This week, instead of a full homily, I am sharing two approaches to preaching the Emmaus story: Paul Scott Wilson’s, Four Page Sermon and First-Person Preaching. As with all homiletic approaches, each carries risks and benefits that the preacher must consider in light of the needs and perspectives of the listeners.
The 4 Page Sermon
(Paul Scott Wilson: The Four Pages of the Sermon,
A Guide to Biblical Preaching)
In this preaching methodology, the preacher doesn’t literally prepare a four-page homily, but rather, structures the preaching into four parts: the “trouble in the text”, the “trouble in the world”, the “Good News of the text”, and finally, “God’s action of grace in the world.” This sermonic form seems especially suited to the Emmaus story. Wilson’s approach creates a sermon that unfolds with clarity and focus, and moves the listener from the challenges and pain of “bad news” to the hope and joy of the Gospel. It leaves the community with the reassurance that Christ continues to work actively in our lives and in our world.
Trouble in the Text: It is Sunday, and the disciples have experienced three days of terror and sorrow. They stood on the fringes of an ugly mob that screamed for blood and death and witnessed the brutal public execution of their teacher and friend. Now, perhaps in a cruel joke, his body has disappeared from the tomb. Rumors abound. Is he alive? Is someone playing a horrible trick? Their grief is overwhelming. Two disciples--sick at heart, sick of Jerusalem, weary, confused--begin the seven-mile journey to their home in Emmaus. As the preacher explores the trouble behind this text, the use of vivid and concrete language and images will help immerse the listener into this troubled world. Help your community see and experience what the disciples are feeling.
Trouble in our World: We don’t have to go far, do we? Pick up any newspaper, tune to any news station, access your favorite website and find terror, sorrow, grief—even angry mobs calling for blood and death. The war in Ukraine is now over a year old and we have become numb to images of bombed out towns and desperate refugees. School shootings in Uvalde, Nashville, Louisville generate an outpouring of “thoughts and prayers” but few lasting solutions. Racism, political and religious polarization, the easy demonization of “the other” leaves us weary and sick at heart. Sometimes it is easier to turn away than it is to turn and confront the evil that surrounds us. As the preacher begins to name the trouble in the world, it is usually more effective to offer a depth description of one or two issues or situations that relate to the trouble in the text than to give a scattershot list. What issues are foremost in the hearts and minds of your listeners? What trouble “troubles” them? Fulfilled in Your Hearing, a 1982 USCCB document on preaching, states that one role of the preacher is as a “mediator of meaning.” “The Preacher represents this community by voicing its concerns, by naming its demons and thus enabling it to gain some understanding and control of the evil which affects it.” (FIYH, 7).
God’s Action in the Text (The Good News of the Text): The disciples discover they are not alone! The stranger who falls into step with them along the road to Emmaus is the risen Christ. He is revealed to them in the breaking and blessing of bread, and in the fellowship of the meal. He is both guest and host at the banquet that gives life. In a beautiful line, the disciples ask themselves, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” So great is their joy that despite the lateness of the hour and their previous long journey, they turn back to Jerusalem, walking another seven miles to witness to the other disciples and share their encounter with Christ. The one who died is now risen!
God’s Action in our World (The Good News in the World): We usually have no difficulty sharing concrete and vivid examples of the bad news in our world. When it comes to the Good News, however, we often become abstract and distant, using lofty, "Church-y" language that fails to connect with our listeners. We must name the Good News in our world as vividly and concretely as we do the troubles. We must see Christ actively working in our lives and in our communities and invite our listeners to see what we see. It is vital to share the ways that God is present in the "troubles" named in the second part of the homily. For example, how is God present in war torn Ukraine? How do we encounter Christ in the struggle to heal racial, political, and religious divides? Where do we see mercy in the face of violence? The proclamation of the Good News in our world should be clear, passionate, and real. It should leave the listener saying with the disciples, "The one who died is now risen!"
First person preaching is a homiletic strategy that takes one of the characters from the Bible, from Church History, from the communion of Saints or from our imaginations and brings them to life. The preacher becomes that character to convey the theological or pastoral message of the homily. For a fuller discussion of the risks, benefits and strategies of First-Person Preaching, see the article linked above from the Preaching Sparks section of the website.
First-Person preaching is a story with a theological point of view. The preacher can say things s/he would not ordinarily say and preach from a different perspective and vantage point. First person homilies can provide a jolt of freshness and take people by surprise. Preachers find they can say a more “difficult” word because it is not them, but the character preaching. Familiar stories can be heard in new ways and viewed with new eyes. Done well and appropriately, first person can open fresh vistas on the Gospel. It can allow the voices of people on the margins to speak and bring their perspective to life.
This experience on the Road to Emmaus lends itself to a first-person homily, because it allows one of the disciples to speak directly to the listener about this “heartburn” experience, inviting the listener into the story.
Theologians almost universally speak of these two disciples as males. Every painting, stained glass window, or illustration I have seen depicting this encounter shows three men: The Risen Christ, and two male disciples. Yet, nothing in scripture supports that, and indeed, the case for the “other” un-named disciple being Cleopas’ wife is rather compelling. The Gospel of John names a Mary, wife of “Clopas” who was present at the crucifixion. Isn’t it entirely possible that Cleopas and Clopas were the same person, and that he and his wife, a woman who stood at the foot of the cross were returning home from Jerusalem?
A first-person homily allows this reflection, and it is an approach I would take. A female preacher could take on this un-named disciple’s experience directly while a male preacher could preach from the perspective of Cleopas, while also including his wife’s experience and insights. This is not “playing with scripture” for novelty’s sake, nor it is a stunt. If we want women to take up the heavy lifting of modern-day discipleship we must offer them real support, real role models and a real seat at the table.
And the reality is, women were present at every significant event in Jesus’s life and ministry. Women supported his mission financially. They sat at his feet while he taught. They were the unnamed presence at the Last Supper (who do you think prepared the food?) They followed him throughout Judea and followed him to the cross. They stood vigil, watching him die and prepared his body for the grave. A woman was the first to proclaim his resurrection, becoming the Apostle to the Apostles. It is entirely fitting that a woman might walk the Emmaus Road, listening to the risen Lord interpret Moses and the Prophets and then breaking bread in a family meal as her eyes and heart were opened. I can see her racing back down the road toward Jerusalem, shouting the news that the one she saw crucified, the one whose broken body she helped wrap for burial, now lived! What a powerful testimony!
First person preaching carries risks, but when carefully and well prepared, it also offers great blessings and new insights.
Carefully considering and planning the structure and form of the homily is as vital to effective preaching as planning the content. Ask yourself, “What is it that I want this homily to accomplish or do in the lives of the listeners? What do I hope they take with them into the week of work, family, and leisure? What is the word they need to hear, and that I need to preach? What structure or homiletic approach will help me convey that message?”
I hope these two suggested approaches to preaching the Emmaus story are helpful as you witness to the Good News of the resurrection this Easter Season.