I was standing in line at the post office earlier this week. Wearing a mask, a long time friend stood two people ahead of me and I didn’t recognize her until she turned to me and said, “Eric, it’s me, Megan!”. I was surprised and stood in disbelief that she could be right there so obviously and a small piece of cloth covering her face could baffle me. And I wish I could say this was the first time over the last three years that this happened to me, but it wasn’t. I have been regularly surprised by friends in masks… and I have done my own share of surprising!
In our gospel today, Jesus isn’t wearing a mask over his face, but we’re told that the disciples failed to recognize him. I’m always puzzled by this. What was it that prevented them from recognizing Jesus on the road to Emmaus? We’re told immediately following these verses that he appears to another group of disciples and they recognize him immediately and think he’s a ghost… he even shows them the wounds of his body… but the disciples walking on the road earlier fail to recognize the one they are mourning, the guy that they are talking about, the one that they are grieving.
I’ve come to understand that Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple who encounter Jesus on the road are likely so caught up in their grief that the idea of Jesus walking and talking to them is inconceivable. They are blinded by their sense of despair… even as they share memories and share stories about him. Even as he explains things to them. It isn’t until he breaks bread with them that they identify him, just in time for him to disappear. Their hearts were burning within them… they were comforted by him… the reasons for everything that had happened were explained to them and they could finally understand.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the disciples are generally a stubborn bunch. They seem to miss the point Jesus makes throughout his ministry. They are puzzled and confused most of the time. They have trouble making meaning of what is happening around them. The gospel writers often refer to one of the disciples of Christ without mentioning a particular name or by calling one of them ‘the disciple that Jesus loved’. I find it helpful to imagine that I’m that disciple in the story… that the gospel writers have given me the chance to travel through time and to be present in the days of Christ’s active ministry… to have a front row seat to all that happens. The road to Emmaus is no different. The disciple accompanying Cleopas could be me. It could be you.
So what prevents us from seeing Christ walking with next to us? Where is our despair blinding us to the opportunity to connect with Christ?
As I navigate the challenges of my new position as the Regional Executive Minister, I am coming to the realization that Christ is trying to speak to us as a church and we’re a little preoccupied. We’re looking around at our secular society, at the aging membership, at our sadness about church decline. Church closure feels like that inevitable reality that awaits us. Just like the disciples immediately after the crucifixion, we’re caught in a cycle of despair.
We’re holding on to what we had, to an image of church life that we loved and we connected to. Just like the early disciples, we’re wanting to hold on to the pre-crucifixion experience… to the great times of healing, teaching, and journeying through the countryside. Fast forward 2000 years and we’re holding on to the ministry of the 1950s when the United Church was opening a new congregation every week and it was a societal expectation to come to church. The post-war baby-boom was pushing us to create some lifestyle rituals and some normalcy. We cling to this because they were exciting times, we blossomed and believed that growth would continue forever.
But it wasn’t always like this. If you went a little further back in history, to 1925, the year that the United Church was created, our founding denominations were struggling. Their church pews were not as full as they had wished. They saw their neighbouring churches equally struggling to find ministers, to find the money to carry out their ministry. Church union was, at least partially, a reflection of a challenging time. This church was born in the same hardship we found ourselves in today, except it was 100 years ago. We may want to cling to the heyday of the 1950s, but it hasn’t always been our reality. We’ve seen challenging times before as a denomination.
We’re a resurrection people… it is in our DNA as Christians and as members of the United Church of Canada. The key question for us now is… can we recognize Christ walking next to us? Can we look for the signs that tell us where to go next?
Nationally, the church is starting to talk about growth. About strengthening our invitation to those around us, those who have not yet understood what they might find when they join a community of faith. We’re looking at how we renew and build our existing ministries and start to launch some new ones. The church is starting to look for the signposts that tell us what the next 100 years should look like.
I’m enthusiastic about this. I have a deep and abiding belief that God’s not done with this church yet. And your Regional Council is starting to look at how to develop plans for the coming years that help us grow and invigorate our ministry.
So… let’s open our eyes and see where Christ is speaking to us.
We live in a world where mental health is more fragile than it has been since the last world war. Isolation, even before the pandemic, was rampant and people are desperate for connection to others, to find a sense of belonging.
It’s too bad there aren’t places where people can connect on a deeper level, feel love and care by a community, work to make the world a better place. If only such a place existed.
Social media, political radicalization and partisanship have made it challenging for us to listen to one another. We retreat to our echo chambers where we are comfortable saying how terrible the other people are because they don’t see the world the way we do.
It’s too bad there isn’t a place where folks can find humility and the ability to listen to one another. A place where we can leave our pre-conceived notions at the door and entertain true transformation. A place where people with widely divergent views can come together and change one another. If only such a place existed.
Massive global migration caused by climate change, war and conflict has forced people to abandon their homes and everything they’ve ever known, travel massive distances and establish themselves in foreign cultures to merely survive. They arrive in our country with a desire for security and comfort after living through terrible atrocities. Many arrive with their faith intact, seeking out a refuge, something familiar.
It’s too bad there aren’t churches where they might find comfort in their faith and their connection to God in such challenging times. It’s too bad that the society that welcomes them is so secular and unable to speak the language of their Christian faith. If only such a place existed.
We speak of church decline as inevitable. We imagine that the conditions are just not ripe for growth and new life. We are, just like the early disciples, focused on what we’ve lost rather than on Christ who walks next to us. Are we looking at the signs all around us of how we might answer God’s call? Are our hearts not burning within us to offer a place that meets the needs of those around us rather than clinging to a particular moment in our past?
It means we are going to need to be open to transformation as we answer the needs of today rather than be the recipients of the societal expectations of the 1950s. When we sing our song inviting people to be part of the family, as we did at the beginning of this service, we must also be careful of the words. It’s in the way we welcome people and in our willingness to be open to their way of being: it isn’t us saying ‘Come in, come in… and SIT DOWN’… it isn’t by telling others to fit into our ways of being church, it’s to be open to the Spirit… to embrace the way Christ appears to us now, after the resurrection. After the pain and loss of Good Friday.
I know it won’t be easy. I know that there will be loss. I refuse to be ignorant of our current reality. But I also refuse to let death dictate what the future holds. I am a Christian. I am rooted in the hope and belief that death isn’t the last word. God’s not done with us. Thanks be to God!
- Rev. Éric Hébert-Daly is the Regional Executive Minister of Conseil régional Nakonha:ka Regional Council, Eastern Ontario Outaouais Regional Council and East Central Ontario Regional Council of The United Church of Canada. This reflection was shared with the congregation of Saint Lambert United Church in 2023.