LEAVING THE CHURCH OR STAYING?
For many of us life is a series of changes. Some of these are forced upon us, others freely chosen. We decide, for example, to move to a new suburb, look for a new job, replace our old car with a new model, go on a diet, enrol the children in a different school, or support a particular charity. When we make such decisions we usually expect that the changes will work out, and that our lives will be so much better and happier. But things don’t always turn out as planned. A wise proverb puts it this way: ‘Man proposes but God disposes!’ Sometimes, in fact, all our efforts to change situations for the better bring only failure and frustration, disappointment and disillusionment.
This is just what has happened to those two disciples with the sad faces whom we meet in our gospel today. To their credit they have previously responded to the invitation of Jesus to be his friends and workmates. They have learned from him a great deal about the meaning of life. They have shared his work of teaching and healing. They have enjoyed his company and done a great deal of good to others. As the influence of Jesus has spread, they have been filled with hope for a better world – a ‘kingdom’ one of justice, peace, and joy for everyone.
Now, however, this has all come to an abrupt end. For in these past few days Jesus, their beloved Leader and Teacher, has been arrested, tried, sentenced, tortured and killed. Right now they are feeling that without his presence, his inspiration and guidance, his support and encouragement, they simply cannot go on. So disappointed and disillusioned are they, in fact, about the fate of Jesus that they have actually decided to leave the community of his followers, the Church. This is just what they are doing when we catch up with them today. Slowly but surely they are walking away from it all. Slowly but surely they are putting Jerusalem and the other disciples further and further behind them. We find them instead heading to the village of Emmaus, some seven miles away, in the hope of starting there a new chapter of their lives.
But as they trudge along the road, with their eyes cast down and their shoulders hunched, they can’t help chatting to each other about all that has happened. It’s precisely within this situation of disappointed hopes and broken dreams that all of a sudden Jesus himself joins them, although they don’t recognise him at first. This time he re-enters their lives, no longer simply as Jesus of Nazareth, but as the Risen Lord, powerful and empowering! They answer his every question with the basic facts. They add that they have even heard a rumour that he is no longer dead but alive. Yet while they state the basic facts about him, they have no idea how to join the dots. They desperately need Jesus to explain to them from the Scriptures that the Messiah would reach victory and glory only through the path of acute suffering. So influential and impressive is his explanation of the facts that later we find them saying to each other: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road…?’
By now the sun is setting and they’ve reached their destination. Jesus pretends to go on. They have enjoyed his company so much that they plead with him to stay with them. He graciously accepts their invitation. There at table their guest becomes their host. He takes bread, says the blessing over it, breaks the bread, and gives it to them. Just as he did at the Last Supper! There and then they recognise him as he was for them then, but even more as he is for them now.
So moved are they by the impact of meeting him as Jesus raised from the dead, that there and then they reverse their previous decision. They turn right round and go walking back to the other disciples in Jerusalem. They go home to the Church they have so recently left.
In recent years there have been big changes to the image and reputation of the Church. Some people have struggled to understand what has happened, the how and the why. Others have been in denial about the Church’s sins, weakness and wounds. Others have bravely soldiered on through it all, while working harder for a better, a more authentic, a more Jesus-like way of being Church. Some, broken-hearted, have simply walked out, perhaps permanently.
What we all need in these times of let-down and discouragement is stronger faith, stronger faith in the on-going presence of the Risen Lord to his Church, and as he acts through his Spirit, his second self. We need this stronger faith and the hope and love that go with it, especially when we come together at the Eucharist to celebrate his presence and influence.
Our Risen Lord is with us right here right now today, in ways that match his presence to his disciples on the way to Emmaus. He is here in the midst of our gathering. He is here as he tells his story and ours in the readings and the homily. And very shortly he will be here among us again in our Eucharistic meal of bread and wine. We look to him, as both our host and nourishment, to keep empowering us for the next stages of our journeys of life. ‘Stay with us,’ is our prayer to him, over and over again.
May we welcome him among us, then, with trust and love, and with our minds and hearts and lives open to his powerful influence! May we embrace him as he comes to us with his mighty power and his outstretched loving arms!