Dead Man Talking
Most of us have seen or heard of the movie “Dead Man Walking” of 1995 starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was based on a true story of a man, Matthew Poncelet, executed for murder and a Roman Catholic religious, Sr. Helen Prejean, who reached out to the inmate helping with his last appeal and also visiting with the families of the victims. When Poncelet leaves the holding cell and is led to the death chamber, accompanied by Sr. Helen, the cry is heard “Dead man walking.”
When I studied this familiar Gospel story of the disciples on their way to Emmaus I thought of this movie. In a very real sense when the Risen Jesus joins the two on the road and begins to talk to them it’s like a dead man talking. The two disciples are completely demoralized and hopeless. They had put so much hope in Jesus. At first they had been curious about his cause and sympathetic to it, but with his execution they were completely disenchanted and disappointed. They had to get out of Jerusalem and Emmaus
seemed as good a place as any, so they headed down the road.
Unknown to them, Jesus, joins them. They share their utter disappointment. Jesus draws them out and begins to open what must have been familiar scriptures to them.
Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
This is really important for me and something I’ve been sharing with you from the beginning of my time here in Antigua: Jesus, as we come to know him in the Gospels, is the interpreter of all scripture. That’s why the church is beginning to re-read the Gospels and focus on Jesus’ example and teaching. The most important texts of the Hebrew Scriptures find their highest interpretation in the revelation of the Word made Flesh, Jesus.
For those disciples on their way to Emmaus Jesus was a dead man. They heard rumors that he might be alive still, but that possibility was so out of their range of experience, Jesus might as well be dead. So unbeknownst to them a dead man was walking and talking to them.
I think this Emmaus gospel story is the most important for us in the time we’re living. For all practical purposes, Jesus, great person that he was, is dead to us. We might pick up some good, loving insights from the accounts of his life and teaching in the Gospels and the rest of the bible, but that’s about it. Jesus died and rose, but again so far out of the range of our experience, that it’s not really compelling. Sometimes something that Jesus taught might support one or more of our deeply held values. That’s great, but to a point. We reserve the right to not follow a teaching of Jesus if it is unrealistic or asks us to do something we disagree with, for example, to love our enemies, or not to retaliate with force. Again, in a very real sense, Jesus is dead to us, but he is still walking along with us unrecognized.
This was the experience of the disciples as well. They did love however, the way Jesus made sense of the scriptures. Maybe a Messiah could be put to death for some purpose and come back to life. They didn’t want their time with this “stranger” to end. They offer the stranger table fellowship so they could continue to listen to him. When he reached for the bread and offered it to them, they recognized him. It was the way he broke the bread and gave it to them. When they took the bread from him, he disappeared. They were flabbergasted, they had the bread and the cup, but he was still with them! Jesus wasn’t dead, but he was still alive!
This, my friends, is the mystery of the Eucharist: the Risen Jesus alive in our midst through the tangibles of bread and wine. At the Holy Eucharist we experience the presence of the Lord who teaches us in the Gospels and other scriptures, helping us, living in the present, to restructure our imagination of how heaven is coming to earth, and be sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to make it happen.
This is where it all begins at the Eucharist, being fed and nourished by God’s Word. If you think and live as if Jesus is dead, even though believing he was perhaps the finest of men, there will be no great desire to gather here and receive Holy Communion. There are always seemingly more pressing things to do, better ways to spend time, or other obstacles that “keep you away.” But if you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and not just a dead man talking to us through an old book, you’ll be here. Why? Because they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English, Anglican Communion) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.