Resurrection Stories: Discovering Deeper Truths

Luke 24:13-35
May 8, 2011

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Those of you who have been in this church or around me for a while know that among my favorite authors is C. S. Lewis. And among Lewis’ books, one of my favorites is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. From the moment I read it as a 12 year-old, it spoke to me about things that I knew I would never completely understand. The whole Chronicles of Narnia series, which includes this book, does that. That first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, speaks to truths about Christ’s death and resurrection that is hard to grasp fully with our conscious minds.

I especially love one scene in the book that speaks of this deeper truth. The scene is central to the book. One of the four human siblings, Edmund, has betrayed his brother and sisters to the White Witch, who wants to kill all of them. There is a prophecy that when two human boys and two human girls appear in Narnia (a land of talking animals who have been under the witch’s power for 100 years), her reign will be over. Edmund betrays them, and the White Witch invokes a law of Narnia, which is that if one human betrays another to her, she has the right to sacrifice the betrayer.

Aslan, who is a great lion, and literally is Jesus in Narnia (he tells the children in another book that they know him by that name in their world), offers himself as a sacrifice. The White Witch knew that Aslan’s love would lead him to sacrifice himself, and she relishes it. She knows that with Aslan dead, she will be free to reign forever.

Appearing before the witch and her evil creatures, Aslan is led onto a primeval stone table, with ancient, long-forgotten writing on it. He is mocked as he is bound, shaved, and laughed at. Lying on this altar, Aslan looks out in grief and pain. Two of the children, Susan and Lucy, watch from their hiding place. After much abuse, Aslan is killed by the witch. All the evil creatures laugh and dance in joy over his broken body. Finally, they leave to attack the army of Narnians, led by Susan’s and Lucy’s brotehr, Peter.

Once the evil creatures have crawled and slithered away, Susan and Lucy come over to Aslan and sob over his lifeless body. They are crushed. All hope is gone. After a while, they walk away. Suddenly they hear a loud CRACK! They look over and Aslan’s body is gone. They wonder who has taken it. Then, from the side, they see a looming figure. It’s Aslan. And he’s alive. They can’t believe it. Aslan roars, and then comes down to them, and they all roll in the grass, playing and laughing.

As they settle down and catch their breaths, the children ask Aslan how he could be alive. He says to them that the White Witch knew the laws of Narnia, but not the deeper magic of his Father. If she had only been able to read the writing on the stone table, she would have known that when someone willingly sacrifices himself for another’s sin, then that sin is forgiven and life is restored. He says that there are deeper truths to the realm of Narnia than the White Witch can ever understand.

That scene speaks so much about what I would call “God-truths.” These are truths about God that go beyond our ability to understand. They aren’t just truths that take time to learn, but they are truths that we can’t understand no matter how hard we try to figure them out. We can only experience them. The truth is that there is so much about how God acts in life that we don’t understand, and because we don’t understand, we shut ourselves off to God. We are a people who think that for anything to be true, we have to be able to understand it cognitively. But so much of life, the universe, and God lay beyond our ability to comprehend. Our passage is a perfect example of this truth.

Jesus meets two disciples, two men who had known Jesus intimately. They had been taught all of his teachings, but that’s not the same as them understanding his teachings. They knew all the right things, but they didn’t understand. They talk to Jesus as they walk, but they don’t recognize him. Jesus explains to them everything that had happened and, but because the resurrected Jesus makes no sense to them, they fail to recognize him. I’m sure Jesus was doing something to fog their abilities, but whatever he did was aided by the fact that they already have an understanding about how the world works, and the possibility of a resurrected Jesus made no sense. They had heard that some had seen him, but they were rational, logical men. For them, resurrection wasn’t possible.

It wasn’t until Jesus broke the bread and shared the wine at dinner that they recognized him, and recognized that they had just experienced a deeper truth. They still didn’t understand, but they had discovered Gods “deeper magic.”

For those of you who have been in this church for a long time, you know that I’m fascinated by stories, like this one, of God that reveal deeper truths. And I’m not just talking about deeper truths that we can figure out. I love stories that go beyond our cognitive understanding, that push the boundaries of what we can conceive of in our heads. I love stories about what God is doing in this world that push aside the known laws of this world.

I tell these kinds of stories in my sermons, I write about them in my books (and I’ve been criticized in book reviews for that fact), I talk about them in personal conversations, and I push books that share and teach these kinds of stories. The reason I’m so fascinated with these kinds of stories is that I truly believe that just as there is a deeper magic than the White Witch understood with Aslan, there are deeper truths about God than we understand, and that our doctrine and dogmas fail to capture. These are truths that we can’t necessarily explain. Instead, we experience them.

Let me close by sharing one of these kinds of stories. Over the past three months, our men’s group has been reading and discussing a fascinating book that you’ve heard me talk about in the past. The book is Father Arseny: Priest, Prisoner, and Spiritual Guide. It’s a book written by people who had come to know this amazing, Russian Orthodox priest during his lifetime. He lived during the Soviet period of Russia’s history, spending 27 years living in a Siberian gulag during Joseph Stalin’s savage reign. This was a time in which religion was forbidden, and people who practiced their faith could be imprisoned or killed. Father Arseny managed to live a life of deep faith during his brutal and torturous imprisonment, and he influenced thousands—both those in the camp with him, and those he met before and afterwards.

At the end of the book there is a story about one of his spiritual children, a woman he acted as spiritual guide to. Father Arseny had written a series of letters to many of the faithful he knew who were struggling under the oppressive, atheistic Communism of the Soviet Union. These were letters of spiritual encouragement, but they were dangerous. If found by the KGB, they would have implicated many as being Christians, and as worshiping together in secret.

A woman named Natasha took the letters from Father Arseny, and traveled to a town where she gave them to another woman named Alexandra. Knowing that Alexandra was frightened to take the letters and deliver them, she said to Alexandra the same words that Father Arseny had said to her: “God will protect you. He will be with you. Do not be afraid of anything. All will be well!”

As Alexandra set off to deliver the letters, she immediately felt as though someone was following her. She could hear footsteps about 50 to 70 yards behind her. Her heart raced. She didn’t know what to do. If she was caught,… well, she didn’t want to think of what might happen. Her pace quickened as she tried to elude her tail. She knew it was a KGB agent. She wondered if she should throw away the letters and run, but she knew that would make things worse. The KGB would get the letters, and all would be implicated, including Father Arseny.

So she slowed down and began to pray. She prayed to the virgin Mary, asking Mary to bring God’s protection (in the Orthodox tradition, many pray to Mary, or “Mother of God” as they call her). As she prayed, she soon noticed a second set of footsteps behind her. She didn’t feel fear at the sound of those footsteps. She felt oddly calm. Those footsteps came closer. As she turned a corner, a woman caught up with her. She was dressed exactly like her. She was the same age, had the same purse on her shoulder and kerchief on her head. She walked next to Alexandra, but said nothing. Her faced looked familiar, and had an amazing glow to it, but she really couldn’t make out the features.

Reaching a street corner, Alexandra’s companion turned to her and sternly said, “Stop here and stand. I will keep walking.” Standing completely still, the KGB agent—an angry-looking woman in her 30s—caught up to her, looked her up and down, and hurried on to catch the other woman. Alexandra was free! Within a few hours, Alexandra had delivered all the letters.

A year later Alexandra was arrested as a suspect. At the interrogation she was asked repeatedly what had happened to her companion on that day. Alexandra insisted that she had done nothing wrong. They eventually brought in her KGB tail, who said, “There I am walking, comrade Lieutenant, following her, she turns corners to lose me. But I follow her… When I came to the corner of Kazakov Street, somebody was standing, and another woman looking exactly like the first one walked away. They were identical, dressed the same way, same kerchiefs, same boots, same coat, same purse, same gait, same turn of the head. I followed them, but I couldn’t figure out which one I had been following from the beginning and which one appeared on that street corner. I followed the one who was walking away. I walked behind her for some ten minutes when she suddenly disappeared into thin air. I swear I am telling you the truth—she simply disappeared. Ask this woman, let her tell you what she did. It was just like a disappearing act in a circus.”

Alexandra told them that she didn’t know who the woman was, and in act of brazen spiritual boldness said, “I did not hide anywhere, I did not disappear. The Mother of God saved me. I had been walking and praying to her the whole time.” The interrogator laughed. They had to punish her some way, so Alexandra was sentenced to live in a small town outside of Moscow. For those times this was considered an extremely light punishment.

So, who was that with Alexandra? Mary? An angel? Who knows? What I do know is that to be a Christian means to be open to truths, and experiences based on those truths, that go beyond our understanding. It means being open to Alexandra’s experience. In fact, we Christians depend upon these experiences because we know that there is more to life than what we know, and what we think we know. We may not have the same kind of experience as Alexandra, but that doesn’t mean we can’t experience deeper truths.

We may advance in knowledge and sophistication in any age, but really understanding the truths of God isn’t about gaining new information. It’s about transformation. It’s about being open to truths that lay beyond laws, knowledge, and our convictions about how the world, universe, and God work. To become open to these kinds of experiential truths means to be open to God’s transforming and mysterious truths.

The question for you is simple: Are you open to this kind of mysterious transformation?