Day Three, Sunday, January 20: Walking in conversation
We reflect on the importance of the practices of dialogue and conversation, as a means of overcoming barriers. Both in ecumenism, and in the struggles for liberation of people across the globe, the skills of speaking and listening are recognized as essential. In such authentic conversation we can come to recognize Christ more clearly.
Dialogue—structured conversation aimed at deeper knowledge of the other, and of ourselves—is the key discipline of the ecumenical movement. Churches around the world have expressed their intent to walk together in such conversation toward the day when the parts of Christ’s body no longer say to one another, “We have no need of you.” Walking in conversation is unthinkable apart from the presence of Christ–which is why the gospel text selected for this day in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, is so crucial, so instructive for the ecumenical vision of the church.
The story unfolds in three scenes, the third of which is often overlooked: 1) The two disciples are escaping from Jerusalem in the aftermath of the crucifixion, separating themselves from the community in disappointment and confusion. 2) They encounter Jesus (a kind of “Undercover Boss”!), walk with him in conversation, and experience a transformation to new understanding and recognition. 3) They turn back to Jerusalem and the possibility of restored community.
Notice four things about this remarkable text. First, the passage suggests that to be a disciple of Christ is not to be full of all knowledge and wisdom, but, rather, to know that you don’t have all answers, to be open to new understandings. To put it another way, to be a disciple of Christ is to be “on the road” to discovery, discerning Christ’s presence in places we didn’t expect. The two disciples know what has happened (sort of), but they know only their version of it; they see only what their frame of reference allows them to see. Recognition of this engenders a humility without which, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name.” We need companions on the journey through whom Jesus may speak and transform our lives.
Second, the story suggests that our conversation on the way starts with scripture. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” It is possible, of course, to read the Bible simply to reinforce our pre-determined prejudices. But in order to be open to life-giving interpretation, we first need to know what it says.
Third, the passage also makes clear that hospitality is at the heart of Christian faith. Welcoming the stranger is not simply an act of altruism; it may lead to our own enlightenment as we come to see Christ in the others with whom we are walking—and nothing is more essential to an ecumenical spirit. Jesus takes the first step of walking with us, but it is up to us to invite him, the stranger, in.
Fourth, the text reminds us just how important symbols and symbolic actions are to our “conversation,” especially the symbols and actions associated with the eucharist. If Jesus were physically here today, we may well not recognize him! But through the bread and the cup, we do—in the words of the text, our eyes are opened. No matter what our theology of the eucharist, we should be able to affirm that the eucharistic symbols of bread and wine are not just poor substitutes for something absent. They help reveal what was hidden. And in the presence of one another, we see our Lord present with us.
The ecumenical journey is somewhat like the walk of the disciples on the Emmaus road. As we think back on one hundred years of prayer and dialogue for unity, it is easy (like the two disciples) to be filled with memories that leave us grateful but disappointed. “We had hoped” he was the one to redeem Israel. We had hoped that this movement was the one to help bring about a church that truly witnesses to unity, justice, and peace.
Perhaps this text gives us clues about the way forward. Be open to the presence of Jesus with us as we walk. Be willing to be transformed through deeper understanding of scripture, especially as it is interpreted through a frame of reference not our own. Be ready to welcome the stranger who shows up in our midst. And, of course, be ready to see the Risen Christ in the breaking of bread.
The disciples, faced with a crisis, are separating themselves from the community in Jerusalem. But Christ’s presence transforms them. His resurrection is, in a sense, made concrete in the disciples who, as the passage puts it, “rise up” and return to Jerusalem where they bear witness to what they have seen—and community is restored.
This is something we all know, but can never hear too much: Christianity is inherently communal! To know Christ is to walk in conversation with others who also know him. Such community is not once for all; it is always being recreated—which is why the ecumenical movement is an ongoing journey. For centuries, the parts of the church were like the disciples, walking away from one another. Today, we are at least seeking to walk together. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Michael Kinnamon Ph.D.
Spehar-Halligan Visiting Professor of Ecumenical Collaboration in Interreligious Dialogue
Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry
Jesus Christ, we proclaim with joy our common identity in you, and we thank you for inviting us into a dialogue of love with you. Open our hearts to share more perfectly in your prayer to the Father that we may be one, so that as we journey together we may draw closer to each other. Give us the courage to bear witness to the truth together, and may our conversations embrace those who perpetuate disunity. Send your Spirit to empower us to challenge situations where dignity and compassion are lacking in our societies, nations, and the world. God of life, lead us to justice and peace. Amen
- Where do we practice true conversation, across the various differences that separate us?
- Is our conversation orientated towards some grand project of our own, or towards new life which brings hope of resurrection?
- What people do we converse with, and who is not included in our conversations? Why?