2014 05 04: The Road to Emmaus

Posted on 05 May 2014

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The story of the road to Emmaus is as elusive and enchanting  today as it was nearly 2000 years ago.  We don’t know the identity of the two disciples on the road- whether it was Cleopas and his wife, or Cleopas and his son.  After all, it was common in scripture to leave out the names of women.  Then again, it may have been a nameless male disciple.  Perhaps more surprising, neither archeologists nor theologians know the exact location of the village. Like so many ghost towns in the world, when the economic livelihood or natural disaster changed the course of history, cities and villages fell as victims.  For Emmaus, the town was wiped out by a plague in 639 AD.  Today, four villages near Jerusalem claim to be the city of Emmaus.

One detail, however, is clear in the story. The chance encounter happened on Easter, the day of Jesus’ resurrection- and for Jesus’ disciples, it should have been a wonderful day.  The news of the resurrection caused a burst of joy among some believers, but just as surprising, other followers experienced an erosion of hope.  St. Luke tells us that on that very day, as word of Christ’s presence swept through Jerusalem, two downcast disciples headed out on the road toward Emmaus to forget the whole matter.

My friends, the elusive and enchanting story of the Road to Emmaus contains both a mixture of ecstasy and despair, an intermingling of delight and discouragement.  And therein awaits the good news for today. For Jesus does not let his disciples journey far from their source of joy.

Religious festivals- even Easter- can be both wonderful and painful.  As one parishioner joked, after all the worship services of Holy Week, the congregation sings jubilantly, “Christ is alive” and the pastor falls on the recliner chanting, “I am dead.”  Celebrations for some people almost always are times of depression for others.  The more some folks laugh, the louder other people weep.  In the midst of loss, even good and faithful followers can lose sight of the promise they have been given.  Certainly this must be what happened to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  After all, why didn’t they recognize Jesus?   It was only the third day.  The two had been witnesses to the great events of Holy Week, and yet, now as they walked seven miles together with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognize him.

There are, of course, a host of theological answers.  The scholastics of the middle ages argued that Jesus had been raised into a divine, new body.  A metaphysical change occurred at the time of the resurrection.  Now, these notions were generated by the same academics who seriously discussed the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin.  I am much more pragmatic. I would have answered, and what business do angels have dancing anyway.  Another theologian suggested that since Cleopas and the other disciple were heading from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, they were therefore heading west, straight into the sunset.  The two were blinded by the light, and so dazzled by the setting sun that they were unable to know their Lord.  I like that picture.  The evangelist illustrates how we as Christians can be so caught up in glittering images that we lose sight of our God’s wondrous presence.  Even on a beautiful Easter morning we can be so captivated by the music, emotions and flowers that we overlook our traveling companion.

On a more poetic level, the story suggested that we should be weary of marching into the sunset.  The two disciples were still so buried in the disappointment and sorrow of Good Friday that they didn’t know they were marching into the coming darkness.  The Christian church must always be guided into the sunrise, in order to greet the new day which is dawning.  And another scholar wrote that the two disciples simply didn’t understand the purpose of the Lord’s death and resurrection and therefore they couldn’t recognize him.  They had heard the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and the vision of angels seen by the women, but they couldn’t believe.  As the two men walked with Jesus, they openly confessed, that they had no explanation to what had happened.

Perhaps that is how you have experienced Easter this year.  You know that you heard the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, and you sang the hymns, but the truth of the story didn’t touch you or move you.  Nothing warmed your heart.  Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, you have had your own hopes dashed.   But the doctor’s prognosis looked so promising.  I really believed that we could live with his alcoholism, just one day at a time.  I thought my father was fully recovered. I truly thought that this was the right vocation.  This time I trusted we were beyond the economic ruts.  God, I thought my life was in order.  And suddenly you find yourself on that sunset road, wondering whether there will ever be an hour of hope again.  My friends, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, there is still hope.  Jesus will not let you journey far from your source of joy and life.

It may be surprising to you, but none of Jesus’ resurrection appearances was marked by dramatic settings or regal greetings.   There were no trumpets playing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” or a choir singing, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” at the empty tomb.   Instead, we read that Jesus was mistaken for a gardener. He showed up on a dusty road. He walked along a shoreline watching his disciples fish. So unexpected was the resurrection, that when Jesus’ walked into their midst, some disciples thought he was a ghost and others refused to believe what they saw.

Now that should be good news to you.  For if somehow, you missed the good news of Easter, if you are still walking on an empty road to a place where you do not know the ending, this morning’s sermon is for you.  You see, wherever your elusive Emmaus may be, in your home, your place of work, your school, where you play, you have the assurance that Christ is still walking with you, even if your do not recognize him.  That very fact opens the possibilities for us of an Emmaus experience wherever we are. You see, it’s not a place or time; it’s the encounter with the risen Lord, his word and the meal that will warm your heart.

Saint Luke offers one clue to how Cleopas and his companion came to recognize Jesus on their journey to Emmaus.  He writes, “Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on.  But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us Lord, for it is evening.’”  That my friends, is the great moment of change- the moment of transformation.  The moment Jesus enters into their home, the moment that he is no longer a traveling companion, but a guest at their table.  At that moment their eyes were prepared to see.  And so we read that as they were breaking bread together, and as he gave the morsels to them their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and then he vanished from their sight.

Why was this invitation to stay so important?  Simply said, Jesus was and is a hospitable guest.  He stands at the door waiting for you to answer.  He does not pry his way into your life, nor does he force his way into your home.  He stands poised beside the gate.  He stands waiting at the street corner.  He walks ahead as if he is going on.  He knocks at the door of your heart and waits for you to answer.  He comes to you as one unknown.  He merely needs to hear the noble words, “Stay with us, Lord.”  And he will enter.

This past week, I read the story of a young boy who one day decided to go out and look for God. He packed a lunch and got as far as the park before he got hungry. He sat on a bench next to an old woman. They sat together for an hour. He offered her a Twinkie. She offered him a huge smile. When the boy got home he announced to his mother, I met God today, and she has the most wonderful smile! When the elderly lady got home, she said to her son, I met God today, and he is much younger than I’d imagined!  Let me assure you, God is just as elusive and enchanting.

But beware, when you have invited him to stay with you, your life will never be the same again.  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus discovered that to be true as well.  Having welcomed the Lord into their home, Jesus appeared to them in every word, thought and act.  They recognized his presence in the breaking of the bread.  And then he vanished.   In spite of the dark, in spite of their fears, in spite of their exhausted bodies, they turned around and their feet raced them back to Jerusalem.  They found the eleven gathered together, and they shouted, “The Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.”  And they told them what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of bread.

We never hear of Cleopas again after this passage, and we never learn the name of his companion.  The village of Emmaus has all but disappeared.  But we know that something happened on that elusive road to Emmaus.  And what happened is more important than where it happened.  It happened again and again to all new Christians in the first century, forming the early church. They all learned about struggling and suffering. Some believed and some doubted.  But one thing was true.  They came to know God more intimately when they invited him into their lives, just as Cleopas and his companion invited Jesus into their home for their evening meal.

The invitation for the Lord to stay was all that was missing- the invitation to come and be their guest.  Is that all that is missing in your life, my friends- for you to see Jesus. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.