Sermon - 8th May 2011
Encountering Jesus - the Emmaus Road
To appreciate today's reading we need to remove the past two weeks from our memories, we need to set aside our own responses of joy and celebration that Jesus the Lord has risen, and return to the fear, grief and confusion of that first Easter Day as the disciples saw it.
If we were disciples at the time of today's gospel story about the encounter on the Emmaus Road, today would be the day of resurrection. It would only have been two days ago that we saw our teacher and friend hoisted on a cross by the Roman authorities and allowed to die a painful and horrible death.
We are feeling grief over his death. We are angered and humiliated by the injustice of it all; and we are at risk ourselves of being arrested as collaborators - in fact Peter nearly was, but he managed to lie his way out of danger.
So, amid all that turmoil, Cleopas, and another disciple whose name we don't know, decide to leave Jerusalem where all the horror took place and set out on the road to Emmaus, a seven-mile walk through the hills out to the north west.
It seems very likely Cleopas and friend may have lived in Emmaus because later in this story they invite a friendly stranger to spend the night in their company. There's no mention of an inn, so the obvious assumption from the text is that Emmaus was their home and they were happy to offer hospitality in their house to a traveller.
As they are walking along, talking over everything that's been going on since the day before yesterday, and probably talking themselves into deeper and deeper despair, a stranger falls in with them and walks alongside, and asks them what they're talking about to make them look so sad. And Cleopas lets it all out - all the events of the past three days come flooding out, all the hurt and the fear and confusion.
But when the two disciples have finished their story, the stranger slowly and methodically takes all the broken pieces of the last three days and makes sense of them. He assembles them into a pattern which shows that the death and rising to new life of Jesus were foretold by the prophets, that there was no confusion about what was happening, and that it was all part of God's plan for humanity.
This was a critical moment for Cleopas and his friend: they say afterwards that their hearts burned within them when the stranger explained these things to them. In fact they are so drawn to him that they ask him to spend the rest of the night with them as that first resurrection day draws into evening.
As they prepare to eat their supper, it would have been the custom for the guest - the stranger - to say the blessing over the food. And as the stranger takes the bread, blesses, breaks and gives it out, the disciples recognise at last that their companion is none other than Jesus himself. But with that recognition, they no longer see him: he has disappeared from their sight.
The stopover in Emmaus is cancelled and Cleopas and friend immediately return to Jerusalem to share their story with the rest of the group.
Luke's gospel leaves the group of disciples and other companions in Jerusalem, waiting. And this has all happened during the early morning, daytime, evening and night-time of that first Easter Sunday.
The pace of events, the sheer energy of bouncing from one occurrence to another, have left those disciples shaken and emotionally shattered. But one crucial change has occurred: the despair and confusion have lifted. There is suddenly something to work for and to live for; Jesus's followers now have a mission and will soon receive the power to achieve that mission. And the foundation stone of that mission is faith in the power of God through the living, resurrected Jesus.
In many respects, the essence of that story of Cleopas and his friend on the Emmaus Road is still a living experience for the community of Jesus's disciples today. It highlights two deeply significant ways in which the power of Jesus can be recognised and applied in our lives.
Firstly, those early disciples allowed their faith in Jesus to open their minds to the message of Jesus supported by scriptures which spoke of him. And secondly, they opened themselves to the revelation of his continuing presence with them at the breaking of the bread.
These two great fundamentals of Christian faith - the good news of Jesus interpreted through the scriptures, and the presence of Jesus represented in the breaking of the bread in the Eucharist - have been at the heart of the Christian tradition since the earliest days. They form the broad outline of this service today, as they do in almost every Christian denomination.
They are strengthened by the fact that, on many occasions in his ministry, Jesus interpreted the scriptures as a pathway to a greater understanding of God's will for our world. He never lessened their importance, although he certainly challenged us sometimes to look hard at how we interpret and apply their message.
Equally, on the night before he died, Jesus himself created for his followers an act of remembrance which involves breaking bread and sharing wine as signs of his continued presence among them.
When these two features - the message of the gospel, and the breaking of bread - came together on the journey to Emmaus, the effect was overwhelming for Cleopas and his friend.
And as a Christian community today, trying to follow Jesus's teachings, we've found no better way to allow Jesus to come to us, speak to us, and take hold of our lives than by engaging with the message of Jesus in the scriptures, and by receiving the gift of Jesus in the bread and wine.
We are doubly blessed if our hearts burn within us when we hear and understand Jesus's call in our lives; or if we somehow glimpse the risen Jesus present with us at the breaking of the bread.
We can probably each recall those rare and special transcendent moments when we seem to have drawn close to God, or when have experienced a particularly truthful insight during our faith journey which has changed us. Those are surely the times when our hearts burn deep within us as we hear his voice.
Those are the revelations to our deepest selves that the living Jesus has been alongside us and is present with us. And our continued journeying with Jesus suggests that there are more of those experiences to come – that's why we approach our faith as a journey towards the banquet of life and never a completed assignment.
The experience of the two disciples on the Emmaus road, being lifted out of despair and confusion into a place of joy, confidence, wholeness and understanding through their encounter with Jesus, shows that these indeed are channels by which God's grace, and the love and companionship of Jesus, come into our lives.
Whatever we may believe about Luke's story of the Emmaus revelation, it still grips us as one of the most intimate and personal ways of experiencing the resurrection – a journey, a conversation, a sharing of fears and doubts, a sharing of wisdom and discernment, and a simple supper.
And, in so many respects, we still walk that Emmaus Road with Jesus as our companion, because those are the intimacies which Jesus shares with us here today and every day – and often by the same means:
- a journey of faith travelled together as a community;
- a conversation with friends gathered together at someone's house;
- a sharing of fears and doubts with someone who will listen;
- a sharing of wisdom, understanding and discernment with those who guide, teach and challenge us;
- and a simple supper enacted here every week for those who are hungry for spiritual food.
Isn't that our Emmaus Road for today which enables us to confess to ourselves and to say to others, 'We have seen the Lord'?