My sermon from this morning on Luke 24:13-35, Jesus’ appearance to the travelers on the road to Emmaus, which he transforms into the road from Emmaus. Watch and/or read it here!
Happy Second Sunday of Easter! I’m going to take my cue from Jesus in this story and start by going back in time a little bit and let us work our way forward to figure out how we end up with Jesus carrying on an one of the most ironic conversations in Scripture with two disciples who are mourning his death, because we need to be reminded of where we’ve been to know where we’re going.
You know, it’s funny that we read this story and all the other resurrection narratives now, in the season of Easter that we have entered. There’s been a monumental shift in creation that will lead to a monumental shift in how people worship the God of the Bible—after all, we’re gathered here together on a Sunday as our day of worship rather than on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath celebrated by everyone from Moses to Jesus and the disciples to our Jewish brothers and sisters today. We changed the entire calendar based on this incredible event that changed everything—Jesus Christ, God in human form, submitted to betrayal and torture and death, spent his Sabbath day cold and alone in a sealed tomb, and then rose again to live and reign forever. This twist is such a big deal that we commemorate it every year in the celebration of Holy Week, but we even restructured our weekly worship so that every single service is a little reminder of the centerpiece of everything else we’ve talked about: the Gospel that falls right here in the middle of our Bible, tying it all together. So it’s natural then for us to move through the seriousness of Holy Week as we commemorate the days when Jesus prayed for relief before boldly accepting his fate in the Garden of Gethsemane, was betrayed by one of his closest and seemingly most devoted followers, watched as the rest of them fled or denied him or simply just lost faith in this Messiah, this Savior who was supposed to set up a new kingdom and free Israel from the oppressive Romans who don’t even worship the right God. They could not fathom how he could do all the great things he had promised them from a cross.
That may seem like backtracking since we’ve just been through this part of the story, but while we have turned the page that reveals the Resurrection and the birth of the Church through the Holy Spirit and the thousands of years of Christians dedicating their lives in service to this new kind of Messiah who comes as a lamb to be slain instead of a lion to devour, our friends on the road to Emmaus have not. They’re not part of the twelve, but they are considered part of Christ’s following. They’re intimate enough with the group to have been there when the women who refused to leave Jesus’ side throughout his death and who could not say goodbye without offering one more act of service to embalm his poor broken body came back with big news about a missing corpse. Yes, it’s Easter Sunday, but they don’t know that yet. They think their hero, the one they dropped everything to follow, has died and now maybe the Romans have done something with his body or the women had simply snapped, replacing their grief with delusions of resurrection. How are they to respond? What are they supposed to do now?
For Cleopas and his friend here, they decide to take a trip to Emmaus, a city we think is located about halfway between Jerusalem and the sea coast of Joppa. All archaeologists and biblical historians have to say about this place is that it’s known to be both a place of industry and a place of war. It’s a place with a lot of job opportunities, and it may even be that it is where Cleopas and this other traveller were originally from before they became nomads, closely following Christ their Messiah. Maybe they were soldiers, so this shameful death of the supposed conquering Messiah—and not even death in battle, but on a cross just like the criminals who hung next to him—stings particularly badly for them. Maybe they’re looking to join back up with their old war buddies and see if they can get back to the kind of conquering they’re used to.
Last year on Black Friday, the day we remember Christ’s crucifixion, I helped a church in Raleigh but on a haunting and moving variation of a Tennebrae service. As you may know, during a Tennebrae service the church gathers together in the evening of Black Friday and throughout the course of their time together the cross and altar are draped in black and the lights in the sanctuary are slowly put out one by one until there is total darkness. Then the people leave in silence, remembering the despair the disciples felt as they scattered from Calvary—if they’d even managed to stay that long with Jesus before he died. The variation we held last year was called a Reverse Advent service. It’s very similar in nature to the Tennebrae services we may be more used to, but it’s essential just how it sounds—an inversion of the Advent services where we light the candles of joy, hope, faith, and peace in the Advent wreath in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and then finally on Christmas Eve or Christmas day we light the Christ candle in the center to celebrate Emmanuel, God with us. Some of you may have experienced Advent services like this where people even took the light from the Christ candle and passed it to each other on small candles in the hands of the pastors and worshippers until everyone had a little symbol of this precious spark of the Divine shared among them as they sing Christmas carols.
During the Reverse Advent service, the wreath with all the candles lit is already present, but they are slowly snuffed out one by one as leaders read passages from the Passion narrative interspersed with liturgy imagining how Black Friday may have looked from the disciples’ perspective. After all, as Cleopas and his companion said, Jesus was handed over for judgment and execution, “but we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” When the time came to extinguish the hope candle, the leader of the Reverse Advent service read these words, imagining the disciples’ despair:
“It was all going so well.
Then the bottom fell out.
Nothing will turn out right.
We are stuck forever.
This isn’t fair.
We were supposed to win.
He told us we were blessed.
It’s over now.
How can we go back to our old lives?
We were so close.
Then it all went sour.
It’s back to oppression.
Maybe he wasn’t the Messiah.”
And after each statement the people responded, “The hope is gone.”
Painful words to hear and to say, but understandable in the confusion. This is not how things were supposed to go. As the disciples on the road to Emmaus are talking, I wonder if some of this kind of lament isn’t mingled into their conversation, making them look so sad and serious to the mysterious companion who meets them on the road.
“We can’t just stay here in limbo. We’ve got to be getting on with it. Our hearts are broken, all are plans just crumbled in our hands and what do we have to show for it? Where do we go from here? We waited in the dark all day yesterday, but the sun has risen on the third day since our hero died and we’ve got some choices to make. What are we gonna do now?”
In January, Matthew and I took advantage of the long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and went to visit his uncle in D.C. That Monday just before we got on the road to head back home, we stopped to visit the National Cathedral. It was my first time there, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I’m fascinated by stained glass and the incredibly variety of ways churches find to incorporate it into their worship settings— the stories they choose to highlight, the styles, the colors. If you’ve ever been to the National Cathedral, then you know I was in absolute heaven. We spent a good hour just walking the perimeter of the sanctuary so I could look at each window and take pictures of the sunlight pouring through these incredible works of art. After that we decided to take a quick trip downstairs to glance around and check out the gift shop, and little did I know that I would find a place to capture my heart and my attention even more than the main sanctuary. Down the steps and to the left just before the gift shop, a sign caught my eye next to a stone archway leading to a much smaller worship space called “Resurrection Chapel.” It’s a silent little sanctuary where the walls are lined with mosaics of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection in vibrant, shining tile. There’s Mary Magdalene, and the road to Emmaus, and several others, but the one that caught my attention the most was a depiction of Jesus standing on the shore revealing himself to the disciples who have just paused in shock in the middle of pulling in their fishing nets, gaping at the Risen Christ. I just stopped and stared, and wrestled with the question that it brought to mind, “How do you go back to being a fisherman after all that?” How in the world after walking with God Incarnate, sharing intimate conversations, asking questions and receiving personal Bible study from the Author, witnessing and performing miracles, planning to inherit a brand new kingdom of God when Jesus rises to glory—after all that, how could you ever go back to fishing? How could these travelers on the road to Emmaus go back to their old lives as soldiers or merchants or fisherman or whatever it is they were before the encountered the Living God? I sat there on this Monday morning, a day that should have been the start of the week when I would normally have been getting back to work and school after a special weekend, and I wondered how these disciples woke up on Sunday, the first day of their work week after a remarkable weekend of a very different kind, and tried to figure out what their work was now. Did they even know who they were anymore? Disciples? Fools? Gullible fishermen and tax collectors and sellers of fine dyed fabrics and perfectly stable, respectable people who left in a hurry with a vision and a faith in a man who just up and died in the middle of their adventure together? Could they still be disciples of a dead Messiah? Or would they have to find something else to do, see if their bosses and family businesses and friends would take them back after their public and embarrassing failure at changing the world with this prophet or heretic or the Son of God, depending on who you ask?
Not knowing what to do with their pain and confusion, Cleopas and his friend had decided to take the day to head to Emmaus. Perhaps they are fishermen planning to stop over here for the night on the way to the port city of Joppa, but more likely they are going back to their hometown, given that they have lodgings where they invite their unexpected traveling companion to stay with them for the night. Either way, they don’t necessarily seem to be on a missionary endeavor here. They seem dejected, disappointed, and drudging their way towards what to do with their lives now that everything has changed. But little do they know just how much things have changed.
Jesus creeps up behind them on the road, catching snatches of conversation and asks to join in. I wonder if he is having to stifle a laugh or bite his lip to keep from spilling the secret when they don’t recognize him as they ironically tell him, “What do you mean what are we talking about? You must be the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s happened?”
It’s reasonable to assume that when they invite Jesus to stay with them rather than journeying on, they are inviting him into their own homes, the ones they occupied before meeting him in the first place. They think they have reached their destination, but they are right back where they started. Only Jesus won’t allow them to give up that easily. When God encounters us, we are transformed. We are new creations, and there is no going back to the way things were before. Jesus prepares their hearts for this truth as he teaches them on the journey, showing them where they’ve taken a wrong turn in their interpretation, why the road to Emmaus—the road back to a life pre-transformation, a life that no longer exists— is not the one they should be walking.
In his popular book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis tells us, “Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better…. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the [one] who turns back soonest is the most progressive [person].”
They can’t move on by moving away. There is no progress in that kind of retreat down the wrong road to the wrong destination. They have been fundamentally changed by their encounter with the Living God, and while they can’t go back to their previous lives in Emmaus, they can always go back to God. As Christ sits down to eat with them, he gives them a physical reminder of what they have been through together—in the same way he ate with the twelve on the night before he was taken, “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” He had told them how his suffering and death had to occur in the resurrection through their conversation about the prophets on the road, and now he demonstrates it for them in a tangible symbol, showing them how the bread cannot be eaten—it cannot be shared and provide nourishment—unless it is first broken. When they saw this, it clicked, “and they knew him in the breaking of the bread.” They knew their hope hadn’t been misplaced after all. They knew that Emmaus had nothing for them anymore.
Through his words and his actions Jesus encourages them, “Don’t give up just yet. We were on to something big—something much bigger than the circumstances you can see right now, something even bigger than all the incredible things we’ve experienced together.” Jesus goes all the way back to the very beginning, to Moses and all the prophets, to reassure his friends that they weren’t wrong to trust in this Messiah and to transform their whole lives to follow him and help him establish the kingdom of God on earth, they were just mixed up about how exactly that would happen. Their problem is that they are near-sighted, forgetting the long history that has paved the way for them and closing off their imaginations to how their journey with Christ could continue after what seems like ultimate defeat.
Through his appearance it’s as if Christ is telling them, “Keep the faith and get back to the faithful.” And that is precisely what they do—jumping up and leaving everything to get back to Jerusalem to share the news about Jesus with disciples who have big news of their own: “The Lord has risen indeed!”
Just like Peter and the other disciple raced to the empty tomb earlier that day and were told by the angel, “What are you doing here? Why do you look for the living among the dead?”, Cleopas and his friend jump up from their table in Emmaus– from their old life that has died, that has nothing left for them after they’ve been transformed—and become C.S. Lewis’s progressive men, racing to see who can be the one to turn back first, to run to life— miraculous, impossible new life. There is no going back to how it was before we knew Christ, before the passion of discovering a Love so big It created and shook the world, It became one of us and took on all our pain and the ways we hurt one another and ourselves, It bore our burdens for us all the way until their logic end in crushing defeat, It let them think they won for three whole days—long enough to be sure It was really good and dead—and then It exploded into a whole new creation. Not on the first day of the same old workweek, but on the eighth day—the day of New Creation. God created the world on a Sunday, the first day, and Christ recreated it on a Sunday, busting through the monotony of our seven-day week to create something entirely new. We’re on a new calendar now, one where we have unprecedented access to the God of the Universe all day everyday through God dwelling in us, through Christ working among us, through the Holy Spirit guiding our hearts and our lives. We don’t have to wait for the priest to make sacrifices and lift prayers to intercede for us on special occasions, because Christ Himself is our Advocate and the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Sometimes we have intense moments where we know this to be true—some people call them mountaintop moments. It may happen at a retreat, or in a worship service, a relationship that blossoms and reveals something new, or in the middle of our mundane everyday living when we can just feel God’s presence and recognize that something profound has happened and is happening. Those are treasured moments, but over time they can fade, gradually as we just sort of go on with our lives without another clear sense of that feeling of connection to God or suddenly when tragedy strikes and we begin to question, to lose our hope and our faith. But regardless of how we feel, there’s no going back to Emmaus. The best place to ride out those times of drought when we might feel hurt and confused is right here among God’s people. It’s better to be in Jerusalem, questioning together, working through it together, relying on those who know the truth– like the women who first saw Christ risen from the tomb and Simon Peter who followed them to see for himself– to believe for us when we are not sure we know how anymore. We need each other. We need the community of believers to keep reminding us again and again that no matter how things look, no matter how they feel, “The Lord is risen indeed! And God is among us!”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.