EMMAUS, IN THREE PARTS
Today we revisit a story and a place whose importance to Christians cannot possibly be overstated. It takes place on the road to Emmaus, and in Emmaus. And it is Easter. We have been in John’s Gospel the past several weeks, so I need to help you make the switch over to Luke. In the passage immediately preceding this one, the women have gone to the tomb and found it empty. Instead of the body of Jesus they have encountered two men in dazzling clothes who tell them Jesus has risen from the dead just as he told them he would. So they returned from the tomb and told “the eleven and all the rest” what they had experienced. Unfortunately, Luke tells us, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
Which brings us to today’s story: “Now on that same day two of them (two of the followers of Jesus, who had been present to hear the report of the women from the tomb and found it to be an idle tale) were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 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?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’”
These two had so little faith in the story told by the women that they didn’t even hang around – they left town, went home. The story was over. It was nice while it lasted, but it all came crashing down and that was that. They not only did not believe the women, there was no room in their world view for any alternative future to be possible. Jesus was dead. We had hoped he was someone special, that he was the one who would redeem Israel, but our hopes were dashed. They were so disoriented by discouragement that Luke tells us that when Jesus joined them on the road “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” It may have been Easter, but they were still stuck in Good Friday.
Anthem – Ah, Holy Jesus
You can identify with that, can’t you? Being stuck in a Good Friday world even after Easter has happened? We had hoped… he would be the one to redeem the world, to bring peace, to rid the world of disease and hunger and violence. But we look around and see the world acting out the same hatreds and animosities and power grabs that it was acting out a thousand years ago. Children are abused, people die way too young from diseases and accidents and violence, we still make that long, agonizing ride home from the cemetery and we are overwhelmed with discouragement. There is no way the story the women told could have been true, no way he was really who we hoped he was. And on an on, until our eyes are kept from recognizing him even when he walks beside us on the road.
The story continues with Cleopas telling the story: “’Besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said: but they did not see him.’ (Not a word about how they were on the way home because they didn’t believe a word of it.) Then Jesus said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
The presence of Jesus himself is not enough to jolt these disciples out of their disorientation. What can do it is engagement with and interpretation of their beloved scriptures. Jesus is not very gentle with them in their grief, is he: “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe!” So he helped them understand their scriptures and how they provided the context to why the Messiah would suffer before entering into his glory.
I would dearly love to have a transcript of what Jesus taught them. I wonder if he spoke of the wandering Aramaean who got it all started leaving home by faith, who waited with Sarah year after year after year until the promise was fulfilled. I wonder if he spoke of slavery in Egypt and the Passover deliverance and the wilderness wanderings and the murmuring that provided the constant refrain. I wonder if he spoke of exile and of return, of crooked paths made straight and all flesh seeing the glory of the Lord. I wonder if he spoke of Esther; of Ruth; of Jeremiah; of Hosea. A seven mile walk is a long way, but time would have failed him to tell all of these stories. I am certain, however, that he spoke of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant: wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, with whose stripes we are healed. He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with grief. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. He poured out himself to death, yet he bore the sin of many. Indeed, he had quoted a portion of that Suffering Servant Song just three nights earlier at the Last Supper when he said to the disciples, “For this scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37, quoting Isaiah 53:12)
So he had tried to teach them, tried to prepare them. They knew these words, but these are not words anyone wanted to put with the Messiah. They, and we, want a powerful Messiah, a conquering hero. Barbara Brown Taylor characterizes the teaching of Jesus on the Emmaus Road in this way: “If you had read your Bibles, none of this would come as a surprise to you. It is right there in black and white: the Christ is not the one who wins the power struggle; he is the one who loses it. The Christ is not the undefeated champion; he is the suffering servant, the broken one, who comes into his glory with his wounds still visible.” (“Blessed Brokenness,” in Gospel Medicine, p. 21)
The two disciples still do not realize that they are in the presence of Jesus, but later they will remember that their hearts burned within them while the stranger opened the scriptures to them on the road. The understanding of the scriptures lays the foundation for recognition, and they recognize the truth as they hear it proclaimed and it finds a home within them. The Word rightly proclaimed and rightly heard leads us to Dream On. It happened when Jesus exegeted the prophets on the road, and when Martin Luther King, Jr. laid out God’s vision for the world using the words and images of the prophets in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Follow now the words of the anthem in hymn 383 so it can happen again today.
ANTHEM – DREAM ON, DREAM ON
And now we come to the conclusion of the story: “As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ They they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
So the first thing to notice is how easily this story could have faded into insignificance. For when they reach the home of these disciples, the stranger continues walking. They could have said their goodbyes and we would never have heard about this. But they extended the gift of hospitality and invited Jesus in – in fact, Luke tells us that they “urged him strongly” to stay with them because the day was late. And when invited in, Jesus always comes. They extend the hospitality of the table to him, so they sit down together. Since he knew the scriptures so well they probably said, “Preacher, would you mind saying the blessing?”
And Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and finally their darkness was pierced by understanding. In seeing this sacramental act and hearing these sacramental words, memories were awakened and eyes were opened and faith blossomed for these weary, discouraged disciples. They recognized Jesus, and then he was gone, vanished from sight. As soon as they recognized him they could no longer see him.
But they had seen enough to be transformed from disbelieving skeptics to deep faith. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” This was an experience that could not wait until morning to be told. That very hour they left home to make the seven mile trip back to Jerusalem to share the incredible news with the eleven and the rest of their compassions. They found them already excited because the Lord had also appeared to Simon Peter, and they further confirmed the truth for them in telling them how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
I don’t know what kind of doctor Luke was, but he was a masterful storyteller. In this story, Luke focuses on Jesus reaching out to two unknown followers of Jesus, not main characters like Mary Magdalene or Simon Peter, who are giving up and going home. Jesus cares about everyone. And in telling this story for his readers a generation later, Luke shows that there is a way for everyone to experience the presence of the Risen Christ. It is through study of the Scriptures in the community of faith, sharing fellowship and extending hospitality, and sharing the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. There are other ways, of course, there are no limits to how Jesus can meet disciples of any age, but these are tried and true methods of fellowship with Christ.
During the time of the Reformation there were many arguments about the Lord’s Supper. The Roman Catholic Church held that as the words of institution are spoken the bread and wine are transformed, transubstantiated, and become the body and blood of Christ. Some in the Reformation rejected that literalism but still wanted to maintain the presence of Christ in the meal by saying he was present over, under, around and through the bread and wine. John Calvin, the founder of Presbyterianism, took a different approach. He said that what is transformed in the Lord’s Supper is not the bread and the wine, but the participant. The bread and wine are not transubstantiated into Christ’s body and blood, but the believer who comes to the table is transferred to the heavenly banquet where Christ is host. Not literally, of course, but spiritually and metaphorically.
From time to time we all find ourselves on the road to Emmaus. It is a spiritually dry, discouraging journey when faith seems far away. Don’t give up hope when you find yourself there. And if you know someone who is traveling the road to Emmaus, offer to walk alongside that person for a while to offer companionship and hope. You will eventually realize that the Risen Lord has been walking with you as well, no matter who you are and no matter where you are going.
Shannon Pater gives a mystically beautiful summary of the experience of those first two Emmaus Road pilgrims. She writes, “In a moment of tangible love that embraces the brokenness of betrayal and cross, the rays of Easter’s sunrise have illumined the crypt of their entombed hopes. Broken bread nurses our broken faith and can nourish the courage we need to leave our graveclothes behind and vacate the vault of our defeated dreams. The weary travelers feel alive; their hearts are renewed. The witness of the women at the empty tomb is now their testimony too. In the breaking of bread, the beams of resurrection’s dawn have reached about seven miles from Jerusalem. Their burning hearts illumine their blind eyes and quicken their weary souls for a seven-mile nighttime run in the moonlight of Easter. Their sacred city is made holy again, and their pilgrimage of faith has just begun.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, p. 422)
We will complete the sermon with a hymn based on this story today. It is hymn 252, “Day of Arising.” The choir will sing the first stanza and the rest of us will join on the other three.
David J. Bailey
May 4, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church