“Seeing Reality”: a Sermon on the Road to Emmaus

Stuart Higginbotham

The Third Sunday of Easter

April 23, 2023

Seeing Reality

I imagine that the story of the encounter on the Road to Emmaus is one that most church people would recognize, at least in its basic structure: two men, with some connection to the group of disciples, with enormous questions about what has just happened with Jesus, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The story actually takes place on the evening of the day Jesus was resurrected, remember, and as they are walking, they meet this stranger and strike up a conversation. 

“Are you the only person who doesn’t know what has happened?” they ask this man. And Jesus (unbeknownst to them) gives them a chance to share what they think has happened before he interprets the actual events and places them in their true prophetic and cosmic context. 

Then Jesus (unbeknownst to them) begins to leave them, and they invite him to stay since it is already getting dark. And then, in that moment of breaking bread and sharing a meal, they recognize who Jesus is–and he immediately vanishes, leaving them to reflect back on their encounter. “Were not our hearts burning within us…” they say to one another. Indeed.

This is one of those stories that exists or works, if you will, on different levels of consciousness. There is the basic framework of their encounter while walking on the road, there is the deeper insight that Jesus gives them through his teaching, and there is further wisdom still in the experience of their realization. The way the story frames this movement is with the bookends of “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” and “then their eyes were opened.” 

There is a profound spiritual teaching here around the metaphor of sight and spiritual vision: How are the eyes, as we say, the windows to the soul? How do we understand spiritual insight? How is our vision obscured? How is our vision cleared so that we see or understand reality the way it truly is?

There is a saying attributed to different writers and teachers that goes like this: “We don’t see reality the way it is; rather, we see reality the way we are.” Do we get the wisdom of that teaching, that the way we are, the way our lives are impacted by our biases, prejudices, ignorances, willful denial, etc., those egoic patterns that become the lenses and constrictions of our lives, that these are the obscurations that hinder us. This is how spiritual myopia and spiritual blindness happens. 

“Their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” the text says. Their own story, as it were, with the expectations and conclusions that they had drawn from what had happened that morning, those thoughts shaped the way they saw reality. So, it is ironic that they ask Jesus “are you the only one who doesn’t know what has happened?”–as if they do.

They even tell how the women went early in the morning–the myrrh bearers they are called–to tend to the body but instead found an empty tomb. Who could imagine that, so others went to double-check them and indeed found it as they said. But they still struggled to understand what this meant. And who wouldn’t?! I would be right there with them, to be honest, working to gather insights and stories and glimpses from people I trusted, and working to put it all together. People don’t normally rise from the dead, so when it appears to happen, it warrants some investigation. 

When I was a kid, I thought I heard my grandparents say that this one particular lady in our church, Mrs. High, had died. I knew who she was, and imagine my shock when I came to church a couple weeks later, looked over at the next pew, and saw Mrs. High sitting there. She saw me looking her way and smiled, and I almost screamed out loud! It turns out that, obviously, I had misheard. Or, something extraordinary had happened with Mrs. High! She had risen indeed!

What happens in that movement from “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” to “then their eyes were opened” is where the deep spiritual teaching happens in this story. This is worth our time reflecting on.

Notice that the shift or opening of awareness did not happen just from what the two men shared with Jesus. It didn’t happen, even, with Jesus’ reinterpretation of the story, his more expansive engagement with what had happened. The more rational level, if you will, helped lay a vital groundwork for the opening in awareness, but the realization happened on another level. This is telling us something important: the dynamic of a more expanded consciousness, a more open spiritual awareness takes place in a space deeper than our rational minds.

I cannot overemphasize how important of a teaching that this is for us in the church today. When we experience moments of anxiety and fear, times of discomfort where the way we have seen and understood the world no longer seems to make sense, we so often revert to trying to mentally comprehend. We want to think our way out of a situation, out of anxiety. 

Look at the ongoing struggle we have with gun violence–that people inflict on others and on themselves, with drug abuse, with homelessness, and with other social struggles. How many times do we say “I can’t figure this out” or “I can’t get my mind around this” or “I can’t make sense of this.”  We live in a culture that over-emphasizes our rational capacity, and within this impulse to rationally capture something, there is also an impulse to control. Spiritual growth becomes reduced to problem solving, ignoring the deeper dimensions of transformation. And as Albert Einstein once famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” 

“Let us build three dwellings” we remember Peter saying in the story of the Transfiguration. Let us capture this, somehow.

So, if we see the world the way we are, as it goes, then our spiritual work must be around changing the way we are, the way we live in the world. This is why we say that nurturing our practices of prayer is so absolutely essential, because the transformation must take place on the level of our spiritual heart, in a deeper and more subtle dimension or plane than we normally operate, and our practices of prayer nurture the transformation of this more imaginal aspect of ourselves. 

Here is where the Emmaus story really holds its power, I think. Notice how it unfolded. The two men invite Jesus to eat dinner with them. The text says: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

Rembrandt, Supper at Emmaus,
The Louvre

The entire story has now been placed within a Eucharistic grounding. That is to say, the awareness came when they shared the sacramental, embodied experience of the meal. This pattern of taking bread, blessing, breaking, and giving bread connects us intimately with the story of the Lord’s Supper, the Last Supper, three nights earlier when Jesus gathered with his disciples. This is the embodied pattern we see: taking, blessing, breaking, and giving. In that space, Jesus invites the disciples to see that he is talking about his own body. 

This pattern is represented in our own Eucharistic Prayer that we will share in just a few moments. We will re-embody this story, this movement, in our own lives. That is the beating heart of the Eucharist, the heart that beats within a more subtle body.

Notice how the wisdom teachings of Jesus work: they move us out of our fixation on our rational capacity and invite us to become centered and grounded in the presence of the Living Spirit. This dynamic of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving becomes not something that “we do” to bread, invoking the Spirit; rather, it becomes the pattern of our own lives. WE are taken, blessed, broken, and given. 

Behold who you are, the Body of Christ; May we become what we receive we say during our Eucharistic Prayer. That saying comes from St. Augustine in the 4th century. This is the deep teaching of our faith. This is the wisdom we seek to nurture, and it is the wisdom that transforms the way we live in the world. 

Now, there is a great hymn we used to sing when I was a child–back when Mrs. High rose from the dead–that beautifully describes our prayer:

Open my eyes that I may see

glimpses of truth thou hast for me.

Place in my hands the wonderful key

that shall unclasp and set me free.

Silently now I wait for thee,

ready, my God, thy will to see.

Open my eyes, illumine me,

Spirit divine!

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