We Had Hoped
Luke 24:13-35, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 15, 2018
American folklorists say that the most common of all the folk stories—also known as urban legends—is the story of the vanishing hitchhiker. It has many forms, but the stranger who is picked up on the road usually sits in the back seat and has a message for the driver or an object to leave with him; the driver turns around to face the back seat, and the stranger is gone. In one version, the hitchhiker is a woman whom the driver later learns has been dead for some time. In another version, the hitchhiker turns out to be Jesus. In the 1970’s the hitchhiker was often a hippie dressed in a white robe; after he vanishes, the driver realizes he was Jesus or an angel. In the 1990’s, as we drew near to the end of the millennium, the hitchhiker often had a message about Jesus coming back very soon. The first academic study of the vanishing hitchhiker was published in The California Folklore Quarterly in 1942. A professor from the University of Utah wrote a whole book called The Vanishing Hitchhiker in 1981, in which he traced versions of the story going back to 1870. Others have said that the story goes back centuries.
Who knows? Maybe the origin of the story is the report of the travelers who met a stranger on the road to Emmaus who began to teach them about Jesus. As soon as they recognized him, he vanished. We began the service with the question from T. S. Eliot, “Who is the third who walks always beside you?” Clearly Eliot is using the story from Luke 24, but in his own footnote in “The Waste Land” he says that he was referring to Ernest Shackleton, the explorer of Antarctica. Shackleton’s boat got stuck in ice in 1916 and he had to march for 36 hours over mountains and glaciers to get to the nearest whaling station. He reported that he had a sense that there was an extra person with them the whole time. This experience is a common one for people in crisis, so much so that it is called the Third Man Factor—the title of a 2009 book by John Geiger, an expert on expeditions. Some people think the third man is a trick your brain plays on you; other people think the experience can only be explained by the presence of angels or divine beings.
I think some of that is behind our fascination with the Emmaus Road story. It is not foreign to us that there are dark places in life where Jesus seems to be walking beside us. We may not recognize him at the time, but later we understand that it was him all along. As is often the case in the gospels, we have discovered that Jesus does not make himself obvious. There is a hiddenness about him until he chooses to reveal himself. Jesus is not a ghost. The very next episode in Luke tells of Jesus appearing in the room where the Emmaus road travelers are telling their story to other disciples. Jesus lets them touch his body to prove he isn’t a ghost, and then he asks “Do you have anything to eat?” He eats a fish right in front of them. So the risen Christ still has a real body, but he is sometimes hard to recognize and he passes through walls and closed doors. There is something about this appearing and disappearing Jesus that resonates with our own experience.
I want to call your attention to three striking phrases in the story which seem to apply to us. The first phrase is “We had hoped.” “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” These disciples are disappointed with Jesus. Ironically, they are expressing their disappointment in front of Jesus without knowing it. They had hoped, but they no longer hope. They still believe Jesus was a mighty prophet, but he did not turn out to be the redeemer-Messiah. He was killed. It’s over. This is the third day he’s been dead, so there’s no chance he somehow survived. And now we’ve heard reports that his body is missing from his tomb. That doesn’t mean he’s alive. Our friends went and looked and yes, the body is gone, but Jesus is nowhere to be found.
We had hoped. One of the most common experiences of the Christian life is becoming disillusioned. We start out with hope, but at some point, hope becomes something we look back on as part of our past, looking at it with dismay and sadness, remembering the time when we thought good things were still possible. I suppose we are naïve, or we just don’t understand how God works in the real world. These two on the road to Emmaus had thought that Jesus would fix everything, setting the nation of Israel free from the Romans, making Israel great again. It didn’t happen that way at all. When we are new Christians—or when we have experienced a time of renewal—we hope that Jesus is going to solve all our problems with one miracle after another. But Jesus is not your Fixer. Jesus is someone who invites us to share his mission and his crucifixion before we share his eternal life. He never promised us a rose garden, but rather a garden of Gethsemane where we have to struggle with doing God’s will. There’s nothing easy about it. The truth is that we had hoped it would be easy, but it’s not—and it won’t be, either.
The other day I saw one of those bumper stickers from 2008 with the posterized image of Obama and the single word “Hope.” It occurred to me that I could attach this biblical phrase to that picture: “We had hoped.” That would just about say it all. We had hoped that we’d made great progress on the race issue. We had hoped that we’d get thoughtfulness rather than bombast. We had hoped that we would regain the respect of other nations. We had hoped that the rich would be restrained and the poor protected. We had hoped that there would be no Blue America or Red America but rather the United States of America.
And yet here we are. And I don’t need to enumerate the daily disappointments. That there are so many who are not yet disillusioned with America is due to willful blindness or wishful thinking. Jesse Jackson used to say, “Keep hope alive!” But how? We had hoped, but now what?
Jesus says that the Bible was telling us all along that suffering had to come before glory. There was no way for Jesus to avoid the suffering, and there is no way for us, either. And yet—as Jesus will reveal at supper—the fact that he is alive means that his suffering produced a great victory over sin and death. Suffering was not the end of his story, and all authority has now been given to him. The fact that Jesus is alive means that his kingdom is real and coming on earth. It is his kingdom in which we hope, not the kingdom of men. If he is alive, there is reason to hope in his reign of justice and peace as the goal of history and the destination of the path of our lives.
The second phrase that struck me in Luke’s story is “slow of heart.” When the disciples fail to grasp the reality and the meaning of the resurrection, Jesus does not chastise them for being hard-hearted or wicked-hearted. He said that their hearts were slow, as if their hearts weren’t nimble enough, not quick enough to adjust to a new reality, as if their hearts were hanging back in the past when the future was upon them.
Sometimes our hearts are molasses in January. Sometimes our hearts move as if they were too tired to get out of bed. Maybe our hearts aren’t so slow that we need to pass around that defibrillator at the back of the sanctuary, but they don’t jump to alert when Jesus is near. Is there something Jesus is telling us he wants to do, but we are too slow of heart to move on it. If our hearts are stuck in their ways or turned in on themselves, they cannot move at the speed of love. When I pray for our search committee, and when I pray for our church after I’m gone, I pray that you will be nimble of heart. Better a racing heart than a sluggish one, better a heart ready to run a marathon than a tentative heart just hanging around the starting line.
The third phrase I want you to pay attention to is “our hearts burning.” “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” John Wesley’s conversion experience is one of the most-repeated in the world, and it’s celebrated by Methodists every May on Aldersgate Day. On May 24, 1738, John Wesley attended a “group meeting” in a home on Aldersgate Street. It was nothing but a Bible study, and a pretty dry one, I’d think. They were reading aloud to each other Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. Can you imagine how many people I’d get to attend that Bible study? Here’s what Wesley said about it:
While [Luther] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
That moment of recognition, that heart-burning, was all it took to change Wesley’s life and launch a movement. It wasn’t particularly dramatic. I bet there have been times when you have sensed that Christ was near or that God was speaking to you that your own heart was strangely warmed. The disciples on the Emmaus Road felt a burning in their hearts when Jesus opened their minds to the truth of the scriptures. They didn’t know it was Jesus—yet—but the truth that Jesus suffering as the Messiah was God’s plan through the ages hit their hearts hard and ignited something.
It’s sometimes said that New Englanders are afraid of emotion in religion—or afraid of emotion, period. Generally speaking, they prefer their religion to be head-oriented and practical. No dancing or jumping in church for us, thank you, and seldom is heard an encouraging word like “Amen!” or “Preach it, brother!” When a consultant told us years ago—after a survey—that the one thing most lacking at Harbor Church was “passionate spirituality,” our deacons agreed that we couldn’t even mention such a thing. We had to find another way to talk about it than “passion.” That makes me laugh now, the idea that we were so afraid of passion or speaking in those terms.
One New England pastor said that someone passing by his church asked him, “Excuse me, is this a museum or a church?” That is more or less the question for us. Is this a memorial to those who once hoped, entrusted to the slow of heart who stir the cold ashes? Or are we a living body of people who deep within have a still-burning ember of love for Jesus which we as a community can fan into flame? Are we not a family of those who somewhere on the path of life walked with Jesus and heard him speaking to us, so that our hearts burned within us? We remember, at least, a moment of recognition and awakening. And better than to remember, to live in that moment every day, continually waking up to the reality that Jesus walks with us and talks with us and tells us we are his own.