Disappearing Act or Where We Go When We’re Gone

Photo: Vladimir Kudinov, Unsplash

”Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Luke 24:31

I sometimes catch myself falling into a reverie or rather, I find myself in a reverie, and I come to and I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed. These moments render me motionless in place, sitting or standing, my eyes fixed inwardly, a fingertip tapping my upper lip. Disregarding what is actually in front of me, I often see a dusty road winding through low hills that are golden in the evening light. To place it on a map is to find it just off American Canyon Road in Napa County in Northern California, a shortcut from Highway #29 that runs from the city of Napa to Highway #80, which arcs above Fairfield and Suisun City and the estuaries that meander down to where the waters drop through the Carquinez Straits on their way to San Francisco Bay.

Our geography of the mind forms around images that emerge like islands from our seas of memory. I don’t know why these hills stand out for me and why I recall them, except the evening light on their golden curves and slopes rising above the cool shadows of the canyon is a glimpse of the California of my youth and a harbinger of home. This image, transposed to Palestine and overlaid with the story of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, has become a touchstone of my spiritual journey.

***

Luke’s road story tersely describes the disciples the Sunday after the crucifixion. Two of them are on their way to Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem. It is the waning of the day, one filled with grief and strange occurrences and things that cannot be believed. They are confused and distraught. The energy at the core of their community that drew them in and held them together, has been ripped out. They feel a centrifugal force flinging them into the darkness. Nothing looks familiar anymore, but everything remains the same.

They are heading for home, about a two-hour walk, as the hills begin to cool. They are joined by a stranger who picks up on their distress immediately. “What are you talking about?” he asks innocently. They stop in their tracks, astonished. “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened in the last few days?” gasps one of them, Cleopas. The stranger shakes his head. “I guess so. What do you mean?” “I mean—,” he pauses and seems to gulp for air, “I mean all this about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet in what he said and did before God and the people.” The other one picks up the thread. “Our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be crucified. And he was. And we had hoped that he was the one, the one who would liberate Israel. And now it’s the third day and this morning some of our women have astounded us. They went to the tomb early, but they didn’t find his body. They claimed they had a vision of angels and these angels said that Jesus is alive. So some of our people went down there,” she paused, “and it was just like the women said. But they didn’t see him.”

The Stranger listens silently. Then he says gently, “How thick-headed you are and how slow to recognize what’s been going on for all these ages.” And he explains, beginning with Moses and the prophets, how the history unfurled and the part that the Messiah was to play. They listen, entranced. They’d never grasped the full story and now they saw themselves as part of the drama.

This our stop, they said, when they reached Emmaus. The Stranger nodded and turned to go. “But stay with us!” they begged. “We’ve got some bread, some fruit. Talk to us some more.”

It was a small place, but adequate. Cleopas gestured, “Please, sit down. I’ll get some wine.” His wife bustled in the background with the hummus and the bread. Cleopas peered at The Stranger in the fading light. “You remind me of someone,” he said hesitantly. He shook his head. “I know I’ve seen you somewhere.”

His wife laid out the simple food before them. “Please,” said Cleopas, “bless it for us.” The Stranger took up the bread in both hands. He tore it in half, he raised his eyes, he extended his arms, and breathed a prayer. That moment—one that Cleopas and Mary replayed endlessly to each other in years to come—in that moment they knew. And then he vanished.

This is the rest of the story. The two look at each other, open-mouthed. Mary shivers. “I knew it!” shouts Cleopas. “Didn’t we feel our hearts burning as he spoke?”

They set out at once, seven miles back through the night—no thought of danger—running and walking, entering Jerusalem, winding through back streets, up the stairs to burst in on the Eleven and gasp out the story. Everyone is talking at once and then “there he was, standing among them. Startled and terrified, they thought they were seeing a ghost. But he said . . . It is I myself. Touch me and see (Luke 24: 35-39).”

***

This is my spiritual life story; it might be yours as well. I find myself on the Emmaus road, confused into muteness, despairing that Jesus has been killed and me not seeing the cosmic order in it. Like the disciples, the resurrection makes no sense to me. The dead are really dead and, Lazarus notwithstanding, Jesus is not coming back from this deadness. This being a mystery which I cannot penetrate, I am setting off for home, disconsolate but with some part of me ready to suspend my disbelief in a flash, given the chance.

This is the moment when the Stranger should enter unheralded, although given my two-thousand-year advantage, I am primed and looking for him on the road. But he doesn’t appear and it is getting late and I must be on my way. It is the road to home, although I somehow know I can’t stay there. The journey then becomes an occasion of reflection, some of it recalling my studies, some of it musing on the examples of others, less of it a comparison from experience. Although I can’t say that the whole of Scripture is open to me, I do see the patterns coalescing between the Law and the Prophets. For me, they seem like the inner turmoil of a fractious family, the falling out and the making up, the exodus and the exiles. It’s a story of heartbreak and deep love on both sides, God and humans, century after century, until at last, when the times are the worst, God comes in by stealth, poured into an infant. It’s not my family, not my fight, but could their love be extended beyond these tribes? Is this a family I’d want to be adopted into?

I have my doubts, but then who doesn’t? It’s who that baby grows up to be and what he does that draws me. That he died and who killed him, is apparent to me. Sages and prophets, outlaws and heroes, the ones who carried on in the face of evil, he was one of them too. Another in a long line of good men and women who tried to save us from ourselves. But the question is, would I have killed him too?

On the road, that is the question which haunts me. But I am analyzing the danger he presented to the established order, the eternal disruption that was coiled within him. It’s history, it’s a theoretical construct, it’s a theological and moral question that demands footnoting and further research. It could be a breakthrough article for me, edgy enough to attract attention, but a rather simple mental exercise of speculation that cannot be disproven, only disregarded.

A Stranger joins me on the road. I am lost in thought, preoccupied, and suddenly, there he is. I did not see where he came from. There is a disconcerting moment in which he searches my face as we greet each other, but it passes. I lapse back into my thoughts and the story the Stranger is telling fades; it is a pleasant murmur that can be tolerated. I ask him to stop for a meal, of course, as a matter of courtesy. One must not neglect to entertain strangers for thus one might entertain angels.

It’s when he blesses bread and breaks it, a simple and universal gesture, that I recognize him. And then he’s gone, leaving an untouched meal, because I am gone too, retracing my steps in haste through the night with a joyous hunger for the company of others. Of the names he has been known by, there is one which describes him best, Immanuel, God with us. It’s only when he’s gone that we see him.

Not For This Life Only

Photo: Eberhard Grossgasteiger, Unsplash

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. — I Corinthians 15:19, NRSV

Pity is only as good as our capacity to rise above it. It’s a natural response for most of us to the suffering of others, and it can open the door to something longer lasting, say empathy or understanding. But by itself, pity doesn’t lift or restore us. It usually drops us in our own estimation.

We want hope now, in this life. We need it. The paradox here is that our hopes for the future churn up our present and make us restless for a present that opens up the future. Most of us do not live in the present, despite the wisdom of the ages and the sages among us. We live with one foot in the past and we lean into the future, while the present is what happens to us as we stretch between the two. Somehow, we make it work.

We’re not even sure what the dimensions of the present are. It depends on the context. If we’re talking about the present in the historical flow of things, it could be this year and maybe part of last year, although so much seems to happen now in weeks and days that last year seems like an eternity gone.

Our own present flexes and stretches like an accordion. My present is that which is of interest and concern to me right now. The length and depth of the love I have within my family and friends, the books I’m reading, the words I am writing, the events I am reacting to. How I respond to Christ in this moment, how honest I am with myself or how I dodge the things that unnerve me.

We hear enough about living in the present from wise people in all ages and from all faiths in the world that we should pay more attention. Jesus asks us not to worry about the future because it has enough worries of its own. Paul suggests that we hold the past in memory and press on to the present. Both of them believe that God meets us in the present and promises us a future. God can’t change our past, but he can help us to live with it.

But Paul is writing to the Corinthians, people whose community together is shot full of incest, drunkenness, and fighting. They are learning as they go, trying to rely on each other and on this mysterious Spirit, not at all sure they can leave behind what defined them in their past. Maybe that makes it harder to live right in the present, seeing as how some lines of habit are burned into their relations with each other.

But there’s something else. The Christ that Paul has introduced the Corinthians to had been murdered by the Romans in a manner specifically designed to humiliate and terrify him and anyone who might have claimed to be his friend. State criminals like that were crucified and their bodies were thrown out on the ash heap, to be torn by dogs and left to the birds. This is not a person you want to claim as your god.

If the Corinthians only have hope in this life, Paul claims, they are most to be pitied, for the implication is that their god has played them for fools. Even pagan gods were immortal. And anyway, they wouldn’t be caught dead on a cross at the hands of inferior beings like us. More likely, they would rain down fire and plague until we cried out speechlessly.

The theme that Paul riffed on, the extended guitar solo, if you like, soaring on the music of the oral traditions of Jesus in his time, was the battle that Christ had waged with the angels and principalities and powers of the universe. That battle had been won when Jesus died; the worst they could do to him turned out to be the burning fuse that eventually blew their powers to kingdom come. Along the way, these powers found common cause with those who were so anxious to perfect the path to God that they crushed the spirit of those who sought to find their way.

“When the ‘religion of fear’ finds its way into the Christian church,” said Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God, “those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it.”

The violent bear it away, a la Flannery O’Connor.

“This pusillanimous faith,” continues Moltmann, “usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid than ever. It occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality, and by penal law.”

The Corinthian Christians, along with all their bumbling relationships, were having a loss of confidence. Their neighbors and former confidants were trying to understand how anyone could fall for such a loser god. Because that man, Jesus, was crucified and he died, just as every Jew the Romans crucified died. The Romans scored 100 percent on the efficiency scale for all that. So if these Christians had put their trust in that man, they deserved to be pitied (when they weren’t being mocked) because a dead god was even less useful than a dead goat. Nobody could beat the Romans for mopping up all resistance and wiping out the political opposition.

They were efficient, but not effective: One man got through to the other side.

Oh, he died alright. But in some way that can’t fully be explained, after crucifixion and a hasty burial in a sealed tomb, he showed up in Galilee on the beach, he entered a locked room in Jerusalem filled with terrified disciples, and he hiked the seven miles to Emmaus with two of his friends and then vanished over dinner. Peter saw him, the twelve saw him, as did five hundred of his friends in Jerusalem, along with James, his brother, and his closest circle in Jerusalem. Lastly, in a weird kind of premature birth, he appeared to Paul who made that singular experience the balance point of his spiritual gyroscope for the rest of his life.

Paul’s message, the engine that kept him going over mountains, across seas, through the fires, in spite of whippings and chains, is that Christ, the one into whom all the fullness of God had been poured, the one who suffered a most humiliating death—that one had been raised from death to start human history up again with a new beginning.

As Clarence Jordan once said: “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”

Buddhism says if you are shot with an arrow, don’t get in a debate about the type of arrow, the composition of the arrow-head, and the trajectory that embedded it in you. Pull out the arrow.

We could argue for eternity how the resurrection could have happened, but without resolution. Because it isn’t verifiable by our usual standards of empirical measurement. It isn’t even comprehensible in a way that can be said without stuttering. What matters is the result of the message of the resurrection—a faith-filled community that infiltrated the world and stayed true, even unto death. That is power. The glory is still to come.