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Easter 3

Sunday, 23 April 2023
Dr Esther Elliott

Grace and love work in traumatic circumstances.

Easter 3

The Walk to Emmaus is an incredibly familiar story in Christian circles. At one level we read it as part of the chronicle of what happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Often, as we are doing today, we do this in the symbolic real time of the weeks following Easter Sunday. At another level, it operates within our culture as an archetypal story, a foundational text which contains all the classic elements of how Jesus, God, meets with people since the resurrection. It contains the symbols of faith as a journey and Jesus’s walking alongside us. It also contains lots of Christian faith concepts; people’s inability at first to see Jesus for who He is, the rational and logical explanation of Jesus place in God’s plan, the revelation of who Christ really is in the ritual breaking of bread, the response to that revelation of telling others about Him. And finally, it has that wonderful, perhaps aspirational description of a feeling of divine encounter; “our hearts burning within us”. It’s a great story, in all the senses of that term.

I want to invite you this morning to look at this archetypal story through a different lens. It seems to me that one possible way of reading this story is as a description of how grace and love work in traumatic circumstances. Not healing as such, but how grace and love enable the next steps, those beginnings of feelings of wholeness and wellbeing after a trauma. We are used to calling the two people on the road to Emmaus “disciples”, just for a few moments lets rather work with calling them “people who have experienced a set of events which have been traumatic”. They have experienced the death by crucifixion of someone they loved and believed to be a prophet. They’ve also experienced their friends finding his tomb to be empty and saying far-fetched things about him coming back to life. Painful, frightening, confusing events, yes, but also violent events which are threatening and overwhelming to them as individuals and to their community.

These two people have left the place where all this happened, the place where their frightened friends are that Marion spoke about last week, and they are on their way to stay somewhere else a fair distance away. I wonder what you imagine the tone of their conversation to be. I realised as I was thinking about this sermon that I have always pictured them as two friends walking side by side having a chat, a blether, with their voices slightly lowered so that no-one around them picks up the topic they are talking about. But when you think about it, it’s highly likely that actually the tone of their conversation was more panicky. Highly likely that they were talking quickly, frantically, and confusedly. They were going round and round, telling the details of the past few days over and over again to try to make sense of them. Like anyone else after witnessing a violent event they were in shock and disorientated. Very interestingly, the original Greek word we translate with the slightly bland word “discussion” is only used in one other place in Luke’s gospel. It’s in chapter 22 when Jesus tells the disciples at the Last Supper that one of them will betray him – “then they began to ask/question one another, discuss with one another, which one of them it could be who would do this”. I can’t imagine for a moment that was a cosy chat or blether, so I suspect the use of the same word here means this isn’t a cosy chat either.

As two overwhelmed, raw, and panicky people leave the site of the traumatising event, grace and love quietly and gently become present alongside them. Jesus simply comes near and goes with them. And when the time is right, He breaks into their frantic going round and round of the story and tells the story a different way. He reweaves, reorders, recrafts the story by putting it in a bigger framework. But this intervention doesn’t have an immediate effect and they continue with their frantic, looping, dissociated conversation. Time passes and the natural need for rest and food takes over. As the meal arrives Jesus makes a very simple ritual action, He takes bread and blesses it, and something in both of their memory’s sparks to life – some lost deep magic from before the dawn of time, to quote CS Lewis – is recalled and they recognise the presence of grace and love right there with them. And just as quickly as the recognition arrives, it, Jesus vanishes. They have experienced something profound which is a step to helping them reimagine reality in light of their trauma. There are many steps like this to come. And grace and love will reappear again and again, speaking words of peace, opening minds to understand things differently, offering mysterious and profound capacity to witness to the truth of what has happened.

This story, told this way, speaks of many things. It offers, I think, some wisdom for people experiencing trauma and for those who walk alongside them and try to help. But today my eyes are drawn to something else as I pull back and look at the bigger picture. I’m drawn to that image of Jesus just appearing, coming near, and going with them, or as I put it earlier grace and love quietly and gently becoming present alongside them. God is simply there. They don’t need to do anything to find or reach Jesus. Jesus walks alongside them listening to and understanding at a very deep level what is going on for them. And this divine presence doesn’t demand anything from them. They aren’t put under pressure to forget what’s happened, or to find a way of escaping from it, or to recover from the experience. There’s the beginning of an offer of a way to understand and make sense of the experience, but no pressure on the disciples to do that. And then there’s this glorious image of Jesus disappearing. The moment the disciples recognise Him, recognise the presence of God, of grace and of love, He vanishes, is taken away, He withdraws and retreats. Again, nothing is demanded of them; recognition is enough, and they are given time and space to reflect and feel and gather themselves.

After the duty and demands of keeping Lent and celebrating Easter this is a fabulous image of God. Divine presence, grace, and love quietly and gently alongside us, not needing anything, not demanding anything, not requiring a response or a reaction. Grace and love that are sturdy enough to simply hold it all. God simply being with us, even at our most panicky and anxious and overwhelmed. Simply standing alongside us bearing truthful witness to the effects of the misuse of power, violence, and death. And this divine presence comes to us in moments which, over time, build into patterns and stories of remaking, reimaging, and recreating.

There’s an addendum, a postscript if you like, to this in Luke’s Gospel. Luke finishes his telling of the story of these disciples with an account of the final time the presence of God withdraws and retreats from them. It is while Jesus is blessing them. And the disciples’ response is to go back to the temple in Jerusalem, go back to the site of the event which caused so much trauma, go back to the religious centre of the people who caused that event, and to do all of that with great joy and a commitment to stay there, praising God. That’s another picture to absolutely hang on to. It’s an image that speaks of the world to come. An image that says that all of us, even the most traumatised among us, can hope for a life and a world, so remade, rewoven, reimagined, and recreated that we will be able to do whatever we need to or want to do with a sense of great, boundless, impressive, and profound joy.


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