I think the story of the Couple traveling on the road to Emmaus on the day of
Jesus’ Resurrection may be the most beautiful scene Luke ever composed. I
envision it as a pastoral English Landscape painting. It is a wonderful, unique,
captivating tale and a model for what being a Christian is all about from Luke’s
day to this.
A couple of Jesus’ students, probably wife and husband, are walking the 7-mile
journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus while discussing and arguing over the events
that have occurred the last three days. They probably expressed their extreme
sadness, loss, and disappointment to one another. Circumstances, especially those
involving loss, are usually perceived as brutal because reality doesn’t mesh with
our expectations. The two followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus undoubtedly
felt utterly alone as they mourned the death of their dreams. While this Jesus
appeared to them as they walked, something kept them from recognizing him.
During their suffering, God was nearby, allowing their pain to continue until their
longings no longer held them captive.
Jesus asked the couple what they were discussing as they walked along. Luke
describes the couple as appearing downcast as one of them, Cleopas, replied to
Jesus that he must be the only person in Jerusalem that does not know the things
going on for the last few days. (Talk about irony). Jesus replies with the question,
“What things?” They explained to him, as best they knew it, about the events of
Jesus’s crucifixion and about witnesses who angels told by that Jesus had risen but
that no one had seen him. They expressed their hopes that Jesus was the long-
awaited Messiah to redeem Israel.
The still incognito Jesus scolded them as foolish people unwilling to trust
everything the prophets spoke! Then starting with Moses and all the profits, he
explained to them the things they could find throughout the Bible concerning
himself. But they had to be prepared before they could understand what had just
happened. Like everybody else in Israel, they had been reading the Bible, as N.T.
Wright says, through the wrong end of the telescope. They saw it as the long story
of how God would redeem Israel from enslavement and suffering. It was instead
the story of how God would redeem Israel through suffering, particularly the
suffering which would be taken on by Israel’s representative, the Messiah. When
Luke says that Jesus interpreted to them all the things about himself throughout the
Bible, he does not mean that Jesus collected a few, or even a few dozen, isolated
texts chosen at random. He says that the whole story, from Genesis to Chronicles,
pointed forwards to a fulfillment that could only are found when God’s anointed
took Israel’s suffering. Hence, the world’s suffering, on to himself, died under its
weight and rose again as the beginning of God’s new creation, God’s new people.
This is what had to happen, and now it just had. (1)“When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. Jesus’ act “opened their eyes,” and they recognized him.” They recognized him as the one they had left for dead in Jerusalem. They recognized him as the one who had accompanied them to Emmaus. They recognized him as the one they had hoped he would be. We can only now know and remember Jesus
when we learn to see him within the true story of God, Israel, and the world.
After Cleopas and his companion recognize Jesus, he disappears. Where do you
think he went? Was he abandoning them? Was he playing hide and seek with
them?” Was he undoing everything that just happened? No. It was not anything
like that. He was no longer before them because he was now within them. Jesus
was the burning heart within them, and it had been there all along. Sometimes that
burning is felt as brokenness, hunger, or being broken open, and other times as
deep joy and gratitude. Always, it is Jesus.
And “that same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.” (3) To proclaim to the
eleven what they had experienced, Christ is risen. Luke also intends that we, his readers, should see this simple meal pointing forwards to the breaking of bread, which quickly became the central symbolic action of Jesus’ people. Though Jesus was no longer physically present, they were to discover him living with and in them through this meal (Acts 2.42). Scripture and sacrament, word, and meal are joined tightly together, here as elsewhere.
Remove scripture, and the sacrament becomes a piece of magic. Take the
sacrament away, and scripture becomes an intellectual or emotional exercise,
detached from real life. Put them together, and you have the center of Christian
living. Pope Francis said, “When people open themselves to the word of God,
“Jesus explains the Scriptures to us and rekindles the warmth of faith and hope in
our hearts, and, in Communion, he gives us strength.”
We are invited to accompany Jesus on a journey of faith that will take us through
anxiety and sorrow to meet the Jesus who has accomplished his Father’s work and
longs to share the secret of it – and the gift of his presence – with us, his followers.
The risen Christ is only gradually made manifest to us journeying disciples.
Physical sight is not necessary for a heart alive with faith. “Blessed are those who
have not seen and yet believe,” Jesus proclaimed to Thomas. (John 20:29). (4)
Luke has therefore described for us, as he said he would, the new Exodus from our
enslavement that Jesus would accomplish at Jerusalem for our redemption.
The real enslaver, keeping humanity in bondage, is death itself. Earthly tyrants
borrow power from death to boost their rule; that’s why crucifixion was such a
symbol of Roman authority. Victory over death robs the strengths of their main
threat. Sin is likewise defeated by humans rebelling against God and conspiring
with death to deface God’s good creation. Jesus has led God’s new people out of
enslavement and now invites them to accompany him on the new journey to the
promised land. Luke emphasizes what the church all too easily forgets: the careful study of the Bible is meant to bring together head and heart, understanding and excited
application. This will happen as we learn to think through the story of God and the
world, of Israel and Jesus, not in how our various cultures try to make us believe
but in how God has sketched it out. Only when we see the Old Testament as
reaching its natural climax in Jesus will we understand it. Equally, we will only
understand Jesus himself when we see him as the one to whom scripture points, not
in isolated prooftexts but in the entire flow of the story. And, when we grasp this,
we will find our hearts burning within us like Cleopas, his companion, and Mary at
the empty tomb. Amen.
(1) N. T. Wright. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p.
298). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.