The travelers to Emmaus were walking off their post-traumatic stress. As they walked, they tried to talk sense into the events surrounding Jesus’ death, but no matter how they tried, they could not make it add up. Tragedy had struck. Two defeated disciples dropped their heavy hearts on the dusty road. As they walked, they talked. They fought back the encroaching bitterness. Certainly the Messiah, the Anointed One had to have been an immense disappointment to most of his disciples. He proved too human. He was “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,” and yet he proved to be as vulnerable as any of Israel’s countless dissenters. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they said to the stranger walking along and asking questions. We had hoped that, through his mighty power, we would be liberated at last from our humiliations. But now he is dead. Three days have passed and the world is unchanged. Life in Jerusalem and the countryside go on as though it hadn’t made one bit of difference that Jesus had been born at all.
The easiest thing for Jesus to do on the road to Emmaus would have been to come clean—to tell the disciples who he was, what had happened to him, and invite them to repent for their desertion and believe. He didn’t do that. Instead he walked with them and got them to tell him what was troubling them. Only then did Jesus explain things to them and open their eyes. This walk to Emmaus shows us that Jesus does not appear among us demanding newness of life; he bestows newness of life. His actions also demonstrate that he never forces himself upon others. Faith must always be a spontaneous, voluntary response to God’s grace. It is tempting when we meet people to hurry them, to offer a solution to their problems; to tell them what they need, especially a relationship with the Lord. But Jesus does not do this. He meets people with gentleness and patience, and journeys with them.
Perhaps another way we can describe the Christian walk is to say that it is the continual rediscovery of the face of Christ in those around us. I think this is the most difficult challenge and one even harder to sustain because we get trapped in our own assumptions. But very often when we least expect it, a word is said, an expression alters an unexplored face, we glimpse a cavern of grief in someone whom we thought too controlled or hardened to contain grief, or one acts or responds in a manner so selflessly, that our perception of them is torn wide open. We find ourselves in the presence of a huge mystery. Suddenly a crack is revealed, a door swings open, and we are in Christ’s presence.
What about ourselves? We know these stories by heart, just as the two disciples knew full well about the law and the prophets. But how often do we recognize Jesus in the stranger or even in the person with whom we share our life? How often do we recognize Christ in acts of hospitality—significant and insignificant—as shown to Jesus by the two men once they reached Emmaus?
We know that Jesus has never left us. Again and again Jesus identified points of contact and intimacy. Just four nights before, he had broken bread and passed it to them, saying: “Whenever you do this, remember me.” In effect he said: “Whenever you do the simplest things, like eating a meal together, remember that I am with you. Do not for my sake despise life or any part of it. I am never further than your table, he said. I am bread and wine. I am in your eating and drinking—if you will open your eyes. I am also in those around you, especially those who are being made to walk the way of the cross: the hungry and thirsty, the naked and homeless, the sick and the imprisoned. “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.”
Yet in fact, each of us can well remember walking past him, not in a state of recognition and gratitude, but rather in annoyance, if not contempt, if not fear, if not disgust, then horror and hatred. [Pause] In February, I received a telephone call from a desperate woman. She had been panhandling out in Goochland County because the police in Henrico told her to move on or be arrested. A woman who gave her money also gave her my name and phone number. She explained that she and her sick and disabled husband were living in a stranger’s bedroom in Richmond because their house in Caroline County almost burned to the ground. She described how their insurance company had insisted they stay in a motel all summer with the assurance it would reimburse their expenses. The insurance company has since denied their claim and it refuses to reimburse a dime of their savings they blew through. She goes on to say that she has called every law firm in the Richmond phone book asking them to take her case against her insurer to no avail. To make matters worse, her husband was in a catastrophic car accident last year and cannot walk or work and she was having a hard time getting him to MCV because their car kept breaking down and she had to replace it—twice. Did I mention that her four children, between the ages of 6 and 13 are having to stay with their father during the week because she has no proper home for them? She lost her source income when they had to move out of the house because she bred fancy Bengal cats that she sold to people all over the country. She was crying over the phone. Her horror story left me feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Honestly, I wished she hadn’t contacted me because I knew I needed to help her but I didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to do it. Her problems were over my head and experience. I did pray for her, but I also hoped someone else would take on her case.
Three weeks go by and she calls me back pretty much in the same shape. I winced when I realized it is she on the phone. “Okay,” I say, “come in and bring all of your documentation.” She does and it checks out. What a mess. She brings photos of her husband in the hospital with a broken hip and pelvis. He needs another operation but because of a lingering infection he is stuck in bed. I ask her why he doesn’t apply for disability and she tells me that their plan but she can’t locate his birth certificate and other pertinent documentation because they were lost in the fire. I help her get the documents she needs for his disability application and for the attorney in Northern Virginia who may take on her case. I also pay their rent on the bedroom so they don’t get put out on the street.
A few days after I met with her I casually mentioned her situation to man I serve with on the ACTS board. ACTS is our ministry we share with other congregations in Richmond to help stabilize families in financial crisis. I thought he could take a look at her insurance papers and maybe offer advice about her house. He rehabs houses. I didn’t think much of my suggestion afterwards. And nor did I have any hope or expectation that he would follow up with her.
Last week, though, I received an email from this man, John Demetri, a member of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, with a follow up report on the family. I was floored! Not only had he followed up with the attorney who may take on their case, he had gone to their home and devised a plan to repair it so they could sell it before the bank foreclosed on it. But even more than that he had taken them in and they had been living with he and his wife and stepdaughter for the last three weeks and counting. And if that weren’t crazy enough, he was boarding their two very large dogs and a cat, and on the weekends, her four children as well. Not to mention his own biological daughter who lives with his ex-wife during the week. He said it was like a big campout every weekend. He noted that the most important development had been the steady improvement of the husband’s health who was now able to receive a home-health nurse every day in his home. John noted that he would be getting his hip replacement soon. I asked him how I could help him and he sincerely asked me to pray that his wife doesn’t leave him. She is getting tired of her home being used as a shelter.
Talk about radical hospitality! I never in a million years would have expected him to shelter this family. While their problems overwhelmed me, and while I wanted to offer the quick fix, John was willing to walk with them those long hard miles. I surprisingly discovered the face of Jesus in John and undoubtedly so has the family he cares for. Let’s all pray that his wife uncovers the face of Jesus in John too!
When you walk, remember that Jesus walked from town to town, and he walked with those two weary friends on their journey to Emmaus. He sneaks up alongside us in our times of darkest despair. When you feel forsaken and you can’t believe that God is there for you, remember that he cried out from the cross: “My God, My God, where are you?” When you show affection toward another person, remember that Jesus was never scandalized by love. Remember how the woman burst into the Pharisee’s house uninvited and kissed him from head to toe. And when you eat a meal together, remember how Jesus loved to eat with friends and that our sacrament of bread and wine has its origin at the table. Remember that he surprises us with ordinary blessings over everyday bread.