Luke 24: 13-35
This past Monday morning driving to work, I was listening to my favorite sports talk show, ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” and the conversation they were having about the previous day’s biggest sports stories: the Golden State Warriors’ record-tying 72nd regular season win and Jordan Spieth’s epic Masters collapse on the 12th hole with a quadruple bogey.
A quick aside: I’m not much of a golfer so I had no idea what a “quadruple-bogey” was; so I looked it up when I got to the office; and it was then I realized I know exactly what a quadruple bogey is, because it is precisely what I do every time I try to play golf. I never thought I’d have anything in common with Jordan Spieth, but apparently on that one hole, I do.
Anyway, host Mike Greenberg is a big Twitter guy, so early in the morning he put up a Twitter poll: which sports story was more memorable – the record-tying Warriors win or the Masters-crushing quadruple bogey? Want to take a guess? Turns out the quadruple bogey won by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Now – while Twitter polls aren’t very scientific, it does make you wonder if the old adage is true that we tend to remember the massive blunder over the big success. Just think of last week’s scripture and the bad rap Mr. “Doubting Thomas” gets. Where else does Thomas appear in the Bible, right? Same sort of thing with today’s Easter postscript story: two men walking on the road to Emmaus – talking about Jesus, greeted by Jesus, talking with Jesus, inviting Jesus to dinner – all the while having no clue that it’s Jesus.
I can see the Twitter poll now: which is more memorable – our Emmaus travelers’ biggest life accomplishment, whatever that might be, or not recognizing Jesus, their quadruple bogey? Consider the fact, my friends, that this is the story that makes it into the Bible.
But this morning I want to do the same thing we did with Thomas last week. I want us to recognize that maybe, just maybe, they’re not the dummies we sometimes make them out to be. In fact, I want to consider the possibility that these travelers did, in fact, see Jesus; see him exactly the way Jesus wanted them to. Three unique ways that compel us to ask three key questions about how we see Jesus on our own Emmaus journey, how we treat Jesus when we see him, how we treat others and how we work and serve as the church.
The three ways these two travelers saw Jesus: First as stranger, then as guest, and finally as host. Stranger. Guest. Host. What are the implications of these three for the church?
They see Jesus first as stranger, we are told. In the middle of their talk and questions, writes Luke, Jesus came up and walked along with them. And so the drama begins. We, the reader, know it’s Jesus. But our two travelers don’t. To them, the risen Jesus is nothing more than a stranger.
Which very well may be the whole point. Jesus was a stranger to them – and they accepted him anyway. They invite the Jesus-they-don’t-recognize to join them on the journey, engage them in conversation, share in their lives for a spell.
We have a word for this sort of thing in the church – we call it “hospitality.” And in the New Testament there are a number of Greek words typically translated “hospitality,” one being “philoxenia” – it means, “love of the stranger.”
Let’s face it: this kind of hospitality – this stranger-loving – is rare in our day and time. We’re much more prone to simply pass by the stranger. Or worse, ditch philoxenia altogether for its inverse – xenophobia, which is “fear of the stranger. And not fear because the stranger has done something bad or threatened us in some way. Fear for no other reason than they are a stranger.
It’s doesn’t take much effort to see xenophobia in our day and time, does it? We know the cues – skin color, the God who is worshipped (or not), the person one loves, the party listed on a voting card, the way one dresses. I mean, our current cultural, political, religious conversations are rife with xenophobia. And it’s these very people – the ones we’re conditioned to be afraid of simply because we don’t know them – it’s these people that the Emmaus journey challenges us to love.
So I think the first key question of “Jesus as stranger” is this: what would happen if you and I begin practicing radical philoxenia? What if Trinity Presbyterian followed the lead of those travelers and became known as the hospitable church who dares to love the stranger? What might that look like – I mean, beyond platitudes of just being nice to people? What practical manifestations, what new ministry initiatives might be birthed because of it? See, when we practice philoxenia, when we love the stranger, we come to see that that stranger is no longer strange.
So – first, they see Jesus as stranger. After that, Jesus reveals himself in another way. Our travelers reach their stopping place on the road. And they say to this stranger, Why don’t you come have supper with us? It’s almost night time. And in that single act, they begin to see the Jesus-they-don’t-recognize not as a stranger, but as guest.
You may have heard of Saddleback Church in California, pastored by author Rick Warren. Saddleback has an interesting – and I think intriguing – way of understanding non-members who come on Sunday mornings. They’re not referred to – as is common in most churches, including ours – as “visitors.” Instead, they’re called “guests.”
And here’s why: the term “visitor,” they believe, implies that they’re not expected to come back. That they’re just passing through. It makes sense – we “visit” the Grand Canyon, we visit Disney World, we visit the zoo. We don’t stay at those places So when we call people “visitors” in church, we may inadvertently communicate to them that we don’t expect them to come back.
That’s why Saddleback started using the term “guests” – because guests, they say, expresses the expectation or hope that they’ll stick around. That they’re wanted. Which also makes sense. Think about our homes – we have “dinner guests,” not “dinner visitors.” And what’s that extra bedroom set aside for occasional use called? Right – it’s our guest room. Not a visitor room!
So – the second key question for us: what might happen if Trinity were to drop the “visitor” word from our lingo and instead begin welcoming and celebrating our “guests?” How might that simple change lead to new ways of looking at those who walk through our doors? How might we welcome them differently, talk to them differently, treat them differently beyond just their hour here? Just by calling them guests.
Whatever we call them, though, there’s one important caveat we must keep in mind: we do not get to choose who comes here. We do not get to pick our guests. I love the story about the family sitting down at the dining room table for their Sunday dinner when the doorbell rings. Turns out it’s the new folks next door stopping by to say hi. Oh, you’re having dinner right now. So sorry, we’ll come back later. No, no, our hosts say, come on in. And they set up a few extra placemats, grab some more chairs, and share with their guests their traditional Sunday dinner.
So when the doorbell rings at the very same time the next Sunday, the family just thinks it’s crazy coincidence, but they invite them in anyway. But when it happens next week, they start to wonder. And the week after that…..and after that.. As the sixth Sunday approaches, our family doesn’t know what to do. Every single week for over a month now, like clockwork, their neighbors just “happen to show up” right as Sunday dinner is ready. And they’ve invited them in each time because they didn’t want to be rude. But it’s getting out of hand.
So when the sixth Sunday comes and the doorbell rings right on cue, our gracious hosts welcome their guests in, lead them to the table where the extra placemats and chairs are already set. Serve hands-down the best meal yet. And after dinner, they all head to the kitchen to clean up. Except this time the family takes the dirty dishes, and instead of washing them in the sink, drying them and placing them in the cupboards above, they put the dirty plates down on the kitchen floor, let the family dog lick them clean, and then put them away in the cupboard. Their doorbell never rang again on Sunday afternoon!
Now – I’m not saying that’s a nice thing to do to your neighbors. Nor is it smart to enable neighbor mooching behavior. The point is that when it comes to welcoming guests into the church, if we’re doing it right, we don’t get to choose who walks in our doors. Because the truth of the matter is that we’re not the ones doing the inviting. God is. And we don’t get to control what our guests expect from us, what our guests need from us.
So another key question to ask ourselves is: are we prepared as the church to truly welcome every guest as they are? Are we prepared to let them take a full and active role in building God’s kingdom on earth here, even if it looks different from what we’ve always done? Because here’s the hard truth, y’all – if we’re not really interested in doing that, if we’re going ask them to conform to us and not listen to their new ideas, then we don’t need to worry about welcoming guests and growing this church. The minute we’re no longer willing to grow and change is the minute we stop being the church.
Which leads to what happens next in our story. Jesus – once a stranger and then a guest, now turns the tables completely and becomes something else. He becomes the host. He becomes the host when he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. It’s then and only then that their eyes are opened and they recognize him.
And you know what’s interesting about this? It’s not that they don’t recognize Jesus for all that time. It’s that they recognize him here, in this moment, when he breaks bread in their presence. Think about that – they recognize Jesus when Jesus does what he does best: share a meal, offer himself up, extend grace for all. When he, and he alone, is host.
You know, every time we celebrate communion, I try to make this very point: This is not a Trinity table, I say. It’s not a Presbyterian table or the church universal’s table. This is God’s table. God is the host and we are the guests.
There’s a reason I started doing this some number of years ago. Early on in ministry, greeting people at the door after worship one Sunday, I had two very different conversations about communion that day. The first was with a long-time member who told me that her communion experience had been an absolute disappointment because the silver platters weren’t polished, the bread was a little on the dry side, my Great Prayer of Thanksgiving was not long enough and the elder serving her did not say the proper words when sharing the cup. And it was my job, she declared, to make sure these things were rectified so communion next time would be more meaningful for her.
The very next person in line was a young man I’d never seen before. His face looked worn from the journey and there were tears in his eyes. The first words out of his mouth were I’m sorry. Before I could ask what for, he told me he had not taken communion that morning because…… and that’s when he paused, trying to find words that would never come. He didn’t need them. I could tell it had been too painful for him. Some deep hurt inside that made it impossible to receive the holy meal he so desperately craved. To hear those profound words, This is my body, this is my blood, broken for you, shed for you – he didn’t feel he was worth any of that.
For the rest of the day I thought about the guy who struggled with being a guest; I thought about the woman who assumed she was the host. And from then on, I began saying it as the lead-in to every communion I presided over: This meal – it’s not our meal. This table – it’s not our table. It is God’s meal and table. God is the host; we are the guests. God invites; we respond. God is in charge; we are not.
Tell me this, Trinity Presbyterian: what would it be like if each of us came, not just to the communion table but to all of life, in a spirit of joyful recognition that God is host, God is Inviter, God is the One in charge – and not ourselves? What would it be like if we actually lived as grateful and grace-filled guests, here on this earth to receive, here to respond out of undying gratitude for the One who calls us beloved? How might that spirit transform the way we see ourselves, the way we see those around us, the way we see church and the way we go and serve in the world?
Stranger. Guest. Host. Let’s cut our travelers some slack for their quadruple bogey, shall we? They may not have recognized him, but they certainly saw him. They welcomed the stranger. They made him their guest. And they let him be host. May God grant each of us grace and wisdom to do the same with Jesus ourselves, each and every day, wherever the road leads us.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/btl_display.asp?installment_id=93040816, visited on 4.10.2016.