The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
22 April 2018
For as long as I can remember, this has been my favorite post-resurrection story. It presents the unfolding of faith as a journey of seeing the holy in our midst, which is the way it happens for most of us. I love the way Jesus walks alongside the two people without disclosing his true identity…just biding his time, interpreting scripture, continuing along the road to the village where the two people were heading. And then Jesus keeps on walking, but the two travelers call him back and ask him to stay with them since the day was reaching its end.
This is a key moment when the story turns: a moment of profound hospitality. What if the two travelers had not insisted that Jesus join them for the night? They might never have realized who he was or that he had been raised from death. In this country, we don’t have the same depth of understanding when it comes to hospitality that other cultures do, including the middle eastern culture in which Jesus lived. It wasn’t just a matter of being friendly or kind, but rather hospitality could have been a matter of survival. We just don’t get it – that kind of hospitality. Years ago when I was in South Korea as part of a UCC delegation, people went out of their way to ensure that we were comfortable and well-fed, offering me their beds, inviting me to a literal feast in a traditional home, and tuning in to where I was as a guest. For most Americans, hospitality is an afterthought.
Imagine yourself as a guest coming to Plymouth during our evening service. The sky is darkening, you pull into the parking lot and see lights on in the building…you go in and no one is there to greet you at the door, so you find your way inside and scope out the sanctuary. How could we do a better job as hosts? One way would be to have people greeting at the doors as we do each Sunday morning.
Now imagine yourself as a first-time visitor at Plymouth at one of our two morning services. Someone greeted you on the way in, and you enjoyed worship, but navigating the coffee hour can be intimidating, so you head over to the desk that says, “Welcome and Information,” but there isn’t anyone there. And you hope someone has noticed your blue coffee mug, but folks seem too busy talking with people they already know. My friends, I know we mean to offer better hospitality, and we can.
I would be grateful if one of you would step up and do these fairly simple ministries, and if you are interested, please be in touch with Jake and the Congregational Life Board. I believe that we genuinely mean to offer an extravagant welcome to people when they visit at Plymouth, and even though we will deliver a nice loaf of Great Harvest bread to your home if you visit and leave your address in the red friendship pad, we still have a lot to learn about how to make our guests feel truly welcome. Our welcome, no matter how we warm we intend it to be, seems less than extravagant, especially when compared to the hospitality Cleopas and his fellow traveller show Jesus. “They urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.’” How can we emulate that kind of open welcome as Christ’s family?
It strikes me as odd that Jesus, the guest at the table, takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Clearly, he switched roles and has become the host at the table. And his actions are recounted by Jake, Jane Anne, and me every time we celebrate communion: we take bread, bless it, break it, and give it. And it is in that moment of profound hospitality, in the breaking of the bread, that their eyes are opened and Jesus is made known to them. They have share a long, dusty journey together, and sharing the meal is the catalyst that enables them to experience the risen Christ.
Besides hospitality, eating is an important social phenomenon as well. In strictly hierarchical societies, people of different social classes don’t mix. You see it on Downton Abbey when those who eat upstairs would never eat with those downstairs. But think about where Jesus would be eating: Jesus, who defied the norms of purity by eating with sinners and tax collectors. This table — Christ’s table — is a representation of how the kingdom of God is meant to be for us: a table where there is no distinction because of class, gender, race, orientation, wealth, education, or ethnicity. It is a representation of God’s anti-imperial realm, where all of God’s children are welcome and no one is turned away.
The Emmaus story, the event at which Christ is made known to those who offer hospitality to a stranger, is a seminal event. We encounter the risen Christ in enacting profound hospitality. We encounter the risen Christ in the breaking of bread. We encounter the risen Christ in overturning the broken norms and assumptions of our consumer-driven, economics-obsessed culture.
Many of you will remember one of our visiting scholars, John Dominic Crossan, and many of you have read his work, including his latest called Resurrecting Easter, which Mark Lee is leading as one of our current adult ed. offerings.
Many years ago, I was reading his provocative book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, and there was a wonderfully pithy sentence about this morning’s scripture in it that I have long remembered: “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.” In other words, this story may never have occurred in the way that Luke describes. And for some of us, that invalidates the larger truth of the story, which is tragic.
Does there have to be a village called Emmaus for the story to be true? Do there need to be two disciples, one named Cleopas, for the story to be true? Does Jesus need to walk with them, explain scripture to them, and eat with them for the story to be true. No. What makes the story true is that we ourselves can experience it. We encounter the risen Christ when we act compassionately, when we extend an extravagant welcome, when we break down barriers between people, when we remember the presence of Christ living within us and among us when we come to Christ’s table for communion. How can you and I make Emmaus happen here at Plymouth in our worship, in our fellowship, and in our welcome? “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.”
I hope that for each of us, we have those moments when we have an encounter with the risen Christ, who continues to be with us. He is with us in the struggle for justice and peace, with us as we wrestle with scripture, with us in moments of deep hospitality, with us in the breaking of the bread.
“Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.”
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.