Monday, April 24, 2017

City Notes '17: Moving Towards Emmaus: Hope in a Time of Uncertainty

The Road to Emmaus by Daniel Bonnell 

The Road to Emmaus Reveals that Jesus' Loving Care and Pursuit of Us is Relentless

Along with Tim Chester's A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community and Mission Around the Table, David Smith's Moving Towards Emmaus: Hope in a Time of Uncertainty has been extremely influential in unpacking one of my favorite passages about Jesus in all of the Scriptures. There are so many layers to what occurs in Luke 24, I cannot do them justice here and I look forward to sharing many more teachings on this passage. And I also look forward to continuing to share with people I meet in Worcester about the God who often walks among us incognito only to surprise us with His humility, wisdom, and resurrection power when we least expect Him to reveal Himself to us. 

Chapter One | The Despairing Journey

"The final chapter of Luke's Gospel contains a story of great beauty and power in which the risen Christ is revealed to two despairing disciples who are in the process of retreating from the scenes of their devastated faith and hope in the city of Jerusalem. ... When the story begins (in Luke 24) there is absolutely no hint of the glory that will break into the darkness at its end. Indeed, the despair and utter hopelessness of the two disciples who withdraw from Jerusalem can hardly be exaggerated: both their body language and their conversation are symptoms of people deeply depressed and traumatized by suffering. Their faces, we are told, were 'downcast,' and their emotional and spiritual condition is reflected in the telling phrase 'we had hoped.' ... Millions of people in our world at the start of the third millennium find themselves walking a pathway that brings them very close to the lonely two on the road to Emmaus. Our world is full of people walking away from Jerusalem in despair with the words 'we had hoped' on their lips." pgs. 3-4

"Christian mission, and in particular the practice of evangelism, has often ignored the order I am suggesting here, wanting to reverse the sequence in this story by beginning at the end, declaring the triumph of the resurrection without listening to the indications of pain, doubt and anger of those who have turned away from Jerusalem. The result is that the message declared by Christians is simply unbelievable for people whose emotional and spiritual experience renders them incapable of receiving such a message while their gaping wounds still require healing. ... Jesus meets the despairing and hopeless couple where they are and simply walks beside them. ... Is it really too much to ask that Christians learn from the one they profess to follow what it means to 'come up and walk along with' people who are heading away from Jerusalem? What is implied here is the need to gain a true and empathetic understanding of the context within which people live their lives. In the Lukan narrative the mysterious stranger merely asks, 'What are you discussing together as you walk along?,' so creating space within which his companions can unburden their hearts. ... As the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall has said, the first step towards a meaningful articulation of the Christian message in our modern context requires that churches 'become spheres of truth, places where people can give expression to the anxiety of meaninglessness and emptiness without being utterly debilitated by the experience' (Hall, 2003, 131). He goes on to argue that the greatest theological task of our times is to articulate a fresh understanding of the meaning of 'salvation' that will actually speak to the pain and trauma of a generation that finds itself on the Emmaus road." pgs. 4-6

"In Europe (both East and West) and in North America many thoughtful people, nurtured and educated within the Enlightenment worldview, now look at the dismal state of contemporary culture and find themselves saying: we had hoped. The sense of loss and betrayal can be found in the literature, art and music of our times as gifted people reflect on the consequences of the erosion of a secure and agreed basis for understanding what it means to be a human person. Jeremy Seabrook, in an unusual study of the impact of aging on the population of the world, suggests that the condition of elderly people prompts a central question which many had thought laid to rest by the global triumph of industrial society, namely: 'Is creation of more wealth synonymous with the betterment of human lives?' Are vulnerable people really helped by perpetually rising incomes, 'or does the creation of wealth itself militate against social cohesion, belonging and solidarity?' (Seabrook, 2003, 51)." pg. 8

" ... the nameless walker on the road to Emmaus serves to remind us that anyone can join this conversation and that we should be open to companionship with all who feel alienated, disappointed and confused in the gathering gloom of a world growing old." pg. 12

Chapter One | The Despairing Journey: Dispatches from the Emmaus Road

Name: Albert Camus

Biographical Information: French philosopher, novelist and playwright. Born 1913 in Algeria, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, died in a road accident in 1960. He wrestled with the apparent 'absurdity' of a world in which human beings have an ineradicable craving for meaning, yet find themselves thrown into a universe that has become empty and silent. Few modern writers have expressed this dilemma with such clarity, honesty and courage; Camus writes from the Emmaus road.

"If one believes in nothing, if nothing makes sense, if we can assert no value whatsoever, everything is permissible and nothing is important. There is no pro or con; the murder is neither right nor wrong. One is free to stoke the crematory fires, or to give one's life to the care of lepers. Wickedness and virtue are just accident or whim. (Camus 1971, 13)"
"Cynicism, the deification of history and of matter, individual terror and State crime, these are the inordinate consequences that will now spring, armed to the teeth, from the equivocal conception of a world which entrusts history alone the task of producing both values and truth ...  The sky is empty, the earth is delivered into the hands of power without principles. (1971, 116-117)"
 "How to live without grace – that is the question that dominates the nineteenth century. 'By justice' answered all of those who did not want to accept absolute nihilism. To the people who despaired of the Kingdom of Heaven, they promised the kingdom of men. The preaching of the city of humanity increased in fervour up to the end of the nineteenth century when it became really visionary in tone and placed scientific certainties in the service of Utopia. But the kingdom has retreated into the distance, gigantic wars have ravaged the oldest countries in Europe, the blood of rebels has bespattered walls, and total justice has approached not a step nearer. The question of the twentieth century ... has gradually been specified: how to live without grace and without justice? (1971, 192) pgs. 14-15

Chapter Two | Christians on the Emmaus Road

" ... the fact that believers are thrown into a historical situation in which many of their inherited assumptions and certainties appear to be crumbling creates an opportunity for the kind of genuine dialogue we have heard a humanist writer like Albert Camus requesting. Christians cannot approach such conversations as people of massive strength and untroubled confidence, but rather as those who are also wounded and have their own unresolved dilemmas. When this is admitted then there is an opportunity for true companionship, replicating something like the experience of the Emmaus two who 'talked and discussed these things with each other' in the fading light of the evening." pg. 17

"'We have assumed that we had a 'Christian civilization' which was something we could proudly offer to the non-Christian world. God is showing us how rotten that civilization is. We shall need in the future to be more humble, to be more ready to take up the cross, follow Christ, and bear his reproach among men.' (J.H. Oldham, quoted in Clements, 1999, 140) ... The 'suffering church' was understood to be a distant reality located in Eastern Europe and China where evil, godless political systems were in control, so that the language of the Gospels concerning the cost of discipleship had little practical relevance to being Christian in Britain and the United States of America. Indeed, as far as the latter is concerned, a significant sociological study of American churches in the mid-twentieth century concluded that membership of such groups did not require the acceptance of a set of values at variance with those governing the wider society, but rather created 'a stronger and more explicitly religious affirmation of the same values held by the community at large' (Berger, 1961, 41)." pgs. 20-21

"In the Bible God is frequently described as bringing about the end of human social and religious arrangements that stand in the way of his purposes in the world, only for those terminations to become the ground on which startling new beginnings come to light. ... Perhaps nobody has expressed the importance of allowing what has grown old to die away better than Paul Tillich, who over fifty years ago observed that what is really new in history comes 'only in the moment when the old becomes visible as old and tragic and dying, and when no way out is seen.' With great insight Tillich recognized that what is truly new cannot be devised or constructed by us at all: 'All we can do is to be ready for it. We must realize as profoundly as possible that the former things have to become old, that they destroy our period just when we try most courageously to preserve the best of it' (Tillich, 1962, 183). Or, to express this in biblical language, there are times when judgement 'begins with the family of God' (1 Peter 4:17), because a once virile faith, gone to seed and serving ideologies that subvert the truth shown in Christ, has to be removed as a precondition for the emergence of the genuinely new things that God creates." pg. 22

"As Stuart Murray has written, the immediate future is likely to be a very difficult time for Christians 'in a society that has rejected institutional Christianity and is familiar enough with the Christian story not to want to hear it again.' In this situation almost all our inherited assumptions concerning the nature of the Church and its calling are likely to prove inadequate, if not actually misleading. However, as Murray says, if Christians can 'face into this future rather than hankering after a fading past', if they 'resist short-term packages and pre-packaged answers' and learn how to be cross-cultural missionaries in a secular society, then 'whatever culture emerges from the ruins of Christendom might offer tremendous opportunities for telling and living out the Christian story in a society where this is largely unknown' (Murray, 2004, 8)." pg. 25

"The Saturday Poem" by Dennis O'Driscoll in the Guardian newspaper in December 2002

Missing God

His grace is no longer called for
before meals: farmed fish multiply
without His intercession.
 Bread production rises through
disease-resistant grains devised
scientifically to mitigate His faults.

Yet, though we rebelled against Him
like adolescents, uplifted to see
an oppressive father banished  
 a bearded hermit to the desert,
we confess to missing Him at times.

Miss Him during the civil wedding
when, at the blossomy altar
of the registrar's desk, we wait in vain
to be fed a line containing words
like 'everlasting' and 'divine'.

Miss Him when the TV scientist
explains the cosmos through equations, 
leaving our planet to revolve on its axis
aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.

Miss Him when the radio catches a snatch
of plainchant from some echoey priory;
when the gospel choir raises its collective voice
to ask Shall We Gather at the River?
or the forces of the oratorio converge
on I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
and our contracted hearts lose a beat.

Miss Him when a choked voice at
the crematorium recites the poem
about fearing no more the heat of the sun.

Miss Him when we stand in judgement
on a lank Crucifixion in an art museum,
its stripe-like ribs testifying to rank.

Miss Him when the gamma-rays
recorded on the satellite graph
seem arranged into a celestial score, 
the music of the spheres,
the Ave Verum Corpus of the observatory lab.

Miss Him when we stumble on the breast lump
for the first time and involuntary prayer
escapes our lips; when a shadow crosses
our bodies on an x-ray screen; when we receive
a transfusion of foaming blood
sacrificed anonymously to save life.

Miss Him when we exclaim His name
spontaneously in awe or anger
as a woman in a birth ward
calls to her long-dead mother.

Miss Him when the linen-covered 
dining table holds warm bread rolls,
shiny glasses of red wine.

Miss Him when a dove swoops
from the orange grove in a tourist village
just as the monastery bell begins to take its toll.

Miss Him when our journey leads us 
under leaves of Gothic tracery, an arch
of overlapping branches that meet
like hands in Michelangelos' Creation.

Miss Him when, trudging past a church,
we catch a residual blast of incense,
a perfume on par with the fresh-baked loaf
which Milosz compared to happiness.

Miss Him when our newly-fitted kitchen
comes in Shaker-style and we order 
a matching set of Mother Ann Lee chairs.

Miss Him when we listen to the prophecy
of astronomers that the visible galaxies
will recede as the universe expands.

Miss Him when the sunset makes
its presence felt in the stained glass
window of the fake antique lounge bar.

Miss Him the way an uncoupled glider
riding the evening thermals misses its tug.

Miss Him, as the lovers shrugging
shoulders outside the cheap hotel
ponder what their next move should be.

Even feel nostalgic, odd days,
for His Second Coming,
like standing in the brick
dome of a dovecote
after the birds have flown.

"Here, surely, is the authentic language of the Emmaus road experience, of those who tread a path from which God has gone missing, and yet confess that as the sky darkens and the air grows cold, they are missing God. ... Christians will be able to communicate with those who are missing God only if they are willing to be absolutely honest concerning the sense of crisis and loss that brings them to the Emmaus road and makes them into genuine companions and partners on the journey. ... the ending of Christendom may turn out to be a disguised blessing if it creates the space within which those who confess Jesus as the Christ are able to rediscover their true identity and regain a lost credibility that will enable them to join the conversation on the road." pgs. 26-29

Chapter Two | Christians on the Emmaus Road: Dispatches from the Emmaus Road

Name: Jacques Ellul

Biographical Information: French academic, born in Bordeaux in 1912. Became Professor of Law and the Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. An active member of the French Resistance during World War Two, he was a prolific author with a particular interest in contemporary culture and what he saw as the negative impact of technology on human life. Influenced as a young man by the work of Karl Marx, he read widely in Christian theology and was a member of the French Reformed Church. His books, which have been translated into many languages, contain searching, critical analyses of Western Christianity, and have been seen by many as offering a prophetic contribution to modern thought. The titles from which the following quotations are drawn suggest that Ellul's voice offers a Christian contribution to the dialogue on the Emmaus road: The Subversion of Christianity (1986); Hope in Time of Abandonment (1973); and The New Demons (1975). Ellul died in 1994.

"How has it come about that the development of Christianity and the church has given birth to a society, a culture that are completely opposite to what we read in the Bible, to what is indisputably the text of the law, the prophets, Jesus and Paul? ... There is not just deviation but radical and essential contradiction, or real subversion. ... In reality, the social group that gave strong adherence to Christianity (the political, social and intellectual elite) brought with them a social ritual that was the exact opposite of what Jesus proclaimed. (Ellul 1986, 3, 21)"
"Nevertheless, Christ is there. The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. The risen Christ is with us to the end of the world. The Holy Spirit acts in secret and with infinite patience. There is a church that is constantly born and reborn. ... The striking thing in the church's history is that through tremendous perversion, when everything seems to be eaten up by termites, there have always been resurgences of truth. (Ellul 1986, 191, 1999)" – pgs. 32-34

Chapter Three | The Unknown Christ

"Notice, first, the two disciples' opening statement to Jesus was that their dead leader 'was a prophet.' We may understand this to mean either, very simply, that the prophetic career of Jesus, validated by the power of his words and deeds, had been cut tragically short by his death; or the statement can be read as indicating that the terrible nature of Jesus' death by crucifixion now cast doubt upon his status as a prophet. Instead of being hailed as Messiah and acclaimed as Israel's saviour and liberator, he had been dismissed and treated as a deceiver and a traitor. Can the disgraced, dishonoured Jesus still be regarded as a true prophet or is that belief now exposed as a delusion, a tragic error?"  pg. 36

"If the first followers of Jesus found it difficult to reconcile their original belief in his prophetic status with the shattering experience of his disgraceful, horrible and very public death, Christians in later ages have experienced similar problems and have found various ways of reinterpreting that death so as to limit its offensiveness. In the centuries that followed the death of Jesus, his status as a prophet receded from view, eclipsed by categories that made him at one time omnipotent king, at another, cosmic Lord, and yet again, the lover of the individual soul. Such descriptions focused on power, honour and glory have repeatedly overwhelmed and eclipsed the original identity of Jesus of Nazareth. The relevance of this to our modern 'Emmaus dialogue' is clear when we note the observation of Jaroslav Pelikan in his brilliant study of the impact of Jesus on the history of culture, that by the time Islam burst upon the world in the seventh century claiming Jesus as a great prophet, Christians had forgotten that he was so described in the Gospels and actually condemned Muslims for using a title they now viewed as, at best, inadequate. Pelikan comments: 'Consequently, the potential significance of the figure of Jesus as a meeting ground between Christians and Jews, and between Christians and Muslims, has never materialized' (Pelikan 1985, 17). ... The difficulty, the near impossibility, of squaring the term 'prophet' with a biography that ends in public humiliation and the terrible death of one who is branded as a criminal is something felt with peculiar force by Muslims. The problem is solved by denying that such an end to the life of Jesus ever occurred; there was no cross and no humiliation."  pgs. 36-37

"Jesus, the Galilean prophet, had fallen foul of the powers that be; his trial and execution were formal, judicial acts, which meant that both he and his followers were now branded as traitors. James Alison has well described the situation the followers of Jesus found themselves in after his execution as one in which, since they were easily identifiable in Jerusalem as 'foreigners', they were 'linked with a major criminal who had just been executed'. The paralysing fear that drives this group underground, meeting behind locked doors, and skulking away from Jerusalem under cover of darkness, now becomes entirely understandable. Alison is justified in describing the Jesus community in the immediate aftermath of his crucifixion as 'a group of disillusioned, frightened, guilty, mournful semi-traitors' (Alison, 2005, 121). This also explains the ambivalence and uncertainty of our two walkers to Emmaus concerning their uninvited and unrecognized companion:

  • Who is this person?
  • Why is he so inquisitive?
  • Is conversation with him likely to be incriminating?"  pg. 38 

"This brings us to the words of the stranger. His opening statement is surprising, perhaps puzzling, in that instead of offering soothing, comforting words, he makes what (to Western ears at least) seems to be a direct and somewhat blunt accusation of responsibility: 'How foolish you are ... ' In other words, he suggests that they are, at least in part, culpable in relation to their despair and hopelessness. Their desperation stems ultimately from their acceptance of a fundamentally mistaken worldview which was based on a particular, and highly selective, reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. The statement made earlier in the account, that the travellers 'were kept' from recognizing Christ, thus means that their ignorance was due, not to some magical act of God, but to their own deeply mistaken reading of the Scriptures. Shaped by the culture to which they belonged, they had, in common with the rest of Jesus' followers, been misled by an ideological reading of the Bible. The interpretative tradition which underlay the hopes they had placed in the prophet Jesus was a false tradition. Consequently, what they had been hoping for was simply wrong. Despite being dressed up in sacred language, they had been trapped within a misleading and false ideology!"  pg. 39

"What this conversation suggests is that the Emmaus road, while offering hope for the discovery of radical newness, does not provide us with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called 'cheap grace.' Christ does not come with a therapy designed to suppress our pain, but with a searching and disturbing exposure of the extent to which we may bear responsibility for the misery of our condition. He does not offer comforting reassurance to the hopeless that it will all work out as expected in the end; rather he presents the challenge to consider whether our hope was well founded in the first place. Now, as then, it is often the case, as Krister Stendahl observes, that our vision is more likely to be obstructed 'by what we think we know than by our lack of knowledge' (Stendahl, 1976, 7). So, while the Emmaus road is indeed a healing place, it is so only as it  first creates the space within which we can look again at what we though we knew, and humbly recognize the partial nature of our previous understanding of the ways of God. ... the disciples had accepted definitions of terms like 'Messiah' and 'redemption' based on one stream of prophetic expectation, that which focused on the power, honour and glory of the messianic age. This tradition is clearly present within the Bible, but it exists there alongside and in tension with another, contrasting expectation of messianic suffering, rejection and death. The unrecognized stranger on the road points out that when these strands are properly related to each other it becomes clear that the Messiah cannot achieve the glory of the kingdom finally come without first experiencing pain, loss and humiliation. ... The question with which those of us who travel the 'Emmaus road' in the twenty-first century are here confronted concerns the unrecognized and unacknowledged ways in which our worldviews have distorted our understanding, so that the misery of our condition is traceable to a dangerous overconfidence concerning our grasp of truth and reality. pgs. 39-41

"The witness of history would seem to justify the devastating sentence with which Richard Niebuhr commenced his ground-breaking study of the divisions and factionalism of Western Christianity: 'Christendom has often achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its founder.' He went on to demonstrate the ways in which the urge to make alliances with privilege and power had repeatedly resulted in the violation of the spirit of the gospel and concluded that the institutional church had found it easier to 'give to Caesar the things that belonged to Caesar' when 'what might belong to God was not too closely pressed' (Niebuhr, 1929, 3)."  pgs. 41-42

"Like the original Emmaus walkers we have repeatedly failed to believe 'all that the prophets have spoken', filtering out those elements of the tradition that summon us to radical conversion and call us into a community of men and women no longer in thrall to idols and liberated to live a new life in Christ. The issues that face us here involve more than simply a critical review of history; they compel us to ask how it is possible to be truly 'Christian' in an age when the technological, individualist, success-oriented culture of the Western world so clearly possesses the power to distort our reading of the Scriptures we profess to honour. Such subversion places us in grave danger of embracing a syncretism that offers a halo of sanctity to values and actions that are the antithesis of the model of human life under the reign of God revealed to us by Jesus of Nazareth. ... Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz writes: 'The crisis (or sickness) of the life in the church is not just that the change of heart is not taking place or not taking place quickly enough, but that the absence of this change of heart is being further concealed under the appearance of a merely believed-in-faith. Are we Christians ... really changing our hearts, or do we just believe in a change of hearts and remain under the cloak of this belief in conversion basically unchanged? Are we living as disciples, or do we just believe in discipleship and, under the cloak of this belief in discipleship, continue in our old ways, the same unchanging ways? Do we show real love, or do we just believe in love and under the cloak of belief in love remain the same egoists and conformists we have always been? Do we share the sufferings of others, or do we just believe in this sharing, remaining under a cloak of belief in 'sympathy' as apathetic as ever? (Metz, 1981, 3)  pgs. 42-43

"In Chapter 2, we noticed the manner in which Western Christians viewed the world at the beginning of the twentieth century, identifying the vast continent of Africa, and the even more mysterious and remote regions of Asia, as the 'unevangelized' world in need of the knowledge and wisdom that providence had entrusted to civilized and Christianized nations. Now, with the collapse of such a simplistic worldview, and in the confusion and uncertainty of our modern 'Emmaus experience', Western believers find themselves in a radically changed context in which the 'centre' of the Christian movement has reappeared in what we thought were the 'margins'. And from those 'margins' voices are heard offering us new perspectives and fresh hope. There are 'rumours of angels' in a globalized world, but the question is (now as the beginning) whether humble witnesses whose testimonies are capable of renewing hope, will be heard in the old centres of power and knowledge."  pgs. 48-49

" ... the unknown Christ came up beside the two disciples on the road. It is worth recalling that throughout the ensuing conversation he remains unrecognized. The moment of recognition, the epiphany, is still to come. Once that revelation has been given then the disciples recall how their hearts had burned within them during the conversation on the road. But this is remembered in retrospect; throughout the journey itself Christ remains hidden, unknown, incognito. ... our experiences of being alone, abandoned and without Christ, may not actually correspond to reality. This is in no way to trivialize or diminish the pain or feelings of loss and loneliness, but the fact that Christ is not recognized does not mean that he is absent. Indeed, we might suggest that for the two walkers in our story, Christ was in fact more intimately and wonderfully present than he had ever been before; had they ever previously known such a conversation with Jesus as this one? So then, even in the darkest and most despairing moments of our pilgrimage we are not alone; Christ walks beside us even when we mistake him for a stranger who comes, uninvited, out of nowhere. But there is also a great challenge here: the risen Christ not only accompanies the despairing walkers, but he is now the unpredictable Christ. He cannot be restricted and contained; he comes and goes and in the power of a risen life does his gracious work in human lives in mysterious ways that are often unseen and unrecognized. This suggests that to understand the resurrection merely as a doctrine to be believed is to strip it of its glory; Christ is alive and in the world, on the open roads where people travel and discuss their disappointments, doing his revealing, healing work in ways that are surprising and mysterious. We may not set limits on when, or where, or how he makes his presence known; rather, we can expect to be continually surprised by the sudden, unanticipated ways in which he comes alongside humble people who seek for the kingdom while confessing their need of grace and fresh understanding. pgs. 50-51

Emmaus City Church Sully Notes Special Moving Towards Emmaus 1 of 2 Worcester MA Soma Acts 29 Christian Reformed Church Network of Missional Communities
Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1628)

Other City Notes Specials 
| 13 Marks of a Faithful Missional ChurchBaptism: The Water That Unites

Next post: City Notes Special '17 | Jesus' Loving Care and Pursuit of Us is Relentless

+ Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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