Solutions follow Problems
“While they were walking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
As a child, I thought these two disciples were “kept” from recognizing Jesus by some divine alteration of what the rods and cones communicated to the optic nerve. But there are other means of interference which could have kept them from recognizing him. Chief among them, their expectations; or lack thereof.
They have the events of Easter morning perfectly in order; but they seem not to have remembered the part where Jesus told them he would die. They seem to have failed to recognize the role that resurrection was to play in all this.
Their eyes could not overcome that of which their hearts were convinced and their brains are convicted.
What happened in Jerusalem didn’t meet their expectations. The problem they wanted resolved was not addressed by the way things happened.
While these two seem to have been followers of Jesus, they were in fact searching for the wrong thing. They could not see, they failed to comprehend the significance of what had just happened to them. So weak in vision are these two disciples that even the resurrected Jesus goes unnoticed. He walks among them, he talks to them, but he offers a solution so alien to their expectations that they are incapable of receiving the gift he is prepared to offer.
I would be remiss if I didn’t interject here the interpretation of Brain McLaren, whose book is being discussed during the SCS hour. He writes of Good Friday as the day when Jesus’ body and blood are ripped apart – that is what death is, right? A ripping apart of our body and our blood? Just before this happens to Jesus, he tells his disciples that the loaf of bread they are to share is his body and the cup from which they drink is his blood. These disciples – all disciples – participate in the reuniting of Christ’s body and blood every time we observe Holy Communion. They saw Jesus – just as we see Jesus – when that body and blood are reunited – reunited in us.
The disciples in Luke 24 weren’t there yet. In truth, most of us modern-day disciples have been told exactly why their eyes could not see. Haven't we have been taught from a very early age that the reason they were incapable of accepting Jesus was because they had been expecting a military ruler, one who would drive out the Romans and establish a kingdom like that of mighty David? Luke provides ammunition for such assumptions when he quotes one of these fleeing disciples as saying to Jesus, "We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel." We are not told what sort of redemption this disciple anticipated, but it clearly had nothing to do with death on a cross. We are lead to believe - or at least allowed to believe - that they had been looking for a political or social redemption.
Whatever it is they had been looking for, they had not found it in this man Jesus. He had severely disappointed them by dying on the cross. The hope which burned within them as they followed Jesus from Nazareth to Jerusalem did not match with the solution offered by a cross at Golgotha.
But that was the problem they carried with them, and we have so often heard criticism of the desire for political redemption that we have learned not to hope for that. Few of us expect our Messiah to defeat occupying armies and liberate nations. We have grown too sophisticated to think that the Savior will ride in on a white horse and lead masses of people in social upheaval. We no longer bring to God such a shallow hope or expectation.
But we do bring a host of other expectations; a collection varied and not at all unified. The diversity of problems we bring to Messiah result in a host of differing understandings of what it means for Jesus to be our Christ. Referred to as Theories of the Atonement, these various arguments differ in that each addresses a particular concern.
What problem do you bring to Christ? Where is the need within you for the one we call the Son of God? What sort of a theory of atonement is needed to respond to your quandary?
Some of us see the problem as a devil who is just too strong for us. All around us we see the forces of evil and we feel powerless to do anything about them. It is the perception that we are held in bondage by this sin and death, that we are incapable of ever having the power to break ourselves free. This problem is met with the solution of a powerful Messiah, a Christ who is stronger than the devil, who is capable of defeating the forces of evil. Christus Victor is the name given to the Messiah who is victorious over evil; the Christ who wins the battle and breaks the hold of evil thus setting us free. The problem of how will we ever stand up to and overcome the strength of evil is met through Jesus who is strong enough, who is capable of defeating the power of the devil and rejecting all his empty promises.
Others see the problem as that of human sinfulness. We are so tainted by sin that we will never attain the holiness God intends for us. We try to do good, but we just keep slipping further and further behind. The problem is that God has such great expectations of the creatures which bear the image of God - expectations which we are clearly incapable of meeting. Those who approach God from this perspective see in Jesus the one who was able to pay the price. Jesus becomes for them the spotless lamb, the sacrifice offered on our behalf. The problem of how will we ever live faithful lives is met by a Jesus who pays the price for our shortcomings. Substitionary atonement is the title for this approach. We often sing a song which lifts up this option – “Lord, I lift your name on high”. The song, and this particular approach, are very popular.
Perhaps neither of these problems is your problem. Maybe you approach God with the hope of doing good, with the expectation of yourself that you will live up to God's expectations. In making such an approach, you need encouragement, you need someone who can cheer you on. You need someone who has done it and therefore can say to you, "Come on! You can make it!" If the problem resides in us; if the reason we are not at full potential is because we are not working hard enough - then what we need is a Jesus who has done it, a Messiah who will give us encouragement. The problem of how can we ever live according to the law is met with the solution of Jesus who shows us that it is indeed possible.
One last way to approach the problem: God is God, we are humans, and the two are separated by so wide a gulf that we find ourselves feeling lonely and lost, hopeless and alienated. The problem is we live in the company of others but we do not feel connected to any of them. The solution to this problem is found in a Messiah whose chief characteristic is self-emptying love. It is the God of Philippians 2 who, though he was in form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. If the problem is separation from God, the solution is found in a God who bridges the gap - a God who comes to us.
Those two disciples, fleeing to Emmaus, had seen nothing in Jesus which gave them reason to hope. During his earthly ministry, he had offered them nothing which might satisfy their desire for a Redeemer. We are quick to condemn them for their lack of vision, but we must be careful so as not to begin a chain of condemnation which will eventually encircle our own lives. What is the expectation we bring? How is it that Jesus satisfies our nagging problem?
The disciples on the road to Emmaus were met by the resurrected Jesus. They had been fleeing the events in Jerusalem, perhaps returning to the comfort and safety of the village of their youth. As he walked with them he interpreted to them the things about himself in ALL the scriptures. I dare say he didn't hit upon any one of the theories of the atonement, rather he allowed them to realize for themselves how it is that in the death and resurrection God comes to them, meeting their quandary and responding to their desires. As he talks, their hearts burn within them. God is giving to them that which they most desperately desire.
I do not mean to leave you with the impression that Jesus is all things to all people - that everyone is free to find in him their own different understanding of what it means to be saved, to be redeemed. But this passage of scripture, contained in the 24th chapter of Luke's gospel, does begin to help to understand why some will respond while others will look upon the story as utter foolishness. The solution is useful only when it matches the problem. The disciples on the road to Emmaus had decided Jesus had nothing to offer them and so they were on their way back home. When he came and interpreted to them the scriptures, they retraced their path and followed the road that took them back to Jerusalem.
We cannot accept the atonement theory of someone else. Jesus is our Messiah precisely when he responds to the problem we bring. We all come with something a little bit different. That is why there are so many differing theories as to exactly what it is that Christ does.
Explore your own problem - then find in Christ the one who sets aside your fears. There is one, maybe two theories you will hear around this house of worship. As you move forth from here, be aware of the preferences of any congregations you visit or consider joining. Jesus is many things to many people. And Jesus does meet us where we have our greatest need. Become aware of your need, and then look for a group of fellow disciples who find in Jesus the response to that need.