Sermon Starter

Key text: Luke 24:13-36

The road to Emmaus as a ‘thin place’

A number of writers, drawing on the Celtic tradition of the ‘thin place’ (a point where heaven and earth seem to come near to each other (v.15), have suggested that these places are to be found not simply at sacred geographical sites or natural phenomena, but at points of human suffering, disability, and disorientation[1]  including advanced ageing and dementia.[2] There is no doubt (though it is under-recognised) that the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus are suffering, fleeing a place of trauma and continuing perceived danger, and deeply disoriented (vv. 17, 21). A child once advanced the theory that Mary Magdalene did not recognise the risen Christ because her eyes were too full of tears to see properly. Perhaps this is also relevant to this story.

In the Bible thin places are often marked by the presence of angels. Luke’s Gospel actually opens with an encounter with an angel in a thin place – the Temple (interestingly by a male priest who is unable to tell what he has seen) and it ends with an encounter with angels in a thin place – the tomb (by women who do tell what they have seen but are not believed by men). Both texts use the word optasia (vision) for these encounters.

The two disciples have all the perceptual building blocks in place but cannot form a percept – see what is front of their eyes – until they enter their own thin place, or more correctly as Jesus draws near and makes it a thin place. The text tells us that the two are ‘held’ or ‘kept’ from recognising Jesus perhaps, as already suggested, by their grief; perhaps by their attempts to cope with it by talking it through; perhaps by the obvious fact that Jesus is dead so he is the last person you would expect to see.

But Jesus is also presented as an ordinary stranger who is only recognisable in hindsight by the impact that his joining up of Scripture with their recent experience had on their burning hearts. There is an opportunity here to explore end of life as providing the wisdom of hindsight. The extract a Holy Week address below describes this process:

This fitting of things together to make sense is something we do increasingly as we approach the end of our lives. Indeed, some things only make sense with the hindsight of years. In the last week of his life an elderly friend told me a story. When he was engaged to be married he and his fiancée searched in vain for somewhere to live. It was just after World War II and, like today, there was a shortage of affordable rental accommodation. It looked very much as if they were going to have to begin their married life living with his parents. Then, a few days before the wedding, a large flat became available at a reasonable rent. Over the years my friend and his wife had often said to each other that this had been like a wonderful miracle. But in his last days he returned to this part of his life and he remembered something odd; he had a flashbulb memory of his aunt whispering conspiratorially to his mother-in-law shortly before the flat became available. This aunt was wealthy and had contacts in the property business. Over sixty years after the original incident he realised that she must have slipped someone a financial sweetener to secure the flat for him. He had always thought this aunt rather cold and aloof; in his last days he was filled with gratitude at her love and care for him and his new bride. He felt compelled to tell me the story ‘in remembrance of her.’[3]

There is here a kind of unlocking of the imagination that enables the consideration of previously unthought of possibilities – possibilities to do with this earthly life (the insight that there is more to people and situations than meets the eye) and of God’s glory that is both profoundly different from and far greater than we could have hoped or imagined. This unlocking of the imagination is a mark of the resurrection life; when we ‘get it’ we are –as it were – raised with Christ.

Our encounters in thin places are transitory, yet we have a desire to hold on to them. The disciples here urge the stranger to stay longer and, just when they realise who he is, he has gone. Something similar happens at the transfiguration – another ‘vision’ – where Peter tries to build ‘dwelling places’ for Jesus. Moses, and Elijah (Matthew 17:4).  Notice here the link to ‘Moses and all the prophets’ in the Emmaus story (v. 27). Notice also what it is that Jesus draws out of Scripture – that his suffering was the threshold to his glory, his own ‘thin place’.

Even though the encounter with Jesus is so fleeting these disciples are able to live in its light. They turn around and re-attach themselves to the emerging church and they offer a ‘bottom-up theology’ based on their own first-hand experience that at once supports, complements, and subverts the top-down pronouncements of the proto-magisterium on the lips of Peter.

This passage ends at an unusual point (v.36) with the words ‘Peace be with you.’ For this is our ultimate desired destination; a place of deep peace and security in the presence of Jesus.

[1] Gomes, P. (2002). The Good Book: Reading the Bible with mind and heart. New York: Harper.

[2] Sorrell, J. (2006). Listening in thin places: Ethics in the care of persons with Alzheimer’s Disease. Advances in Nursing Science, 29, 152-60.

[3] Mark 14:9

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