2017 04 30: Stay With Us

Posted on 01 May 2017

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

A decade ago, a musician sat down with a baseball cap atop his head at a subway station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning.  He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.  Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work. 

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.  No one seemed to recognize that this violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s best musicians.  When our family was living in Bratislava, we travelled for an hour to hear him play together with the Minnesota Orchestra in Vienna.  Tickets were not cheap and the concert hall was sold out.  But on that busy Washington subway station, Bell collected only $34.  

Joshua Bell’s incognito performance was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people.  Do we perceive beauty when music is out of place at an inappropriate hour?  One of the possible conclusions from this experiment is that if we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing, how many other things are we missing?  But my friends, I don’t think this story is simply about beauty and music:  I think this story is also related to faith.   When we are busy or obsessed with our own thoughts, can we see Jesus in our midst? 

Certainly, Jesus’ companions on the road to Emmaus should have recognized him.  We do not know Cleopas from any other biblical reference, nor the name of his companion. According to ancient tradition, Cleopas was a member of Jesus’ own family.  St. Jerome recorded that Cleopas was the younger brother of Joseph, the betrothed husband of the Virgin Mary.  His own son, James the Lesser was one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples.  Cleopas himself was a devout follower who was regarded as one of the 70 Apostles of the early church.  He had watched Jesus grow in grace and truth and stature, and yet on that First Easter Sunday, like the passengers on the Washington DC subway who passed by the violinist Joshua Bell, he failed to recognize Jesus.  

The same was true for his companion.  Although, his name is never mentioned, in the Orthodox Church, the church fathers stated that St. Luke, himself, the writer of the gospel was Cleopas’ travelling companion.  Clearly the two travelers knew Jesus as a prophet mighty in deed and word whom they had hoped would be the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel.  His death had not made them hopeless, but they had clearly loss their sense of direction.  They had waited in Jerusalem with the others, trusting in Jesus’ prophecy about resurrection on the third day.  But now that the third day had come, and the first incredible reports of the resurrection came to them, they simply could not believe. The reports from the women who went to the tomb that Easter morning seemed an idle tale, so the two devout, but dismayed disciples left Jerusalem for Cleopas’s home in Emmaus.  Yes, the poor fellows.  They were like two lost sheep straying from the flock.  Oh, that a good shepherd would abandon the flock and find them, and bring them home. 

This very personal and intimate story of Sts. Cleopas’ and Luke’s journey of faith offers two very important lessons.  First of all, it teaches us that, like Doubting Thomas, Jesus’ most faithful followers can be dismayed by the events of life, and they can wander aimlessly, but like a good shepherd, Jesus will pursue the lost until they are found.  And second, the story demonstrates that the belief in Jesus as risen Lord was not self-evident even to his earliest followers, even to his own family members and disciples. Instead, the story reminds us that the reason why people came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection was that he appeared to them. In other words, it took divine revelation for them to believe. That was true for disciple Peter, for the men and women who were closest to him and those who traveled on the road to Emmaus.  And until we are ready for the moment, we can be as oblivious as the busy passengers on Washington subway.  

No doubt, there have been occasions in your own life when you have wondered, Where is Jesus? You believe in his promise  that he is with you always. Yes, there are occasions when you travel as companions with Jesus, and yet you do not see him.  How often do your words echo the thoughts of Cleopas, “We had hoped.”  I have heard families use that phrase when they were packing up the things they had brought with them to the ICU. “We had hoped,” they say, and then they go home alone. I have heard families use this phrase when addictions return, or jobs go away.  And yet, Jesus walks beside you on dusty roads speaking to you freely, challenging your broken spirits, and comforting you.  So why does Jesus remain hidden- even to those like Cleopas and Luke who know him best? 

There are, of course, a host of other theological answers to Christ’s “hiddenness.”  The scholastics of the middle ages argued that Jesus had been raised into a divine, new body.  A metaphysical change occurred at the time of the resurrection.  But let us, instead, reflect upon the simple insights the Evangelist offers. 

Yes, Jesus was hidden. One thought, which Saint Luke suggests, is purely from a literal perspective. Cleopas and the other disciple were heading from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.  They were therefore heading west, straight into the sunset.  The two were blinded by the light, and so dazzled by the setting sun that they were unable to know their Lord.  I like that picture.  The Evangelist illustrates how we as Christians can be so caught up in glittering images that we lose sight of our God’s wondrous presence.  Even on a beautiful Easter morning we can be so captivated by the music, emotions and flowers that we overlook our traveling companion.   

Saint Luke offers a second thought as well. The two disciples simply didn’t understand the purpose of the Lord’s death and resurrection and therefore they couldn’t recognize him.  They had heard the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and the vision of angels seen by the women, but they couldn’t believe.  As the two men walked with Jesus, they openly confessed, that they had no explanation to what had happened.  They were simply confused.

Saint Luke suggests a third reason as well:  the two disciples simply weren’t ready.   They needed to wander before they could see and accept.  Oddly, even as Cleopas and his companion heard Jesus opening the scriptures before them, they still didn’t recognize him.  Why, you may ask.  Obviously, something was missing.  Was it like listening to the beauty of Joshua Bell’s playing at the wrong place and the wrong time? Perhaps that’s what you’re wondering this morning as well.  Friends and neighbors talk about the difference that faith has made in their lives.  Family members talk about a spiritual awakening and a new commitment.  But it just doesn’t seem real for you.  You know the rites and the rituals of the church; you know the scripture and the promises which God offers. But somehow, you still find yourself, walking on that endless road heading off into the sunset.  

Saint Luke finally uncovers that connection.  He writes, “Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on.  But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us Lord, for it is evening.’”  That my friends, is the great moment of change- the moment of transformation.  The moment Jesus enters into their home, the moment that he is no longer a traveling companion, but a guest at their table. At that moment their eyes are prepared to see.  And so we read that as they were breaking bread together, their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and then he vanished from their sight.  

Why was this invitation to stay so important?  Simply said, Jesus was and is a hospitable guest.  He stands at the door waiting for you to answer.  He does not pry his way into your life, nor does he force his way into your home.  He stands poised beside the gate.  He stands waiting at the street corner.  He walks ahead as if he is going on.  He knocks at the door of your heart and waits for you to answer.  He is hidden and he comes to you as one unknown.  He merely needs to hear the noble words, “Stay with us Lord.” And he will enter.  It is a word of commitment which opens your life and home to the creative and redeeming spirit of God.  “Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening.” 

It is a word of invitation that is extended to you through the life of the church. Most people come to faith in worship through the promise of Scripture, proclamation, and sacrament. Indeed, this is where the faith of all is sustained. It is the place where Jesus continues to reveal himself.  Faith is born and nurtured where people share in worship through word, gesture, and earthly means, such as water, bread, wine, and expressions of mutual care–the smile, the clasp of another’s hand, perhaps even an embrace. 

My friends, the good news this day is that no matter how far you journey on that road to Emmaus, not matter how deep your loss and dismay, and your inability to see Jesus beside you, Jesus is pursuing you as your steadfast companion.  But be prepared.  For when you do invite Jesus to stay with you, and you finally see him, your life will never be the same. St. Cleopas and his companion Luke discovered that to be true as well.  Having welcomed the Lord into their home, they couldn’t help but run back to Jerusalem and share the good news, that “Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.”  Amen.   

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.