There is an interesting story told in the Gospel of Luke that many Biblical scholars think may be one of the first attempts among Jesus’s followers to come to terms with his death. In the story, two travelers are walking home from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus after the Passover weekend in which Jesus was executed. One is a man and is given a name, Cleopas. His companion is probably a woman. They are heartbroken and devastated.
Jesus, their spiritual teacher, the one they believed was leading them to a deeper understanding of God and the meaning of their lives had suddenly been arrested, tried, convicted, and executed as an enemy of the state. In the space of a few days all of their hopes for the future had been shattered. On the road they meet a stranger. At first they do not recognize him. Before that awareness can happen, they have to invite him into their home and offer him a meal.
This, first of all, is a story about hospitality. You see, Jesus lived in a society that was rigidly structured and there were very strict rules about who could associate with whom, and where and when and how that could happen. There were also laws about purity and cleanliness that further dictated social interactions. In the earlier Gospel stories it is always Jesus who invites people to eat with him, or invites himself into people’s homes. In so doing he taught that hospitality and openness to others were essential elements in his vision of the Kingdom of God or Beloved Community. After his death it is up to the living, ultimately it is up to us to invite people in, to offer the open invitation. It is only after these travelers open themselves to the stranger that they are able to recognize him. He begins the meal and then vanishes. The completion of this practice of hospitality is theirs, is ours, to accomplish.
What is it like for us to have so many blinders on, to have so much structure in our lives and ways of thinking that we do not recognize the presence of the holy among us? As in this story, when that recognition happens and we realize the revelation, the Easter moment that is upon us.
And then we are like the two heartbroken travelers who meet a stranger on the road who reminds them of Jesus, whose openness, whose way of sharing a meal gives them a feeling of deja-vu, of having had this experience before. It is a mystical moment, as the sacred once again intersects with their lives, giving them renewed hope and meaning.
How many times has this happened to each of us? We notice someone walking down the street and we think we see someone else. We recognize in someone’s movement or voice an old friend or a cherished loved one. We begin a conversation with a stranger and the connection is so powerful, so real, that we think that we must have met before. We meet someone at a very sad and painful time in our lives, and we are somehow transformed by that interaction. They have known the right thing to say to move us out of our misery, to give us a sense of healing, and of wholeness once again. These are moments that are filled with the sacred, filled with the presence of God. These are times when the spirit and the human in each of us are merged, as in the person of Jesus.
Jesus is a metaphor for all of us. The story of Jesus is the story of the best of who we can be. It is the story of healing and compassion, the story of standing up to oppression, and the story of forgiveness and hospitality and hope. It is the story of building connection and community without regard for the things that usually separate us from each other. The story of Jesus is the story of what is most sacred and most precious in the human experience becoming embodied in one person, in any person. It is the story of the divine in each one of us, accompanying us, walking with us on whatever is our life’s journey.
Many Biblical scholars remind us that the point of this story may be more metaphorical than real. This story of two people encountering a live Jesus on the road to Emmaus may never have actually happened. Because the essential thing for us to know deep in our souls is that the story of any weary and heartbroken travelers being touched by God, encountering something of the sacred, finding hope and a renewal of meaning; this walk with Jesus, my friends, happens each and every day.
Rev. Arthur Lavoie is the Minister at First Parish Church in Dorchester, Unitarian Universalist, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org