(part 1 of a 3-part series called “The Presence Project”)
Yr A ~ Easter 3 ~ Luke 24:13-35
It’s one of the greatest stories in the New Testament. It was the first Easter Sunday and despite the women’s discovery of the empty tomb and their experience of the risen Christ, the men had gone running to the place and saw nothing, and later that same day the group had apparently dispersed and set out to return to their homes because Jesus had not reappeared, at least to them.
Our story picks up the journey of two anonymous disciples on their way home to Emmaus which was about 7 miles or 11 kilometres from Jerusalem. Not a marathon distance, but not close-by either. Who are these disciples? Well, they’re definitely not 2 of the 12 in the inner circle. One of them is named Cleopas, but since he’s not mentioned anywhere else in the bible he might as well be anonymous. Some traditions have it that the other disciple with him is his wife. I like that.
So who are these two walking? They’re just two people who are followers of the Way of Jesus. In other words, they’re anybody – they’re you and me. That’s the point. The story of the experience on the road to Emmaus isn’t meant to be a historical story, it’s meant to be your story! You are on the road, and you can have an encounter with the risen Christ!
Notice that as they’re walking along they’re talking about the events they experienced in the last few days. For them, that meant the last supper on Maundy Thursday, seeing Jesus executed on Friday, mourning with the other disciples on Saturday, and earlier this same day hearing the incredible story of the women at the tomb but then being disappointed again when no one else seemed to experience the same thing. So they’re walking home going over the events and feeling lost, and disillusioned, and heartbroken.
A stranger comes along and walks with them. It’s the risen Christ, but these two disciples don’t recognize him. How many times have you been walking along so drowning in your own worries and troubles, or so mesmerized by your cell phone, that you’re practically oblivious to everything around you? It’s certainly happened to me!
Then the sacred presence of Jesus speaks to them and what is their reaction? It says “They stood still, looking sad.” When you encounter the holy presence of God it tends to stop you in your tracks! They explain to this stranger the events of their week and Jesus smacks them upside the head! Ok, not literally, he says “How foolish you are!” but that word foolish means “unthinking, thick-headed, and dumb.” Jesus is scolding them because they’d apparently forgotten what he’d taught them about his presence always being with them.
When they get near their destination Jesus looks to be continuing on his way but they prevail upon him to stay with them. Then, as they’re sharing a meal and the bread is blessed and broken their eyes fling open and they realize they are in the presence of the risen Christ! This is exactly the same thing that we profess when we partake in the sacrament of communion – that in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup we aren’t just remembering Jesus but we are opening ourselves to receiving his presence. Christ is revealed in the breaking of bread together.
At that point Jesus disappears and these two anonymous disciples bubble over with excitement realizing that they’ve just had a profound experience of Sacred Presence and their hearts burn with joy as they recall his teaching and it bursts open with meaning and importance. And their first thought, even though it’s now night, is to get up and race back those 11 kilometres to find their friends and share their experience with them.
What I’d like to suggest to you is that this wonderful story is not all that extraordinary, or at least it shouldn’t be.
I like the story even better if it didn’t actually happen, and this is just the story of two followers of Jesus who had an epiphany, an awakening as they broke bread together, and realized that surely God WAS in that place with them in the presence of the risen Christ, and suddenly all his teaching flooded through them with clarity and insight and meaning and understanding such that it made their hearts burn with wonder and communion.
This is not a story that could only happen later that same day of the first Easter. What’s described as happening to those two anonymous disciples could happen to you and me every single every day of our lives – if we were tuned-in to notice it.
In Genesis 28:16 Jacob has an experience of God’s Sacred Presence just like the Emmaus Road story. Jacob is walking along dejected because he’s cheated his brother and lied to his father and been pretty much disowned. Until this time he’d never really had anything to do with God.
So, tired and alone, he lays his head down with a stone for a pillow and has that famous dream of the ladder to heaven. On that ladder or ramp angels are going up and down symbolizing the connection of the heavens and the earth – and God appears to Jacob and tells him that he’s blessed and that God will always be with him.
Jacob wakes up from this sacred vision and declares, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!”
Surely God is in this place! God is in every place. That means God is always with you, always where you are.
Every road you walk down, God is there, hoping to open your heart to the promises of scripture.
Every meal you sit down to, God is there, waiting to be revealed in the breaking of your daily bread.
Every person you encounter, God is there, shining through them, the holy in them seeking connection with the holy in you.
Psalm 139:7-10 “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
Surely God is in this place! The problem is us – we just don’t notice. Well, sometimes we do. Sometimes it feels like God’s Presence or light breaks through the darkness and we have a wonderful mountaintop moment of spiritual bliss. In order for that to happen something had to trigger your awareness. Something had to catch your attention, startle and awaken you, and let you see.
I trust you’ve all had at least a few of those glorious experiences when God felt really real and very near, and all seemed right with the world, and you experienced the deep harmony and peace of the presence of God.
What I’m here to tell you today is that those experiences don’t have to be confined to the mountaintops, and they don’t only happen once or twice in a lifetime. Surely God is in this place – every place – wherever you are, God is – if you could be drawn to notice.
One way to practice noticing God’s presence is to be aware of the triggers or the windows that tend to reveal it to us. Not everyone shares the same triggers. Something that could trumpet the presence of God for you could leave the person beside you stone cold. But there are some common things that seem to open us up to God. The biggest one is probably nature – what we call God’s creation.
How many times have you felt a spiritual wave of warmth and presence and insight when watching a sunrise, or sitting by a quiet lake, or strolling through a forest, or smelling a pretty flower? Nature is a marvellous window for God’s presence.
But let’s be precise here about what’s happening. I’m not saying that God is in the flower or in the tree. What I’m saying is that the natural beauty of the flower catches our attention and draws us into an awareness that we are looking at something beautiful and wondrous, and that jars us out of our distractedness and opens us to the realization that while we thought we were just schlepping through the woods we were really walking surrounded by the presence of God.
Why? – Because God is every place. The flower isn’t God; but the flower is Sacred because it’s full of Godstuff, and that sacred Godstuff that is infused into everyone and everything is what triggers your awareness that God’s presence is present, it tunes you in, it brings to mind something you’d set aside or ignored.
What does it feel like to be in the presence of God?
It feels Spiritual – holy, mystical, profound, transcendent, blessed.
It feels Expansive – it has… breadth, fullness, spaciousness, depth, weight, timelessness.
It’s Experiential – it feels… raw, open, laid bare, really real, it fills your senses, it’s knowable, not just a concept, it’s energized, and tingly.
And it’s Evocative – it calls forth… awe, deeper and fuller breathing, pleasure, delight, disequilibrium, an enlarged world, an expanded consciousness, a sense of interconnectedness.
It’s funny, that’s a really long list of words – it’s a long list of words that are trying to describe something that can’t really be put into words! Nonetheless, we use words like these to try to explain what the Sacred feels like.
So that’s what it feels like, but when or where am I likely to notice this Sacred Presence?
What kinds of things might be triggers or windows for me?
People notice the sacred through their Relationships – in people’s actions, in their character, in feelings of belonging, friendship, camaraderie, comfort, ease, in laughter, in sharing, in openness, when you’re together at table, experiencing support, trust, caring, and concern. Our relationships are windows to God’s loving presence.
People notice the sacred through their Emotions – through gratitude, thanks, relief, longing, through hunger, thirst, desire, through our pain, our challenges, through our learnings and insights, in questioning, in discussing, in ideas, in wonder, and especially in communion, connectedness, love, freedom, groundedness, peace, shalom, joy, mystery, when we’re weak-kneed, and when we’re in ecstasy. These are powerful triggers for noticing the holy surrounding us.
We can become aware of the Sacred through our Activities – our experiences, the events of our lives, our work, our creativity, our acts of compassion can reveal God to us, our successes, and even our failures can reveal God to us, probably because our guard goes down when we’re feeling defeated.
And of course, at last, we notice God’s Sacred Presence through the windows of Loveliness and Beauty in the world, in nature, weather, sunrise/set, flowers, animals, and through the beauty of the arts – visual arts, music, poetry, dance, drama, in originality, in excellence, and when we experience harmony.
You may be thinking by now, “Sheesh Larry, what isn’t a trigger for noticing God?” Yes! Exactly! Everything can reveal God’s presence to you because God is everywhere – in everything and everyone – if only we could awaken to it, if only we had eyes to see.
Surely God is in this place! And what’s our prayer? Help me notice! Help me notice!
My mind intellectually knows that God is everywhere, but my eyes just don’t always see it.
Too often, I’m not present. Help me notice!
Noticing, sensing God’s Presence, is what happened on the road to Emmaus, and it can happen for us too. Something triggers your awareness and you awaken to the Sacred in your midst – for them it was the breaking of bread. That Presence evokes a reaction – their hearts burned. There’s a feeling of renewed energy and a new direction or understanding, and then there’s a passionate desire to share your experience with others.
The Emmaus road story is a model for noticing and experiencing the presence of God in our midst.
Next week we’ll talk about more ways to notice and to sustain our sense of God’s presence, and the week after that we’ll explore the part about new directions and sharing your experiences.
Through worship gatherings like this, through our senses and activities, and with every single breath and heartbeat we affirm what Jacob, and the psalmist, and Cleopas, and every other anonymous disciple walking in the Way of Jesus has passionately affirmed.
Surely God is in this place. And we pray together: Help me notice!