Becoming Disciples: Watch for Signs
If you haven’t heard me tell it, maybe you’ve heard another preacher give it a spin…it’s a story that has almost become legend among my sermon-writing crowd, anyway. It happened right here in our town on January 13, 2007 and I read about it in April of that year in the Washington Post magazine—do you remember the story of Joshua Bell in the Metro?
Joshua Bell, you may know, is a 40-year-old, one-time child violin prodigy who now commands enthralled audiences who pack the world’s most prestigious concert halls paying hundreds of dollars for seats to hear him play.
In January of 2007, Bell agreed with the staff of the Post to try an experiment where he would play a 45 minute concert on his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin (built by Antonio Stradivari in 1713!) during rush hour, propping his case open with a few coins to seed the pot, just to see what would happen. Wearing a baseball cap and jeans, Joshua Bell stood against a wall next to a garbage can in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station during rush hour.
He started his concert with a performance of Bach’s “Chaconne,” one of the most difficult violin pieces ever written, one which many violinists never master. Then, he played Shubert’s Ave Maria. He kept going for the whole 45 minutes, during which a video tape recorded 1,097 people walking past him.
You can watch the video online and see that, for the entire 45 minutes, Joshua Bell never attracted a gathered crowd. Not once! People were rushing too fast to get to wherever they were headed; no one stopped to listen. At the end of his agreed-upon 45 minutes, Bell had collected a total of $32, including the seed money he’d thrown in.
All in all, only one person of the 1,097 people who passed by Joshua Bell in the L’Enfant Plaza metro station that morning recognized him. Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, had been in the audience three weeks before when he’d played at the Library of Congress. After hearing him in the Metro she said to a reporter later, “This is the most astonishing thing I have ever seen in Washington.” She said: “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
Life has a way of monopolizing our attention so that matters of immediate urgency fill our hearts and our minds and mesmerize us, limiting our vision of the big picture, doesn’t it? It’s the way I feel sometimes, and I would bet it’s the way the two travelers on the road to Emmaus must have felt in the story we read today from Luke’s Gospel.
Today we’re in the third week of the Easter season, doing our best to walk alongside those first followers of Jesus who had suddenly found themselves thrust into the task of becoming disciples in the wake of crucifixion and resurrection.
And if we think the day to day details of our lives are overwhelming, imagine what it felt like to be them!
They had just lived through a week of utter trauma, where someone they knew and loved had been tortured and killed. Their city was in political turmoil; their own futures, given their association with Jesus, were uncertain. Next steps for a movement in which they had placed all their hopes for the future were unclear and uncertain.
All the numbness and fog that descends with the unfolding of any trauma as big as this one certainly lay like a burial shroud over them all—a deeply disorienting grief and shock, for sure. In the middle of all of that, the days following resurrection led them through several strange encounters with Jesus, one of which is our Gospel passage today.
The Road to Emmaus passage, as the passage from Luke that we heard this morning is often called, is one of several “post-resurrection appearances of Jesus” recorded by writers of the Gospels years after the events of Holy Week. Last week we heard about Jesus appearing to disciples almost magically through a locked door in a room where they were hiding in utter fear. And the Road to Emmaus passage is kind of strange—other worldly—too. In fact, without exception, all of the post resurrection appearances of Jesus are kind of strange.
And rightly so.
Can you imagine living through something like resurrection?
Nothing and no one would ever be the same again—especially the person who had been dead and then was not anymore! The Gospel writers included post resurrection stories of Jesus in their memoirs—weird as the stories seemed—because they wanted to somehow communicate to the Christians who were reading fifty or so years after the events they were writing about—just how earth-shaking and mind rattling and unnerving resurrection was. For all of them.
This particular resurrection story happens in the Gospel of Luke right after his report of the events at the tomb Easter morning. The story lasts for 22 verses and tells of two people who were somehow connected to Jesus, walking from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus, which was about 7 miles away. We know that one of the people on the road was Cleopas—and scholars debate how and if we could ever know exactly how he was related to Jesus’ inner circle—there are many different theories. The other person is unnamed, and because of that and some other textual reasons, most hypothesize that she was probably a woman. As they walked along the road, they were heatedly engaged in discussing the events of the days just past—as any of us would have been.
After all, these two had just watched from the edges as incredibly horrific events unfolded, the kind of things that you can’t really sort out until you go over and over what you saw, what you heard, what you think, where you were when you heard the news…you know how it is. These were life-defining experiences they’d lived through!
The text says that they ran into Jesus on the road, but they didn’t recognize him. Everyone, typically, has a different theory about why the travelers could not recognize Jesus—grief, Jesus had changed, they didn’t know him well to start with, God closed their eyes—the guesses are endless. Anyway, the story goes that Jesus engaged them in conversation by asking what they were talking about…which, as you might imagine led them to disbelieving expressions that he wouldn’t have already heard the news that was dominating everyone’s conversation in the days past. And this turn of events in the story just gave them another opportunity to tell what had happened—to Jesus, to the readers of Luke’s Gospel, and to us!—again.
When the three travellers eventually reached Emmaus, Jesus—this one who was a total stranger to Cleopas and his traveling companion—kept going on the road. Despite the fact that they didn’t know him, Cleopas and his friend invited Jesus in to stay.
Of course, traveling between cities by foot in those days was one of the most dangerous things you could do—it was very common for bands of robbers to attack travelers, especially if they were traveling alone (Good Samaritan, anyone?). Roadside motels were a thing of the future, so it was a matter of hospitality that Cleopas and friend would express concern for the stranger to continue on alone, especially as night was falling. He would have been easy prey for robbers. They didn’t know him; the men actually seemed a little strange, as he had no idea about the events of the last few days for a start. But they overcame their suspicion and extended hospitality to the stranger, invited him in for dinner and rest.
And you know what happened then. As they began the meal, in much the same way Jesus had presided over the table with his disciples just a few days before and probably many times in the previous years, Jesus blessed the food and…they knew. They recognized him. In the meal they shared together, they suddenly saw him. They saw…God.
There are many things about the Emmaus story that are puzzling—not the least of which is: did it really happen?
Who knows? There’s no way we can…and, it’s not really relevant what the answer is, anyway. One thing is for sure: resurrection had tilted the world, turned everything on its head, and nothing would ever be the same again. These two travelers made their way down the road as life, (as it has the tendency to do) just went on after the grief they’d faced.
They were overcome, sidetracked, distracted by the events of human living. They’d set out on the journey of discipleship, following Jesus who inspired them to remember that God is always at work in the world, and then to join in. But now…the future was uncertain. Had everything they’d believed been worthless?
They couldn’t see much more than the grief, pain, and uncertainty all around them, and their vision was so compromised, they could not even recognize God right in front of them. Right there! It finally happened when they pushed through the fog of their grief. It happened when they took the risk of showing hospitality to a stranger. It happened when they gathered around the table and broke bread together.
And whether actual events unfolded exactly as Luke reports it or not, the Road to Emmaus story is true. It’s so true. We know this, because we live in the tension of believing, too, of wanting with every part of who we are to become disciples…and of walking through this world suspicious that, like Metro riders during rush hour who never even noticed Joshua Bell, we will never be able to see God, no matter how hard we try. Life is too hard, too distracting sometimes. We walk on by; we never even notice.
But resurrection is real.
God is here—often right beside us—in the company of strangers and in the breaking of bread together.
In 2007, journalist Sara Miles wrote a book called Take This Bread. It’s a spiritual memoir about walking through life unable to see…and then, suddenly, seeing. Her words:
“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. On my walks in the neighborhood, I’d passed the wood-shingled building with its sign: ST GREGORY OF NYSSA EPISCOPAL CHURCH. Now with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity—or so I thought—I opened the door.
What happened a few minutes later is a mystery. I still can’t explain my first Communion; it made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named “Christ” or “Jesus,” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry….
Yet that impossible word, “Jesus,” lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had no idea what it meant, I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion: it was as real as the actual taste of the bread and the wine. And the word was indisputably in my body now, as if I’d swallowed a radioactive pellet that would outlive my own flesh.
The bread, I learned over following Sundays, was baked by the people I took Communion with. We shared it, passing the bread and wine to one another as we stood in a circle around the Table in the middle of the church’s rotunda. A woman named Caroline made the crumbly, slightly sour loaf I’d tasted first; someone called Tom made a dense whole-wheat bread; Jake baked a sublime brioche. Each of the loaves was slashed with a cross, and when the priest broke the bread, if I was standing close enough, I could smell the yeast. The wine was sticky and sweet: pale gold, not at all red, but it warmed my throat as I swallowed and then passed the cup to the person next to me. “The blood of Christ,” I’d repeat, in turn….
My first year at church ended with a question whose urgency would propel me into work I’d never imagined: Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?”
The day she wandered into St. Gregory’s and was welcomed around the table, somehow, some way, Sara Miles saw God. She saw God, and the glimpse she got was enough to propel her to keep going on the path of becoming a disciple.
How about you and me? Like the riders on the Metro the day Joshua Bell took out his violin and started to play…like Sara Miles, who wandered in the door of a church completely unprepared for what she found…like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus…we wander this human life trying desperately to believe there is something—someone—bigger out there. But the circumstances of life often limit our vision, keep us from seeing God, right here, all around us, walking beside us—in fact—as we try the best we can to figure out exactly how we might even begin to become disciples.
We certainly do live in a world in which pain and fear, uncertainty and limitation are the rules of the road. In our world, Joshua Bell does not play his violin in the Metro…the bread and wine are just that—bread and wine, and God is a far-off idea, wishful thinking some would say, certainly not one who walks right beside us along the road of life.
But we also are people who walk in the light of resurrection. We can’t explain it, but we certainly can’t deny the truth that everything has changed. Everything. And we move through life believing, looking for signs in every direction we turn, we can remember and take courage: that the hints of light and hope that remind us we are not on our own—that the very presence of divine God who was in the beginning and will be into all of eternity is here right now, with us.
What might it take for you or me to notice God?
Take the advice of the travelers on the Emmaus Road, or Sarah Miles, or any of your church family, who will tell you that there was this one time when they were just walking along, stunned by life…and they ran into God.
Want to be a disciple? Watch for signs. They’re all around you.