Luke is an absolutely masterful storyteller, and his retelling of the Emmaus Road encounter on Easter day surely ranks as one of the great short stories in the Bible. There are two most important points which come out in the story, but it is an infinitely richer story than that so I want to talk about some other aspects before I get to those two main points.
First, the improbabilities of the story speak to me again of the truth of the resurrection. I know that sounds paradoxical, but this is simply not the kind of story you make up if you want to prove that the resurrection has happened. In this story Jesus appears not to apostles, but to two disciples we do not know, Cleopas and one whose name is not even remembered or at least noted by Luke. Jesus is not in Jerusalem or some other place which has been significant in his life, he is on the road to a small town called Emmaus, which we cannot even locate on a map with certainty today. In addition, the account leaves wonderment about the inability of Jesus’ own disciples to recognize him.
At first glance, this is not the kind of story I would expect to try to prove the resurrection. On second thought, though, this is classically Jesus. The one who came not primarily to the religious authorities of his day but to fishermen and tax collectors and ordinary people now appears to ordinary people in the resurrection – not the inner circle of apostles, though he does appear to them also. Where you least expect him, that is where Jesus is likely to turn up. In the person you least expect to see Jesus in, he comes shining through. Where there is sadness and despair, Jesus comes bringing hope and understanding. These truths are every bit as relevant today as they were for Cleopas and his friend.
Second, we see what was in danger of happening to the Jesus movement after his crucifixion. Movements tend to dissipate quickly once the leader is gone, and this is what the religious leaders were thinking when they had Jesus crucified. It began happening quickly, as disciples like Cleopas and his friend and undoubtedly many others who had been brought together by Jesus began drifting back home already – back to their old lives, back to their old patterns of thought, the kingdom of God but a painful, short lived chapter in their memories. Surely without some powerful, authentic experiences of the Risen Christ the hope would not have been kept alive for the Day of Pentecost.
Third, and leading into the two major points, is the fact that the resurrection appearances are to people of faith, not the opponents of Jesus or people who don’t know him already. Resurrection appearances are not used to convert the world in general by great signs and miracles, and this is true to the way Jesus conducted his life and ministry. Fred Craddock comments, “Faith is not coerced or overwhelmed by revelations to the unprepared. Notice that in the Gospels the risen Christ appears to disciples, not to unbelievers on the street and in synagogues to frighten them into an acquiescing faith.” (Interpretation, Luke, p. 285)
This leads us into consideration of the two main points of this story: the fact that these two disciples come to understand who this is as Jesus interprets the Scripture for them, first of all, and then as he breaks bread with them. This has great meaning for the church today, because these are still primary ways that the Risen Christ is revealed to us.
First, then, is the interpretation of Scripture. A man joins the two disciples on their journey to Emmaus and asks them what they are talking about. They are amazed that he could be walking from Jerusalem without knowing what they would be talking about. The crucifixions were what everybody was talking about. Cleopas said, “Are you the only one living in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?” An ironic question, since Jesus is the only one who truly understands the things that have happened in Jerusalem. But he asks innocently, “What things?”
And they responded by telling the story of the earthly Jesus, up to the point of the empty tomb but not yet believing the resurrection. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they told him. “He was a prophet, mighty in word and deed. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place, and some went to the tomb this morning and found it empty and saw angels who said he was alive, but they did not see him.”
I imagine they expected commiseration or sympathy, but instead they got upbraided for their lack of understanding. “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And he proceeded to lay out for them how the Old Testament was filled with foresight from beginning to end about the role of the Messiah.
You see, the disciples knew the story of Jesus, but they failed to connect that with the larger witness of Scripture. They wanted, as all of us want, for life to be filled with happiness and success and victories. That a painful event, an ending, could serve a positive, even necessary function, and be a new beginning, was not in their minds.
So Jesus gave them a Bible study, helping them see how the Old Testament spoke of a God who wins in spite of rejection, a God who loves in spite of rebellion, a Suffering Servant who gives his life as a ransom for many. In that context, he helped them understand that the death of Jesus was not a monstrous deviation from what should have been, but the fulfillment of a glorious plan of salvation. As his kingdom was not of this world, so his death was required in order for him to enter into his glory.
As he finished, they arrived at the disciples’ home in Emmaus. Jesus was continuing on, but the two urged him to come in to eat and stay with them, because it was getting late. So Jesus went in to stay with them. When the meal was served, Jesus, the visitor, acted as the host. He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. At that point the eyes of the two disciples were opened to recognize Jesus, and he vanished from their sight. They looked at each other and it all made sense. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Do you know the feeling that washes over you when something finally makes sense to you? That’s what they mean when they say their hearts were burning. The mystical nature of this story always sends chills up my spine, and I think that is a saying which is similar.
The echoes in this part of the story are many. There is Abraham in the wilderness, extending hospitality to three strangers who end up representing God and bring news about the coming of a son. There is the fact that the day is nearly over, reminding us of the feeding of the 5,000. There is the fact that if the disciples had not shown hospitality by inviting Jesus in, they would not have come to know who he was. There is the sacramental nature of the meal. Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them.
How much we can learn from this as the church today! Jesus is present where we least expect him, even… in our homes? Not just in the Upper Room, not just in the sermon on the mount, not just at church… the Risen Christ can be encountered and known anywhere. The keys are reading and interpreting the Scriptures, and allowing the Spirit of Jesus to lead us in understanding them; inviting Jesus into our homes and our lives to dwell with us; and giving thanks to him as the source of our daily bread and all blessings. It is as we do these things that our eyes are opened to recognize him and believe that he is the risen Lord.
Fred Craddock says, “Luke here tells us that the living Christ is both the key to our understanding the Scriptures and the very present Lord who is revealed to us in the breaking of bread. His presence at the table makes all believers first-generation Christians and every meeting place Emmaus.” (Ibid., p. 287)
The story ends as Cleopas and his friend get up and immediately start the seven mile trip back to Jerusalem, even though evening has come. Their hearts are now light and their feet can’t move fast enough. They have good news to share with the others! And when they get there they find the apostles already assembled and buzzing because Jesus had appeared to Simon Peter as well. Cleopas and his friend tell their story, creating further amazement among the apostles.
And so in his resurrection, Jesus is still the good shepherd, not only caring for the eleven who are still present and accounted for, but also seeking out the sheep who are becoming scattered and lost in discouragement. The believers are being reunited and reinvigorated, so that they can be prepared for the task of being the church, the body of Christ.
It is true that where we least expect him in our lives… in sorrow, in sadness, in loneliness, in running away from our problems or responsibilities, Jesus is there. It is also true that where we might most expect him… in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in the fellowship of believers, Jesus is there. It is as we invite him in and display a willingness to listen and participate that our eyes are opened and he is known to us.
When you find yourself on the road to Emmaus, don’t give up hope even though it can be a long and discouraging journey. And if you know someone who is traveling the road to Emmaus, walk alongside that person for a while. Do not doubt that the Lord will walk with you as well, no matter who you are and no matter where you are going.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
April 23, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church