Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Unexpected Jesus

There is no Eastertide story more fraught with meaning than Luke's enchanting narrative of the appearance of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It is a star-burst of spiritual insight which offers hope and help for the hopeless and helpless. In it we see how the unexpected Jesus is more likely to show up in the atmosphere of honest uncertainty, emptiness, and frustration than in the human hubris of those who are quite sure they already know everything they need to know.

Two thousand years of Easter studies have produced closed knowledge, standardized theological interpretation, and deadly and even deadening certainty such that it is even more difficult to be naturally open to the unexpected Jesus. The accumulated layers of refined theological interpretation more often than not shield us from the startling joy of the unexpected Jesus who slipped up on the blind side of the two dispirited pilgrims who had given up and were on their way home to Emmaus.

Perhaps the most helpful thing earnest seekers can do to create an atmosphere for a life-changing encounter with Jesus is to empty ourselves of all that we know or think we know to make room for the unexpected. The two men on the Road to Emmaus did not have answers. They had questions - frustrating questions. They were genuinely puzzled and discouraged. They had hoped and trusted that Jesus was "the One who was to come", but it appeared they were sadly mistaken. They were as empty as the empty tomb. The disciples thought the women were mistaken when they came back from his tomb saying they had seen a vision of angels who said Jesus was alive. Some of his followers had gone to the tomb and found it as the women said, but they did not see Jesus. What were the two men to do? There was only one thing left to do: pack up and go home. They were going back where they started, empty and out of hope.

If they had known what we now know they would have stayed in Jerusalem and probably would have been sitting around a conference table writing an early draft of the Apostles' Creed. But they were ignorant, empty, and hopelessly discouraged, which provided the exact atmosphere for the most unexpected and saving experience of their lives.

Several years ago as one of my clergy friends lay dying in a nursing home, he told me to go to his apartment and take anything I wanted. I took two things: an artificially stuffed owl (which sits on the top of the highest bookshelf in my office) and a simple plaque that is on my desk where all may read it. The plaque reads: "When the pupil is ready the teacher will come". Just as Jesus came into the world "at the right time", there is a real sense in which he shows up in our lives at the right time - when we are ready. There is no universal formula we can promulgate to designate when "the pupil is ready". Our readiness and openness is a condition which is far more specific to each individual than general and applicable to all. It is not that God in Christ is not ready. God is always ready. We are the ones who must get ready.

When we are bursting with self-assurance, we are not ready. When we feel no need for divine assistance in our lives, we are not ready. Have you ever wondered why Jesus said: "Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:23-24)? It was not that Jesus had something against rich people. His ministry was often supported financially by wealthy people. He knew, as we know, that riches tend to confer a false sense of security and independence. It tends to cause people to think they have no need for God or anyone. When we count on our wealth to save us, wealth becomes our god, and we do not need help, and we are not ready.

We are more likely to be ready when we find ourselves in the zone of desperation. We are open to divine intervention in our world when we see no way out on our own. When I was a fuzzy-cheeked young preacher, I remember the Bishop calling on one of our older preachers to offer the opening prayer one morning at Annual Conference. He opened his prayer by saying: "O' Lord, if you saw the Montgomery Advertiser this morning you know we are in serious trouble". He was ready.

This is not to suggest that we should seek conditions of crisis in order to lure God into our lives. Not to worry, life will provide all the adverse situations we need for spiritual growth without our contriving a crisis. Neither wisdom, wealth, good planning, or even luck, will save us from those unbidden occasions when the bottom drops out -- when life splits open at the seams and we find ourselves in over our heads. When that happens, the God we thought we did not need will become the object of a fervent search. When the gods we have made for ourselves topple, when life falls in shambles at our feet, when something happens that money cannot fix nor all our virtues prevent, when life becomes dark at noon day, we will be ready. And God will show up in ways and places and persons we least expect.

You may not be able to reconstruct the experience in which God shows up in your life, but you will never be the same again after you realize God was right there with you all the time, and you did not know it.

The after-glow of the unexpected Jesus lingers to flavor all the rest of life, and you will never feel alone again -- until the bottom falls out of your life, again. Do you feel thoroughly confused and hurt by life? Not to worry. We are all very likely to have more than one devastating disappointment in life. There is more than one road to Emmaus, and the appearance of the unexpected Jesus is not limited to one occasion.