Text: Luke 24:13-35
The story of Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is arguably the most developed and the most beautiful of the appearance stories in the New Testament. Its plot revolves around the failure of the two disciples to recognize their fellow traveler. The suspense builds until the moment when the two recognize the risen Christ and he disappears from their presence. The Emmaus story is so full of wonderful material for theological reflection, preaching, and discussion that the natural temptation is to try to deal with too much at one time. I am resisting that temptation this morning knowing that this is a story that should not be read only at Easter each year, but one that we can and will come back to again and again.
First, I want to say a word about the place called Emmaus. Emmaus was a little-noted town. Three sites are candidates for its location. The best manuscript tradition says that Emmaus was located sixty stadia from Jerusalem. A stadium was 600 Roman feet, so sixty stadia would be about 7.5 miles. Other manuscripts read 160 stadia, or 19.5 miles. The longer distance would identify the site as Emmaus-Nicopolis. Three alternative sites lie closer to Jerusalem: el-Qubeibeh, Abu Ghosh, and Qaloniyeh; but there is no consensus as to which, if any, of these was the site of Emmaus. Perhaps the most important thing about Emmaus is that it doesn’t actually matter where it was located; what matters is what it represents.
Luke does not say why the two disciples were going there. They may have been going home, going there on business, or just going there to get away from the terrible things they had witnessed in Jerusalem. Again, it doesn’t really matter why they were going to Emmaus. What matters is what it represents. Federick Buechner interprets Emmaus as:
the place we go to in order to escape—a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, “Let the whole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.”…Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that humanity has had—ideas about love and freedom and justice—have always in time been twisted out of shape by humanity for selfish ends.
If Buechner is right, there is a comforting and reassuring truth in this story. That truth is this: God in Jesus meets us on the road to our Emmauses—in the ordinary places and experiences of our lives, and in the places to which we retreat when life is too much for us. But this Emmaus Road story also presents us with a more challenging truth. It reminds us that Christ comes to us in unfamiliar guises, when we least expect him. The place of Emmaus offers us an opportunity to reflect on where, in the ordinary places and experiences of our lives, Christ is coming to us. And it begs the question: Are we recognizing him when he does come to us?
I’ve told you this story before, but it’s worth repeating here again. Do you remember the story of the clogging team from Western North Carolina that showed up at Pullen one October Sunday morning dressed in their full clogging regalia? They were in town for a performance at the State Fair and being good Baptists they had set out on Sunday morning to find a Baptist church where they could attend Sunday school and worship. Now, if you start driving east on Hillsborough Street from the fairgrounds, Pullen is the first Baptist Church you come to on Hillsborough Street. Upon their arrival, they inquired about where they might find the men’s bible class and the women’s bible class. Once I explained to them that our classes were not divided by gender, they asked if I could just direct them to a bible class. Trusting our elder, Suzanne Newton, I took them to the Seekers class. I don’t know what their experience was that morning or the content of the conversation that took place in the Seekers class that morning. What I do remember is what Suzanne said to me as she left church that day. She said, “Jesus visited us today.” I’ve never forgotten Suzanne’s “act of recognition” that morning. And I’ve wondered since then how many of us actually recognize Christ when he comes to us? Especially, when he comes to us in unfamiliar guises: in the stranger at the backdoor; in the crying child reaching out for us; in the grieving widow; in the prophet whose voice is different from ours; in the face of the migrant worker picking cucumbers in the field; or in a new way of thinking and seeing and acting that challenges our places of comfort and privilege, of power and control.
The verse, however, that strikes me as pivotal in this narrative is where the two disciples tell Jesus, not knowing they were speaking to him, of their experiences, their hopes, and their expectations of this Jesus. Feeling defeated and disillusioned, they said to their traveling companion, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” We can hear in their words the despair that must have been heavy on them, just days after the violent death of their friend and spiritual leader. As the reader, we can also appreciate the irony of their words, as Jesus walks beside them. Surely grief and despair played a part in their blindness to Jesus’ identify – “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” – but the fact remains that they were blind to the physical presence of the very one they missed and mourned.
The disciples in this moment reflect to us our own struggle to recognize where our redemption comes from and how close it can be to us if only we’re willing to recognize it. We are often looking for redemption in some magical, grand, far off, new experience; something we don’t have, something we’re not. But the message of Emmaus is that our redemption is walking alongside us, waiting to be recognized, waiting to be claimed.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says it best. He writes, “We are always looking to the next moment to be more perfect. We’re a people always rushing into the future because we’re not experiencing a wholeness in the present. Yet, this moment is as perfect as it can be. When we haven’t grasped the present, we always live under the illusion—and it is an illusion—that the next moment is going to be better: when I get around this corner, when I see this church, when I get to Jerusalem, when I get to the hotel, whatever it might be. Everything we do is for the sake of something else, a means toward some nebulous end.”
Rohr goes on to say, “…if you can’t find Jesus in your hometown, you probably aren’t going to find him in Jerusalem…Pilgrimage has achieved its purpose when we can see God in our everyday and ordinary lives.” That seeing God in the moment, that is the act of recognition that we learn on the road to Emmaus.
Ultimately, the two disciples did recognize Jesus as he broke bread with them at the evening meal. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. The four verbs are Jesus’ signature, which the disciples likely remember from the feeding of the five thousand and the last supper. The meal at Emmaus does not mean that Jesus was formally celebrating the Eucharist. It does mean that every meal has the potential of being an event in which hospitality and table fellowship can become sacred occasions—sacred acts of recognition of Christ’s presence among us. It is meaningful that Christ’s own chosen ritual of recognition involves the familiar elements of daily life – the bread that sustains us is also the bread that blesses us. So it follows that often, it is at the daily table (and at this table) that we recognize Christ in ourselves and in each other.
This morning, as we move toward the table of grace, I invite you to recognize that our redemption is in this very moment. Grace and love and salvation are available to each of us, and the one who redeems us walks alongside us.