Wednesday, April 13, 2005

meeting Jesus by accident

They are on the way to the next thing. Someone has said that life is what happens when you are making other plans. While they are going about their business, Jesus suddenly joins them, but, Luke reports, their eyes are kept from recognizing him (Luke 24. 16). Sometimes Jesus is traveling with us and we are not aware that he is there. Maybe we are distracted. Maybe we are focused on doing the next thing. The point is that we may not always be the best judge of what is going on spiritually! Sometimes Jesus has been with us in the past and we didn't recognize him—we were looking for something else, or the wrong thing…our eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Paul Farmer was a poor kid who grew up in an odd, and what he would have called dysfunctional, family in Florida. The family situation was so difficult that he found himself doing whatever he could to be away from home. He participated in every extracurricular activity that was offered. He attended every tutoring session that came along. In the process, he became valedictorian of his high school.

He went to Duke on a scholarship. While at Duke he traveled to Haiti with a student group. He fell in love with the people of Haiti. He wanted to become a medical doctor, to help the people there. A couple of years later he was admitted to Harvard Medical School. He was perhaps the most unorthodox student they had encountered. Each semester he would sign up for classes, collect his books, and return to Haiti. There he would practice medicine, and teach himself with flash cards. He would then return for end-of-semester exams. Paul did this each year. Everyone knew it, but there were two problems in reprimanding his behavior: he was practicing medicine in an area where there were no doctors, and he had some of the best grades in the school.

Well, over these years Paul Farmer has stayed with it, living and working in Haiti, teaching now at Harvard Medical School on brief returns to the states. He received the McArthur “genius” award, among other citations. In the process he became a very devout Christian, and often talks about the presence of Jesus in his life, and among the poor. He was in North Carolina recently, speaking to a group of students, and one of them asked, “how did your spiritual values provide a foundation for what you are doing?”

He replied, “I wish I could tell you that spiritual values led me (to do these things)… I can only say that I regained spiritual values by following this path….It wasn’t very meaningful to me…until I started on this path of engagement with the world. And then you needed spirituality”.

source: Islands of Decency: A Dialogue on Healing”, Duke Magazine, March-April, 2005.

Farmer discovered that the more he got into the work, and the closer he got to the poor, the closer he came to Jesus.

Sometimes Jesus is there, and we don’t recognize him. Well, these early followers were in just that frame of mind. This stranger joins them, and prompts their discussion: What are you talking about? Why the long face?

They begin to go over the events of the last few days, the ones we have marked over the last few weeks: the arrest, the trial, the suffering, the death, the empty tomb. And then, the memorable admission: We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (verse 21). We had hoped…hope was in the past tense, the hopes have been dashed.

The disciples’ enthusiasm and wonder has been turned into despair and discouragement. We have walked with these disciples, haven’t we? If you are a Christian, if you are a human being, you are going to be disappointed by some person, you are going to be disappointed by some outcome, you are going to be disappointed by God.

Don’t we all say something like this, in our own way? We had hoped that he was the One to redeem Israel? We had hoped that good would overcome evil? One of my favorite songs, sung by Alan Jackson, says it bluntly: Here in the real world, it’s not that easy at all…Why do the bad people seem to do so well? We could make a list: Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, Jerry Springer, forgive me, God, my judgmentalism is coming out this morning!

But, if we are honest, we make our way through life, and our hopes are sometimes blown about by the wind like so much pollen drifting to the ground. The disciples want to give up, they are walking away, they have put their hopes in something that didn't pan out. Maybe you have felt that way, along this life’s journey.

Then the stranger responds, with a question: Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? (Luke 24. 26) They thought the cross was a sign of defeat. They will learn that the cross is a sign of victory. Yes, they had to be taught this. The disappointments, the sufferings, can be redeemed, if we see them in light of the cross. This is where Christianity is, I think, most directly relevant to life. People are going to be disappointed and devastated, scared and scarred. It happens: at work, at school, in church, in the nicest of neighborhoods, in the best of families.

You can insert your experience here. Christianity is most relevant in that it gives us a way of seeing our life experiences in light of the cross. Some are disappointed, and they turn toward a new life. Some are devastated, and they are somehow resurrected.

Some are scared, and they are able in time to live in faith and trust. Some are scarred, and they experience healing.

They thought the cross was a sign of defeat. They learn that is it a sign of victory. Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?

The day is nearly over. They invite the stranger to stay with them: an act of hospitality. Strangers always bring gifts to us. The church that decides that it is large enough shuts itself out from the gifts that God might be offering to it. The society that decides it has reached its population limit misses the gifts that new persons might share with it. All of us were strangers at one point, to this church, all of us were immigrants. You shall not oppress a stranger, the Lord commanded Israel in the law. Why? Why? Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23).

And so, like good, obedient Jews, they invite this stranger to stay with them. They are sitting at the table, and what happens? He takes the bread, blesses and breaks it…(Luke 24. 30). And in that moment, their eyes were opened. God gives this moment to them, but it is a surprise. The surprise is that they are in the presence of Jesus.

I sometimes ask the question, “how is Jesus present, in the institutional church?” And a beginning answer to that question is that Jesus, in the gospels, is always present in the most ordinary of places.

In the death of my wife’s father, we had the occasion to experience the presence of Jesus: a meal with a good friend, on the day prior to his death; the knowledge that many were praying for the family; my mother-in-law’s Sunday School class; meals brought to our home, by several of you; cards and phone calls that expressed your thoughts and prayers; a family meal on the day of the memorial service; a number of you who actually attended the visitation or the service.

I know that the institutional church comes in for a lot of critique. It is not perfect, I am not perfect, you are not perfect. But I cannot imagine that whole experience without the church, which is, in a time like that, the body of Christ, the presence of Jesus.

I also realize, in reflecting on the experience for just a moment, how often I used the word “meal”. This is not accidental. Jesus shared a meal with them. Wonderful things happen when we tell the story and break the bread. When the bread is broken their eyes are opened. This is a surprise to the disciples. They discover this surprise in a small group---only three people. Some of the best things happen when two or three are together--not always in gigantic gatherings. As a young adult I was in a college Sunday School class of three people, when we were all there! I cannot imagine those years without that small group.

Jesus is present in the breaking of the bread. They knew it! Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight (Luke 24. 31). Which means, maybe, that we are not always going to have spiritual highs, times when Jesus seems right beside us. But like the wind, we know that he has been there. We get a glimpse, and just enough light to take the next step, just enough memory to move into the future. It is natural that we want to stay on the mountaintop, as Peter suggested on another occasion, perhaps to build dwellings so that we might stay there, but it never works out that way. Hundreds of thousands of people, Friday morning, after the memorial service for the Pope, the television announcers kept saying, “they are lingering, as if they don’t want to leave”. We understand that.

You can’t stay here”, Jesus says. Life goes on. And then they begin to tell the story of what has happened to them: did not our hearts burn within us while he was talking to us on the road”…and then they began to bear witness, “The Lord is risen” and “they told what had happened to them on the road” (Luke 24. 32, 33, 35).

After they have the experience, they tell others about it! This is testimony. Resurrection living is so joyful that we cannot contain it. Testimony is not someone else’s story. Authentic testimony is our story. I once had the experience of working through a bitter staff departure with a very charismatic youth minister. His leaving was confusing to many people, especially the youth. He was not completely honest with them, and this added to the confusion and heartburn.

A good friend, a mother of two of the youth came to see me. She saw a lot of the situation more clearly than most, and she asked, simply, “but what should I do?” It was about this of year, the end of school in sight, summer trips on the horizon. I said to her, “on one of your long drives this summer, take some time to tell your sons about your Christian experience. Just tell them, as honestly as you can, about how and why you have become a Christian, and why it is important to you”.

The best testimony, the only meaningful testimony, is honest, truthful. When was the last time you shared your faith with someone? We don’t do this very often, we somehow think it has to be spectacular in some way, but it doesn’t. It just has to be real.

A part of our problem is that we have confused testimony with telling other people what to do. Testimony is speaking truthfully about where we have met Jesus. Then we trust the Spirit to allow those words to travel to wherever God wants them to.

The gospel, someone has said, is not good advice. The gospel is good news. On the way to the next thing, while they are making other plans, life happens, they meet Jesus, almost by accident.

Who knows? Something may happen in your own life today, an ordinary situation may be such an occasion, and in the breaking of the bread he appears, and your eyes will be opened, and you will recognize him! It could happen.


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