John 20: 1-18
Now on that same day two of them 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. Yes, and 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.”
Then he 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.
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!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Walking along life’s way we are not always at risk of getting lost. Sometimes we are on the exact road we need to be taking, working our way in our own time from where we have been to where we are going. Long and winding though it may be, the path from the past to the present to the future seems at times to consist of a single path – step by laborious step we head down the road of time.
That simple path that we are on, ever forward and never backward, is contrasted with the day to day experience we have of choice making. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep we have choices to make. What to eat or drink, what to do in X or Y scenario, and what to say to those who we speak to. The forward momentum of time is married to the infinitely branching paths of our own life. Thus, even as we constantly move forward, even with a relatively certain end to the journey, the path along the way is constantly shifting – equal parts circumstance and choice.
Our scripture today captures Cleopas and an unnamed disciple of Jesus taking a literal journey with many shifting parts. They have just left Jerusalem, just seen their Lord crucified and buried. Now, as they are making their way to the town of Emmaus a ways out of the city they begin discussing the news that came to them on their way out of town. “Jesus is risen… Or else his tomb is empty, either way he’s gone.” The two walk along the road, trying to make sense of this tangled mess of emotion and information that has been given them. If Jesus was stolen then they must mourn again, if Jesus is risen then nothing can ever be the same again.
The rest of the story we know, Jesus comes to them and begins to join their discussion. Though it is the same Jesus they knew and loved, the resurrection has altered Jesus in some way or else altered how they see Jesus, and they cannot recognize him. Ever the teacher, Jesus explains scripture and the events of the past week to them in a way that, “opens up,” the scripture to the disciples. They encounter God’s word as they never have before, and they cannot part from this apparent stranger who has come to talk with them.
Finally, over dinner, in the moment Jesus breaks and blesses the bread the disciples are suddenly able to see Jesus for who he is. The revelation occurs simultaneously with Jesus’ disappearance from the scene.
This is the second to last major event in the Gospel of Luke. More than that, it is proposed as being pre-Lukan, that is to say, that Luke had this story as one of his sources for his Gospel and chose to include it. Luke is upfront about his Gospel being an aggregate of other sources. Throughout Luke, there are passages that are identical to Mark and Matthew, yet this story is only in this gospel. More importantly, the language does not quite line up with Luke’s stylistic choices. That Luke placed a source document in his Gospel and with very little stylistic edits left it as is, indicates this story is significant to the overall message of the Gospel.
Indeed, a great deal of ink has been spilled on the discussion of the Emmaus Road and whether or not this person or that could be Cleopas’ companion. It is used as the foundation, along with Paul’s writings and the last supper in Luke’s Gospel, of our eucharistic liturgy. The image itself burned into the hearts of all who read it.
The significance of this text is not in establishing a historical event of Jesus’ resurrection appearance. While the story definitely does so, it is not written just to tell us a thing that happened and who was there. As with many gospel passages, it is equal parts object lesson and historical fact, there is no separation between sign and signifier, The walk along the road is a thing that happened, it is also a thing that constantly happens to us every day.
We often read this passage only in terms of a person’s conversion into the faith. The journey whereby we, en route somewhere, meet Jesus and find the scripture opened up to us for the first time and our hearts on fire. The journey that sees us enter into fellowship with Jesus and the church for the first time. While we often see this passage as only about this moment in the life of our faith, we can push further. The reality is that this is a story about two faithful people making a journey and encountering Jesus. It is about people like you and me meeting the risen Lord as we make our way through life.
Christ, and with him the promises of the Resurrection, is constantly appearing to us, always showing us the way, the scriptures ought to be read. Our heart is not fit to be kindled once and for all, we must have it lit again and again by Jesus’ speech. We never just take a journey with Jesus once, we are constantly walking on our way to Emmaus, constantly with Jesus beside us.
What combines the symbolic language of phrases like, “our own Emmaus,” to our daily life is the weekly pattern we all participate in. We live our lives and do our work separately from one another. We each take our own road to our relative Emmauses. For some of us, that is the simple survival till Friday that allows for our weekend and the Sabbath that comes with it. For others, there are particular destinations that they reach week in and week out. The completion of that case, of those assignments, of X, of Y, and even of Z.
The path we take week by week would only be a rote repetition if not for the people we travel with. The unknown companion of Cleopas allows us to imagine anyone in that position. Several traditions of the church have provided several answers, each to a different theological end. In our own life, we can never be sure who will be in our lives in the week ahead. Yes, our family and friends likely will play a part in the week ahead, but what of the people we do not expect a call from, the people we run into on the street or in the store? Our travel partner week after week will be different, we must take the journey with them, nonetheless.
Then comes Jesus. The teacher of all scripture, the savior of all the world, and now another companion we have along the walk of life. Jesus listens to our discussions, our questions, paying rapt attention to our interrogation of life and God and faith. Jesus also gives us direction if we listen. This is not always in auditory sensation, in fact for many people it is not. More often than not Christ speaks to us through others in our life, through circumstance and providence that is expressly divine.
How do we acknowledge that it was God who told us such wonderful things? Where is our confirmation of God’s presence and activity in our life? The assurance of our divine help comes in the moment that the bread is broken and blessed. In table fellowship, the most common image in Luke for Jesus’ interactions with his people, we see that Jesus never left our side. In liturgy we find this in the Eucharist, in worship in the fellowship of believers. The walk we take from Monday to Sunday is important, because as we gather to worship God, as we bless the gifts we are given and share them with one another, as we meet our eyes are made to see. We understand Jesus and faith as a community, not as islands.
So important is this community to our understanding scripture that Cleopas seemingly misspeaks in describing what Jesus did along the road. While most translations render Cleopas and his friend as saying, “Were not our hearts burning within us…” the text is actually written with “heart,” being singular. Cleopas does not see he and his friend as having separate divine experiences, but a single one. They share a, “heart,” which is now burning because of Jesus’ walk with them.
We gather today in the same way. Our heart, that inner seat of discernment and understanding, is one today. We gather together after our long walks throughout the week and come together to speak about what God is doing in our life. Our eyes are allowed to open up, and we begin to see that our companion was none other than our savior. We cannot help but share what we have received with one another, our revelation significant enough to shake the world. Today we all move back from our own Emmaus’ to Jerusalem. Telling what we have seen to the other disciples, praising God, and fanning the flames that have consumed our hearts. – Amen