Does is ever happen to you that hearing the name of a certain place triggers some good feelings? Maybe it is the name of a favorite vacation spot, maybe it is the name of your hometown. Memories of places where we experienced good things usually bring a smile to our faces.
For me this happens every time I hear the name ‘Emmaus’, as in today’s gospel story. And, no, I’ve never been to the Holy Land, and, by the way, archeologists and scholars are not even sure where to find Emmaus – there is no such town on the map today.
But Emmaus is the name of the very first church I attended as I child in my hometown of Delmenhorst back in Germany.
Emmaus was a special community of faith. It was a mission start in a rapidly growing new housing development on the outskirts of town in what used to be farmland. In fact, the fellowship hall used to be a barn, and the sanctuary was a repurposed hog house, a pigsty. When I close my eyes, I can still see it before me: you would enter the church building through a small entry hall or narthex, and then had to take about 5 steps down into the sanctuary. It was a rather small room that held maybe 120 people. And it was a pretty dark room, partly underground, with few and small windows. But it had been furbished with carpet throughout and warm lights. Chairs were arranged in a couple of rows along three of the walls, with the altar occupying the fourth wall. People actually were able to look at each other during worship!
The pastor was young and dynamic. He had a knack for reaching out to people – in fact, he just showed up at our doorstep soon after we moved into the neighborhood and invited us to church. And he was good at mixing it up in church. Yes, there were traditional worship services with a gifted and enthusiastic woman playing a home organ – but at least once a Sunday, the pastor brought out his guitar and introduced a new song.
Once a month he involved the confirmation students in all aspects of the service – I loved those Sundays, because the confirmation students would bake fish-shaped crackers beforehand, and there would be grapes, and we’d celebrate an agape meal instead of communion – and even I as a kid could participate. I felt included, I felt that I was truly a part of this community.
I attended Sunday school and a free children’s music class there. One Christmas Eve, my sister and I, 6 and 7 years old, got to sing a duet in front of a packed house. Good memories!
Emmaus was hopping. The sanctuary was pretty much filled every Sunday. Sometimes, we kids had to sit on the steps, because there were no seats available. Emmaus was my first church home, and what an amazing home it was! I have to say, without Emmaus, I may not have grown in faith the way I did, and I may not be sitting here as a pastor today.
After a few years, we moved to the opposite end of town, and, because of the parochial system of the Protestant Church in Germany, now belonged to a different church. My sister and I checked it out one Sunday – and were turned off. It was so unlike what we had experienced at Emmaus, cold and stiff and boring. I wouldn’t attend church again until we moved to yet another part of town and I started confirmation classes at that neighborhood church.
Now the name Emmaus was chosen very purposely for this mission start I was part of as a child. What we associate with ‘Emmaus’ is not so much the destination – but the way. In fact, 16 verses in the gospel story are dedicated to the journey, and only five to the events in Emmaus itself.
In today’s gospel, we heard how, on the day of Christ’s resurrection, after the Sabbath, two of the disciples just have to get out of Jerusalem. They are still shaken by the events of the previous days: Jesus’ arrest, trial and death. They grieve, they hurt. Yes, they heard some women talk about the empty grave and the angel’s message that Christ is alive – but they can’t believe it. Their hopes and dreams died with Jesus on the cross. Their eyes and hearts are clouded. They are without orientation, they have to find a new way.
The little Emmaus church I attended as a child understood itself as being on the way – exploring new and innovative ways of being church together. I think that’s what made this church so vibrant.
But unfortunately things changed at Emmaus: the whole set-up was meant to be temporary. The pastor eventually wanted to build a ‘real’ church. His wish would be fulfilled – about 3 years after we moved away, some of the old farm buildings on the property were demolished, and a more traditional sanctuary was build, with front-facing pews and even a small bell tower.
And something happened to the pastor after the building was completed: he became much more conservative and rigid – just like the building. And that had an effect on the congregation – people stopped coming. When I attended worship in this new space as a teenager, and there were maybe 10 people sitting in the pews. And, yes, it felt cold and stiff and boring. Sadly, by becoming established, this church community had lost its way. But I am glad I have the memories of the converted hog house and the community in Christ I experienced there.
Today’s gospel story doesn’t end in the town of Emmaus. Yes, Emmaus is the place where the disciples’ eyes are finally opened after they have this long walk on the road, where Jesus meets them and talks to them about his purpose – Emmaus is the place where they finally recognize Christ as he breaks the bread with them. But Emmaus is just a temporary stop. They don’t build a chapel or a memorial in Emmaus, they don’t enshrine the place where Christ was revealed to them, no, right away, they are on the way again, back to Jerusalem, sharing the good and exciting news with the Jesus’ followers there.
And, as we all know, this isn’t the end of the story: some of the followers stay in Jerusalem, exploring new ways of worship and being God’s community together, and growing as this community; and some literally hit the road as missionaries, eventually establishing Christian fellowships all over the Mediterranean – and beyond. Remember doubting Thomas from last Sunday? According to legend, he made it to India.
And Christ would meet many, and many would meet Christ – on the way. It is no coincidence that in the writings of Luke, in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, the Jesus movement it called ‘The Way’.
The times we are in right now are sad times, times that make us anxious, times that reveal so much about human nature and the nature of capitalism; but they are also interesting times. We can’t be church community the way we are used to. We can’t gather in person on Sundays and worship in the traditional way. I’m just realizing that I used the word ‘way’ twice right now – maybe a better expression would be that we can’t follow our cherished church routines, a routine being the way that basically goes in circles, around a specific center.
During these times, I am, we are reminded that we as the community of Christ are ‘on the way’. We know our final destination, which is the kingdom of God – but who knows what our journey entails? I mean, right now we see that a carefully panned construct like the world economy can be brought down by a tiny virus. Things happen, and in the end, we don’t have control over them. Right now, we see that the roads we have mapped so carefully are blocked easily. Our routines are interrupted.
What ways is God calling us on as we are facing a crisis that most likely will change the world forever? We may bristle at the use of technology in a church or worship setting, but see what good it does us right now. Since we started recording our worship services, we had more than 100 people participate each time. We are reaching people who either moved away or can’t come to worship for whatever reason. We are reaching new people. We got donations from people I don’t know.
I have to say, I am amazed and humbled by all that. And it makes me think and reconsider. There are different ways we can be church community. God has the imagination and the power to resurrect us to a new and different life as the community of Christ.
In the end, we all are on the way to Emmaus. And Christ meets us, maybe in mysterious ways, wherever we are along the way.
Picture by Samuel Foster on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German