Today I want to share a personal story with. The story I about the cross you see below. This cross was given to me as a parting gift in late 1997 by the people of St. Mary’s church back in a town called Grossenkneten, Germany. I had served that congregation as a ‘Vikarin’, a ‘pastor in residence’ for more than a year. And I had grown fond of those people. I had had a chance to get to know them, and to share in their joys and sorrows. It was hard to say good bye.
What made the parting even harder was the fact that I wouldn’t just be leaving this call to move on to the next – I was about to leave the country that was home to me, and to embark on a journey into the unknown. My family and I were moving to California, and I had no idea what my life in this new setting would be like. I ran the whole gamut of emotions, from curiosity and excitement to grief and fear.
And then, at the farewell party the people of St. Mary’s in Grossenkneten threw for me, I was handed a small package. It contained the bronze cross, just small enough to fit comfortably into my hand. The inscription on the cross says, ‘Ich bin bei euch,’ which means, ‘I am with you’, ‘you’ in the plural.
I was immensely touched by this gift, which showed that those people I cared about cared about me as well and knew me well enough to send me on my way with God’s promise. ‘I am with you’ – I cannot tell you how much comfort this promise gave to me, back then, when I was about to leave life as I knew it behind. I cannot tell you how much comfort this promise has given to me ever since, when I felt lonely and homesick, when things were tough, when I felt disoriented, when I was afraid. God says, I am with you.
Now I omitted a significant detail about this cross. In the center, it shows an image of three figures sitting around a table, and the central figure is breaking bread. The two figures to the sides show signs of surprise, and recognition. At the center of this cross, we find the pivotal scene from today’s gospel, as two disciples walk the way from Jerusalem, where Jesus just was crucified a couple of days ago, full of grief, and the risen Chris join them on the way – and in the scene from the center of the cross, the disciples finally see and recognize the risen Christ. I am with you. You may not always recognize me, you may not always know it’s me, but I am there. I am present. I am with you.
The story we know as the Emmaus story is about the surprising and mysterious and certain presence of Christ, the presence of God, even in our darkest and most disorienting hours.
Now you may have heard that Emmaus is a small village northwest of Jerusalem, in what in those days was considered walking distance from Jerusalem, a couple of hours away on foot. Now the thing is that Emmaus cannot be located with certainty. Names of many villages and towns have changed over the years, you have to remember that the Romans thwarted a Jewish revolt in the year 70 and basically deported the Jewish population from what had been Judea and Galilee, and different folks moved in. The most likely candidate of being the biblical Emmaus is a town called Imwas, which is an Arabic name; a town, which, by the way, was destroyed by Israeli military after the 6 day war in 1967. But then there are at least three additional towns that claim to be the Emmaus of the first century AD, all more or less in walkable distance from Jerusalem, and all have archeological ‘proof’ that the house of Cleopas in which Jesus sat down with the disciples to break the bread is to be found in their town.
I personally like the idea that Emmaus cannot be located with certainty. Because it is not about the destination. It is about the way. Emmaus, the place where Jesus is to be seen and to be found, for me is more of a symbolic place, and it could be anywhere. I said a little earlier that the Easter story of Emmaus is about the surprising and mysterious and certain presence of Christ. But it wouldn’t be so surprising and mysterious anymore if we just had to go to a certain place, like Emmaus, to find Christ. God’s presence wouldn’t be so surprising and mysterious anymore if we hoped to find Christ in any place, like here at St. Matthew’s, for example, on Sunday mornings only.
Emmaus is all those places and times when we encounter Christ as we are traveling the road of faith. And the gospel story we heard today reminds us that we need to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open to the presence of the risen and living Christ. I think we all have heard people say, oh, I find God in nature, which is great! Why wouldn’t we find God in God’s creation? But if we say things like that, again there is the danger of focusing on a certain area, and neglecting to see Christ in all those other and often rather ordinary places in our lives. Like standing in a crowded BART train, or stuck in traffic, or rushing through the supermarket. Why would Christ not choose to show up in these places? After all, God is a God of life, and can be expected to be where life, even in its mundanity, happens.
Oh, and then of course Christ IS present in all those places where you go, where I go, where we go. Because we are the body of Christ, and as such we are Christ’s presence in this world. To push the idea a little, wherever we go and wherever we are, there is Emmaus.
But then, of course, we can’t be and shouldn’t be Christ unto ourselves, but need the presence that somehow is outside of us, the presence that seeks us out and comes to us. We need God to be with us. But hold that thought on US being Christ’s presence, I will get back to that in a moment.
I said a little earlier that the Easter story of Emmaus is a reminder for us to keep our senses open to the presence of the risen and living Christ. But then there is yet another aspect to this amazing story: even as the disciples don’t recognize Jesus, even as the desperate men on the road can’t see Jesus, he is still with them. God’s presence doesn’t depend on their acknowledgment, God’s presence doesn’t depend on our acknowledgment.
So today’s gospel story gives us hope: hope that somehow, God is with us, even in those places and times we don’t see anything, in those times and places that are dark and full of despair, in those times and places we feel abandoned, alone, and afraid. We can have the certain hope that God leads us or at least is our faithful companion through the valleys of the shadow of death. I am with you.
The flipside is that we as the body of Christ, and as members of the body of Christ should make a point of being present for others, and that can be physically, through prayer, or through acts of charity and justice. Those we are present for may not necessarily recognize or see Christ’s presence in their lives – but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the unconditional presence of God.
Since taking this enormous leap of faith into a new life in a new country, there have been many Emmaus moments for me. Now I know that Christ was present at the DMV, not always, but sometimes, in doctor’s offices and hospitals, at bridge toll plazas and BART ticket machines, to name but a few of those unexpected and surprising Emmauses in California. And these are just the places and times I remember, I am certain there have been numerous other times and places I didn’t recognize the presence of Christ.
And then, of course, God was with me in all those places of worship I’ve been a part of over the years, from the first congregation I joined, Zion Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in Richmond, yes, you heard right, and at first this place, with its worship so much like in Germany, felt like home – to this community of faith here, St. Matthew’s, God has been present, in water and bread and wine and word and music and personal encounters.
Emmaus is wherever we encounter the risen and living Christ. Emmaus is wherever we become the presence of the risen and living Christ to others. We are on the road of life, the road of faith. We are constantly on the road to Emmaus. And Christ speaks to all of us on our journey: I am with you. Fear not.
This post is also available in: German