Part 2: Welcoming the Stranger
“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?’” —Luke 24: 16, 17
Just think! If the disciples on the Emmaus Road had refused to welcome a stranger into their companionable walk and their no-holds-barred conversation, they would have missed the whole mind/spirit-bending encounter with Jesus!
A case could have been made that this was no time for strangers. AND YET, it was while they were discussing all these things that had happened that a stranger approached them and asked a simple question: What are you talking about as you walk along the road?
How rude! one might think. How inappropriate to walk up to two people who are having an intimate conversation and ask them right out what they are talking about. This is definitely the kind of strangeness I don’t like. When in the midst of a private conversation with a close friend sharing things of a personal nature, the last thing I want to do is include someone neither one of us knows. It makes things awkward at best. At worst, it feels downright intrusive.
But there is another possibility. Could it be that the stranger who intrudes upon our lives with their “otherness” has actually been sent by God as a means of grace to us?
One of the dynamics of transforming community is that by its very nature, there is enough “otherness” in the group that we can actually be challenged to stretch and grow beyond the confines of our own limited view of things. We can find ways to open to Christ as he is uniquely present in the other. One of the limits of affinity groups is that there just isn’t enough “otherness” to call forth anything new. If we don’t venture outside our comfort zones, trusting that the stranger God has brought into our lives has something for us we, too, will never even know what we’re missing.
Whatever the two disciples might have felt about being approached by a total stranger, Jesus had no qualms about joining them and including himself in their conversation. His “innocent” inquiry invited them to share their story with him even though he, of all people, knew the story from the inside out!
Like most of us, these two disciples found it hard to tell a stranger about something that had impacted them so deeply; all they could do was stand still, mute with grief, looking sad. And this gracious stranger didn’t try to rush them out of their grief, didn’t force them beyond what they were able, didn’t try to manage the moment. Instead, he stood right there with them in their sadness, leaving the space open for them to experience all that they were feeling, giving them time to try and find the words.
Strange in a Good Way
Finally, Cleopas got a little exasperated. He gave up trying to put what he was experiencing into words and blurted out, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” It is a bit like asking a U.S. citizen, “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what happened here on 9/11? Are you the only one who doesn’t know about the airplanes and the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the loss of life?” It’s unthinkable that someone could be that out of touch with what’s going on in the world!
Jesus’ apparent lack of knowledge about the situation must have made him seem even stranger, but he continued to play dumb for a little while longer. “What things?” he asked, very simply. He seemed to know that they needed to tell their story, to get it all out in the presence of someone who knew how to listen. He knew that if they could just talk about it with him honestly, he could eventually help them find meaning in all they had been through.
So it all came pouring out—the pain, the grief, the disillusionment, the questions, the lost hopes and dreams. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” What a poignant statement about the depth of their loss and its far-reaching effect.
It was only after Jesus had taken time to listen deeply to their need—for comfort, for understanding, for perspective—that he offered any sort of perspective at all. And what he chose to do was to draw them into the Biblical story, interpreting Scripture to them in such a way that all of it started to make sense. Masterfully, he helped them to locate their own story in the context of the larger story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world.
What seemed so hopeless from a human point of view was now imbued with profound spiritual significance. This “stranger” was quickly becoming a friend and more than just a friend—a spiritual companion with an uncanny ability to listen to their hearts’ deepest longings and questions.
They Urged Him Strongly to Stay
What happens next is a little over the top by contemporary standards. It seems these disciples were so stirred by the quality of this stranger’s presence and his uncanny insight that they didn’t want their conversation to end. When Jesus acted like he was going to keep on walking, they urged him to get off at their exit and to stay with them—in their home! Now it’s one thing to have a conversation with a stranger in a public place; it’s quite another to invite them right into your home. Who does that these days?
In Matthew 25:42-46 Jesus points out the when we welcome all types of strangers we are welcoming Christ himself—which is exactly what happened to the two disciples on the Emmaus road. They welcomed the stranger and then discovered it was Christ. Literally.
St. Benedict took Jesus’ teaching so literally that he gave specific instructions for how guests were to be treated with this truth in mind. “Any guest who happens to arrive at the monastery should be received just as we would receive Christ himself, because he promised that on the last day he will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Guests should always be treated with respectful reverence. Those attending them both on arrival and departure should show this by a bow of the head or even a full prostration on the ground which will leave no doubt that it is indeed Christ who is received and venerated in them…”
However warmly I have greeted strangers, I have never bowed or prostrated myself! And yet, the more literally one takes Jesus’ statement that when we welcome “the least of these” we welcome him, the more the idea of bowing and genuflecting makes sense!
Strange Friends, Intimate Strangers
The Emmaus story raises an interesting question: who is the stranger, really? More often than not, the stranger is simply someone who is strange to you or different than you for one reason or another—a personality type that is different than yours, different life-experiences that have shaped them, a different ethnicity, a different opinion or perspective on an important topic, or even just a different life stage. It could be someone who seems to come out of nowhere, interrupting our normal relating or thinking patterns. Someone who intrudes upon our established circle of friends. Someone who doesn’t fit in or simply rubs us the wrong way.
The question is, can we welcome the one who is strange in that way? How can we be as receptive to Christ in them as those two despairing disciples were open and receptive to Jesus on the Emmaus road? In order to receive what “the other” has to give, we will need to practice what I call “inner hospitality”—that is, a spirit of openness and receptivity to those unlikely moments when the friendliness of a stranger or the strangeness of a friend causes our hearts to burn within us.
What we are really talking about here is being willing to welcome diversity, in the broadest sense of the word, and receive the gifts that come through such diversity.
Welcoming Christ in You
Recently, in one of our Transforming Community retreats, those of us who were present had an amazing experience of welcoming and being enriched by “the other.” It was a retreat on the subject of honoring the body as a spiritual discipline and at the outset I made the statement that we would discuss gender as a fundamental “in the body” experience but due to limited time, we would not be dealing with the issue of race even though it, too, is an important aspect of life in the body. My decision made perfect sense to me (of course!) but at the break, a black pastor approached me very graciously and shared that he did not resonate with my statement. In fact, he said, he considered race to be more defining than gender and when he enters a room, he is always much more aware of his race than his gender.
Immediately I knew I needed to be more careful about making my experience the measure of all things! After we talked for a few minutes, I asked him if he would be willing to share the difference he had named with the entire group and lead us in a conversation that would move us beyond being strangers to one another in this regard. He agreed, so we adjusted our schedule to include a conversation about this difference in perspective. In a gracious and thoughtful way he described some of his experiences as a black male—experiences that those of us in the room who are white had never had and really needed to hear about.
Eventually another pastor shared her experiences of being black and female—which was, in significant ways, different than being a black male. Then an Asian man spoke quietly of his struggle for self-acceptance in the midst of prevailing cultural stereotypes and a Latino man offered his perspective as well. What was spoken was so impactful that at times the whole group fell silent out of respect for the significance of what was being shared. There we all were—strangers to one another in ways we didn’t fully realize—until we were able to welcome that which was different in the other with honesty, love and respect.
Jesus Himself Came Near
A sense of profound intimacy descended upon the group as a white woman, a black man, a black woman, an Asian man, a Latino and all those looking on welcomed “the other” by entering in and allowing ourselves to be impacted by one another’s experience. Jesus himself came near, deepening our care and commitment to one another along with our concern for a more just society. I had a sense that it was only the beginning of the transforming work God wants to do in us and through us as we continue to welcome each other in all of our strangeness.
For some of us, welcoming the stranger will never come easy. But these days I am never able to encounter a “stranger” without wondering, “Is this the person through whom God is going to speak? Is this the stranger who is going to be Christ to me today?” The practice of welcoming the stranger opens me to the presence of Christ in the most unexpected places and that is something I don’t want to miss.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2015. This article is adapted from Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community (InterVarsity Press, 2014.)