Has anybody here ever been to Emmaus? Which one? According to the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology there are at least nine possible locations that are candidates for the Biblical town of Emmaus. Historians tell us that there is no record of any village called Emmaus in any other ancient source. We simply don’t know where Emmaus might have been. Tradition tells us that it might have been a place just a few hours walk from Jerusalem. Some New Testament scholars suggest that Emmaus is nowhere. Emmaus is nowhere precisely because Emmaus is everywhere. Each and every one of us has at one time, or indeed for some of us many times, travelled along the road to Emmaus.
I know that I have been on the road to Emmaus most of my life. I’ve had lots of company on the Road to Emmaus. I’ve had many conversations along the way discussing, with anyone who’d care to accompany me, the ifs, ands, and buts of Christianity, of religion, and indeed of life. That’s how I met Kenny: we walked the road to Emmaus together, from Aldersgate to Laneway discussing dreams and divine encounters. I have travelled this road many many times with many people.
It’s so easy to imagine those two characters striding down the Road to Emmaus that we can almost hear them talking, maybe even arguing about what happened. What on earth were they to make of all this? Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah. Jesus was the One who had come to liberate Israel, to free the people from oppression. Jesus was the One who was supposed to draw the people back to God, restore the relationship between God and God’s people. Now Jesus was gone, and the Roman Empire was still oppressing them, still inflicting such pain and hardship, still killing them. They had trusted, believed in Jesus, followed Jesus. Their lives had been changed. They had seen the lives of others changed and they had expected even greater changes to come. But Jesus had been shamed, ridiculed, humiliated, crucified and now Jesus was dead. Well, was Jesus dead? Some said they’d seen Jesus, alive! They seemed so totally convinced by their own experience…were they confused by their own grief? Were they delirious?
And, if Jesus were risen from the dead, what would be the point of all that?
How could Jesus restore Israel when he had so easily been defeated by a handful of Roman guards?
We can almost hear these two friends verbally wrestling with each other and with their own hearts on the road that day! We can imagine the questions they might have had. How crushed they must have been to lose their beloved leader, to have witnessed the violence that triumphed over their champion. This story of wrestling with unanswerable questions was written at the turn of the first century, but the wrestling continues in the hearts and minds of so many of us.
What are we to make of the life, death and resurrection stories of Jesus of Nazareth? Just as the first century writer of this story struggled to understand the apparent death of Jesus of Nazareth, many of us are also struggling to understand the apparent death of Christianity.
While I was traveling along the road to Emmaus, I heard a story of a fellow traveller called Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was a Hindu who studied all the great religions of the world and after completing an exhaustive study of Christianity, he came to the conclusion that Christianity was the most compassionate, most loving, most complete form of religion and the best way to encounter the divine, and so he resolved that he would become a Christian. Then he went to church, and in the church, he discovered a great chasm between the teachings of Jesus and the way Jesus’ followers actually lived, and so Gandhi resolved to become a Christian just as soon as he actually met a Christian.
As I continue to travel on the road to Emmaus, I met Karen Armstrong; she’s one of the world’s authorities on religion who has written dozens of books on the religions of the world. I learned from her that “belief which we make such a fuss about today is only a very recent religious enthusiasm that surfaced only in the west in about the 17th century.”
Armstrong insists that religion is not about believing things…religion is about behaviour. Religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something; you behave in a committed way and then you begin to understand the truths of religion and religious doctrines are meant to be a kind of summons to action; you only understand them when you put them in to practice.
Pride of place in this practice is given to compassion and according to Armstrong, “right across the board in every single one of the major world faiths, compassion: the ability to feel with the other is not only the test of any true religiosity it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians, and Muslims call God or the divine. It is compassion, says the Buddha that brings you into Nirvana. Why? Because in compassion, when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and we put another person there. Once we get rid of ego then we are ready to see the divine. Every single one of the major world religions has highlighted, put at the centre of its teachings what has become known as the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule: first propounded by Confucius, five centuries before Christ: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” That Confucius said, was the central thread that ran through all his teaching and that his disciples should put into practice all day and every day and the Golden Rule would bring them to the central value that he called ‘Human heartedness’.
We are living in a world where religion has been hijacked. Where instead of taking Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies,” “don’t judge others,” we have the spectacle of Christians continuously judging other people; Christians endlessly using scripture as a way of arguing with other people, Christians putting other people down. Throughout the ages religion has been used to oppress others because of human ego and human greed. The great religions also insisted that you could not and must not confine your compassion to your own group, your own nation, your own religion, you must have concern for everybody; not just love your neighbours, but love your enemies, have compassion for the stranger. But sadly, religious illiteracy has led us to a place where people think that religion is about believing things. We equate faith with believing things. We call religious people believers as if that is the main thing that we do.
Compassion and the Golden Rule have been supplanted by believing. Religious people have become more concerned with being right rather than behaving with compassion. Religion is failing us at the moment. Any ideology or religion that doesn’t promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of each other is failing the test of our time.
We must treat the earth with the same kind of compassion that you would want from creation; the same kind of compassion you would want from the divine.
As I travel this road to Emmaus, it becomes less and less important for me to believe in a certain way and vital that we behave with compassion. God is not dead. God is alive and well. God walks with us on the road. God is our companion on the road. The companion is the one who breaks bread with us. It is in the intimate act of breaking bread, drinking coffee, hot chocolate or sharing a meal with someone that we come to know that person. In the breaking of bread with the stranger we will be able to recognize the divine presence that dwells in the stranger and the stranger will be able to recognize the divine presence that dwells in us.
Armstrong has called forth a movement among the progressives of all the great religions and working with the United Nations to behave with a compassionate ethos. To adopt the Golden Rule as the basis for a world Charter of Compassion. She insists that texts that are being abused need to be denied and we need to be instructed by the need to wrestle compassionate interpretations. We must not allow destructive, abusive, inflammatory, discriminatory, or hate filled interpretations of any kind; we must be guided by compassion.
It’s time for us to reclaim the Christianity that has been hijacked and resurrect compassion so that our faith can be a pathway to peace. Believing that God is alive is not the point. Behaving like God is alive is the beginning of compassion. For those of us who call ourselves Christian, recognizing Christ, recognizing the divine in the stranger is the pathway to justice, peace, and mercy.
Karen Armstrong, “The Battle for God”, HarperColins publishers 2004
Karen Armstrong, “Compassionate Life” First Anchor books, 2010