Witnessing on the Way
A sermon on Luke 24:13-35
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Taylor Flowe on Unsplash.com]
I had a bit of a conundrum this week in preparing my sermon:
Two weeks ago, I told you all that I was going to be focusing on the theme of “witness” throughout the whole Easter season. (And, as a reminder, it is STILL Easter, for four more weeks after today).
When I was first looking through the texts for this season, I thought this was going to be easy because there is a clear “witness” message in today’s text when the disciples return to Jerusalem with their story of encounter with Jesus.
But the problem was that, reading the story again this week, I felt a different pull.
I was captured by the image of the road along which Jesus and his disciples walked, experiencing the different moments of their emotional and revelatory journey.
And a familiar phrase kept echoing in my head: “Wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith…”
It struck me that this story offers a bit of a microcosm of a journey of faith… not just because they are literally taking a physical journey but because of the spiritual ground the disciples cover in this story.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that there is an invitation for us in this journeying story to explore the different places that we might be finding ourselves this week in our journeys of faith.
And I found this joy bubbling up in myself about the realization that all of the various places on the “journey of faith” in this story are places that Jesus is WITH his people, in one way or another.
In the places of despair, and the places of discovery, as well as in the moments of joy. And I really wanted to talk about THAT in my sermon.
Which felt like a problem, given my prior commitment to sermonize about “witness,” until I realized something simple but profound:
The witness that God’s people have to offer is not confined to the end of the journey. We actually have a witness to offer at EVERY point on the journey of faith…. Because at every point on our journeys of faith we have something to say about how we are experiencing Jesus.
So, today, I want us to take this journey with the disciples on the road to Emmaus accompanied by one question: what is our witness on each stage of the journey of faith?
The first stage of the journey in this story, of course, is a stage of hopelessness.
It’s not the place we probably expect to start in a sermon about the journey of faith, but I actually like the chance to get real right out the gates.
The journey of faith sometimes looks like leaving the path entirely, turning around and heading in the opposite direction of where you thought you were heading.
That was the experience of Cleopas and the other disciple. They had followed the prophet of mighty deeds and words to Jerusalem, where they were expecting a victorious act of liberation, but instead the prophet’s path led to the cross… and they thought that was it.
And they were sad and they were confused, because “they had hoped….” And what they had hoped for was gone.
So, their journey seemed over. They stumbled out of town, down a path that would take them away from the scene of their lost faith, painfully rehearsing the details of their disappointment.
Of course, the obvious question to ask is “what is our witness at this stage of the journey of faith,” right?
OK – probably not obvious. But I think it is still a relevant question, because hopelessness IS a stage that many of us will experience on our journeys of faith…
When a desperate prayer is not answered in the way we had hoped, or a key part of our worldview is challenged, or answers that used to work for us just don’t anymore.
When we feel unmoored, and confused, and – yes – even hopeless… what is our witness?
For the disciples on the road to Emmaus, their witness is that Jesus joined them on that road away from what they thought they knew.
Of course, they didn’t recognize him right away, but nonetheless they felt safe with him… safe enough to disclose their pain and confusion, to admit they were afraid they had gotten things wrong.
And that safety, right there, is actually a powerful witness! Because it is a witness to a faith that doesn’t require the mask of certainty… a faith in which confusion, and doubt, and even hopelessness are not disqualifying.
So, if your journey of faith has you in a place of hopelessness or confusion right now, know that you have a witness: your witness lies is the freedom to be vulnerable, and to not have all the answers, and to not even be sure which direction you are supposed to be going.
God will walk with you whatever direction you turn… and that’s the kind of God that a lot of people need to hear about.
The next step on the Emmaus journey of faith is the stage of learning.
The two disciples on the road had one opportunity to learn before they ever left Jerusalem, of course, when the women disciples returned from the empty tomb with their tale of an encounter with angels and the news of Jesus’ resurrection.
But it can be hard to learn from other people’s experience.
So, Jesus comes to them directly. He jibes them a bit, to reignite their curiosity, and then he offers them the most coveted Bible study ever reported… going through all the scriptures to explain the things about himself in the sacred words.
I cannot count how many times I have heard people express the wish that they could have been there on the road to Emmaus to hear that lesson, but I’m struck by the fact that the contents of the lesson go un-reported!
Luke tells us that it happened, but does not even offer one example of the explanations Jesus provides.
It’s almost as if the most important part of the story isn’t the knowledge that Jesus conveys, but rather the chance to do the learning.
The Emmaus disciples aren’t remarkable because they can now offer a 12-session series on Christ in the Hebrew scriptures… they are remarkable for the way that they received the gift of Jesus’ teaching.
And this matters for us because it reminds us that our knowledge is not what is most important as we learn throughout our life of faith.
There’s no multiple-choice test that we are studying for. We aren’t going to impress Jesus by how many minor prophets we can name or how many psalms we can recite.
I think Jesus is probably more interested in our openness to learning… in our recognition that we don’t know it all and that we always have more to learn… because that keeps us curious and open to God’s teaching.
So, if your journey of faith has you in a place of learning right now, especially the kind of learning that pushes past what you thought you knew and calls you into a deeper, more nuanced way of understanding how God is at work in the world, know that your witness lies not in having all the answers, but in your excitement about the questions, and your trust that there is more for God to teach you.
And sometimes, God DOES teach us in breathtaking ways. That’s the next place on the journey of faith in this gospel story: the place when our eyes are opened and we SEE God.
In my experience, these are mostly moments in my journey of faith, rather than long seasons, so I find comfort in knowing that it was the same for Jesus’s in-person disciples.
Jesus had been right there, talking with them, walking with them, pouring wisdom into their souls for a good long while.
But they only really saw him for a moment before he was gone.
It sounds incredibly frustrating, doesn’t it?!
Just imagine the emotional roller-coaster: the grief and hopelessness, slowly washed away as the strangely compelling teacher shifts their understanding, the eagerness to hold onto this new acquaintance coupled with the satisfaction of offering hospitality, and then the shock and joy of realizing who he really, is only to have him vanish from their sight.
That sounds like a lot to process! I can imagine myself spiraling a bit if I had been sitting at that table. Thinking back over what I could have done differently to recognize him sooner, or to convince him to stay.
But the two Emmaus disciples don’t seem to be frustrated at losing him again the moment they finally recognize him. Instead, the wonder of that moment of revelation is ENOUGH!
They could look back on the time they had spent listening to him and marvel at what God had been doing before they understood.
And I think that is our witness for the moments when God’s presence and activity is palpably, powerfully real in our lives… and for all the moments after: a witness that rejoices in what GOD has done without us feeling the need to control it or reshape it.
The witness that what God has given us is enough, even when it shows how little we understand.
And that brings us to the final step on the journey of faith as seen through the road to Emmaus: the journey back to Jerusalem with a story!
This was the part of the gospel reading that I initially thought I would preach about today… the part where they have a story to tell. After all, that’s what “witness” means, right? Telling our story?
But as I read the gospel account again this week, I noticed something interesting:
The two Emmaus disciples come rushing back, bursting with the story of their face-to-face encounter with Jesus, but when they arrive they are not the first to speak.
The eleven are gathered together already, sharing the story of Jesus’ appearance to Simon Peter, and the Emmaus disciples listen to that story, before sharing their own.
Imagine that. The one part of their journey when they clearly HAVE a witness to share, and they start out by listening. Because they aren’t the only ones who have seen what God is doing. Their witness is only part of the story.
And that is an encouragement that I think the story offers to all of us, no matter where we are on our journey of faith, and no matter whether we feel clear about what our witness is in this moment or not: part of our witness is the willingness to listen to others.
When we can listen and understand the ways that God is showing up in other people’s lives, we are witnessing to the great expanse of God’s activity, and to the truth that…
Wherever you are on your journey of faith, God is there with you.
Thanks be to God.