The Gospel according to Luke is very close to my heart in many ways. For example, this gospel’s author was a faithful physician; I married a faithful physician! And so, I am appreciative that our summer preacher series in Two Thousand Sixteen takes the Lucan horizon as its theme.
We are travelers, are we not, you and I? We are travelers together, making our way toward a horizon. It is a funny thing about horizons that they simultaneously serve as a point of orientation and, if focused upon too long, can serve to entirely disorient their observer. We travelers, you and I, as we make our way together, may at times stop and wonder whether we are really still on the path toward our destination. Are we still headed in the general direction of our goal, or has the horizon twisted our field of vision such that we have wandered off the road?
Jesus’ original followers were not known as Christians but rather as “followers of the way,” followers of the way of Jesus, that is. Confucians and Daoists are followers of the way as well, followers of the Dao. Christians, Confucians, and Daoists each have various ways of harmonizing two sides of the way coin, so to speak. The first side is an internal principle expressed in human life. The second is an external norm that sets the principle and measures that life. This is to say that we make our way not only by ourselves according to our own internal principles, but we make our way with others and accord our principles to the principles of these others, and for our collective well-being.
Still, wandering off the path toward the horizon is all too easy, assuming, of course, that we were ever properly on it in the first place. We may wonder, you and I, fellow travelers, whether where we thought we were going is really at the end of the road we are on. We may wonder if it is where we should be going, anyway. We may wonder if the wonders we have been promised if we ever manage to reach that point on the horizon were not, in fact, always only an illusion. Is this the way, or should we be going some other way?
Such is the situation of two disciples, journeying together to Emmaus, in the Gospel according to Luke:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
The way of these disciples, Cleopas and another unnamed, is uncertain. Each of the evangelists had an agenda in writing their particular take on the gospel. In the case of Saint Luke, the agenda was to demonstrate the continuity of the experience of the early church with the life and ministry of Jesus. To accomplish this, Luke wrote not one book but two: the Gospel according to Luke, which tells about the life and ministry of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles, which tells about the experience of the early church. Luke was writing for gentile Christians worried about their place as Roman citizens, and about whether the ongoing story of the church remains in continuity with the way of Jesus as predicted in the Hebrew scriptures. The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Yes, Christians can be good, upstanding Roman citizens; and yes, Christian experience is in continuity with the life and ministry of Christ. Here in the story of the disciples journeying together on the way to Emmaus, Jesus himself confirms for them that they are in fact on the way, in continuity with his own life and ministry, and in fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures.
Well, we know that it is Jesus confirming for the disciples that they are indeed on the way. The disciples themselves do not know this. To them, Jesus remains a stranger. Strange, is it not, that the disciples who had invested their lives in Jesus’ ministry and teaching and service would now be unable even to recognize him? Or perhaps not so strange, given that the disciples spent the whole of Jesus ministry misunderstanding him and rather missing the point entirely. Even as the one they had called “teacher” teaches them as they walk together along the road, Jesus remains unknown. The teaching is important, but alone is insufficient to confirm for the disciples that they are indeed on the way.
So the story continues:
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 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. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Teaching is important, but Jesus is made known and Jesus’ teaching is confirmed, and moreover realized, in ritual, namely, the ritual of the Eucharistic meal. It is only as Jesus performs the ritual of blessing, breaking, and giving bread that the disciples’ eyes are opened and recognition ignites. It is only in the light of this ritually encoded appearance that the teaching on the road is confirmed as authentic and true and reliable.
Ritual often gets a bad rap. Seen as reified and ossified, ritual in our late modern society is often taken as restricting liberty of conscience and freedom of the will. But just as Jeroslav Pelikan noted that tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, so too we may say that ritual is the guide to remaining on the way, while ritualism is a map to nowhere. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are eloquent on this point, and so we listen to the Liji, the Book of Rites, noting that li meaning ritual is here translated “propriety.” I welcome this morning to read the passage my dear friend and colleague Dr. Bin Song, president of the Boston University Confucian Association.
Thus propriety and righteousness are the great elements for man’s (character); it is by means of them that his speech is the expression of truth and his intercourse (with others) the promotion of harmony; they are (like) the union of the cuticle and cutis, and the binding together of the muscles and bones in strengthening (the body). They constitute the great methods by which we nourish the living, bury the dead, and serve the spirits of the departed. They supply the channels by which we can apprehend the ways of Heaven and act as the feelings of men require. It was on this account that the sages knew that the rules of ceremony could not be dispensed with, while the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety.
We suffer greatly from a lack of ritual in late modern life. Just as the disciples recognized Jesus in his enactment of the Eucharistic ritual sacrificing his own body, we recognize ourselves and one another and our shared humanity in rituals as simple as a handshake and as complex as global geopolitical diplomacy. It is in ritual that we commune and communicate; it is in ritual that we open ourselves to the power of presence and partnership. As Howard Thurman reminds us, “people, all people, belong to each other, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut others away from them destroy themselves.” Ritual is the medium of our knowing and trusting and belonging to one another. When it fails or when we fail to either properly enact the ritual or even bother to enact it at all, we are severely diminished and often as not destroyed. “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”
Today we call to mind the life and ministry of Professor Elie Wiesel, who died yesterday. Grant to him eternal rest, O God, and may light perpetual shine upon him. Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, teacher, humanitarian, journalist, author, public intellectual, Elie Wiesel suffered from perhaps the greatest abandonment of ritual recognition of our common humanity in the modern period, and went on to craft and establish and enact so many rituals to restore our common humanity. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Rather than dulling the conscience and the will, ritual restrains our tendency toward indifference and allows us to recognize one another.
We have not learned this lesson. We have not learned to not only allow but to invite our selfish desires and neuroses to be restrained that we might see and know and love one another. In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common faith, why are we surprised when nine people are murdered during a bible study? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common love, why are we surprised when fifty people are murdered in a gay nightclub? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common wealth, why are we surprised when a nation decides they know better and can do better on their own? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common dignity, why are we surprised that a plan to build a two thousand mile wall between us and our neighbors has gained such political traction? “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”
Perhaps part of our problem is that we are afraid of ritual. We are afraid to participate in ritual. Ritual can seem arcane and impenetrable and so high that we cannot attain it. After all, does not ritual require preparation? Does it not require indoctrination into the cult of the ritual actors? Does it not require confession and repentance and absolution? Does it not require that first we go and be reconciled? Does ritual not demand that we participate with a sincere will and a sincere heart?
Actually, no. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are again eloquent on this point, and so I invite Dr. Bin Song to read again from the Liji, the Book of Rites.
Therefore the rules of propriety are for man what the yeast is for liquor. The superior man by (his use of them) becomes better and greater. The small man by his neglect of them becomes meaner and worse. Therefore the sage kings cultivated and fashioned the lever of righteousness and the ordering of ceremonial usages, in order to regulate the feelings of men. Those feelings were the field (to be cultivated by) the sage kings. They fashioned the rules of ceremony to plough it. They set forth the principles of righteousness with which to plant it. They instituted the lessons of the school to weed it. They made love the fundamental subject by which to gather all its fruits, and they employed the training in music to give repose (to the minds of learners). Thus, rules of ceremony are the embodied expression of what is right. If an observance stand the test of being judged by the standard of what is right, although it may not have been among the usages of the ancient kings, it may be adopted on the ground of its being right. (The idea of) right makes the distinction between things, and serves to regulate (the manifestation of) humanity. When it is found in anything and its relation to humanity has been discussed, the possessor of it will be strong. Humanity is the root of right, and the embodying of deferential consideration. The possessor of it is honored.
It is by participating in ritual that we become better and greater. It is by neglect of ritual that we become meaner and worse. The fruit of ritual can be summed up as love. It is not that we must become sincere in order to participate in ritual. Rather, we must participate in ritual in order to become sincere. The disciples were decidedly insincere. They did not know whether they were even still on the way, or if the way they thought they were on was really the way at all. The disciples could not recognize their own teacher and mentor and leader. They were not sincere; they were foolish and slow of heart! After participating in the ritual with Jesus, then they became sincere.
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Go and do likewise. Amen.
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