On the Road to Emmaus
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 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. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 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?”
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
Early in 1761 two small earthquakes hit London, England. Soon afterwards, a rumor spread through the city that a well-known psychic had predicted that a massive earthquake would occur on April 5 of that year. People were alarmed. Citizens of London began leaving the city, moving to other cities nearby or setting up camps in the outlying rural areas. And then they waited for the big one to hit. And, of course, it never did.
President Trump often contends that American television reports fake news. And sometimes it does. Fake news is nothing new. People have been misled by idle rumors since human beings first populated the earth. In the decades after President Abraham Lincoln’s death, rumors spread around the U.S. that his coffin was empty. Maybe he hadn’t actually died, it was suggested. Or perhaps robbers stole his body. The rumors became so persistent and intense that in 1887, officials exhumed his coffin to ensure that Lincoln’s body was actually in it. Afterwards, they sealed the casket with a lead lining to defend against future crazy rumors. But even that wasn’t enough to put the rumor mill out of business. Fourteen years later, officials had to dig up Lincoln’s coffin one more time to fight off rumors that he was alive. Afterwards, the coffin was sealed inside a crypt in Springfield, Illinois, where it remains undisturbed to this day.
Imagine the rumors that got passed around Jerusalem in the days following Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. Our story from Luke’s gospel takes place on the evening of Christ’s resurrection. Two of Jesus’ followers are heading to the village of Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were probably glad to be getting out of town. Jerusalem was a threatening place right then. The Roman authorities and the Jewish religious leaders were on the lookout for Jesus’ followers. They were prepared to quash a possible rebellion. They had no explanation for how Jesus’ body disappeared from a sealed and guarded tomb, so they spread the fake news that his body had been stolen by his disciples.
The two followers on the road to Emmaus had heard another rumor. This rumor was that an angel had appeared at Jesus’ tomb and told the women who arrived there that Jesus was still alive. They were grieving, in shock, confused by Jesus’ death and the strange rumors about his resurrection. The passage from Luke reads, “As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.”
I am not going to discuss how the resurrection could happen, if it’s true or an allegory, but I want to note that whatever you believe of the incident, there is relevance in today’s gospel message.
People in situations of extreme stress, such as mountain climbers, explorers, people in accidents, even survivors of the World Trade Center bombings, have reported experiencing something called the “Third Man” syndrome. This is the sense that in your time of greatest danger and distress, an unseen presence or voice comes alongside you and guides you to safety or motivates you to keep going when you’re ready to give up.
As a person of faith, we have an explanation for this. “Just when I need him,” wrote the poet, “Jesus is near . . .”
The followers on the road to Emmaus, who were wrestling with questions and fears, experienced the ultimate “Third Man” event. What a reassuring statement: “Jesus himself came up and walked along with them.” Jesus knows the disappointment and pain and fear in our hearts. He knows that we wrestle with understanding God’s ways. So why didn’t Jesus just reveal himself as the risen Messiah and take away all their pain?
Here’s an answer to that question: The greatest blessing God can give us is not an easy life. The greatest blessing God can give us is the knowledge that He/She is with us in all our challenges and struggles.
When you pray for patience, God doesn’t just grant you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. God sends challenging people and situations into your path.
When you pray for wisdom, God sends you situations that require humility and discernment. We learn God’s greatest lessons through the challenges we are sent.
Often people justify their disbelief in God by citing the miracles in the bible. “Impossible! Unrealistic! Unscientific!” they say. But it’s amazing to me how often God could have used a miracle to get a point across, but didn’t. God chose to work through average people and average circumstances instead. The Holy chose to restrain His/Her overwhelming and awesome power to invite us into the mystery of faith. And this story on the road to Emmaus perfectly illustrates God’s restraint. Because it is in God’s silence, in the seeming absence of the Divine, in those moments when God’s work or God’s presence is obscure to us, that we sincerely search for God. That’s when we walk by faith not by sight.
If God answered our every prayer in our manner and in our time, if God acted in ways that were perfectly reasonable and accommodating to our wants and wishes, we would never need to exercise faith. We would never need to quiet the noise within us and listen for His/Her voice. We would seek God’s blessings and gifts, but never seek God. It is when God withholds Him/Herself from us that we stop taking Her/Him for granted. When we notice the lack, the absence, the void, that’s when we set aside minor, shallow pleasures and ache for God.
And so these two disciples on the road to Emmaus are discussing Jesus’ death and the rumors about empty tombs and angels and missing bodies. And a stranger comes alongside them and asks them what they’re talking about. And they think, “What a rube! How out of touch is this guy?” Because everyone’s been talking about the huge Passover celebration, and the man who claimed to be king of the Jews, his gruesome death and the disappearance of his body. Everyone’s talking about it!
That’s the second relevance we get from this story: sometimes it is in our time of loss that we become aware of God’s larger vision for the world. These disciples still saw Jesus as a prophetic leader, not as the Messiah. They had hoped that Jesus would be the one to return the throne to Jerusalem. Now their hopes were destroyed. They were holding on to their vision of God’s plan for the world, when they needed to open themselves to Christ’s vision of that plan.
Country singer Johnny Cash lost his older brother, Jack, in an accident when Johnny was twelve. The grief and loneliness drove Johnny to alcohol and drugs. At age thirty-five, he drove himself to Nickajack Cave on the Tennessee River with the intent of ending his life. Instead, as he walked farther into the cave, he had his own “third man” experience. Johnny Cash experienced the presence and comfort and peace of God. He walked back out of the cave with a renewed faith in God. Cash wasn’t healed of all his grief. He didn’t receive some supernatural answer about his brother’s death. Instead, he received the presence and comfort of God, and it allowed him to go on living with renewed hope and determination. This isn’t fake news. This is fantastic news. God has placed us in a world where we sometimes must struggle mightily against forces we don’t understand, but God doesn’t leave us alone. God is with us and, if we will let Him/Her, God will use those times of struggle to grow us into persons who are fit to share eternity .
But here’s the final thing: when you meet Jesus in your struggles and understand the hope he offers, you find the motivation to share the good news with others. Where is your Emmaus? Where is the place in your life when you were grieving and hopeless, and the presence of God became real to you, and you turned around and went back to share your joy with others? That’s what the disciples did. They went through times of terrible struggle and persecution after Christ left them, but, through the power of his Spirit they found a joy so great that they were motivated to share it with everyone they met.
Jesus knows our hearts. He knows our disappointments and our heartaches. And that may be why he chose to return to his disciples in such an ordinary state. In the upper room, he showed the disciples his wounds. On the road to Emmaus, he appeared as an average traveler. But each of the disciples experienced overwhelming joy and peace in his presence. And he still promises his presence to us today, wherever our journey takes us.
May the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with you on the road.
May the Christ who serves with wounded hands stretch out your hands to serve.
May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart open your hearts to love.
May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet, and may everyone you meet see the face of Christ in you. Amen