Text: Luke 24:13-35
Did you ever have a week you just couldn’t get a song out of your head? No, I don’t mean “Beer with Jesus” that Keith quoted last week! The one stuck in my head begins like this:
“The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.”
That’s Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Into the Fire,” written in honor of the New York firefighters who gave their lives on September 11, 2001. This song surfaced for me this week as I tried to take in the news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Alongside the stories of the survivors and the suspects, we have heard many stories about people who responded immediately, doing whatever they could to help out someone nearby. Like those firefighters in 9-11, who willingly went up the stairs everyone else was trying to get down, the first responders this week ran not away from, but toward the fire; some of them gave up their lives.
But when we first meet Cleopas and his anonymous companion in our scripture this morning, they are walking away from the disaster of Jesus’ crucifixion. We’ll give them a little credit—they had waited in Jerusalem as long as they thought they could on “the third day” after Jesus’ crucifixion, the day he had prophesied he would be raised from the dead. With the others, when the women came from the tomb they had heard the strange tale of the angels saying that Jesus was alive. No one really knew what to make of it.
But nothing further of note had occurred that long day of watching and waiting, and the sun was setting. It was not prudent to be on the road in the dark. So, turning from the city long central to Israel’s hopes, the city which was now the place their hope had been put to death, they slog the seven miles to Emmaus, seeking familiar, safe walls when the utter finality of their disappointment falls upon them.
Of all the characters in the gospel’s resurrection stories, I identify most with Cleopas and his companion. Last weekend, I had the privilege of accompanying some women from our congregation to a convocation in Seattle. We heard some tremendous speakers, women who have given of themselves courageously pursuing peace and justice. Particularly inspiring was Valarie Kaur, a young Indian-American woman, who had gathered stories of the racial violence which had occurred after 9-11 and created a film, “Divided We Fall,” which brought many of these unheard stories to public attention. As she spoke, our hearts were burning with both heartache and joy. It was the kind of story which made you want to get up and do something. It felt like an encounter with the Risen Christ!
Have you ever had such an experience? I hope you have. But maybe then you also know the tension of coming home. As we drove, my companions and I pondered how the speakers’ witness would affect the lives to which we were returning, a struggle between conviction and cynicism began inside me. What significance, what impact, could such an encounter really have on us, with all our mundane challenges of jobs and families and children? None of us could just charge off from such responsibilities to do anything like what she had done, could we? And I wondered, was there really any way,we could transmit the fire of those speakers to our little old church community back in La Grande? It seemed to me, just a bit, that we were driving away from the fire; by the time we arrived home, would it have gone out?
I hope you are not too confused by the different ways I am using “fire” as a symbol. I think that’s part of the brilliance of Springsteen’s song—that “fire” can mean a dangerous conflagration which must be extinguished to save life, even as it can also symbolize the hope, the energy of our life-force, the sacred spark of God’s image within us, the holiness at the heart of life.
Fire, for Christians, is an image of the Holy Spirit, as we will remember again when we hear the Pentecost story. Fire symbolizes the church’s burning awareness that, in Christ, we are made into a holy people sent to share the good news. We are anointed by fire to go into the fire.
But we are not there yet. Today’s story happens between Easter and Pentecost, between the resurrection of Jesus and the commissioning of the church. It happens in the middle of Luke Chapter 24, in the middle of the road, right in the mundane muddy middle of life where most us of live much of the time. It is a place where we are often faced with difficult choices.
Which fires must be dampened for life to flourish and which ones are calling us “some place higher?” The truth is that any fire has its dangers and we are right to fear getting burned. Impulsively throwing oneself into every fire can certainly lead to “burn-out!” Sometimes it just makes the most sense to retreat, regroup, and reassess what God is calling us to do.
But the good news is that something happens when Cleopas and his companion are in the middle of that uncertain, uninspiring road. A stranger comes alongside of them. First, he asks them questions, draws out their sad, sad stories. And then, the stranger tells them a story—the story—opening up the bigger picture, connecting their little lives to the greater pattern.
We don’t know specifically what scriptures Jesus used, but whenever we gather here in this place we are also remembering those old stories, how God creates life from chaos, how God delivers a people from slavery to freedom, how God brings a renewed people home from exile. How, again and again, out of suffering and death again and again, God raises new life. How Jesus was crucified and buried so that we might enter into new life with him.
Now, the narrator has let us know the stranger is Jesus, but isn’t it interesting that Cleopas and companion cannot recognize him, not until that moment when they’ve asked him to stay, and they’ve gathered together around the table, and he takes that blessed bread and breaks it open to give it to them.
“Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” we often say in the Invitation to the Lord’s Supper. Recognition of who he is and opening to receive him are part of the grace we experience whenever we take communion. There is something about breaking open the bread which breaks us open to see Jesus wondrously alive, right here with us, he himself who was blessed and broken and given for us and for the sake of the world.
And while we celebrate the birth of the church in the fires of Pentecost, perhaps the church is first born around the hearth of that table, broken open with the bread. For there is no doubt that something changes in those disciples when they recognize Jesus, when they receive the bread he gives. To consume it is to be consumed by the same holy power, the same holy pattern, which shaped Jesus’ way in the world: taken, blessed, broken, given.
That is why, I think, when Jesus vanishes from their sight, they do not grieve this time, but instead, they get up and get back on the road. It is even darker now on that road, but somehow, it seems, they run back to Jerusalem in no time at all.
“May your strength give us strength, May your faith give us faith,
May your hope give us hope, May your love give us love…”
In his song about the firefighters, Springsteen repeats that refrain over and over again. It’s a prayer to partake of the same Spirit which empowers anyone who is called to enter the fires of this world in the service of life. I believe it expresses well why we are here today. This is a place we come off of that muddy road for a moment; we stop here and share the old stories with one another, breaking our own lives open anew in the shape of that pattern. And then we share a meal, the bread and the cup of Christ’s purpose, presence, and power, consuming Christ’s life and energy and fire again so that we ourselves may be given to the world as holy sacrament. My friends, in Jesus Christ, we are being shaped to be first responders in all the killing fires of a world that does not yet recognize life has won.
Soon we will go back out on that road, changed and ready to run back to Jerusalem or wherever disaster has struck, wherever injustice seems to have ruled the day, wherever violence or unkindness or isolation or imprisonment has seemed to have conquered. Every single one of us has countless opportunities to do this no matter how mundane daily life might sometimes appear. A kind word, a prayer, a helping hand in a time of need, a meal shared with a stranger: Let yourself be taken, blessed, broken and given.
And…May Christ’s strength give us strength, may Christ’s faith give us faith, may Christ’s hope give us hope, may Christ’s love give us love.