Tragedy and Comedy
Luke 24: 13-35.
Now on that same day (Sunday of the resurrection) two of (the disciples) 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 (Jesus) 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 (the seven miles) 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.
Last week we heard from Chris how the Gospel of Mark presents the resurrected Jesus: mainly, that it doesn’t. At the end of the earliest and shortest version found in the Gospel of Mark, the tomb is empty and a man in white tells the women that Jesus is alive and gone. Instead of “spreading the good news” the women are terrified and flee and say nothing. The Gospel of Mark ends in silence and fear--yes it beckons us to reread Mark and look for Jesus’s character and words and explanations, it beckons us to dig deeper, but it also is the hardest to wrestle with because it leaves more room for the tragedy of Jesus’ story, than, well, other things.
Pastor and preacher Roger Paynter talks about how the “classical definition of tragedy is that things go wrong in spite of our most heroic efforts. Despite our (or a character’s) behavior, good qualities, and preventative measures, terrible things still happen. Things still go wrong--this is tragedy. We might say that Good Friday, the crucifixion of Jesus, is a tragedy. We might say that the Gospel of Mark gives more space to the tragedy of this story than he does to other aspects. Mark highlights the tragedy, the unsatisfying ending, the “wait, what?”
Let’s see who was paying attention in Shakespeare class: what is the counter to tragedy?
Comedy. That’s right.
And while we have lots of definitions to what “comedy” is (mine includes Jim Gaffigan and the sitcom Scrubs), the classical definition of comedy is actually “that things turn out better than we ever imagined.” If tragedy is having everything go wrong despite your best efforts, comedy is having things graciously turn out right despite your worst efforts. Mark is tragedy. Luke, our story today, is comedy.
Let’s go on this journey on the road to Emmaus with our characters. We have the two disciples, Cleopas and then the unnamed disciple, which might actually be unnamed because the disciple is a “she,” a woman. These two disciples, like I said before, are locked in the depths of grief. All of their hopes have been disappointed. A man who was the best prophet, the mightiest in word and deed, the one that they thought would be the messiah to save them from Rome, was killed. Not only was he killed, he was handed over to death by people everyone trusted--their religious leaders. All of this is so overwhelming to them that the author says when this “stranger” asks them what is wrong, they literally had to stop on their journey on the road to Emmaus. “They stood still, looking sad.” The worst had happened and the world had stopped. How could this stranger not know about this?
I can imagine that these two disciples were leaving Jerusalem with a heavy weight on their hearts and fear in their future plans and a hustle in their steps. I can imagine that after these unfortunate events, anyone who was associated with Jesus felt at risk, felt terrified for their lives. I can imagine that after his death, those who witnessed it needed to place space between themselves and this trauma. So we find ourselves in this story with people who fear the worst has happened, who fear that their story is a tragedy. We find ourselves where Mark left off--in fear and with the question “wait, what?”
But Luke’s gospel does not stop there. Enter the stranger. Like any good comedy, we, the audience or readers are “in the know.” We know that the stranger is the risen Christ. We know that the plot is true in comedic form because we’re about to get bested with the best news.
Jesus explains to the two disciples the comedy of their circumstance: they have been foolish and hard of hearing. They haven’t paid attention to what the prophets have said. They have forgotten that in order to be surprised by goodness, you have to trudge through the muck of a truly terrible plot. They have forgotten what the scriptures have said: that the Messiah must suffer before glory happens. That for a comedy, things must look bleak and complicated and torn in order for the reversal to truly land, to truly transform, to truly change our paradigms and perspectives.
I think this is actually what Jesus recited when he interpreted the scriptures to them to help them understand his own death and resurrection. He recited the litany of comedic, of surprisingly gracious stories in scripture: Abraham and Sarah have a baby when she’s barren. Moses who stutters and murders liberates Israel. David the least son becomes the greatest king. The disciples who are a sorry lot spread the love of Christ. Saul who wants to quell the church spreads it further than anyone else.
And of course, the greatest comedic aspect of the lot: Jesus, who suffers and dies at the hands of the Romans and the religious leaders, comes back to life.
This, he reminds the disciples, is NOT a tragedy, but a comedy, where despite all our worst efforts, things turn out better than we had ever imagined.
The two disciples, after hearing all of this, invite this stranger to come home with them that evening. It is late and everyone needs to eat.
In another surprising reversal, another comedic turn, Jesus changes from being the house-guest, to being the host as they gather around the table. Echoing words from the feeding of the 5,000 and the last supper, Jesus takes the bread, blesses, breaks it, and gives it to them and immediately “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” Oh my goodness, it’s you!
I’d like to think they recognized more than just Jesus. I’d like to think they recognized the reversal of the story they’d been telling themselves--that death is stronger than life. I’d like to think they recognized the surprise endings of God in scripture that burned in their hearts even if they couldn’t recall them in the moment. I’d like to think they recognized that this is how God operates in the world: through comedy and shaping things to graciously, ironically, surprisingly, and joyfully change course from tragedy.
I’d like to think they recognized that God does not end our story in tragedy. God ends it in the absurdity of new life coming out of a grave, God ends it in comedy. Or as Rev. John Claypool was fond of saying, “God’s other name is Surprise.”
But what do we do if we’re still on the road to Emmaus? What do we do if we are the unnamed disciple in this story, feeling the burden of recent tragedy and having to make frequent stops because of the weight of sadness? What if hope, comedy, or surprise seem too vulnerable, to risky to believe in? What if your back is set to Jerusalem and you are walking away?
I think that’s what makes God’s character so surprising. That’s what makes our story with God a comedy and not a tragedy. The tragedy would be if this whole faith thing, this whole being human thing, this whole surviving your life thing, were up to you. The tragedy would be if there was no help along the way or grand reversals. If there was no one to meet us on the Road to Emmaus and listen to our sadness and then slowly, walking alongside us, draw us into the divine comedy that says, “that’s not the ending I had planned.” The tragedy would be if we were doing this alone and the ending was left up to us and our best or worst efforts. But it’s not.
God’s other name is Surprise and we depend on this name, we pray in this name, we hope in this name every day. And just like Sarah, when she found out she would have a child in her old age, we will laugh at this comedy when the tides turn. We will laugh.
And until then for those of us who aren’t to the resurrection faith part of the comedy/story yet, whose hope feels too fragile, who are too steeped in tragedy, we journey together. We walk the road to Emmaus together, you and me. The entire Gospel of Luke, and its sequel the book of Acts, is one long journey of faith exploration. In Luke, Jesus and his followers go from Galilee to Jerusalem across 24 chapters, always in motion, learning and exploring and wrestling with God’s call on our lives. Then the book of Acts starts that narrative at Jerusalem and then journeys out across the Roman Empire through the stories of Paul, Silas, Peter, Philip who are inviting others to follow Jesus in his life of reversals.
If you haven’t arrived, that’s ok. We’re walking this journey together.
If you are feeling more tragedy than comedy, there’s a road for that. If you’re heart is burning within you because you sense, you see, or you feel the radical reversals of God, that’s on the journey too. Be it a tragedy you see or a comedy, the road, the journey, is where we’ll find each other.