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Re-Narrating Our Lives

Luke 24:13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.[g] 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19 He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[h] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[i] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25 Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah[j] should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us[k] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

It’s interesting to me just how many Easter stories are stories of Jesus going and getting people even after they’ve heard the news that he’s been risen. I joked last week that it’s kind of unfair how Thomas gets called “doubting” Thomas for centuries, especially when his “doubts” lasted for all of a week, but it’s also unfair because almost all of the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are of him helping people recognize him or the meaning of the resurrection for their own lives. The resurrection isn’t a one time event, it happened and now it’s over, but the beginning of something and it’s not really complete until all of us have been raised out of our despair and fear and ultimately death, too.

That’s the case in our story this morning. These two disciples are leaving Jerusalem and walking to a town called Emmaus. And as they walk, they’re talking about everything they’ve seen. You might think these guys would’ve left on Saturday, or at least early in the morning on Sunday. That would make sense. They’ve been following Jesus, Jesus gets crucified, their hopes are dashed, their own safety is not guaranteed since they’ve been with him, Saturday is the day to get out of town. That would mean they’re leaving in response to the failure and the trauma of the crucifixion.

But that’s not what happens. They actually leave on Sunday. And not early on Sunday. You see, this stranger comes and starts walking with them and asks them what they’re talking about. And they tell him about the whole thing, about Jesus’ life, his power, the hopes they had following him; and then they tell him about the crucifixion, how he was betrayed and executed by the ruling class; but then, they keep going, and they tell him about how that very morning, the body was missing from the tomb, and some of the women among them had come back saying they’d seen an angel who reported that Jesus was risen! And that’s when they decided to leave.

I think this is fascinating. Why not just stick around? It would make sense for them to leave after the crucifixion. Friday was so devastating. But they leave upon hearing the news of the resurrection. That’s the breaking point for them. Not the cross, but the sliver of a new beginning after the cross. That’s too much for them. It’s too good to be true. They can sit with the other disciples and grieve, but when this talk of Jesus being risen starts up, they can’t stand it.

Now, on a very basic level, they obviously don’t believe it’s true. They doubt just like Thomas did. Maybe there’s some misogyny there in that they don’t believe the women, or maybe they’re just familiar with the very basic natural phenomenon that dead things stay dead. But I wonder if beyond that, there’s another aspect of their “doubt.” I wonder if after being disciplined so dramatically by the cross, they hear talk of Jesus rising and they think to themselves, “Oh here we go again.” Like they’re in the psychological state of watching Lucy set up the football for Charlie Brown to kick again and they’re begging him not to fall for it this time.

This is one of the afterlives of failure, of disappointment, of trauma. There are certain hopes, certain joys, that we don’t allow ourselves again. There are rooms in our souls to which we lock the doors and we refuse to open them again. If “hope” means opening that door again, then hope feels like a threat because we know what happened last time, last month, last year. And so there are parts of ourselves, or projects in our lives, that we harden our hearts against and refuse to revisit. There are moments in our lives that we know how to relate to through grief and shame and pain, and so the thought of new possibilities that rhyme with those moments feels more dangerous than the shame and the grief.

A couple months ago, when I was working on the city council ceasefire resolution, a number of city councilors were hesitant to speak on genocide in Gaza because of how Zionists harassed them a few years ago when Durham ended police exchanges with the Israeli Defense Force. Some people who had been involved in that debate even felt like a ceasefire resolution was probably the right thing, but there were old wounds there that they didn’t want to revisit. They wanted to keep that door locked. Maybe you’ve been a part of a project or a community, and it started off so well with so many noble intentions, but then it ended up being a disaster, or even just not what you intended, and now you hear of people (younger people) who want to try something similar and you smile a little at the hopefulness and naivety, but you just know, you just know, it’s not gonna go how they think. Maybe you’ve been a teacher, or an organizer, and you thought you were helping someone to move along, to change their mind or their politics, and sometimes it felt like they were so close, but then another situation arises and they revert to all the old cliches you thought you’d helped them move beyond. Maybe you, or someone in your life, was a part of a church, and they wanted to be faithful, they wanted to be good Christians, but they got taken advantage of by a leader, or the community took a hard turn to the right, and now just showing up somewhere on a Sunday morning or hearing words from the Bible reminds them of that moment.

We are vulnerable, woundable; to love and to hope and to believe are to expose sensitive parts of ourselves to each other and so when we get hurt it’s natural that we close ourselves off, we flinch, we lock the door to that part of ourselves and say, nope, not going back there. We see others trying to go into those rooms and we say to ourselves, here we go again. How naive, how precious, they’ll learn.

Sometimes, something like that is appropriate. If a person or community has been abusive to you or anyone, don’t go back there. You don’t deserve that. You should absolutely pay attention to your intuitions around these things.

And, at the same time, maybe there was a kernel of something real you were reaching for in that place where things went wrong. And that’s part of what made it so awful. You opened up a true and deep part of yourself and in that very vulnerability, the exposure of hope, that’s where you got hurt. And in a situation like that, our minds come to connect that hope with that particular situation, so in closing ourselves off from places like that, sometimes we close ourselves off from that desire. We lock the door on the pain, but that beautiful part of ourselves gets locked inside, too.

I wonder if that makes some sense of what’s going on with these disciples as they walk away from Jerusalem. The cross was bad enough, but to feel the hopes that the cross defeated stirring again, that’s too much. That’s what they have to walk away from. That’s what they can’t let themselves have again. Because it’s like the cross creates a time loop, it’s so devastating that any story they try to start again will always lead back there. This is how trauma functions in our brains. We make connections to prevent it from happening again, until our psyches fill up with red yarn making connections that show how any story, any new situation, will lead back to that place, it’s inevitable.

But in this story, Jesus meets those disciples in that time loop. They don’t even recognize him, but he starts telling them their own story all over again. Jesus re-narrates their lives and the life of their community as they walk. He revisits the old hopes and lets those hopes come back to the cross, and then walks with them beyond the cross to Emmaus.

The story says that Jesus re-narrates the Bible to them, he interprets the whole narrative of Scripture so that they hear the things about himself. He practices a different kind of storytelling with them. We’re used to stories meaning one thing, like we don’t read a news story looking for some allegory of a deeper reality. For a lot of people a story is just a kind of information. But Jesus reads the scriptures in a way that they mean more than one thing at the same time. On a very basic, literal, historical level, the Old Testament is about the people of Israel and Judah and their desire to return home from exile. And on a literal level, most of the “messianic” prophecies are really about that desire. But both Christian and Jewish traditions developed spiritual readings of Scripture, so that within the literal, historical level of the text, there are depths of meaning beyond the intent of the authors, beyond the historical context. There are allegories of spiritual and moral and political truths. The scriptures mean more that one thing, there is a plethora of meaning that the Spirit can show us within them.

So where these disciples narrate their own stories and can only imagine a past taking them to the cross and a future taking them to another cross, Jesus re-narrates their story so that a cross, a failure, a trauma, a catastrophe, a defeat, is not an inevitable end, but a waypoint on the way to a new beginning. Where the cross has flattened out their experience of life so that all meaning and hope get sucked into it’s vortex, Jesus reads their stories to them in a way that finds new depths, new meaning that they hadn’t noticed or forgotten.

And then, after re-narrating their stories, when they get to Emmaus, he breaks bread with them, and when he blesses the bread, they finally do recognize him. These disciples wouldn’t have been there at the Last Supper, but as readers, we might remember that scene, where Jesus says, “this is my body, broken for you, take and eat in remembrance of me.” At the table, God gives us another kind of time loop, where we acknowledge our own pain and vulnerability, and remember God’s pain and vulnerability, and instead of hurting each other, we feed each other, we nourish each other, we sustain each other. At the table, we unlock the doors of our hearts to let out our hopes so that they can breathe again and walk around in our imaginations. At the table, we let God’s Spirit re-narrate our lives so that we can begin again. The table opens up yet another depth, as the bread and the cup are not just bread and a cup, but Jesus broken body, which is not just another death in a world full of it, but a path to new life. It’s from that table that these disciples do go back. They go back to Jerusalem, back to their friends, back to the work of bringing Jesus’ kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.

Friends, in this Easter season, I want to invite you to unlock your doors. To let out those hopes and those desires that maybe you’ve kept under lock and key. The past does not determine the future. You don’t have to kick the football that Lucy’s holding, but that doesn’t mean that you should stop playing altogether. What is a desire you’ve let go, a hope you haven’t roused yourself to pursue, because you think you know how things are going to go before you’ve even tried? What’s something you want, but when you think about it you hear that grim voice in your ear saying, “Oh here we go again.” Maybe that’s something to explore. Maybe that’s a road to take. Maybe there are depths there, maybe the story of your life means more than one thing, maybe our failures and defeats and disappointments don’t have to mean what we thought they did? Maybe that’s a hope to invite people to break bread around and see what revelations come to us? If we’re going to organize our lives around Jesus’ resurrection, then there’s no telling what faith and hope and love might rise again in us, too. Amen.

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