A sermon drawn from Luke 24:25-26
Would anyone else like to know what Jesus said to those disciples on the road to Emmaus? About “all the scriptures”?
How he interpreted what there was in “all those scriptures” about the Messiah – about Jesus himself?
We probably know, “all the scriptures” here, “starting with Moses and all the prophets,” means what most of us probably think of as “the Old Testament portion of our Bibles.” The sacred writings that had been recognized as scriptures for hundreds of years already by Jesus’ time; the ones Jesus and the disciples had grown up hearing and learning; like those verses from Isaiah we read a little bit ago, promising rescue and salvation forever, and teaching that would go out from a restored Jerusalem – in 540 BCE or so, that was a message of immediate hope to the exiles in Babylonia who were just about to be told that they could go back to their homeland.
Because obviously, this story in Luke takes place on the first Sunday of Easter, so the specifically Christian writings, that make up our New Testament, hadn’t been written yet. They’d all be written later, as part of the movement that grows up around the ministry of these first disciples, in light of their memory of and faith in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus’ message and work, written as part of their effort to spread that faith and memory and message and work. And then it takes some time before Christians recognize those writings, like this gospel of Luke’s, as “scriptures” too, same as those older ones.
So … in this story, Jesus is interpreting to these disciples all the things in all the scriptures that some people – and I know this from experience – would be happy to ignore. I know this, because every so often, someone in our Bible study class will say, right out loud, right to my face, “I’ll be so glad when we get out of the Old Testament.”
Which [OK, truthfully, no, I don’t get this at all, but when I’m trying to be empathetic] I guess I can get it, maybe, a little, because those ancient scriptures challenge us sometimes in ways that the newer ones don’t, or so we think; the world we read about in Moses and all the prophets is not a pretty, peaceful world of good people doing good things and setting good examples for us; even the heroes of the Bible are pretty horrible a lot of the time; and there is a lot of what these days we’d probably call “traumatic memory” preserved in the stories in the Hebrew scriptures.
Not that the world of the New Testament was known for its non-violence. These travelers on the road to Emmaus are dealing with their own, fresh, traumatic memory, as we know.
But we may think “that’s different” – because we think we understand how the violence and terror in the story of Holy Week works for good, through Christ; we think we understand how that concerns us, and what we’re supposed to do about it.
While we can have a much harder time thinking that about some of those older scriptures. Just this past January, there was an outcry over the exceptionally violent Biblical text that the PCUSA’s ordination exam committee had made the mandatory text for the exegesis exam, and that outcry quite rightly raised the issues of pastoral sensitivity and care for those involved, especially vulnerable readers and graders, and how we need community support and conversation when we read scripture. But it also raised real questions about our [Christian] relationship to these texts, and what people see as their value for us, and what we think (or don’t think) they have to do with Jesus and with the God we know through Jesus.
It’s not a modern problem. There was an ancient Christian named Marcion, in the 2nd century, who was convinced that the “Jewish scriptures” had nothing to do with Jesus, were talking about a whole different God, not “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He thought Christians ought to stop reading all those Jewish scriptures, and he tried very hard to get the church to agree with that.
But the early church decided Marcion was wrong, really wrong; partly because of memories like this one in Luke: memories of Jesus treating Moses and all the prophets as vital for those disciples who wanted to understand what had happened in Jerusalem on that first Easter!
Because here’s Jesus, the risen Christ, that is, the Messiah, literally the anointed one of God – and hello, “the anointed one” is an idea that comes straight out of the scriptures. We need those scriptures to tell us what anointing meant to the people of God, to know that priests have to be anointed, and kings, and prophets, and so to begin to understand what it even meant to call Jesus “the Christ.” Here’s Jesus talking to these two disciples on the road about how all the scriptures make plain somehow that “it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory.”
So Christians have been thinking we need to pay attention to those scriptures ever since.
And even though Luke doesn’t tell us precisely what Jesus said on the road, we get some idea of what he might have said from the way the earliest Christians, the ones who wrote that New Testament, interpret the scriptures. And what they do is look back at those scriptures that they were so familiar with, and now, because of their experience with and their faith in Jesus, they see something they hadn’t seen before.
Because there are many, many references to the scriptures in all the letters, and all the gospels and the book of Acts, and mostly what those scriptures point out is how the story of God and God’s people, from the beginning, makes sense of the pattern we see in the life of Jesus: that pattern of coming into the world and living a human life, as the image of God, with the complete faithfulness of a child of God, and with a depth of wisdom and holiness and care for others of a priest, the concern for justice of a prophet, the mercy of a king in his response to the fallen people around him, and ultimately that pattern of sacrificial love, which we’ve come to understand is an expression of the life of God in Jesus – all of that makes deeper sense when we see it in the context of earlier scripture.
We start to see how this pattern of the life of Christ fits with the way God has been seeking the humanity created in the image of God from the beginning.
We can see that God has constantly been pouring out teaching, teaching that calls people to embrace a way of life of justice and righteousness, that paints a vision of God’s shalom and shows the way to it, that speaks of God’s love for humanity, and God’s hatred of sin and of death because of what it does to humanity, and God’s ceaseless battle with it for the sake of humanity.
And we Christians think we see all that particularly clearly in the light of Jesus Christ. See that, in the face of human lostness, God IS Steadfast love. Divine involvement. Redemptive involvement. Costly redemptive involvement.
Because for us, who have faith in Christ, Jesus embodies God’s teaching. Jesus himself in his very being, and certainly in what he does and says – which we read about in the gospels – is, for us, the clearest interpretation of all that divine teaching.
The best interpreter of God’s word ever. God’s Word, in person.
That’s almost certainly what John meant when John said “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …” And what Luke is trying to tell us when he writes that Jesus himself “interpreted for them” – those disciples on their journey home in the memory of the events of Holy Week and the reports of Jesus’ resurrection – “the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
Because we can sense that whatever Jesus said to these two disciples, it was Jesus’ being there that mattered. Because even though they don’t recognize this person as Jesus, yet, when they look back on the experience, they say, wow, didn’t we know something special was happening when he was talking with us on the road?! We knew we could feel we were in contact with some source of light and life and love …
That kind of presence warms our hearts, too, when we feel it …
As it does for these two disciples, Cleopas – whose name, by the way, means “someone who tells about, who glorifies, the Father” – which seems potentially significant – and the other disciple, whose name we don’t know – a friend, or people have suggested it could have been Cleopas’ mother or sister –
Who are having the greatest Bible study lesson ever …
Because in truth, Jesus comes first; not the other way around.
It’s when we already have faith in Jesus Christ, that it’s hard not to see references to Jesus in all the scriptures.
True story, I had an experience like that just yesterday, as a matter of fact. I’ve been going to Torah study at the Reform synagogue in Louisville since COVID, [because they have class on zoom now, which makes it way more accessible for me, living 40 miles away] and yesterday morning, we were reading Leviticus, what our teacher called “the worst Torah portion,” the one about skin diseases – “leprosy” [not the best translation, really] [here’s more on Tazria-Metzora, Torah portion for 4.22.23, btw] – and our teacher pointed out how striking it is that according to these instructions in Leviticus, it’s the priest who has to examine the person who might have a skin disease – so, in other words, the holiest person in the community has to come out of the sacred space of the tabernacle, and be in direct contact with this afflicted person, carefully touch this person’s skin, look at them, and determine what their treatment needs to be … with an ultimate eye to restoring this person to community … it was a great lesson!
And because I’m Christian, of course when I read scripture, I bring that Christian faith in Jesus along, and I have already read the New Testament, so of course, when I hear something like that, which I’d never noticed before in connection with this scripture, I can’t help immediately also thinking … about Jesus being “our great high priest,” and doing something like that for humanity …
And I need to be clear, that I’m not suggesting that those texts were “really” about Jesus … as if there were one and only one true and correct meaning of scripture, and somehow Christians have a monopoly on that. Some people do have that idea. But refusing to accept that the other meanings in scripture are really there, and really speak to people, and legitimately continue to speak to people today, creates real problems. Over the centuries, Christians with that idea have made ourselves the source of traumatic memories, for our cousins in Biblical faith, because of our differences in interpretation. We need to stop doing that.
It’s just that, in the presence of Jesus, through the eyes of faith, Christian readers are almost sure to see that those texts also make sense, deeper sense, of what we already know about God and about ourselves in the light of Christ.
And with that awareness, that the meaning of these texts becomes fuller and deeper as we move through life and time, we may also sense that all the scriptures point even further beyond themselves, in ways we know we don’t even see yet … as far as a future yet to be fulfilled …
And honestly, very likely what Jesus would have been doing on that road in that teaching would have been exactly this: getting those disciples to go back to familiar scriptures, and see them again, differently, in light of their most recent experience, and through the eyes of their developing faith.
When Luke tells this story about the disciples traveling with Jesus on the road, we might even be able to glimpse in that little story a perfect symbol, an image, of the way Christians still, to this day, study scripture together, and in doing so, encounter the presence of the living God, the living Spirit of Jesus Christ, in hearing the word of scripture, and in seeing it reflected and expanded and lived out – “interpreted” – in and by the life of Christ.
And also, we hope, we like to think, in the life of the body of Christ, the church, which is still on the way – in the light of the justice and teaching that has been going out from God since the beginning, … in the light of Christ, God’s anointed, who is still God’s word to us, and who is still on the move in our world.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The travelers to Emmaus,” Maurice Denis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
2 responses to ““Teaching on the Move””
Wow. I love this so much that I don’t know where to begin. I had to pause to copy what you wrote about the patter of God’s relationship with God’s people being played out in the life of Jesus as he enacts all roles—priest, king. You have, once again, given me much to think about, my friend. Thank you.
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Thank you for your kind words, Steve!