The story of meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus reflects disappointments and hopes, misunderstandings and then understandings, loneliness and community, distrust and renewed trust, a time of hunger and a meal shared.
And Jesus said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?”
They stopped, their faces downcast.
Have you ever been in a situation like this?
You encounter someone who seems really distressed. Or you are the one feeling distressed and someone asks you what’s wrong. From either side of the conversation, it’s awkward. It’s uncomfortable. But it also might be a moment that transforms you. And in that transformation, God’s love, Jesus’ story breaks through – just like bread being broken.
As some of you know, this story about Jesus meeting two folks on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus is my favorite story in the Bible. To me, it brings together so many of the themes that define how I think about being a follower of Jesus. It’s a story that reflects disappointments and hopes, misunderstandings and then understandings, loneliness and community, distrust and renewed trust, a time of hunger and a meal shared.
The story itself is a story of discovery. It’s a story set in a place of mystery that opens up possibilities.
Let’s start with the location. The story says these two followers of Jesus – Cleopas and someone unnamed (perhaps the wife of Cleopas?) – were walking to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.
Here’s the thing. We don’t know exactly where this village of Emmaus is.
There are now six locations in Israel that are considered possible sites for Emmaus. So let’s not think of Emmaus as a specific location but as any place where broken people encounter new life.
A few years ago when I had the opportunity to travel to Israel and Palestine with Bonnie and Nancy, I wanted to visit Emmaus.
Bonnie – who knows her way around Israel and Palestine, its Biblical stories as well as its current residents – suggested we go to the site at Abu Ghosh, which may not be the real site, but that has a very nice church originally built by the crusaders in the 1100s, with a basement room revered as the site of the meal at Emmaus. It was the crusaders who attached the story of Emmaus to this church.
So our group drove there on a hot day, out of our way when we were all a bit tired, to satisfy my desire to see the village of Emmaus. It was a generous gesture by my fellow travelers.
The actual site was OK. Being there did not hold the spiritual depth for me that I had expected.
Still, this search for the village of Emmaus became a sort of metaphor for me of the search many people are on to give concrete expression to their understanding of the story of Jesus, their understanding of how God is at work in our lives.
The spiritual depth of that day came when our group of thirsty travelers got pomegranate juice from the roadside stand just outside the church. At the end of a long, hot and somewhat frustrating drive, we were bound back to together in an act of sharing.
Let’s dive into the story from Luke a bit, a story filled with acts of sharing.
First, there are these two people on the road, walking home on what would become known as the first Easter Sunday. The one whom they followed – their hero, their inspiration, their hope for the future – was gone, brutally executed. They had no idea what to do now.
They had heard something that was simply beyond their comprehension. Using the words Luke attributes to them: “Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 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. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
You’d think this might have given the two people on the road hope. But they could not believe what the women said. They could not comprehend what might have happened to Jesus, even though Jesus himself had said that no grave could keep his body down.
“We had hoped he was the one,” they told the stranger walking with them. “We had hoped he was the one.” You can hear the aching of their hearts.
With those words – “we had hoped” – the two people on the road gave voice to the frustrations and disappointments that take over all of our lives at one point or another.
They felt alone, abandoned, mired in grief.
They were afraid.
They were looking for something, not realizing that what they were looking for was already with them.
Then there was Jesus. He must have looked different in some way that Easter evening from the Jesus who had walked the roads a week before.
The resurrection stories describe Jesus in so many different ways. Resurrection was an event that in some fashion significantly transformed him. So you can understand why the two people on the road might not have recognized Jesus.
But he recognized them. He recognized them as people who were hurting, people who were unsure of what to do, people who were confused. They could not make sense out of the things they had been taught over the years, first from their traditional Jewish rabbis, then from this itinerant rabbi they had been following.
So Jesus walked with them. He helped them understand the sacred writings that were their heritage. They were captivated by Jesus once again. They were beginning to see something in him that had not been immediately obvious. And then they did what followers of Jesus do – they offered him hospitality – a meal, a place to stay.
And Jesus did what he had done before. He took bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it them.
The reality of this man they had followed so passionately, grieved so deeply, rediscovered so curiously – the reality of Jesus had not changed. But now they saw him differently. They went back to Jerusalem and told others about their experience. They did not keep it to themselves. As Luke put it, “The two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.”
Their disappointment gave way to hope. Their misunderstanding of the sequence of events from Friday’s execution to Sunday’s discovery gave way to a new understanding of what this all meant. Their sense of abandonment as they walked on the road back home gave way to once again knowing they were part of a community of people gathered by Jesus and people unwilling to give up on his message.
They had distrusted what they heard from the women who saw the empty tomb and the men who verified the news that the women had shared. Now they trusted as they were transformed by that meal – a meal that did far more than simply ease their hunger at the end of a long day.
When we gather here on a Sunday morning – or perhaps at other places were we tell the stories and sing the songs and break the bread – we are there in that home in Emmaus.
We walk together, we tend to those who are in pain, we share the stories, we try to make sense of them. We reach out to one another in hospitality.
We share the bread and in the process we see Jesus emerge in our midst, not as an ethereal figure but in the way we each carry on his work.
That’s just what the early Christians did.
They paid attention to teaching, to fellowship, to breaking bread, to prayers. They gathered as a community, shared what they had with those who needed more, they ate with glad and generous hearts. And that’s what attracted others to join them. They saw how much they loved one another and cared for those around them. They knew they were Christians by their love.
We hear the stories that give shape to our faith,
We say the prayers that connect the needs of our lives and of the world with God’s love.
We break the bread and pour the wine and eat with glad and generous hearts.
And perhaps when we leave here today, we will do as those early followers of Jesus did as well.
We’ll tell others what happened on the roads of our lives, how we came to know God’s love in the breaking of bread. We’ll live with hope, with understanding, with trust, with a sense of community and an openness to the unexpected. We’ll show them we are Christians by our love.
Let’s sing about that. The hymn is #342, “Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread.”