Luke 24:13-35 | The Road to Emmaus 1999
When I was a child, I was like most little boys - fascinated with super-heroes. My grandmother had slaved long hours making me a batman suit with all of the bells and whistles - including a working utility belt. I literally wore that suit to rags. And when I was no more than four years old, my mother tells me that I dashed into the kitchen announcing to any evildoers who happened to be in attendance that I was Batman, and let loose with a punch so powerful that I broke three of my mother's ribs.
In case you had any doubts, I learned about passive-aggression early!
This confusion of fantasy and the real world was perhaps more problematic for me than for many children, I think, because I have always been so creative and imaginative. The boundaries between cartoons and real life were more diffuse, and I often colored outside of those lines. One place where I had some continuing confusion in this area was with my religious life. I often drifted off during Sunday School, augmenting the Gospel stories with characters perhaps more at home in the Old Testament: giants and other super-villains. I pictured Jesus as a caped crusader - complete with white cape and sandals, of course - who saved the world from that pesky Goliath once again.
Now, like most little boys, I outgrew the need to see Jesus as a superhero - or did I? As I have been reflecting this week on the images we have of Jesus, I was especially struck by how close my early comic-book fantasies parallel exactly what the church has taught for so many centuries, and how far removed from reality such fantasies are.
Now there was none of this sort of nonsense in the early church, of course. They had actually known Jesus, and they knew better. But soon those who actually knew him died off, and those who were left were, like most of us, hankering for a bit more juicy story. And they got it. The Gnostics were the first to say that Jesus was not just a great Rabbi, but a divine super-being who came down from the sky to break the power of the evil archons who hold everyone on earth imprisoned. Now there's a superhero!
St. Paul was quick to pick up on this savior-coming-down-from-the-sky bit, but he picked and chose which of the Gnostic elements he was going to hold onto, and pictured Jesus as "Godman" whose resurrection broke forever the power of Satan.
But things really got interesting when Constantine became friendly with the church. It seems the wars were not going well for the emperor of the Roman empire and he had a vision in which the cross shot across the sky, and a voice boomed from the heavens, saying "with this sign, conquer!" And conquer he did. Constantine saw Christianity as a means to consolidate his power in a fragmenting empire, and he gave great power and prestige to the church's bishops.
Of course, that's when the mythologies really reached comic-book proportions. According to the teaching of the church in the fourth century, Jesus was not just a simple Rabbi, not simply the God-man, but a super-agent bent on celestial espionage. If we made a movie of it, it might sound something like this: "Your mission, Jesus, should you choose to accept it is to infiltrate the planet earth posing as a native. Under no circumstances are you to reveal your true identity as King of the Universe. If you succeed in gaining the native's trust, you are to proceed on to your true mission, clandestinely gaining access to Satan's stronghold. By pretending to die like a common criminal you may be able to slip in the gates of Hell unnoticed. Once there, you must single-handedly bring down the walls of Dis, setting free all of the souls held in captivity by the evil monarch of the realm. Then you must return to your body, smashing the hold of death and hell over humankind forever."
Great action-movie stuff, no? This is called the "Christus Victor" theory of the atonement, and is still the version taught by the Eastern Orthodox Church. It's a ripping good yarn, and much more palatable to my sensibilities than the penal theory of the atonement we teach in the West.
We like this kind of stuff, don't we? We want to be rescued by an all-powerful superbeing who is as crafty as Batman and as good natured as Clark Kent. We want to feel the security that comes from knowing that the bad guys will be rounded up and thrown into the fire. We want to believe in the happy, whiz-bang ending where the evildoers get theirs, and the good guys live happily ever after. Who wouldn't?
Well, when I really start thinking about it, I wouldn't. I mean, life is not a comic-book. Who could take that kind of stress on a 24-hour basis? And my rational mind tells me that however romantic the notion might be, if I'm waiting around for Superman to save me, I'm going to be waiting a long time - so long it would make Godot look punctual! I'm not a little boy any more, after all. Much as the notion depresses me, I have to face the fact that I am an adult. Some days, I'm more adult than others. But the truth is I am not a little boy any more; I had to grow up. I had to get a grown-up job, had to take on grown-up responsibilities, and I have to somehow find a way to have a grown-up relationship with God.
This is one reason I don't much like the idea of calling God "father." Oh, I think it's a useful metaphor, as long as God is like other fathers who lets their children grow up and is able to have an adult-to-adult relationship. But too often, I think, the church supports this neotenous notion of us always being little children in our relationships to God. And I don't think that is a good thing.
Whenever I have wanted to figure out how God feels about something, I try to think of how Jesus treated the people who surrounded him. When he was having his last supper with his disciples Jesus talked about power, and about his relationship with them. John's Gospel doesn't report Jesus saying anything like, "I am the King of the Universe - worship me!" Nor does it say anything about us putting all things into subjection under his feet. Instead, John reports that Jesus said simply, "I do not call you slaves, but friends. Love each other, the same way that I have loved you."
Not very dramatic if you are a little kid, but plenty dramatic for a thinking, feeling adult. The implications are staggering. Unfortunately, I think we're still so hung up on the gosh-wow super-hero image of Jesus, we haven't even begun to unpack the wealth of meaning that this little scene displays.
In our Gospel reading today, we get another portrait of Jesus that is far less dramatic that we see elsewhere. There is no glorious emergence from the tomb in our story today. No walking through walls, no stones being rolled away by angels. Oh, it has a touch of mythology to it, but mostly we get a very grown-up story of two believers, perhaps a husband and wife, walking away from Jerusalem and talking about what had happened.
And as they talked, they felt the presence of Jesus with them. They didn't know it was him, of course, but they felt something stirring in their breasts. And later, when they celebrated the Eucharist together at the Inn where they stopped for the night, they knew: Jesus wasn't gone. Suddenly the words he had spoken to them so long ago made sense: "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them." The pilgrims on the road to Emmaus became aware of a great truth that night. Jesus might have died, but he was not dead. Jesus was with them as they walked, Jesus spoke to them as they discussed theology; Jesus broke bread with them when they shared a meal.
Of course, Jesus does the same today. The early church experienced no miracles that are not commonplace in our own time, if only we have the eyes to see them. We are all on a journey, my friends, a spiritual journey that leads we know not where. But we do know that we do not go there alone. We meet together here every week because we need traveling companions, and because when we break bread together at this table, we feel Jesus standing in our midst. Standing, praying, feeding, healing, befriending, blessing, teaching, loving. It is why we call ourselves "Christians", because Jesus makes himself real to us today, and we have the will to welcome him.
I will always love comic books, but I have also grown up into a man who loves philosophy. A super-hero Jesus who comes to save the world from Satan's power was very appealing when I was a child, but now I need a grown-up Jesus who treats me like an adult, who wants to be my friend, not my King. I need a Jesus who walks and breaks bread, who cries and feels insecure, a Jesus who companions me on my journey, a Jesus who can teach, but also learn.
The question I have for you today is this: "What images of God do you have that are held over from your childhood? What images would you do better to let go of?" It may be that you've never asked yourself these questions. If not, I invite you to think about what images of God might be hindering you from a fulfilling, adult relationship with God. It may be that some of your images should be put in a box under the bed with all of the old comic books. It may be that walking beside Jesus as a friend, and even an equal could be a healing and enlightening experience.
Let us prepare ourselves, when we come to this table today, to come not as slaves, but friends; not as children, but as adults; not as subjects but as co-creators with God. Amen.
Let us pray:
God of many roads,
When you meet us we so often do not recognize you
Our heads are filled with images that distance us from you
We place you far away in the clouds, or long ago in history
And yet through our Gospel story today you speak to us
The startling truth that you are with us on every journey,
And that our lives are changed by each and every breaking of bread.
Journey with us, break bread with us, companion us as we grow,
Learn, change, die, resurrect, and grow up
Nurturing us into the fullness of life you so earnestly desire for us,
For we ask this in the name of the one who walked with us, and who accompanies us even now, even Jesus Christ. Amen.