Okay, let’s be clear here. If you identify as a Western Christian, you’re just a couple of weeks removed from April Fools’ Day—I mean, Easter. The dyed eggs are old and crusty, you’ve finished all the jelly beans, and Peeps are on sale at the grocery store.
And yet, the story in the NT Gospels is stuck on that first day of the week, you know that day when Mary Magdalene and others found a cave-tomb empty and told other disciples who didn’t believe a word of it. People are still lost in the story, mourning the death of their teacher and friend, Jesus of Nazareth. Some are locked behind closed doors for fear of the Romans or the Sanhedrin. Pretty much everyone [besides the women in the story] is befuddled, sad, confused, and lost.
And why is that? Well, think about it. Imagine you have been following a teacher or a mentor for a considerable amount of time. This teacher spoke to you in a way that moved you to action, filled you with confidence and love and encouraged you to live a full life.
You were changed by this teacher.
And you had such plans. Such plans you had. You would conquer the evil and injustice, make things right, restore harmony to creation!
And now your teacher is dead. Gone. Nowhere to be seen. Nowhere to be felt.
The dream is over.
For those who followed Jesus of Nazareth, they had found a purpose. Prior to meeting and following Jesus, they had been asking those questions that humans often ask—existential questions that are quite annoying because they never have an answer. It’s like what Peter Rollins discusses in his book The Idolatry of God. He labels these questions as existential grievances that occupy the human heart.
Question one: why does the universe exist?
Question two: what is our role within this universe?
Those who followed Jesus most certainly were asking these questions—both of themselves and of Jesus. But in following Jesus, they embarked on a journey towards Jerusalem–a purposeful one that involved justice-seeking, forgiveness, healing, and hope. This had meaning for them.
But…things went sour in Jerusalem. And once Jesus was dead, they had the same questions. Why does the universe exist? What is my role in it?
And so, it’s no surprise, is it—that in this chapter of the story, on a road to a town called Emmaus, that ex-followers of Jesus are still mourning and wondering whether there is any purpose left and if the world really should exist at all. Neither is it surprise that all of a sudden, Jesus [although the resurrected Jesus] starts walking with them and they have no clue. They are still living in their existential crises and do not recognize Jesus at all.
I would argue that it’s because they were stuck in the old paradigms. After all, those two existential questions are circular, aren’t they? I don’t know the reason the universe exists off the top of my head. And day by day I’m still trying to figure out my place in it.
It’s easy to get stuck in the cycle, stuck in the fixated dreams that the Emmaus walkers had for themselves and for Jesus and now it was all gone. They felt like they had nothing left; they had no purpose. So of course they wouldn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus.
And a quick word about this whole resurrected Jesus business. I’ve gone on record to say that I don’t think it’s really, really important for you to believe or not to believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead in bodily form. There’s a lot of history behind the Gospel stories about that, and certainly a LOT of interpretations over the centuries. They are all guesses.
So instead of running around in circles or taking a polarized view of resurrection, i.e. he fully resurrected or he didn’t at all—I find much more meaning in viewing the Gospels as unique stories and voices that are not necessarily trying to prove something physical or scientific. Instead, the Gospels on the whole present the resurrection of Jesus as both mystical and spiritual in nature. The focus is less on the physical body and more on what the people seeing Jesus need to see, need to touch, need to hear. But as always, don’t take it from me. Think critically and decide for yourself.
And now, back to story…
Eventually the ex-followers of Jesus made it to a village where they needed to stop for the night. They invited the stranger walking with them to come and stay. Then they sat down at the table to eat and then…they finally saw Jesus’ resurrected form. After seeing, they changed direction completely [I guess Emmaus didn’t have much to offer] and headed right back to Jerusalem. The existential, circular questions were irrelevant now. They had found purpose, a reason for being.
And they found it in community.
They didn’t find the comfort and peace they were looking for by getting their existential questions answered. They didn’t get to lean on their limited and nostalgic view of Jesus; they couldn’t see the world [or themselves] in the same way. They were pushed back to Jerusalem, the place of death and betrayal and cowardice and hopelessness and injustice.
Because that’s real. That’s life.
There were no tidy answers to make them feel better or any spiritual experience that would ease their doubts. Like Thomas the twin, who doubted freely that Jesus could be alive after dying, the Emmaus road walkers were given an opportunity—to be resurrected. To start anew. And the way to do that was in community.
For when we are in authentic community, i.e. with people who accept us as we are—flaws, scars, craziness, and all—when we are with such people, our existential questions become less important and we stop running around in circles seeking meaning and purpose. In community, around a table even—our eyes open. We see new life—in ourselves, in others, in the world. We notice the possibility of change. But at the same time, we don’t ignore the pain, the suffering, injustice, the mourning, the lack of hope.
In community we hold all of those things together and embrace them all.
We become lovers of doubt and we embrace new questions.
We become students of people’s lives and explorers of new ways to show love and compassion, new paradigms with which to tackle the injustices all around.
And we do this in community.
I’m interested, friends: how has community helped you to find purpose?