The Road to Emmaus is a famous passage of scripture, there is a great deal to unpack in it, so much so that if I weren’t somewhat lazy I could write a book. Instead I am going to focus our attention on one line, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21).
Redeem is a complicated word because it has many meanings. The modern definition is to “compensate for the faults of bad aspects of something or to save from sin, error, or evil”. With this definition it sounds like these two disciples were expecting Jesus to pay off the debt of Israel, as if God was going to swoop in with a bag of gold and pay the Romans to go away. The problem with this thinking is that it assumes that the Messiah, the promised deliverer, the savior, is going to do all the work and it ignores virtually the whole arc of the Hebrew story, by taking the Gospels and applying it to Hebrew scripture, instead of looking for the unbroken thread of truth throughout it all. It is this thinking that likely led to the misguided belief that Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice to God in exchange for the sins of humanity, which is known as sacrificial atonement theology. Were the events of Holy Week foretold in Hebrew Scripture? Maybe, but it is also just as likely that the writers of the Gospels used Hebrew scripture to make the case that Jesus was the real deal, because many people in the first century didn’t think he was.
There is another and far less used definition of redeemed, which is “to fulfill a pledge or promise” which is far more consistent with Hebrew scripture as God promised Abraham to that they would be faithful to the people of Israel, no matter how much the people ignored God. God promised to be their God, no strings attached. This is the God we know. The God who loves unconditionally, the God who is always present, always listening, always waiting for the moment when we will return to them. In this context, the words “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel” have a different meaning. Jesus did come to redeem Israel; he came to bring Israel back to a God centered life. God had tried to do this in other ways, such as the Covenant of Moses, which we call the Ten Commandments or the law, but it didn’t work. God sent many prophets to warn the people of Israel that they were moving further and further away from God, but they didn’t listen, in fact in many cases they killed them. Finally, God sent Jesus, who fulfilled the promise of God, just not in the way many thought he would. His life, his teachings, his very existence is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and because of Jesus we know that God is with us, even in death. I understand the sorrow of the disciples on the road to Emmaus because they thought that hope was lost, that God had left them. But God never leaves because God promised too never do so, we are the ones that leave. So far I have been pretty theoretical, even abstract with my discussion, so lets look at a more specific example.
Today is Earth Day, it is the 53rd Earth Day. Earth Day was started in 1970 to bring awareness to the trauma Earth experiences because of human actions and it called for us to change both our consciousness and our conduct. For centuries we have treated the earth as nothing more than a source of resources to meet our ever growing desires. As we have industrialized and modernized our mistreatment of the Earth has gotten worse, we have dug deeper to extract the precious metals necessary to produce microchips, we have flooded our waterways and the atmosphere with toxic chemicals, we have caused the extinction of 680 species of animals in less than 500 years and there are currently approximately 1 million plant and animal species in danger of going extinct within the next few decades.
In the second chapter of the book of Genesis it says that God put humanity in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and because God realized that we needed help they created the animals and the birds to assist us. It, of course, also says in chapter 1 that we have dominion over the earth and should subdue it, so which is it? Are we the caretakers of creation or its masters? Well, both. God’s love for creation led them to create mechanisms that would ensure the longevity of creation, and a part of that plan was the creation of humanity, who could then work within the natural systems God created to ensure the continuation of all parts of creation. We are called to subdue nature, when necessary, to ensure the survival of other parts of nature, but that subjugation is not meant to be for the advancement of our selfish desires, it is meant to be for the benefit of all living things.
God banked on our ability to put the greater good above self, and that expectation is an act of love because God knew before we invented capitalism that we would turn out to be a self-centered and egotistical species driven by greed and success. Jesus said that we need to first love God above all other things, and second love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Every time we choose self over creation we are choosing to do the exact opposite. Let me be clear here and not mince words. Every time we choose to toss a plastic bottle in the trash can because we don’t feel like rinsing it out so it can be recycled, we are choosing self over creation. Every time we choose to leave lights on in rooms we are not occupying we are choosing self over creation. Every time we choose to buy a new cell phone because our old one is slower than it used to be, we are choosing self over creation. Every time we choose self we leave God behind and we leave everything that Jesus taught us and stood for behind because when we choose self without thinking about the consequences of doing so, then we are not acting with love, or compassion, or humility; we are acting with selfishness, which simply means that we are seeking immediate gratification and yet God continues to wait, they continue to be present, they continue to listen, and they continue to love unconditionally because that is what they promised to do.
Our redemption, the fulfillment of God’s promise, is not found in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, it is found in his teachings and in his resurrection. The resurrection of Christ shows us that nothing can stop the love of God, so it is okay to take a chance. It’s okay to put God, and people, and all of creation ahead of ourselves and many people have chosen to do just that. We passed the clean water and air acts, we created federal and state agencies to oversee and protect the environment. In the 1980’s many fought to save the rain forests, and today we are quickly moving towards renewable energy sources. Many organizations, including the Episcopal Church have removed their financial investments from fossil fuel companies, even the Rockefeller Foundation has stopped investing in fossil fuels and it was their family that built the American oil industry. All the evidence shows us that when we put ourselves first it leads to trouble, the reason we have a climate crisis is because for the last 200 years the majority of us have collectively done everything except love God and our neighbor, so maybe it’s time to try something different. The true redemption in this story is that through Christ, God’s promise to us has been kept and hope is restored and with it comes a renewed sense of gratitude and energy to continue the important work of protecting and restoring creation.