Isaac S. Villegas is the pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina. He serves on the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA and on the Governing Board of the North Carolina Council of Churches. These reflections were originally shared as part of a sermon given at the 2014 Hope for the Future gathering in Leesburg, Va. Luke 24, the text he reflects on here, is the theme scripture for the 2015 convention in Kansas City. This is part two of Isaac’s reflections; part one ran on Monday and part three will appear on Friday.
On the road to Emmaus, even though the two disciples misrecognize Jesus again and again, they get the most important thing right. While their failures help us to see our own, their hospitable invitation to the stranger invites us into the hope of the gospel. They invite us into a posture of discipleship. They invite us into their hospitality, which is the way of life that makes church possible for all of us.
At the Emmaus crossroads, where they were to part ways, the two disciples make a decision that opens up the possibility for life with Jesus. At the crossroads, it says in verse 29, “They urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us.’ ” The disciples don’t just offer an invitation. They urge the stranger to stay with them.
“Stay with us.” This is what we want to hear. We want someone to want us. We want to be desired, to be acknowledged, to be recognized, to be invited. We long for someone, anyone, to look us in the eyes, to know us, and to say, “Stay with us.” This is what I heard when I wandered into a Mennonite church ten years ago. They wanted me to stay, and I’ve stayed, much longer than I thought I would. I’ve stayed because we’ve found life together, because we’ve found Jesus together.
“Stay with us.” This is how we become church. We stay together: you stay at my house, and I stay at your house; you worship at my church, and I worship at your church. We turn to each other and say, “stay with us,” because we long for communion—communion with Jesus, which happens when we eat and worship and pray, when we listen for the Holy Spirit to speak in each other’s tongues.
The apostle Paul frequently opens and closes his letters with confessions of his longing for communion with others in God’s presence, his longing to be with his sisters and brothers in Christ: “I long to see you,” he says at the beginning of Romans (1:11). And, again, towards the end of the letter, “I have been longing for many years to see you” (15:23). “Pray,” he writes, “that I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed” (15:32). That’s what it means to desire communion. It means that we turn to each other and to say, no matter how strange we may appear to one another, “Stay with us.” Or, as Paul puts it in his letter to the church in Philippi: “I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8).
Despite our differences, despite our disagreements, despite our cultural distinctives, what if we made this affection, this longing, central to what it means to be faithful, central to be faithful disciples, central to be a faithful church? What if this longing and this invitation to “stay with us,” were the prerequisite for our plans for the future? What if the fundamental truth that makes everything else possible was hospitality to strangeness?
Now, staying is not easy. It takes patience, long-suffering. Because we will misunderstand each other. That’s bound to happen, again and again. We will misrecognize one another. We will misinterpret what we say to each other. Because we are always looking at one another through lenses—through racial and cultural and social lenses, through stereotypes, through habits of seeing and thinking that have been taught to us by friends and family and teachers, perhaps even passed down to us in the church. We can’t help but see through these lenses, and we can’t help but struggle against them.
For us in the church, we have been called into this struggle to recognize each other as gifts, to recognize the person before you as an image of God, and to open yourself to someone whose strangeness invites us into the strangeness of God in our midst.
The good news is that after the resurrection, the world is now transfigured with the presence of Jesus. The good news is that the next stranger you meet may offer you Christ.