May 5, 2013
Many of you have read the book or seen the movie The Life of Pi. It’s a story told backwards, in which an Indian man named Pi recounts two versions of his incredible experience as a 16 year old boy who survived 227 days stranded on raft in the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck, and then asks his audience which version of the story they prefer. In one version, the bulk of the story, Pi’s family decides to leave India and embarks on a Japanese freighter to Canada carrying some of the animals from the zoo their father manages. However, the ship gets hit by a storm and sinks, resulting in the death of most of Pi’s family. During the storm, Pi escapes in a small lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra with an injured leg, an orangutan and a tiger. Pi strives to survive, but the hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan, and then the tiger kills the hyena. Pi retreats to a small raft tethered to the lifeboat to flee the tiger. He ends up giving fish and water to the tiger and the tiger then learns to tolerate Pi’s presence and they both live in the boat.
After many adventures, the lifeboat washes up onto the coast of Mexico and Pi ends up in a Mexican hospital bed where he is eventually interviewed by a pair of Japanese Ministry of Transportation officials who want to find out why the original ship sank. Pi tells them his story about the animals, but the officials respond that the story is too unbelievable to report to their bosses. Pi’s ship went down off the coast of the Philippines and after 227 days in a lifeboat with a tiger in it he made it to Mexico? It defies logic, but somehow Pi was alive. They want a story they can put in their report and the one with the animals doesn’t do it. So Pi tells them a different, much darker version of the story, about human, rather than animal, deaths. After both stories have been shared, Pi asks the investigators and all those of us hearing the story to decide which one they/we believe. The investigators weren’t there. So they had to choose which version to believe.
The famous “Road to Emmaus” story in Luke’s Gospel starts with two travelers who, like the Japanese investigators, were trying to make sense of two versions of a story they had heard – two interpretations of what happened on Easter morning. Both stories included the death of the great prophet Jesus. One version was told by a group of women, who went to Jesus’ grave on Easter morning, found no body, but did find a group of angels, who told them Jesus was alive. The implication was that the women believed the angels that Jesus was alive. In a second version, some of the travelers’ male companions went to the tomb and found it empty, but they did not see Jesus or angels. The implication from the text is that these men were amazed, but skeptical. The travelers were not there at the tomb, but heard both versions so decided to take a long walk to clear their heads, unpack it all and talk through which story to believe. The one where Jesus was likely alive and the one where he wasn’t.
This may be where we find ourselves this morning. On Easter Sunday we heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Some time has now passed and perhaps we have reflected on it. We weren’t there for the events any more than the Japanese investigators, or Cleopas and his traveling companion were, but we must decide on which version of the story we believe. For us, was Jesus’ resurrection real or not? How can we, separated from the events by so much time, come to find Jesus alive in our time?
The answer to that question makes a difference. Without the resurrection the story of Jesus is a tragedy. When Jesus asks the travelers what they are talking about, they look sad. Cleopas says they had hoped Jesus would be the one who would redeem Israel. Without the resurrection, the hopes of Israel have been dashed. People could still go on wishing, but like Cleopas they would be disheartened. But if the resurrection is true, it’s not just a positive ending for one person, its means that the promises of the Old Testament were true. Jesus would not just be rising himself, but raising all hopes for Israel, for the world and for us for life eternal and for real and new life here.
Decisions about what to believe about life beyond the grave can lead to disagreement. Last October, a story came out of Apple Valley, Minnesota of four-year-old Jeremy Werdt who had emergency spleen surgery and was temporarily declared dead. But he awoke with such vivid descriptions of deceased relatives he had seen that he startled doctors, landed a book contract and he thrilled family members. All family members except those particularly fond of his maternal grandmother, Wanda Spencer, who 4 year old Jeremy declared was not in Heaven at all.
“To have Jeremy back and talking about this amazing experience of being with the Lord was the most wonderful day of our lives,” says his mother, Brenda. “He named all the relatives he’d seen and we just sat there crying. Then, after a while, we realized he hadn’t said anything about my mom, Grandma Spencer.” When Brenda asked about her in the hospital, Jeremy shook his head and said, “She ain’t there,” then rolled over and went back to sleep. Distressed, the family gathered in Jeremy’s recovery room two days later to gently quiz him again about who he had seen. He was able to repeatedly name and describe every deceased relative he had spent time with in heaven, even ones he hadn’t met during his life on earth. But when it came to Grandma Spencer, the boy was firm. “Nope. Not there,’” says Brenda.
The family was divided. Some doubted Jeremy had an out-of-body experience at all or suggested maybe Jeremy didn’t recognize Wanda because she looked younger in heaven or was elsewhere on God’s business. And others believed the boy, commenting that they had long been concerned and suspicious about Grandma Spencer’s faith. Two versions of the same story; differences of opinion about what happens after death.
Not surprisingly, in the Emmaus passage Jesus shows a preference for the version of the Holy Week and Easter story in which Jesus lives. He says to the travelers, “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared. Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” It doesn’t dawn on Cleopas and his friend that Jesus could be the one speaking, in part because of the cultural expectation about what happened after death. Theologian N.T Wright explains that in the ancient world there were differences of opinion about what happens after death. Most pagans believed there was nothing after death. Greeks like Plato believed the soul lived on even once the body decayed. And then many in the Hebrew world believed there was a bodily life after death. Now the lines were not cut and dried. In the Hebrew world, the idea of life after death developed over a long period of time and many Jews, such as the Sadducees, never accepted it. Many believed there was a time period after death in which the soul waited for the final resurrection. That the soul will dwell in a kind of purgatory, until the end day. But despite differences, a basic pharisaic Jewish belief developed by Jesus’ time of an eventual bodily resurrection a long time in the future. So, for example, when Martha tells Jesus in the story of Lazarus, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” that statement was consistent with a Hebrew belief in a resurrection of the body on the day long in the future when God would remake the world. However, in his life Jesus did not give any indication that he is about to be reappear in bodily form shortly after death. He made no statement that he’d die and come back right away. If Jesus had said, “I’ll die but be back in a few days,” these travelers would not have had to choose which story to believe.
Jesus did return but not at the time or in the way the people expected. It is significant that Jesus appeared in multiple places, to different peoples and in different ways. Luke tells us that Jesus came in a gift of hospitality. The travelers invited him home with them. As Jesus blessed bread, broke it and gave it to them, that familiar rhythm we use for communion, they recognized him through the Holy Spirit. After all the visions and testimony and discussions, it was ordinary meal, in an ordinary home, with an ordinary loaf of bread to ordinary people, that revealed the answer the two travelers had been looking for. This morning, we are with Jesus at the communion table, but our communion doesn’t end here, for as we say grace we re-affirm that we are with Jesus at our dinner tables too. He is our host in the church and a guest in each of our homes if we, like Cleopas, invite him in.
All the discussions on the road, even Jesus’ sophisticated opening of scriptures, even when their hearts were warmed, even Peter and Mary having declared what they had seen or heard, did not convince Cleopas and his friend of the reality of the resurrection. It was only in hospitality, only around a simple table, that Jesus was known to be truly alive.
Where do we look to find an experience of authentic and real life in our time? Have you ever experienced the life that comes from relationship?
Last weekend Bridget and I celebrated a significant wedding anniversary in Paris. Last Sunday morning we worshiped and took communion at Notre Dame. It was special as communion always is, but it also felt big, cold and impersonal. We didn’t know anyone there and there were lots of people so things moved quickly. We also spent the week with good friends from college who were also there, mostly in long conversations over bread around tables. That was intimate, personal, relaxed and warm. The kind of settings where the travelers saw their eyes opened after Easter, was where we felt the spirit most alive last week.
There is holiness in hospitality. For it’s not always in the church where we see Jesus. Max Lucado writes, “In sanctuary you see backs of heads, but at dinner you see the fronts of faces. It’s no accident that the words hospitality and hospital come from the same Latin word, for they both lead to the same result: healing. When you open your door to someone, you are sending this message: ‘You matter to me and to God.’ You may think you are saying, ‘Come over for a visit.’ but what your guest hears is, ‘I’m worth the effort.’”
When we break the bread and quote Jesus saying, “This is my body which is broken for you” during communion, we affirm that Christ is in the body, the host we share. But the body of Christ is also the church. And the original meeting place of the early church was around a table.
Our passage does not tell us why the travelers recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, only that they did. I find it hopeful that the resurrection was made real to them in such hospitality. Because we all can offer hospitality. We all have a table somewhere and can invite someone over. The message of Emmaus is, in part, that the resurrection can be made real to people at different times and in different places. Not only at the tomb. But especially around table.
It is in hospitality that we open eyes to Jesus in our world. Our PCUSA ecumenical advocacy days last month focused on food justice. How in a world that processes enough food for everyone, we still have one billion hungry people; and can see Christ in when we show hospitality to the world.
As a church we continue to focus on and share in hospitality in how all our welcome here, regardless of ideology, race, background, sexual orientation, political party or prior experience with the church – we all have something to contribute and something to learn.
In our developing a small group ministry over the next year or two we’ll talk about the importance of seeing each other face to face.
And this coming Saturday night we’ll have our spring in home potluck dinners in which we get to know each other and see a vision of Christ as we break bread.
The Life of Pi ends with the idea that we all have to choose what it is we believe, and with Pi affirming that his story can help the hearer believe in God. Not only because a miracle happened, someone who should be dead after a tragedy was alive, but because we each person can choose to believe that God is alive.
That is a lesson of the Emmaus story. That all the testimony of Peter and Mary, all the rationalization of the men as they walked, all the arguments of Jesus about the prophets and scriptures ultimately could not manufacture belief. Easter faith is unexpected faith. It’s Holy Spirit faith. Jesus shattered expectations through an immediate and bodily resurrection and by making himself known in the gift of hospitality. We who were not there might draw close to the heart of Jesus through faith and by giving and receiving hospitality today.
There are many stories in this world we live in. There is one story of a man who lived 2000 years ago, did some good things and was killed. There is another story about how the son of God came to us, did amazing things – comforted the afflicted, healed the sick, supported the vulnerable, died and was resurrected to be made known and give life over time and in community. Both stories affirm that Jesus inspired many to sacrifice and a movement that bears his name. But one story holds that Jesus’ life ended with death, period. The other that he returned in bodily form and came to people in different places at different times in different ways. So that his followers might know his spirit would not be confined to a particular place, time or way of being. If that second story is true, then when you gather around table at church or at home, when you act as Jesus did towards to afflicted, the sick, the vulnerable, when you put your life and that of those you love into the hands of one who hands were nailed to a cross and then three days later were used to break bread, you discover that resurrection life is available for each of us and can be found even when things seem the darkest.
You do have options. Which story will you believe?