Would it surprise you to hear that less than two weeks ago, on March 31, it was announced that scientists have discovered a new organ in our bodies? A new organ? How is that possible? Don’t we already know everything that’s in here—we’ve identified it all, given parts a name, and learned generally how to care for them?
Actually it’s not only a new organ we’ve never seen before, but it’s a big organ. It’s everywhere in the body, they say. It makes up as much as 20 percent of what makes us, us, maybe weighing as much as 30 pounds or more in the average adult.
If this new organ is so big and so pervasive, how could scientists have missed it all this time? The answer is that it has been hidden in plain sight, and it tends to “disappear” when you go looking for it in traditional ways. When researchers study human tissue, they do it under a microscope. The tissue samples are typically dehydrated—they’re not living tissue—and as a result the tissue looks like dense layers all pressed together. But the interstitium—the organ researchers found by mistake when they were looking at something else—is actually a large network of fluid-filled sacs that lie just below the surface of our skin, between all our muscles, and surrounding our veins and arteries. These sacs also protect our lungs, our digestive systems, and more.
We’ve heard for years that the human body is about 60% water, and scientists have long known that about two-thirds of that water resides in our cells. That’s why our doctors continually remind us to stay hydrated. But where the rest of that water was stored has been a mystery, until now.
Picture an orange or a grapefruit. When you slice through the fruit and cut into the little juice-filled sacs, they empty of fluid and flatten. This is how researchers were used to seeing tissue—as flattened and dense, not as fluid filled and full of life. Thanks to an accidental discovery that happened when scientists used a new technology, they got their first glimpse of the fluid-filled cells, and then began to realize how far-reaching they were, extending throughout our bodies, helping to keep us nourished and vital, perhaps boosting our immune systems. “Once you see it,” said Dr. Theise, the lead researcher, “You can’t unsee it.”
So it is with many things in life. We don’t know what’s possible until we know. We don’t see until we do. We haven’t heard, until we have.
As our Old Testament reading this morning tells us, God has given us these lives as journeys of discovery. No matter how old we are, no matter how much we know or how much we’ve experienced, there is more to learn, more to understand. God wants to shine the light on the nature of our lives so we will understand the depth of God’s love, the breadth of God’s plan, the reality of God’s presence, the hopeful opportunities for God’s action. Much more is possible than we know, and when we limit our expectations about anything—the world, our bodies, our relationships, our faith—when we think we already know it all, perhaps we stop being open to learning a new thing God has in store for us. With God, there is always more to discover. “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you,” says verse 8 of Psalm 32.
That’s what Jesus was doing on the road to Emmaus when he helped the grieving disciples see how perfectly God had planned the story of salvation for them. When the story begins, we are already well aware that the disciples had had a harrowing few days. They couldn’t see beyond their grief. Between the high moment of Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the desperately low moment when Jesus was crucified, the disciples were reeling—in their minds, their hearts, their beliefs. Everything had gone terribly wrong. They had no hope that anything good was possible now.
As we heard last Sunday, that first Easter morning, the Marys went to the tomb at dawn, but instead of finding the body of Jesus, the women encountered an angel, who told them not to be afraid and gave them a message for the others. And then, as they left the tomb, Jesus himself stepped into their path and greeted them.
Our New Testament story this morning picks up later that same day, as two disciples are making their way to Emmaus, a city about seven miles outside of Jerusalem. The Jewish scholar Josephus tells us that there were actually two places called Emmaus in that day. The town of Emmaus was a fairly large place some 150 miles away from Jerusalem, but the tiny village of Emmaus—known for its healing waters was within a day’s walk. The Cambridge commentary says that it might have been the medicinal value of the waters that inspired Luke, who was a physician, to include that small spot as the disciples’ destination.
As the disciples are walking along, they are sharing their heartbreak with one another, going over the events of the last few days, trying to come to terms with what’s happened. A stranger joins them—someone they don’t recognize, although thanks to Luke, we know it’s Jesus. Perhaps the disciples aren’t really paying attention because their sorrow or their confusion is too great. Or maybe Jesus is wearing a cloak and changing his voice to avoid their recognizing him. Or—there’s another possibility—it could be that God has veiled their understanding until the right moment when all becomes clear.
Whatever the cause, the stranger walks with them and asks what they’ve been talking about. They spill out the story, complete with their grief, their loss, their despair. They talk about their heartbreak—they had hoped Jesus was the one to redeem Israel or, some translations say here, “to set Israel free.”
What’s more, they continue, the women in their party had gone to the tomb and had seen a vision of an angel. They’d talked to him. They’d even seen the Lord. After that the men had hurried to the tomb themselves, but they didn’t find anything there. No angel, no Jesus, no vision, no nothing. Perhaps that’s why these two were walking toward the small town of Emmaus with the healing waters. To clear their minds. To soak away their troubles. To begin—somehow– to figure out what to do next.
Instead of comforting or reassuring them, Jesus-the-stranger sounds impatient. “How foolish you are!” he says, after listening to their story. “Don’t you see that it had to be this way, according to the scriptures? Are you so slow of heart that you can’t see what is knowable—that all that has happened unfolded just as the prophets foretold?” And then he proceeds to open the scriptures to them—he, as the Living Word of God—beginning with Moses and all the prophets, pointing out all the ways that his own life and death fulfilled the promise of God’s grace from the beginning of created time. Wouldn’t you have loved to have heard that teaching, from Jesus’ own lips?
I love the way Jesus connected the dots here for the disciples—first he made them uncomfortable, pointing how much they were missing the bigger picture. And then he goes back and shows them, story by story by story, how to understand what the prophets were saying, what God was doing, why the Messiah lived and died the way he did. Like filling in all the connective tissue between our muscles, Jesus provided the insight the disciples needed to hold them together so they could live with hope and understanding. He helped them see the reality of God’s plan, which was there and unfolding the entire time. But without his help along the way, the grieving disciples would have missed it entirely, caught in their sorrow, overlooking the hope.
They couldn’t see how God was working in the present, because they had never grasped how God had worked in the past. Jesus spelled it all out for them so they could feel the loving intention and plan of God, stretching beneath them and around them—and before them—every day of their lives. Luke offers us this story hoping that we’ll feel it, too.
As they neared Emmaus, the two disciples aske Jesus to stay with them, since it was getting late. He agreed, and they shared a meal. Jesus took the bread, blessed it, and broke it, and the disciples felt something stir inside. It was a familiar gesture, a much-loved memory…suddenly their eyes were opened and all became clear. It was Jesus himself who has been accompanying them, teaching them, connecting the dots of their story, helping them grasp how it was the faithful action of their loving God that unfolded all events that brought them to this day.
The scripture says Jesus then simply vanished from their sight. I picture the disciples sitting there dumbfounded—did they dream it? Did they have too much wine?—and then saying, in wonder, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” They knew they’d been in the presence of Christ, no matter what their eyes were now telling them. Their hearts had been lifted. Their understanding had deepened. They had been changed.
I love what Richard Foster’s commentary says about this story in Luke. He writes, “It is God’s way to come cloaked and also for his greatest promises to come cloaked. It is his way to come when the storm is peaking or fear deepest or when hope is almost gone or, if we are honest, utterly gone. It has always been his way. No resurrection without Golgotha. No freedom without Gethsemane. No Christmas Eve without a Good Friday. It is stitched into the fabric of thousands of years of the human race.
But the other truth is that the world is interstitial…he will throw off his robe …he will incarnate his power and love in the Son of God when we least expect it. Our task is not to figure everything out or imagine every angle…but to stay on the road of our years, encouraging one another with the voices and the mysteries of heaven. It is only that. To stay on the road until God in Disguise joins us and eventually comes to sit at our table. Or we at his.”
Foster reminds us that we too are on the road—and we have the connective tissue we need, even if we are only just now discovering it. We have a built-in organ of understanding, of nourishment, in the inward Christ who accompanies us every step of the way. When scientists realized they were looking at a completely new organ in the human body a few weeks ago, Dr. Theise described it as “a moment of quiet awe.” When the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, they remembered how their hearts had glowed in the light of his presence.
How do we experience the presence of the living Christ as we travel from dawn to dusk in our own lives? God wants us to watch for the answer to that question—and have hope. God is continually connecting those dots for us—inside and out—and the more time we’ll take to listen and to look, the more we’ll discover.
- OT Psalm 32: 8
- NT Luke 24: 13-32
- New organ discovered: https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/27/health/new-organ-interstitium-study/index.html