In 1901 and 1902, a Harvard University professor gave a series of lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland. His name is William James. The lectures were published under the title The Varieties of Religious Experiences. The book has become a classic in the history of both psychology and religion. James was not interested in institutions and doctrines or passing judgment on the legitimacy of these experiences. He was interested in hearing and appreciating what people had to say about the episodes which they interpreted as religious.
Dr. James would have had a field day, as we say now, with these two men and their report of what happened to them on their walk on the first day of the week. Their story is told in the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It is the longest and most detailed of all the resurrection appearances of Jesus. We know the name of one of the disciples, Cleopas. Some think the unnamed other one was Luke himself. Perhaps, but what we do know is that this story circulated among those first Christian communities and formed an essential part of their gospel proclamation.
I like it also because it is an interesting story. It is full of fascinating details, many of which lead to questions. It is the kind of religious story that would have delighted Professor William James. He would have said, using the song phrase I quoted last week, “Something Happened.” Here, as elsewhere, it is not always clear as to what happened, and how, and why. But something happened.
I suspect when you try to tell your story or write a narrative of what happened to you, too often all you can write is “something happened.” I felt this, I heard this, I decided this, I saw this… but how it happened, and why, I cannot tell.
When we encounter the true and living God, something happens that can not fit into our categories, that can not be described with our normal vocabulary, that cannot be crammed into any box. God is God. God is infinitely complex and mysterious. You are infinitely complex and mysterious. And when two complex and mysterious realities meet, there is an explosion of emotion, of energy, of mystery, even of explanations.
This is what I want talk about today: what happens when, along the way, we encounter Jesus the risen Lord, when we experience what the Bible calls in one place, the spirit of holiness.
As I preach, you pray for me and for yourself, that you might know it when the Lord meets you on the way, that you might respond in a way that is rich and rewarding, and that you might have a testimony of your encounter with God, one that is fresh, and powerful, and able to pull you into the future God has for you.
Cleopas and his friend had such an encounter. They summarized it this way, “Did not our hearts burn within us as Jesus talked with us and explained the Bible?”
Let me start with the number four. Is there a number four in this story?
On the first day of the week, two men walk seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They talk about things that have happened over the last week, specifically over the last three days, what we call Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. A stranger joins their walk and asks, “What are you talking about?”
They tell the story of Jesus, and I think it is a wonderful summary of the way many people feel about Jesus as a man: “He was a prophet who did powerful miracles. He was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people. But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death. They, the Romans, crucified him. We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel from Roman occupation…. Then, this happened, today. Some women in our group went to the tomb and found it empty.”
The man who joined their walk turns out to be well versed in the Hebrew Bible. He begins to point out how much of this was described in the Hebrew Bible, the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Especially the suffering part.
They talked until they reached Emmaus. The two convinced the stranger to join them for dinner. As they were eating, their eyes were open in some manner and they realized the stranger was none other than Jesus, risen from the dead.
But he disappeared, and the two men hurried back to Jerusalem and told the disciples of Jesus this story. The disciples said, “Yes, we know. Jesus appeared to Peter, also.”
How many numbers did you notice in the story?
I know that number four is not in this story. One is, for it was the first day of the week. Two is, because there were two people walking home. Three is, because it was the third day since Jesus was crucified. Seven is in the story—it was seven miles from Jerusalem?
But is there a four?
Yes, the number four is in the story.
But it is not just religion that makes use of four. Think about geography: four corners of the world; or music: four-part harmony; or sport: four bases in baseball; or politics: the four freedoms; in nature: the four-leaf clover. What other use of four can you think of?
In the Bible: the four horsemen of the apocalypse; and there are the four gospels.
Here in this story, I find the number four.
Any encounter with the Risen Lord pushes us in one of four directions:
One: it can harness our imagination and produce art, like writing a song or performing a play or painting a picture. I quoted the song last week, one of the first contemporary Christian songs, “When I Opened Up the Door.” I look at the artwork around our sanctuary today and almost any Sunday. I wish we had a way to promote this more, to support artists to create and perform and display the kind of art that grows out of an encounter with God.
These two men on the road to Emmaus told their story, and storytelling is a high art form. Storytelling harnesses the imagination, not solely in creating narratives but also in recalling narratives and presenting them to an audience in memorable fashion. These two men were storytellers of the highest order, and today—two thousand years later—we are still retelling the story they first told on that first day of the week.
That is number one, the imagination.
Number two is this: our encounter with God can push us to an ethical response. Your response when the Lord appears to you, or speaks to you, might move deep in your bones to do something. You may feel compelled to launch a ministry, or join a movement, or pick up a hammer and build a house for some homeless person. Your encounter with the Risen Lord can sharpen your discernment between right and wrong, between yes and no, between doing something and doing nothing. It just might shake the lethargy off your sad body and energize you to be the person God wants you to be and do the job God wants you to be.
Remember Moses? He met God in the burning bush. He heard God on the back side of the mountain. And the result. He left the desert and went to the capital city and confronted the pharaoh. “Let my people go from their slavery,” he said. Moses encountered God and he got up and did something for the whole society. Sometimes that happens when the eternal and everlasting God meets a man or a woman, a girl or a boy. Things change. Stuff happens.
Number two is just this: God can precipitate an ethical or moral action in your life. You can volunteer at the Boys Club, you can lead a girl scout pack, or you can march on the courthouse for the city and demand reform of our promiscuous gun regulations. When your encounter with God convicts you of things that are wrong, you get up and do it.
Number three of four responses: an explanation. We want an explanation. The encounter with God is full of mystery, full of moments we cannot understand. Why did God speak to me? Why did God speak to me in a ravine? How do I know it was God and not just the latent voice of my parents reinforcing their expectations?
Somebody needs to explain this to me!
This use of human reason is not bad, it is not worldly, and it is not unchristian. To employ the mind, the best mind you have, in the work of God is holiness, it is righteousness, it is kingdom work, it is gospel work.
I was a college freshman when I discovered the intellectual work of C. S. Lewis. He had answers to my questions. He helped explain how God exists, how God speaks, and how God wants me to live. I found it compelling. I found it urgent. I found it necessary. I give thanks for his work, and for the work of other scholars who, like me, wanted an explanation to the ways and means of religion.
Not everything about God can fit into a neat rational box. But those two disillusioned men on the road to Emmaus encountered another man who explained to them what had happened to Jesus and why it was consistent with the character of God and how it was good for the whole human race. I honor that.
These are three responses to an encounter with God: the imaginative, the ethical, and the explanatory.
Finally, we come to number four.
This number four is what I think happened in this episode on the road to Emmaus. The key is this comment, handed down for centuries. It is not a piece of art, except it is part of a story; it is not a call to action, except as it drove them back to Jerusalem; and it is not an explanation appealing to the reason except their rereading of the Hebrew Bible.
No, it is a realization that something happened, something deep down inside of us. Our emotions were stirred, our will was galvanized, and something deep in our spirit was triggered. Something happened. We experienced something that day. We cannot explain it. We cannot describe or paint it. We cannot even act upon it. We can just testify to it.
Some people encounter the Risen Lord with a burst of emotion. They cry. They sing. They shout. They dance. They laugh. They shake.
The world news reported last night on what they call a Super Bloom. An occasional outburst of color in the hills and valleys of the United States. Wild flowers by the square mile. Rich in color as far as the eye can see. Some react to the goodness of God the same way: an outburst of emotion, joy, and spiritual color!
In the 18th century, the Shakers exemplified this way of responding to God. They danced and sang and shook! In the 20th century, the Pentecostals took up this way of responding to God. They spoke in tongues and shouted and fell to the ground.
“Did not our hearts burn within us?” those two disciples asked each other after their encounter with Jesus the Risen Lord.
Haven’t you ever felt like that? So stirred by the things of God that you wanted to cry or shout or get up and dance around the room. Sometimes, we tap it down, we denigrate it as mere emotion, we demean it as unworthy of Jesus and the spirit. But nothing great is ever accomplished without emotion, enthusiasm, and delight.
Many of our great songs give voice to this gospel truth. You encounter God in some unexpected place, in a strange time and place. You are filled with joy and thanksgiving and delight in the things of God. I want to sing when the spirit says sing! I want to shout when the spirit says shout. I want to dance when the spirit says dance. Glory to God.