“The Road to Emmaus – And Back”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him.
17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.
18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”
19 He said to them, “What things?”
They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet.20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive.24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.
28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. 29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”
33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” 35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread. (Luke 24:13-35 — CEB)
Preachers often speak of “wrestling” with biblical texts as they prepare sermons throughout the seasons of the church year. It’s really more of a liturgical dance, though. And the three primary dance partners are the festivals of Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter, and Pentecost. And the longer I participate in that dance, the more I think they all invite us into the same, ongoing celebration. Each season reveals the same fundamental life and liveliness working at the heart of Creation. So, just as Trinitarian language affirms the presence of one God, the languages of birth, death, and resurrection all affirm the same mystery of God’s continually creating and redeeming love.
The image of birth delivers us into relationships and possibilities that we could not have conceived on our own. So, a gift given in the true spirit of Christmas will come as a double surprise. It delights us, and it opens us up to undreamed of potential to give, receive, and even to ask. So, perhaps, the gift of a musical instrument opens an otherwise shy child to a world of self-appreciation, self-expression, and adventure.
I’m willing to bet that some of you have received a gift that surprised you with some God-given talent or passion of your own. And regardless of the circumstances in which you received it, that gift was a true Christmas gift, a gift of new beginnings for your flesh-and-blood self. It presented you with ways to participate in God’s creative energy and joy.
A similar thing happens with the gift of resurrection. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. With that simple but radical act, the Protestant Reformation began, and the church embarked on a tumultuous period of painful deaths and exciting new beginnings. The old ways, determined and controlled by the deeply corrupt medieval papacy, began to die. Unimagined new ways of being and doing church wriggled to the surface. The Bible was translated into languages that regular people could understand. Printing presses put the Bible into their hands so they could read it for themselves. Reformed theology established ecclesiastical structures that made church life more democratic and less authoritarian. Full communion was shared with everyone. What sounds so normal to us now, was a profound paradigm shift for the people of 16th-century Europe. It was a resurrection era for the Church. And in all of that, Christ was newly enfleshed and alive in the world.
After opening us to spectacular, new territory, resurrection sends us out on behalf of all that God creates. Resurrection rearranges our hearts and minds. It transforms us from mere believers into the ecclesia, “the called-out ones.” That’s why Emmaus is always a part of our resurrection experience.
Cleopas and his companion travel the road toward Emmaus. For the moment, though, their destination is purely geographical. Emmaus is where they’re going instead of Galilee, where Jesus said to go. The two disciples, it seems, aren’t through with Friday. They need to keep surrendering the things that have defined their understandings and shaped their expectations. And they need some help. Enter the resurrected Christ—who shows up as a random stranger on the road.
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” Cleopas says.
Well, bless your heart, says Jesus. You guys sure are slow to die to the things that blind you to truth.
Let’s acknowledge that it’s no small thing to die to the belief, and especially the hope, that God chooses to take loving initiative on behalf of the Creation through the violent means of empire. Cleopas and his companion represent everyone—past, present, and future—who wants and fully expects God’s Messiah, if he comes at all, to be a great warrior and political leader, someone who will establish Israel as God’s agent and the dominant worldly power.
In retelling and interpreting the story of God’s involvement in Israel and on behalf of the whole Creation, Jesus gives the disciples another chance to walk Friday’s path. He gives them another chance to die to all their well-intentioned religious doctrines and practices, and to die to all that their years of suffering and frustration have led them to believe about the identity of the Messiah, about the character of God, and about the hope of humankind.
Then, at the disciples’ invitation, Jesus breaks bread with them, and their eyes are opened, and they recognize him. THIS is the great and revealing gift—the gift of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost all in one loaf.
When the world overwhelms us, some of us leave our faith behind as a disappointing fantasy. Others of us, like Cleopas and his companion, impound our faith behind money, weapons, flags and other means of supremacy or symbols of pride. Both of those responses to the world’s crucifying brutality can send us toward Emmaus. And remember, the disciples don’t stay in Emmaus. After their burning-heart experience with the elusive, here-and-there risen Christ, they turn and run back to Jerusalem, giddy with wonder and excitement. The road they travel is the Road to Emmaus and back.
For post-Easter disciples, Emmaus is where, in the welcoming of the stranger, in the hearing of the story, and in the breaking of bread, the risen Christ appears, and he helps us, as Paul says, to die to self and to rise to Christ. (Romans 6:1-11) The new life that begins in Emmaus returns us to the world to share not just the news of resurrection, but the gift of our own transformed lives.
Now, we can find ourselves in Emmaus virtually anywhere. Emmaus is simply wherever we end up when faith becomes a self-serving habit we can’t break rather than our participation in God’s holy dance of ongoing birth, death, and resurrection. And through the power of resurrection, Emmaus becomes a hopeful place, because whatever happens there does not allow us to stay put. In Emmaus, we experience Christ’s presence. And that experience transforms us. It turns us around. It renews us. It calls us to seek and listen more intently for Christ in the world. And that’s the very nature of a spirituality of discipleship.
Discipleship involves doing the hard and healing work of paying attention to people on the margins, of listening to voices that have been ignored or silenced, of caring for the Creation because to care for it is to love our future neighbors as well as those around us now. It also involves living gratefully and generously in intentional communities that seek to follow Jesus and his ways of justice, compassion, and non-violence.
Are you seeing what resurrection can do? Resurrection has the power to transform every Emmaus into Galilee, into the place where we encounter the risen Christ.
Through resurrection, God sends us into every Emmaus to be Galileans, to be Christ-revealing strangers for everyone and everything with whom we share this sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible, and always becoming dance called life.