You Are Not Alone
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" 19 He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." 25 Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Last month there was an interview published in the Harvard Business Review titled, “That Discomfort You Are Feeling is Grief.” It was with grief expert David Kessler who is an author, he’s worked in large hospital systems and with the LAPD and Red Cross on traumatic event response teams. In the interview he talked about the different stages of grief we might be experiencing right now in this pandemic.
- Denial: This virus won’t affect us.
- Anger: Because we’re being made to stay home.
- Bargaining: OK, if we social distance for two weeks can we go back to normal?
- Sadness: When will this ever end?
And, traditionally, the final stage:
- Acceptance. This is happening. I have to figure out how to proceed.
But Kessler also talks about another kind of grief he calls, “anticipatory grief” - the feeling we get when we’re uncertain about what the future holds. It’s broad, it’s vague. It makes us anxious and sad for reasons we don’t necessarily understand, but it is every bit as real as any other type of grief.
Today our story opens with two disciples not only literally walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus but also, in many ways, walking through the stages of grief. The text states repeatedly that they are talking, discussing - about what we don’t know exactly but we can imagine the ways in which Jesus’ death has affected them:
- Denial: Did that really just happen?
- Anger: It was the chief priests and leaders who handed him over - it’s their fault!
- Bargaining: Maybe if we just… this will all go away.
- Sadness - because their friend, their leader is gone.
I’m not sure they’ve reached acceptance yet but by Kessler’s definition I do think they are now living with a great deal of anticipatory grief because in the post-crucifixion world nothing is certain for followers of Christ. They’re anxious, they’re fearful, they’re confused - they’re grieving.
And then, enters Jesus.
While I would never simply equate Jesus to a therapist, the work of accompanying people in distress is very much the work of mental health professionals and it’s very much the work of Jesus in this passage. Only instead of psychoanalytic or cognitive behavioral methods, in this case Jesus method of accompanying is known in theological terms as the doctrine of Revelation.
Revelation is one of the first things you learn in a Reformed Theology classroom - how God reveals God’s self to humans. There are two ways we can think about it:
One is General Revelation - this is how God is revealed to us in nature or music or the love we feel so profoundly for family and friends in our lives. When God is revealed in our personal experiences (good and bad) or a beautiful piece of art or a sunset - the wonders of science.
But in this kind of revelation God is revealed in a somewhat vague or “general” sort of way. The other aspect is called Special Revelation, how God is revealed to us in specific events and most specifically THE Christ event - Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Because Jesus does not walk the earth with us the way he did in the days of the disciples, we who follow Christ today receive this special revelation of God primarily through God’s Word in Scripture and the experiencing of the Sacraments.
Revelation, in any form, General or Special, is a gift. It is how God’s Spirit comes alongside us. It’s how God draws near to us, meeting us where we are at and helping us put together the scattered pieces of our lives to find some pattern and purpose. Revelation is what, more than anything else, can help us move through times of grief.
This putting-together-of-the-pieces is what happens in this story when Jesus comes alongside Cleopas and his friend. And notice what Jesus does:
As they go round and round on the hamster wheel of grief Jesus is literally joins them in their journey. But at the same time he stops that wheel and makes them pause and reflect as he points them back to Scripture.
Specifically, Jesus points them back to the stories of Moses and the prophets - people who knew pain and uncertainty, people who struggled to see what God was doing in their midst who felt the full gamete of denial, anger, sadness, bargaining. It’s as though Jesus points them to these stories in order to say, “You are not alone. God sees you. I see you.” Then he explains how these stories are in fact revealing Christ in the world through his death and resurrection.
Then, Jesus draws them into the experience of the sacrament. He gathers them close to him and he takes bread - sustenance - and he blesses it and he gives it to them. He nourishes them, equips them, and empowers them to continue their journey. That’s when they realize the truth of Jesus’ presence with them in their grief. It doesn’t make the discomfort or the uncertainty go away. But now they know - they are not alone. God sees them. And in fact, God is with them. Even if they’re not sure what to do next.
Like many of you, in this time of grieving I’ve reached out for some familiar comforts. One that has been with me almost my whole life is this man - Mr. Rogers. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran on PBS from 1968 to 2001 - it reached its height in the mid-80s, which happens to have been my preschool years and my dad and I would watch every day.
Well known in clergy circles is the fact that “Mister” Rogers was actually “Reverend” Fred Rogers. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister whose congregation gathered through the television each week. And although he never talked about things like Special Revelation or Scripture or Jesus, what he did do was accompany children through their many stages of development, which are often filled with feelings of sadness, uncertainty, and anger.
In this book of his poems, which are mostly song lyrics from his show, there are titles like:
- What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?
- It’s Good to Talk
- It Hurts to be Lonely
- Sometimes Isn’t Always
Fred Rogers was not Jesus, but he was Christ-like in the way he would look into that camera - it always felt like he was looking right at you - and he’d say at the end of every show:
“You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”
In his own way, Fred Rogers was saying, to any person watching, feeling any sort of grief: “You are not alone. I see you. God sees you.”
To feel seen and understood is to feel loved. And that is what we see in this story when Jesus comes alongside the ones he loves in their grief.
We see that even in the midst of pain there is love to be found, and truth to be revealed.
Yet we see that even Jesus himself didn’t necessarily give his loved ones clear cut answers about what to do next. Instead he gently called them back to the Scriptures and offered them bread for their journey. His presence with them speaks volumes and what it says is:
- You are not alone on this journey.
- God sees you.
- I see you.
There’s one particular poem in this Fred Rogers book - it reads:
“And wouldn’t it be simply wonderful if someone came along who knows it hurts so much to be lonely. Oh how happy I could be if that special someone held my hand and said, ‘Come, be with me.’”
So Jesus did for the travelers to Emmaus.
And so God’s Spirit does for us now when we do not know what the next day will bring. God’s Spirit is there, ready to take our hand, know our hurts, and guide us back to the presence of Christ.
“Were not our hearts burning within us?” they ask when it’s all over.
That’s the best part of the story because it’s so relatable - so often it isn’t until we look back on our experiences of grief that we see how Christ was there with us.
As I mentioned earlier, traditionally, the stages of grief end with stage five: acceptance. But recently, Kessler has proposed a sixth stage - meaning. He says, “When I am grieving, I don’t just want to accept my grief. I want to find greater purpose and meaning in it.” That’s something we may be longing for too in this time - on the other side of this pandemic, what will I have learned about myself and others? What will we have learned as a nation, as a global community, how can we be sure that this suffering has not been in vain?
These questions may be keeping us up at night right now, but if we allow the Spirit to draw us back to the Scriptures, what we see here is that just as the disciples were not able to make meaning of their burning hearts until they looked back on their encounter with Jesus, it’s very possible that we will not be able to find meaning in this situation until we are on the other side of it.
Until then, this story can gently guide us through our stages of grief. It reminds us to stay close to Scripture in this time, to find ways to commune with one another even when we are physically apart. To be the hands and feet of Christ in the world right now may simply mean reaching out to someone who feels lost and unseen and letting them know you are accompanying them in whatever way you can.
And we hold tight to the knowledge that we worship a God who is always revealing God’s self to us in new ways - in Word, in Sacrament, in sunsets, in laughter. Without fail finding ways to accompany us in our grief to say, “You are not alone.”