Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
There is an old story, a legend perhaps, of an incident in the life of the Christian saint, Martin of Tours. Born sometime in the early fourth century, Martin was a soldier in the Roman army. According to the tale, Martin encountered a beggar on one of his many trips, this time in the city of Amiens, in what is today northern France. Upon seeing the beggar unclothed, Martin removed his cloak, cut it in half, and wrapped the man in one half of the remaining garment. The story goes onto say that later that night, Martin had a dream or vision of Jesus in which Jesus told Martin that it was he whom Martin had clothed earlier in the day.
Whether the event took place or not, the account left an impression upon me when I first heard it. I have often wondered whether or not Christ encounters us today in persons we least expect. This thought of mine has troubled me at times, particularly when I walk downtown Toronto and see the many homeless persons along the streets. Could the beggar we so often pass by be Christ hidden in plain sight?
I thought of this again the other day while walking along the Don Valley Trail in Toronto. As I walked, I noticed over a dozen camps of homeless persons lining the banks of the Don River. Many of the persons encamped along those banks were women and men fleeing the shelters of Toronto out of the understandable fear of the current pandemic. Many of the shelters which were built to help people have become potential places for the virus to quickly spread among the most vulnerable of our society. And so, countless homeless persons are being forced to find safety in the ravines and valleys of Toronto. As I hiked along the trail, my earlier question crossed my mind: are these persons Christ before us?
The story of the disciples’ journey along the road to Emmaus from Luke’s Gospel today once again raises the question for me. While many sermons and reflections focus on the disciples’ sudden awareness of Jesus in the breaking of the bread, I find myself focusing on the disciples’ inability to “see” Jesus.
To be fair to the disciples, all the post-resurrection stories in the gospels clearly indicate there was something different about Jesus. I suspect the texts struggle to describe what Jesus looked like after he rose from the dead. We need to recall that resurrection is not resuscitation; it’s not merely an event by which one’s body returns to the state it was before death. Instead, the body is transformed in ways we can hardly imagine or conceive. While Jesus’ body still has the marks of his crucifixion as we heard last week, his body looks different than it did before his death. Moreover, Jesus can do things which none of us can do. For one thing he can walk through walls and doors. In fact, I find it surprising the scripture writers don’t make a bigger deal about this; they seem to simply take it as a matter of fact.
Still, however, I’m struck by the fact the disciples were incapable of recognising Jesus, even after he “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Luke 24:27) How could they not identify Jesus after all the time they’ve spent with him? And if they couldn’t see him, how much more difficult will it be for us?
The story of Jesus meeting the disciples along the road to Emmaus is a cautionary tale for us. God, it seems, may appear to us in the least expected of moments. This story is also not the first time God appears as someone different to people. You might recall the story of Abraham and Sarah meeting the three men near the Oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18; it’s another story of visitors and a meal. Although it seems Abraham identifies the three men as the presence of God in his midst and generously provides a lavish meal for them, Sarah on the other hand appears to be less certain. When the men tell Abraham that Sarah will give birth, Sarah laughs and questions the work of God within her. Sarah learns, however, not to question God’s ways and denies her doubt only for God to call her out on her lie. Both the story of Abraham and Sarah meeting the three men and the story of the disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the way to Emmaus remind us that we need to be ever mindful that God is in our midst, particularly in those we least expect.
Now to return to my earlier question: is Jesus present in the homeless person we see in the camp or in the beggar we encounter along the street? Without a doubt he is! If that be the case, then we have a real challenge before us: can we, as Christians, continue to ignore those who go without while enjoying our own treasures?
Despite not knowing who Jesus was, the disciples invited Jesus to stay with them and share meal. They had no idea who he was and knew not where he was going, yet they offered hospitality to him. While this is not surprising given the significance of hospitality in Middle Eastern culture, it is an example by which we can follow.
The disciples, like Abraham, and even our early Christian saint Martin of Tours, all discovered God in those whom they least expected. This has challenged me to consider on multiple times, how I extend a generous hospitality and welcome to those who are need. When a persons asks for help, do I ignore them and pass them by, or do I ask them their name and offer them some food? Or when I meet someone different from me, someone who might challenge my perception of what is “normal,” do I still welcome them and treat them as if they were Christ in my midst?
The story of the disciples’ encounter with Jesus along their way to Emmaus certainly challenges me to rethink how I treat and respect other people. It compels me to consider the presence of God in all those whom I meet and to treat them with the same dignity and respect as I would if I were to meet Christ. It also has left me wondering what I can do to help those who I don’t meet, but who are still in need. This is particularly important to remember now as the pandemic has left many women and men without the very essentials of life.
So my friends, I invite you this week to consider how might you welcome Jesus in those whom you least expect? Will you offer a generous hospitality as the disciples do, or will you go on your way and perhaps miss an opportunity to meet Christ?