On the Road to Emmaus: Holy Week Meditations
The Original Easter Bible Study
by The Reverend Jansen String
It was twenty years ago this week that I came to St. George’s and St. Matthew’s to serve as the rector of the parish. I came here to do a job: to be your priest and pastor, preacher and teacher, confidant and confessor. But first of all I came to be, as Jesus was to his disciples, your friend (Jn.15.15). On the one hand it may seem a bit too casual to think of Jesus as having been just one of his disciples’ pals. Likewise, the unique relationship that a parishioner has with his or her parish priest is inherently something more than just another friend. We affectionately call the priest “Father” for a reason. The priest is our father in God, one to whom we look as to an icon of Christ, a minister who serves us by leading us to Christ by word and example. But that relationship is nothing if it is not established in the mutual trust, empathy, and loyalty that are the hallmarks of true friendship. I am sure that along the way you have all learned much from me about Christ. But I too have learned a lot from you about the power of his love and the depth of his faith. I have seen him in you, my friends, and from you I have learned repeatedly what the saying means, “God is love” (1Jn.4.8).
That’s my way of saying “thank you” for giving me the best twenty years of my life. I have enjoyed working in the Lord’s vineyard with you, crying with you in your grief, rejoicing with you in your successes, worshiping with you at Christ’s altar, learning and growing with you day by day. I have enjoyed being with you not only in church on Sundays but during the week in your homes, in hospitals, at the courthouse, in nursing homes, at school and at play. You have welcomed me to be with you wherever you are. Together we have learned what it means to be a church family.
But of all the things we have done together, the thing I have most enjoyed has been our Wednesday Night Bible Study. We began to meet on Wednesday nights in September of 1974. We have usually taken a break for six weeks in the summer and we have inevitably missed many winter nights because of inclement weather. We have occasionally cancelled class for Easter egg making or for personal reasons. But on average, we faithfully have met at least 40 times a year to pray and study for about an hour and a half each Wednesday night. Over twenty years that means we've met about 800 times for some 1,200 hours of prayer and Bible Study. By any measure, that’s a lot of time devoted to God’s word.
That is also a lot of time spent in His presence. If I have learned one thing from our studies together it is the truth of the promise Christ made to his Church: “that where two or more gather in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt.18.20). I have never left our Wednesday Night Bible Study class without feeling blessed with an awareness that our true teacher that night was not me but Christ Himself. That shouldn’t surprise us. I have begun every study with this prayer: “Be present among us as our teacher, O Lord, and open our minds to understand your word and open our hearts to receive it, that through this study we may grow in knowledge and love of you.” The Lord promised to do whatever we ask of Him in prayer (Jn.14.14). Why then should we be surprised when He keeps his word? I don't know why, but I never encounter Him in prayer, in Bible Study, or in the Blessed Sacrament, in the kindness of a stranger, or the compassion of a caring friend without feeling humbled by the encounter. And that’s how I feel about our Wednesday Night Bible Study class. I have been coming to it for twenty years for the same reason that thirsty people come to a well. It is here that we meet the same one whom the Samaritan woman met at the well, the one who offers thirsty souls “living water” (Jn.4.10), the one who promised, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn.4.14). I come because my soul thirsts for the water that Jesus gives. I come because it is here, as we open our hearts and minds to God’s word, that we meet the living Word.
I have to confess, however, that the term “Bible Study class” is something of a misnomer, at least as it applies to our little meetings on Wednesday nights. There are no lectures, no homework assignments, no exams, no grades. We don’t study so much as we listen. We listen to each other tell our stories and think out loud as we seek to understand what it is we’re reading and find hope in the Word for today. But mostly, like the men on the Emmaus Road, we listen to Jesus. We learn from Him.
I find the story of the men on the Road to Emmaus to be in many ways the most fascinating story in the Bible. Whenever I hear that story read in church, (it’s always the lesson for the third Sunday in Easter), I feel jealous of those two men who had the privilege of sitting alone with Jesus and having Him lead them in Bible study for the better part of an afternoon. I always wonder to myself, “What did he say to them? What great mystery did he reveal to them? What secrets did He impart to them when He opened their minds to understand the scripture?” It would have been nice to have been a fly on the wall, as they say.
But, in reality, there is no reason to be jealous of their singular experience that day since we know what Christ said to them and to the other disciples on that first Easter Sunday. We know because those men did not keep His teaching to themselves. Christ, resurrected from the dead, returned to his disciples to teach them the Gospel, to prepare them to be the bishops, the chief evangelists and teachers of the Church. He came to evangelize them so they in turn could spread the Gospel of God to all peoples of the earth to the end of time. The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is the absolute truth, the final word about the origin and destiny of humanity that Christ by His life, death, and Resurrection revealed to his Church. The Gospel is revealed truth and therefore definitive, truth that cannot be denied without giving offense to Our Lord whose truth it is. Christ revealed this truth to the Church beginning on that first Easter Sunday and then continued to teach the fullness of the faith (Jude 3) up to the time of his Ascension into heaven forty days later. The Church’s Gospel is inspired and worthy of our acceptance because it comes from the risen Christ. It is His Gospel. It came from His lips. It is because Christ revealed himself through His Resurrection from the dead to be forever what He had always been—one with God (Jn.10.30)—that we have the Gospel. The Gospel is not the opinion or speculation of men about God. It is not a man’s word about God. The Gospel is the word of God that came to men from God’s own lips. It is the record of “the Word made flesh” (Jn.1.14).
In looking for some way to mark our twenty years together as students and servants of the Word, I could think of no better way than to share with you a meditation on that original Easter Bible Study in which Christ revealed the Gospel to his Church. Two thousand years later His teaching is still new and exciting to us because His eternal word is always a light on our path, living water to our thirsty souls, perfect love poured into our hearts. The Prayer Book tells us to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest [the words of holy scripture] so that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you [God] have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ" (Collect for Proper 28). My hope is that you will seek with me to live that prayer; to study the Bible with the goal of becoming familiar with the stories about Jesus and with the history of ancient Israel that provides the context for the larger meaning of His words and deeds.
There are always some—all of us actually—who find the Bible to be very intimidating. Some attempt to read the Bible but soon sigh, “It’s over my head.” They surrender as to a mountain too steep to climb and then just lie back and trust others to explain it to them. If the Bible has that effect on you, know that you’re not alone. It’s not an easy book to read or understand. Anyone who reads a passage from the Bible and then begins to comment upon it by saying, “Now the meaning of this verse is clear,” is clearly out of his or her depth as a teacher. When it comes to reading the Bible, nothing in it is “clear.” But with Christ as our teacher and with the Church as our guide, informed by the apostles and their successors to whom Christ entrusted the Gospel, along with the historic creeds and councils of the Church, we can be certain that what we read in the Bible is God’s own truth (Jn.16.13). The Gospel is not a secret to be understood by only a select few. It is a message of hope that God has offered as bread for the soul of humankind. It is a feast of wisdom for all who eat by faith. Read the Bible as you would a box of love letters from your soul mate. The Bible is not the pearl of great price that Christ taught us to seek (Mt.13.45). Rather the Bible points to that eternal treasure in the same way a love letter reveals the heart of the one who wrote it. Cherish the “word” first in your heart; understanding will soon follow. Christ, the living Word, assures it.
The Reverend Jansen String
St. George’s and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church
July 12, 2014