Luke ends his Gospel with a culminating event that is directly connected to the launching of his second volume—the Acts of the Apostles. The culminating event of the first volume features Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The event that launches the followers of Jesus as the church takes place during the Feast of Pentecost. The two events—Emmaus and Pentecost—are deeply connected. The first provides the conditions in which the second can unfold.
The interaction between Cleopas, his companion, and Jesus is a milestone. It’s as though Cleopas and his friend passed a test that is pivotal for their development as followers of Jesus. When they provide hospitality to Jesus, they are implementing the action of resurrection for the benefit of the stranger in their midst. As they do so, their connection with Jesus deepens and their understanding becomes complete.
By opening their lives to the vulnerable stranger, by offering hospitality to Jesus, they were speaking his language. These kind actions provided the conditions in which they could become an authentic community—a church.
In the second chapter of Acts, the church is born—just as in the second chapter of Luke, Jesus is born. This birth is a new creation. All of the signs are there. Just as Genesis begins with the wind—the breath of God blowing over the dark, formless abyss—the creation of the community begins with a rushing, mighty wind, a sound from heaven. And just as in Genesis, God says, “Let there be light,” so also does God give the gift of light—fire! The tongues of fire divide for the purpose of uniting. A tongue comes to rest over each of the apostles as they speak words of great news. Those words are felt and understood in every language. Each person present understands in a way that is completely meaningful. The community expands as the community extends itself to others.
Why? Because the community is speaking the language of the stranger. The community is speaking in ways that work not so much for themselves, but for others.
This, of course, is what Cleopas and his companion did for Jesus: they spoke his language as they offered hospitality to the stranger. They kindly opened their hearts to his vulnerability. This action was reciprocal, for this is what the stranger, Jesus, did for them on the road to Emmaus. To them, Jesus was a stranger whom they did not recognize. When he joined them on their journey, Jesus gently, with complete respect, drew near, listened to them, embraced their words, and helped them understand their own experience and its connection to Jesus.
Every once in a while we can find ourselves wishing that Luke had included the entire contents of Jesus’s mesmerizing Bible study as he opened their minds to understanding Moses and the prophets. There are many good reasons for Luke’s not sharing this. One has to do with its meaning for others. Being connected to Jesus is not a mechanical, one-size-fits-all drill. Every human being is unique, as is every relationship. Jesus doesn’t clone followers. He loves them. And he finds ways to speak their language.
Jesus, in other words was speaking the language of Cleopas and his friend. When I speak to others, I will not be effective if I mechanically reproduce Jesus’s words to Cleopas. I will be effective as I figure out how to enter into conversation in ways that are meaningful to the person with whom I am in dialogue.
The entire Gospel of Luke prepares us to speak the language of others. Jesus speaks the language of the woman who anoints him when he offers her forgiveness and draws her into communion with him. The Samaritan speaks the language of the man who has been beaten and robbed when he provides first aid and takes him to an inn and guarantees his care and recovery. The father speaks the language of his son when he welcomes him home and invites family and friends to join him in celebration. Jesus speaks the language of Zacchaeus when he greets him warmly and transforms him into a host.
My friend and colleague, Dr. Neal Cox recently reminded me of the importance of loving others in their own language. In 1995, Gary Chapman published a wonderful book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to your Mate. Those “languages” are gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and touch. Chapman found that not all of us resonate with the same love language. That’s because each of us is a unique human being.
The church became the church when the followers of Jesus became serious about speaking in the language of the stranger—people who are vulnerable, fragmented, alienated. When they did so, they found their voice, and God transformed them into a new creation for the benefit of others.
It can be so with us!