The gift of Jesus’ Strangerliness
Having spent the last month reflecting on the topic of Power with the volunteers at Ashburnham, one of the main take away messages has been that God’s power is demonstrated through the giving of Himself to humanity, through the laying down of his life, through his empowering of the other. At the cross, God the son places himself in the hands of humanity, in a way that is completely at odds with how the world exercises its power. At the cross, Jesus exhausts destructive power, destroys it, so that new creation can come forth.
Because Jesus’ models a way of being human that is so often contrary to how our world, our society, exercises its humanity, more often than not, for our sake, and for the sake of our neighbour, Jesus comes to us a stranger. The gift of Jesus’ “strangerliness” is something I want to explore in this reflection, using the Road to Emmaus story in the Gospel of Luke.
To offer a bit of background context: The Resurrection of Jesus has just taken place. Interestingly Luke makes a point of emphasising that it is the female contingent of Jesus’ followers that are tasked with sharing this incredible news with the disciples (see v10). It is also worth noting that whilst it seemingly takes a few moments – if that – for the women to recognise, off the back of the angel’s words, how the empty tomb fits into the overall narrative of Jesus’ work, Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple, require a lengthy lesson in scriptural interpretation with Jesus himself, as they walk toward Emmaus, before they’re willing to consider the possibility and significance of Jesus’ resurrection. We shouldn’t be surprised by this because, as is the case throughout the gospels, it is most often the outsiders, those situated on the margins who recognise and welcome the strangeness or “stangerliness” of Jesus.
And so, shortly after the women visit the tomb, Luke recalls the story of Cleopas – likely one of Jesus’ closest followers, perhaps a potential replacement for Judas (notice how the disciples are in pairs, like Jesus commanded in Luke 10) – and an unnamed disciple, as they encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
Notice how Jesus comes near to them, but, as per v16, they are unable to recognise Him. This reminds us of another passage, also set around the immediate time of Jesus’ resurrection. Toward the end of John’s gospel, in Chapter 20, Mary Magdalene, in a similar way, is unable to recognise the face of Jesus, instead mistaking him to be the gardener. When Jesus calls her name, she immediately recognises who it is that is speaking and calls out Rabbi – teacher. Jesus’ response seems a little terse, and unexpected – ‘Do not cling to me,’ v17. Jesus is asking Mary to let go of her preconceptions regarding him, to move beyond a certain way of relating to him, to let the strangeness of who he is – the resurrected one, the first-born of the dead – redefine their relationship. Having had this encounter, Mary returns to the disciples saying ‘I have seen the Lord,’ v18! Jesus is no longer simply a teacher for Mary, but through her letting go and her trust, Jesus has now become Lord to her and for her. There is not a loss of intimacy between Jesus and Mary with this shifting of relationship, on the contrary. Mary’s profession of Jesus’ Lordship invites the indwelling of His Spirit, – we see this dramatically confirmed on the day of Pentecost – and so Jesus is no longer just the one teaching Mary, but the one in which, she will come to realise, she lives, moves and has her being in.
Disciples on the road
Back to our disciples on the road; similarly, they too have to let go of their preconceptions of who Jesus is (v21 – we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel), they have to encounter Jesus as stranger, before they can truly encounter him as He now is.
If we need further evidence of this, let me draw your attention to v18. Having heard Jesus’ question – ‘what things (have taken place)?’ Cleopas answers with the following – ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’. The Greek word for stranger Is ‘paroikeis’, which in the Roman period was the word used to designate a foreign resident. So here we have a stark contrast between the two Jewish disciples in ‘the know’, to use an English idiom, and Jesus as the outsider, as the foreigner. But the ‘outsider’ is about to become the ‘insider,’ and those ‘in the know’, who are unable to recognise Jesus, nor the significance of his ministry – despite having been witness to his teaching and miracles – are about to be told their story from a whole new perspective. Jesus as the stranger in their midst, says, as he did to Mary, don’t cling to your ideas of who I am, let go of me and encounter me in a whole new way.
There is more that could be said about this particular exchange where Jesus reinterprets scripture, in its entirety, for people who have already been following him for some time. In the least, it should make us wary of thinking that we have a monopoly on scriptural interpretation. Furthermore, if we’re not allowing the voice or voices of the ‘stranger(s)’ to inform how we hear the story and understand the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, then we may well be missing the point.
Jesus comes to us
Jesus will come to us as a stranger (as a gardener, a foreigner) – remember ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40) – the question is, are we ready to receive him as such.
He does this, of course, for our own good. The “strangerliness” of Jesus invites us into greater intimacy with Him, invites us to see him beyond our own prejudices and preconceptions, enables us to let go, as with Mary, that we might receive Him all the more. Furthermore, the “strangerliness” of Jesus creates a space for us, it allows Jesus to draw near without overwhelming us. Jesus walks alongside the disciples on the road, just as he walks alongside us, and is not threatened by our stumbling – in what we say and what we do.
The “strangerliness” of Jesus is not only good news for us, but also good news for our neighbour, for as we become comfortable with the strangeness of Jesus, so we can become Jesus to others.
As evening sets in on the road, Cleopas and his companion plead with Jesus – who they still do not recognise – to stay with them, v29. One can imagine them sitting down and preparing themselves, as was custom, to serve their guest. Instead, they are once again disarmed by the strangeness of Jesus’ behaviour. Having interpreted scripture for them anew, Jesus blesses the bread, breaks it and in doing so re-enacts the last supper. This time however, the disciples do not flee from Jesus, as they do in the garden prior to his arrest, but rather Jesus, in a manner, flees from them – he disappears, v32. What is going on?
Whereas up until this moment around the table, the disciples had failed to make the crucial connection between, on the one hand, Jesus’ death and resurrection, and on the other, both the scriptures and the breaking of bread at the last supper, now, having had the scriptures interpreted for them by Jesus, and having been served by him a second time, they finally get it. The long and winding story of Israel is fulfilled by the one who serves, who breaks bread, who gives His life for the other. And so, Jesus departs from them – He vanishes from their sight, v31 – not in an act of abandonment, but rather, as an act of empowerment. Armed with the revelation they now have of Jesus – He is not just teacher but Lord, moreover the crucified and risen Lord – having eaten the bread, the body of Christ, they are now ready to be Jesus for their community. Similarly to Moses, who encounters the strangeness of God in the thick darkness of Mt. Sinai – the darkness here representing a kind of unknowing – and only then returns to his people with the skin of his face dazzling with the radiance of God, so Cleopas and his companion, having met with and been transformed by the strangerliness of Jesus, are now ready to bear the image of this strange God.
Faith without love
Of course, how they bear the image of God is crucial to the content of that image. Faith without love is vacuous, a resounding gong or clanging cymbal, to use Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 13. Having been given the space by Jesus on the Emmaus road, having had the opportunity to converse with the foreigner, having been served by the stranger in their midst, who turned out to be none other than the God they so desired to see, Cleopas and his companion have been given a model of Christ-like fellowship; and not just these two disciples, but us too. If we are to bear the good news for our neighbour, we too need to make space, to listen, to serve, all of which, in a world of competition and self-promotion, will mean perhaps becoming strange in a manner fitting the strange God we follow.