Sunday, April 6, 2008

(Easter 3) Why being disillusioned is a good thing

Luke 24:13-35

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The journey of Cleopas and his companion—
from Jerusalem, to Emmaus, and back to Jerusalem—
was without a doubt, the journey of a lifetime.
It was just a 14-mile round-trip walk.
Well, they walked to Emmaus.
They probably ran back to Jerusalem.
This was so momentous a journey for these two disciples
(who we never hear from again),
that it was not only recorded in Luke’s gospel,
and mentioned in Mark’s,
but it has become a favorite story of the Easter season.

In fact, it has become a sort of prototype, a model,
for walking with Jesus as a disciple.
There are Christian churches and movements worldwide,
named after this village Emmaus, where Jesus was hosted.
There is a worldwide movement of Christian renewal,
called the Emmaus Walk.

But even though for Cleopas and his friend,
this was the journey of a lifetime,
it’s a walk that has been repeated many times over,
by many different disciples.
It’s a walk that, in fact, we all must make,
if we want to be disciples of Jesus,
and want to see and to know Jesus, the one we seek to follow.
Why do I say that?
Because the walk to Emmaus and back,
was a walk that took Cleopas and the other disciple
from disillusionment, to clear vision,
from a misplaced wish-dream, to authentic faith.

When these two deflated and dejected disciples left Jerusalem,
and started trudging down the road to Emmaus,
they were actually in a wonderful state of mind.
Emotionally and intellectually,
they were at an ideal place
to have a life-changing encounter with Jesus.
Because they were disillusioned.
And what a wonderful gift it be disillusioned.

Yes, that’s what I said.
Oh, I know what it feels like to suddenly become disillusioned.
And it’s not very fun.
When something we enthusiastically and wholeheartedly believe in,
suddenly turns out to be false.
When we have some high expectation that we stake our future on,
and it falls flat.
When some person we admire and idolize and try to emulate,
turns out to be living a double life,
and carrying a dark secret that becomes public.
Being disillusioned is no fun.
It can be downright painful, and disorienting, and confusing.
Some people have a difficult time recovering from disillusionment.
Some are never able to.
Which is a sad thing.

But I still insist.
It’s a good thing to be disillusioned.
And it puts us in an ideal place to meet up with Jesus.

Because what is disillusionment, after all?
It’s when some illusion we are living with,
gets exposed to the light,
and the illusion is destroyed...forever.
And we can never go back.
It’s when a false image is shown for what it really is—false.
It’s painful to realize it, yes.
But what a wonderful gift.
That is, if we really want to live in the light.

Cleopas and his friend, and all the other disciples for that matter,
were living with a grand illusion.
Cleopas says, in v. 21, “We had hoped...”
Three words common to any disillusionment.
“We had hoped.” Past tense.
But the hope is gone now.
“We had hoped,” Cleopas said,
“that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

But the kind of redemption Cleopas was hoping for,
was an illusion.
It was a false hope, a misplaced hope.
He, along with most Jews in and around Jerusalem,
were hoping for deliverance from the occupying forces.
They wanted self-rule again.
They wanted one of their own people,
namely, a descendent of King David,
to sit on the palace throne where the brutal and pagan
King Herod now sat.
They had hoped...and lots of signs were pointing that direction,
the more Jesus got confrontational with the authorities,
and the more miracles he performed,
the more likely it seemed
that he would be able to pull off the ultimate miracle—
to stand up against Caesar and the Great Roman Empire,
and prevail.

Nearly everyone believed that’s what they needed,
in order to become whole people, God’s holy people.
They needed a Messiah who would recover the glory of Israel.
In Cleopas’ words, “we had hoped he would redeem Israel.”
Now, all their hopes are utterly crushed.
The enthusiastic followers of Jesus are thoroughly disillusioned.

Which is absolutely perfect, as far as Jesus is concerned.
It’s the perfect time to meet up with them on the road,
and have a talk,
have an illuminating conversation.
It’s the perfect time for a shift in thinking,
a change in expectations.

So Jesus prepares the way for this shift,
by addressing their faulty thinking.
He opens the scripture, and reinterprets Moses and the prophets.
Puts a spin on those words they hadn’t heard before.
“Was it not necessary,” Jesus asked them,
“that the Messiah should suffer these things
and then enter into his glory?”
They had never considered a Messiah who could deliver them
with the power of suffering love.
They had never considered a Messiah
who could be given glory and honor,
without sitting on David’s throne,
or who could exercise tremendous power,
without ever lifting a sword, or commanding an army,
and, in fact, laying down his life.
They had never considered the thought.

So...disillusioned as they were,
it was the perfect time for Jesus to meet them on the road.
Now they could be receptive,
and grasp the truth they could not see earlier,
when Jesus was performing miracles and attracting a following,
and they were all getting caught up in the exciting possibilities.

So Jesus met them, and started to turn their thinking.
But where the revelation became complete,
was in the breaking of the bread.
Where the disillusionment turned to sight was at the table.
It was in the real, physical, and familiar act of breaking bread,
perhaps reminding them of a meal with Jesus not that long ago.
It was at the table, sharing the ordinary stuff of life,
that recognition finally came to them.

As long as they were looking at Jesus in the abstract,
as a public symbol of political deliverance,
as an icon of freedom, so to speak,
their sight was impaired.
They were seeing an illusion.
But in the breaking of bread across a table,
in the prayer of blessing, in the sharing,
the reality of who Jesus was in the present, at the core,
was made known to them.

Jesus was the living presence of the God of power and sacrificial love.
It was through this Jesus, the resurrected Jesus,
that their own lives could be transformed,
that they could hope again,
that they could go on.
Because the God of love and power was with them in Jesus.

I dare say we today are just as prone, and even more so,
to live with illusions about who Jesus is.
We, too, see Jesus as an icon.
Not as an icon of freedom from Roman oppression,
but an icon, nevertheless.
And by icon, I mean, a drastic reduction of the real thing,
a small, artificial, representation of what’s behind it.
Like an icon on your computer screen.
That icon is not the program.
You can stare at that little word processing icon all day,
but it will never be able to write a letter for you.
By itself, the icon is only an empty and powerless image,
and not a very good image at that.

That’s what our culture has reduced Jesus to—an icon.
The living, risen Lord Jesus,
the one who calls us to take up his cross
and to follow him in life sacrificially,
the one who confronts injustice,
the one who brings both peace and division,
the one who is present with us in the here and now,
the one who forgives us when we fall,
and then expects us to get up and keep walking with him,
the one whose love for us is stubborn, and costly, and deep,
and the one who makes himself known to the world,
through his body, the church, as fallible as it is.
That Jesus has been reduced to an icon.
A symbol of all things sweet and comfortable and safe.

Speaking of Cleopas and friend seeing Jesus in breaking bread,
did you hear about the youth pastor in Texas,
who saw Jesus in a bag of Cheetos.
He was eating Cheetos, and pulled one out that was shaped funny,
and held it up, and saw in it the figure of Jesus.
This actually made it onto national cable TV News.
I saw it sitting in a restaurant a couple weeks ago,
on the big-screen TV on the wall.
The pastor is keeping it in specially protected clear plastic case,
on display in his office.
And is thinking about selling it on eBay.
That’s the kind of Jesus our culture loves to see, and imagine.
Jesus as an icon. An image. A symbol.

Our culture, our religious structures, and even we ourselves,
have stripped Jesus of his real power to transform lives,
because the full-orbed risen and living Lord Jesus
is too hard to deal with,
and still keep a semblance of order and stability and comfort
in our everyday lives.
It’s hard enough to maintain balance and order in our lives,
working 50 or 60 hours a week,
trying to keep up with payments on our spacious houses
and late-model cars,
running every day to follow our kids, or grandkids,
to sports practices and games and recitals and concerts.
It’s hard enough to establish a meaningful relationship
with our next-door neighbor in our middle-class subdivision.
So how do we find time to love the poor and dispossessed?
How are we supposed to be a serious follower of Jesus,
and keep up everything else we do?

How are we, in our lives, in our time
able to follow the same Jesus who once asked
a particularly encumbered young man
to sell everything and give all his wealth to the poor,
and actually meant for him to do it?
How are we to follow the Jesus
who said he wanted to be visited when he was in prison,
and to be fed when he was hungry,
and clothed when he was naked,
and taken care of when he was sick,
and taken in when he was a stranger?
Jesus said when we encounter these poorest and least,
we encounter Jesus himself.
And I don’t think Jesus meant to say,
when I find myself in prison, I hope some of my followers
will send a check to a good prison ministry,
and when I’m homeless and hungry,
I hope my disciples will drop a donation
in the Salvation Army kettles.

We 21st-century wealthy North American Christians,
and I count myself among them,
have embraced the values of our culture,
have constructed large and comfortable and secure lifestyles,
and then tried to figure out how to squeeze Jesus
into the available spaces here and there.

That’s reducing Jesus to an icon.
An icon that represents an abstract idea:
Jesus, our personal comforter.
Jesus, the mystical giver of inner peace.
Jesus, our private rescuer,
who pulls us out of every bad circumstance we’re in.
The safe Jesus whose is found
on keychains and greeting cards...and in Cheetos.
The domesticated Jesus who never asks more of us
than we are ready, willing, and wanting to be asked.
If that is the Jesus we see, when we picture Jesus being with us,
if that is the Jesus we worship in our private times,
if that is the Jesus we identify with
when we call ourselves Christians,
then we are seeing an illusion.
A false representation of the real thing.

Maybe in our quiet times,
we should start praying for disillusionment.
We should ask God, if we have the courage,
to strip away our illusions,
to shine the burning light of truth
on any mistaken notion we might be clinging to about Jesus.
That burning light is what happened on the road to Emmaus.
They asked each other later, “Were not our hearts burning,
as he opened the scriptures to us?”
The disillusioning light of truth
can very well be experienced as a burning sensation.
It kind of stings, to have our illusions stripped away.
To realize that Jesus may not primarily be interested
in our personal comfort and safety and security.
To realize that following Jesus is risky business.
That it could radically alter our lives.

Shane Claiborne, a leader of a small community
living among the poor in north Philadelphia,
who spoke at EMU week before last,
told about a time he was speaking at a Christian conference,
and a prominent local citizen came up to him before the session,
and said, “Yeah, my life was really messed up,
and then I met Jesus, and he put my life in order again.”
Shane answered, “Wow, that’s interesting.
I pretty much had things put together, even went to seminary.
Then I met Jesus, and he really messed up my life.”

At some point the illusions we hold about who Jesus is,
and what he expects of us,
are bound to crumble and start falling away.
Jesus, the icon, doesn’t have much lasting value.
Sooner or later,
we discover that Jesus does not always rescue us from trouble.
In fact, as we look around,
there’s not much evidence that followers of Jesus,
have any less trouble and pain and suffering,
than those who don’t follow Jesus.
Sooner or later,
we discover that Jesus is not always
an intimate, comforting presence in our lives,
that sometimes, for no explainable reason,
God seems absent and far away, even for long periods.
Mother Teresa even discovered God could be silent and distant.
Sooner or later,
we will have to deal with disillusionment.
And at that point,
we can either try denial, and see how long that works.
Going on as if our illusions about Jesus still work for us.
Or we can try honesty.
Like Cleopas and his friend did with Jesus on the road.
They laid out their disappointment and disillusionment,
they put it on the table, so to speak.
And then they listened. They were open to a new way of seeing.
And in the breaking of the bread, they saw.
Their perspective on Jesus changed.
They realized that his physical death was not the end.
That there was a glory awaiting Jesus, and awaiting them,
that did not rely on establishing political independence
and putting a new king on David’s throne.

They learned that there was much more to Jesus than what they first saw.
And that it would take a lifetime of continuing to walk with him,
to discover what it all meant for their lives.
And that is still true today.
We must walk this road from Jerusalem to Emmaus,
from disillusionment, to clear vision,
from misplaced wish-dreams, to authentic faith.
And we must walk it with other disciples.

May the burning light of the truth about who Jesus is,
and what Jesus is asking of us,
shine into our illusions, and strip them away.
And may the living, risen Lord Jesus walk with us daily,
and may we have the courage we need, to follow.

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