, like weakness. And the cross is the great metaphor for this.
But it doesn’t have to be something so terrible as the cross. The cross is indeed terrible, on one level. To give up control itself is a kind of suffering — a necessary suffering that is indeed the road, or at least the beginning of the road to salvation.
And there’s another layer to this: giving up control doesn’t just mean giving up on trying to be good enough. It also means that we have to give up our desire to fully understand. And this was is really hard for me. But the reason I need to give this up is because, even if you think you understand this, or believe it, as a doctrine, let’s say, the moment that you move into a place of merely conceptualizing it, you’re already in danger of missing it.
Because it’s not first and foremost an idea or belief. It’s a way to be entered into. A lived experience, a posture of the heart to assume. And we are so quick to separate our mind from our minds, our thinking from how we live. We do this all the time, and we especially do this when it comes to faith. We think that just because we believe something, we’ve somehow mastered it, or that’s it has sunk into our being and our lives.
But salvation, losing control, surrendering to the mystery of the redempive nature of Christ’s suffering — and our own participation in that same suffering! — is a practice, not a belief. It has to be lived, not thought. It’s a mystery to be welcomed into to, not a theology to be explained.
But again, at the same time, it’s not a practice that we control. It’s God’s initiative. The only thing we can do — and I hesitate to say it’s something we do, it’s really something we don’t do — is to let God in — to stop resisting God! — and to allow ourselves, to let ourselves get put in God’s way..
The two travelers in the story are not in control of when and whether they’re able to perceive who Jesus really is. And yet, there is this subtle lure and invitation that we can respond to.
There was something about Jesus, before they even realized who he was, that made them want to ask him to stay longer with them. They didn’t understand yet, but they were being drawn in by Christ’s lure. Their hearts were burning! They say, “Were not our hearts burning inside of us when he was talking to us on the road?”
There’s a strikingly similar statement to this one made by these followers in the writings of John Wesley some 1700 years later:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” — John Wesley
Why does Wesley say that his heart was strangely warmed? What prompted this sensation and this deep feeling of conviction? He says it came from an assurance that he’d be given by God, an assurance, that God had indeed taken away his sins, even his, and saved him from the law of sin and death.
In a word, he was assured of God’s love for him, and of God’s forgiveness. Y’all know this feeling. when someone important to you, who you really care about, loves you, gives you the assurance of their life — It just sort of makes everything else not matter very much!
The other worries of your life, they just kind of fade. They no longer weigh you down. They don’t go away completely, but they’re no longer sources of anxiety. Parents, I know you have experienced this. I’m already experiencing it as a young parent.
But on an even greater level, when the Creator God himself, gives us the assurance of his love, personally, we’re not afraid anymore! Even death, which is scary, and suffering, they just don’t have the power over us that they once did. They don’t threaten us.
Which is what these two disciples are feeling. It’s what leads them to run back to the city where Jesus had just been killed. Probably not a very safe place, but they were no longer afraid.
I read something this week that I hadn’t ever heard before: when we love someone, we’re actually letting something inside of us die a little bit. Because we’re forgetting about ourselves and our own ego, and focusing on the well-being and value of another. To love is to suffer. Which is why God’s love for us led to such great suffering.
Great love suffers greatly, and both great love, and great suffering, have the power to prompt surrender in our lives, which is precisely the attitude and the posture of the heart that is required for transformation and salvation.
It’s not our version of salvation. It’s not the one we would pick. We’d prefer something safer and less painful. But it is the only true path of salvation. The only one that works.
Just a final quote that really captures this for me:
“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.” — Julian of Norwich
Letting go of our own preferred versions of salvation: Giving those up — It’s going to feel like death at first, but the great mystery is that that’s precisely the gateway to being kept in God’s love, which is the safest place that anyone could ever be. It’s the only safe place, and you don’t have to do anything to get there! We just have to stop resisting. We just have to receive it. And let ourselves fall into.
For the two disciples traveling the road to Emmaus, being kept in this same precious love just mean letting Jesus become the host. Inviting him to stay for dinner. They didn’t know yet what he would do, but he came in and met them, and revealed himself to them, through the breaking of the bread and through the communion table. Let’s pray.
Originally published at William A. Walker III.