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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 poignant and intimate today as it was nearly 2000 years ago. Every nuance and detail seems to reflect the reader’s own personal experience of that lonely road. Some artists have chosen to set the story against the backdrop of towering oak trees, while others have focused on the intimacy of the broken bread being shared with Jesus. Scholars have debated 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 of Emmaus. 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 authentic city of Emmaus.
One detail, however, is clear in the story. The chance encounter happened on Easter, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. For Jesus’ followers it should have been a wonderful day. The news of the Jesus being raised from the dead caused a burst of joy among some believers, but just as surprising, others experienced an erosion of hope and doubt. St. Luke tells us that on that very day, after hearing the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection swept through the city of Jerusalem, two downcast disciples, couldn’t bear the news and headed out on the road towards Emmaus to forget the whole matter and to put Jesus’ death behind them.
Certainly, the companions on the road should have recognized Jesus. As far as I can tell, there was no state order for social distancing that day, nor were people required to wear facemasks. According to ancient tradition, Cleopas was a member of Jesus’ own family. St. Jerome recorded that Cleopas was the younger brother of Jesus’ earthly father Joseph. Certainly an uncle would recognize his well-known nephew. Cleopas’ own son, James, was one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples. Cleopas himself was a devout follower and watched his nephew Jesus grow in grace and truth and stature, and yet on that First Easter Sunday, walking together with another disciples, he failed to recognize Jesus. The same was true for his companion.
Why was their loss so deep, my friends? So deep that they couldn’t see. Of course, a portion of their loss is understandable. Why shouldn’t a loving relative mourn over the death of a kinsman who has died too young? Don’t we all grieve when we hear of the sudden death of a teacher and mentor – especially one who nurtured us in faith and who has left their clear mark and imprint upon us? The two companions had hoped the Jesus would be the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel. But his death on that long Good Friday had not only destroyed their hope, but it had clearly given them a lost sense of direction. They had waited in Jerusalem, as long as they could, but as the first incredible reports from the women of Jesus’ resurrection, they simply couldn’t believe it. They seemed to be an idle tale.
Perhaps that is how you are feeling this Easter in the spring of the Corona Virus. This global pandemic has robbed you of joy and pleasure. Even the good news of the resurrection does not seem real, or make you happy. Truly, this is a tough stretch on the road of life. Walking alone, or even with a companion six feet apart from you, is challenging. There are good days and bad days, and there are fits and starts as we are all trying to come to terms with the new normal, whatever that may be. Dismay and disillusionment can happen quickly. There seems to be no short cut on this journey, and just like the people daily walking around Lake of the Isles, we all seem to be taking on this grief and mourning process at a different pace. One thing seems to be certain, when we finally get to our destination, whatever that Emmaus may be, life will be different.
You may feel that you have been on this lonely stretch of road before. How often as a pastor have I heard the sentiments of Cleopas echoed, “We had hoped.” I have heard families use that phrase when they were packing up the things they had brought with them to the ICU. “We had hoped,” they’d say, as they went home alone. I have heard families use this phrase when addictions return, or jobs go away. Yes, “We had hoped.”
And yet, my friends, let me assure, even if you cannot see him, Jesus is there walking beside you on the dusty road of life speaking to you freely, challenging your broken spirits, and comforting you. That is the good news which we discover on the lonely and blessed road to Emmaus.
Now you may be wondering, so why would Jesus of all people choose to practice social distancing with these two lost souls in their darkest hour? There are, of course, a host of theological answers to Christ’s “hiddenness.” The Evangelist Luke himself offers a few simple insights.
One thought, which Saint Luke suggests, is purely from a literal perspective. 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 as our companion on the way. Even on a beautiful Easter morning we can be so captivated by the music, emotions and flowers that we can overlook the one traveling beside us.
Saint Luke offers a second thought as well. 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’ rising from the dead, 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. They were simply confused. Perhaps, that’s why we can’t see him this Easter. We don’t understand the whole meaning of Christ’s coming into the world.
Saint Luke suggests a third thought as well: the two disciples simply weren’t ready. Perhaps their grief was too deep. They needed to wander alone awhile before they could see and accept. Oddly, even as Cleopas and his companion heard Jesus opening the scriptures before them, they still didn’t recognize him. The excitement and wonder of Christ’s resurrection simply couldn’t take hold in their lives. Why, you may ask. Obviously, something was missing.
Perhaps that is how you have experienced Easter this year. You know that you heard the good news of Jesus’ rising from the dead, and you sang the hymns, but in your loss this year, nothing warmed your heart. Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, you have had your own hopes, dreams and expectations dashed. My friends, there is still hope- even if you have turned your back on Jerusalem and are heading out alone to the consolation of your own Emmaus. Jesus will not let you journey far from your greatest 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,” nor was 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 and his own kinfolk didn’t recognize him. He walked along a shoreline along the Sea of Galilee watching his disciples fish, and they didn’t know him. 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.
Saint Luke finally reveals the necessary step for dismayed and disenchanted disciples to see Jesus. He writes, “Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But Cleopas and the other disciple 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. .And so we read that as they were breaking bread together, their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and then he vanished from their sight.
Why was this personal invitation to Jesus 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 is hidden and waits for you to make that welcoming first step. He merely needs to hear the noble words, “Stay with us Lord.” And he will enter. It is a word of commitment which opens your life and home to the creative and redeeming spirit of God.
My friends, the good news this day is that no matter how far you journey on that road to Emmaus, no matter how deep your loss and dismay may be, and how great your inability to see Jesus beside you, he is there pursuing you as your steadfast companion. He will open the scriptures to you, and he will be there to open your life to a new understanding, and finally, when all that is done, he will open your eyes to see him. And when you see him, he will bring abundance of joy and wonder and to your uncertain world. But be prepared. For when you do invite Jesus to stay with you, and you finally see him, your life will never be the same. Cleopas and his unknown companion discovered that to be true as well. Having welcomed the Lord into their home, they couldn’t help but run back to Jerusalem and share the good news the others, that “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.