One of the Bible stories that I keep coming back to recently is the story of the two men walking to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It almost seems like a throwaway periscope of scripture but it is truly beautiful to me. These two largely anonymous men are walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem. They are followers of Christ – not amongst his chosen twelve, but close enough to the inner circle that they were present when the women returned from the tomb to report that the Master’s body was no longer there. Imagine the dizzying heights of joy and the depths of despair these two men experienced in what we now call Passion Week. The exhilaration of Palm Sunday only to be followed by Christ’s arrest, death, and (at least when we meet them) the strange disappearance of His body. How dejected they must have been at the current state of their religious movement. I have come to see their walking away from Jerusalem as not only a physical and literal walk but a figurative one as well. I can imagine these two men, walking away from the city that is the center of their faith, too hurt by the weekend’s events to want to return. The beauty of the story, of course, is that Jesus joins them in their walk away from the church to encourage them and to explain what is happening and how it all fits together. A story of sadness turns into joy as the men return to Jerusalem to tell the others about their encounter with Christ.
I thought about this story this week as I prepared to write this column for Thanksgiving. A particular quirk of fate has tasked me with a column on Thanksgiving and I usually try to focus on the positive for this holiday. Much like the men on their way to Emmaus, I found little positive to recount, at least when I look at the broad landscape of our church. When I consider the past year, I see sexism wrapped in the clothes of supposed unity. I see unjustified financial mismanagement that I believe ethically violates the trust of the members who contribute, not only out of the goodness of their hearts, but also as an exercise of spiritual discipline. I see racism still baked into the fabric of this denomination and its rooting out becoming an even more difficult task. I see homophobia persist in ways that, theology aside, cause me to question whether the church is fully capable to address any sin, let alone the supposed sin of people’s innate preferences. This year I have seen people take the figurative walk to Emmaus and never return. While I am saddened by that I am also reminded that a church where issues like racism, sexism and homophobia are in the forefront, cannot make any demands on the behavior of others.
Despite the current situation, I find myself filled with thankfulness. First, I am thankful that God is not bound by the institutions that represent Him. He is the ultimate expression of freedom. He is the unmoved mover. We are tied to Him, not Him to us. I am thankful for this because it means that even when the institution cuts you off, they have not cut you off from God. Second, I am thankful because Jesus is more than willing to meet the people walking away and cause their hearts to burn within them as well. The most moving part of the story of the men on the way to Emmaus is that Jesus shows up. He doesn’t even show up in a disruptive way. He becomes as they are – travelers on the way of life, even though figuratively they are now all moving in the wrong direction. This gives me confidence that all of us, whether we are in the church or not, can be found and encouraged to see things in a new and better way. Finally, when I look at the broad view of my church, I am encouraged by the Spirit of God that I have seen move amongst the people who believe in him on the ground, regardless of what the institution does. I am blessed by the example of the women who continue to live out their calling despite its lack of recognition. I am excited by those who continue to work to create a better relationship between the church and the LGBTQ community, despite the inherent difficulties of that task. I am encouraged by those in our church who continue to fight for the disadvantaged and downtrodden, wherever they might find them. Their existence is proof to me that the Spirit of God still resides here, ready to be heard and followed, and that is always something to be thankful for.
 I think anyone would be hard-pressed to believe, especially the way the story develops, that these two men would’ve believed at the time that Jesus was risen.
 I also imagine that these men naturally would’ve been present on the day of Pentecost and received the Holy Spirit along with many others.
 I forsook this principle last year to talk about the church’s misuse of the concept of unity.
 In short, a church with these problems should not be demanding anyone’s continued loyalty.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.