Here’s a story you may have heard before: A person sets out on a journey, along the way they have various unexpected encounters and experiences which lead to a transformation in how they see the world and themselves in the world.
This is the storyline of countless books and movies and is as ancient as the Babylonian Gilgamesh, Abraham and Sara, and Homer’s Odyssey. When the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” came out a few years ago, a playful modern adaptation of the Odyssey, having this same plot line, one commentator noted that the story is so compelling because it’s really the only story that humans have. The journey, with encounters and experiences, that leads to transformation. A universal pattern of the human experience.
Luke’s post-resurrection story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is a much loved story in the church perhaps for this very reason. It draws us in in compelling ways because it follows that pattern so closely. It gives a uniquely Christian perspective on the journey, with the presence of the Risen Christ being the featured encounter that leads to transformation.
Today we celebrate baptism and Brianne and Emily’s decision to set out on the journey that baptism begins. When it comes to celebrations of the church – births, marriages, communion – baptism is right up there at the top. It is a new birth. It is a time of saying vows. It is a time of sharing together as the living body of Christ the bread and the cup that represent who God is to us.
In baptism one chooses to go about this universal human experience of journey in a particular way. A baptismal identity means that we pay attention to certain things along the path that we travel. We go with certain items in our backpack. We enter these encounters and experiences with a certain faith that they have meaning, that they connect, that they are a part of a much bigger web of reality of which we are only a small part.
Before we hear from Emily and Brianne, and their sponsor Rachel, and before we witness their baptisms, I want to highlight three things from this Emmaus gospel story that speak to a baptismal identity – this particular way that we as Christian people go about our journey.
In Luke 24:13, The Emmaus story begins, “Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.”
A first point is a rather simple one. This is not a journey of a single individual. There are two people, travel companions, going from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It’s a small detail, but significant. Perhaps these disciples were good friends, perhaps even related, perhaps they were still in the habit of traveling in pairs, as Jesus had instructed them to do when he sent them out ahead to all the towns and villages where he himself intended to go.
One way of telling the journey story is of the heroic individual who overcomes odds and faces down dangers alone. I was going to mention MacGyver as an example of this kind of hero, except when I did a quick search on the show I realized that it ended before Brianne and Emily were even born, 1992. So we might have to go with Jack Bauer from 24 or someone like that for a culturally updated example of the heroics of the individual.
Great drama, but not the storyline that fits with a baptismal identity. As baptized persons, members of the church, we are fundamentally persons in relationship. We are a part of a community. The Apostle Paul even says that we are a part of the body of Christ, each a part of this living organism which is the living presence of Christ on earth. We do not travel alone. We travel together as a church community.
There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Since we count ourselves a part of this trek for our whole lives, we count on it being for the long haul, going far rather than fast. Pacing ourselves for the Flying Pig Marathon rather than a 100 yard dash, and going at it together.
Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them.” As far as I can tell, this means that Jesus is all for companionship, relationship, community. That’s where Christ hangs out. Sue Monk Kid has a good insight about this. She writes, “I don’t happen to think the Risen Christ promised to be quantitatively more present with two or three people than with one–or that he is present in a special way. But I am convinced he means that if I choose to live my Christian life alone, there are great limitations to what God can say or do or be in my life. But if I have chosen to be accountable to a few people, to meet with them and talk about life as I see God unfolding it to me, then God has a chance to hold up a mirror and show me who I am.” (Source: God’s Joyful Surprise)
One of the baptismal vows is that you are willing to give and receive counsel in the church. Accountability. Community.
Even as we say this, we recognize that you are entering a time of life when you will be doing all sorts of moving around and traveling and exploring. This is right around the corner for Emily as she graduates this spring and goes to college. So as much as we love you, we know that this church community will not always, every day of your lives, be that primary community for you. Your years of young adulthood have many wonderful opportunities to experience different kinds of communities. Our encouragement to you is that wherever you go you remember that you are not traveling alone, and that you seek out some form of spiritual companionship, fellow travelers who will support you, pray with you, and hold up that mirror and show you who you are.
A second feature of this Emmaus story has to do with what you take with you. What’s in your backpack, so to speak. After this mysterious traveler comes alongside the other two, Luke says, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Accepting this baptismal identity is an acceptance of taking Scripture with you wherever you go – Moses, the prophets, the Psalms, the NewTestament. This doesn’t necessarily mean a literal Bible goes with you wherever you go. I think I’ve told the story here about how a guy I once met along the road on my way back from Kansas wouldn’t believe that I was a pastor because I didn’t actually have a physical Bible with me at that time. I told him I was on vacation, but he didn’t buy it. Despite his expectation, that’s not really what we’re talking about here.
But when you take on this baptismal identity, you allow your life to be haunted by the scriptures, to have a place in your heart, in your mind. The Bible is the book of the church and we continue to revisit it each time we gather for worship, believing that it speaks to us of Christ and guides us in our lives.
The Bible is not an easy book to live with, not least because rather than being a single book, it’s much more like a library, a set of diverse books written over a long period of time. Books that speak out of different experiences, but all point to God in some way.
As soon as we crack it open we are faced with challenges. Page 1, paragraph 1, sentence 1, states, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Given our scientific understandings, we’re immediately faced with the question of what it might mean for God to create, in an evolving universe billions of years old. Move a little ways forward and we’re faced with a God who frees oppressed slaves by hardening the hearts of Pharaohs, uses prostitutes and reluctant prophets to do God’s bidding, fights wars on behalf of the covenant people, and works miracles that seem to defy natural laws.
But these stories aren’t nearly as difficult to stomach or believe as the ones that teach about forgiveness, reconciliation, economic sharing, Sabbath, Jesus’ all-inclusive love, God’s steadfast mercy, us a part of the living body of Christ. That’s what really feels impossible to believe. That’s what really haunts us. That these words and stories are more than just relics of the past, but living words that cut into our lives and change us. That God is still creating, and that we are a part of that creation, despite our persistent relunctance.
It’s not necessarily good advice to carry a library with you on a long journey, but in this case that’s what we’re doing. Scripture accompanies us on our faith journey. It’s there, to be studied, to be meditated on, to be wrestled with, to be enacted, a story that we are participating in.
As much as I’d like to say that studying and hearing the words of scripture is always a transformative experience, I know I can’t get away with that. How do we know? The Bible tells me so! This very story of the journey to Emmaus is a perfect example of how hearing scripture isn’t always enough. These two disgruntled disciples get an in depth Bible study session with the great Teacher himself, going through all the law and the prophets, and it doesn’t do the trick, doesn’t open their eyes to Christ. Imagine how different the story would be if we jumped over the point where they are actually transformed. If we skipped verses 28-30, the story would read like this: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was is not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures…Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus, and he vanished from their sight.”
The story doesn’t go that way, although it does note that the disciples confess that their hearts were burning within them when Christ opened the scriptures to them. But the point of transformation, which happens in those skipped verses, and the third point I want to highlight here, is that Christ is known to them in the breaking of the bread. They come to know that Jesus is with them when they sit around the table, an act of hospitality, and share a meal together.
One part of baptismal identity is that you never travel alone, you are a part of a community. A second part of baptismal identity is that the scriptures accompany and guide you throughout your journey, and a third part is that you will come to experience Jesus through acts of hospitality, in the simplicity of giving and receiving meals, food, sustenance, bread and cup.
When Jesus had that final night with his disciples, he had a parting gift for them. I suppose he could have left them with some kind of an instruction manual, some kind of written documentation of how they should keep doing what they had been doing. It would have been nice if he would have written at least a little something down himself to leave behind. But we got nothing on that. Instead of anything written, Jesus left them a meal, and instructed them to remember him as often as they gathered around the table. And he took bread and cup and interpreted them as his continuing presence with them. These physical, tangible, necessary vessels of sustenance. That’s the parting gift. The place where we re-member Christ. It’s pretty easy to put an instruction manual on a shelf and forget about it. But you’ve got to eat. We come to the table multiple times daily.
One of the implicit teachings of Jesus throughout his ministry seems to be that you are who you eat with. This was the message of Mark Van Steenwyk when he visited and spoke with us last November. It kind of has a certain ring to it. You are who you eat with. Throughout the gospels Jesus is eating with all sorts of people, breaking bread with prostitutes, inviting himself over to the homes of tax collectors, providing bread and fish to large crowds. And not just outcasts. Jesus ate with Pharisees and power brokers. The point was that for Jesus the table was a place where all are welcome. The table is a place where we meet in our common humanity. It’s where the Christ in us encounters the Christ in the other.
Who are you going to eat with?
You’ve got to be kind of a mystic to get into this part of it. Believe that there’s more happening at the table than just chewing and swallowing food. Believe that Christ is present, becoming recognizable, in the breaking of the bread.
The disciples, who traveled together, who had scriptures burning in their hearts, come to know the Risen Christ in the breaking of the bread, and they go quickly to tell the others what they have experienced. And so begins the journey of the early church, and so continues the journey of the 21st century church.