Sermon - 15th April 2018
Walking to Emmaus
Scripture - Luke 24_13-35
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Around ten years ago I was on a training course just south of Crewe in a large conference centre which was located in the middle of some lovely grounds. One day, as we returned to the lecture room for the first session after lunch - known to all tutors as the graveyard slot - our lecturer waited until we had all sat down, then told us all to get up and go for a walk.
We were to pair up with someone we hadn’t spent much time with up to that point, and we were to wander through the grounds, walking side by side for about half an hour, and we were to talk about our career expectations.
When we all returned, the lecturer asked us to describe how the experience of walking alongside another person had felt as a way of communicating with them. And as soon as he asked us that, we began to realise what he was trying to show us.
I remember thinking that you have to listen when you’re walking side by side with someone. You don’t see their face full-on, and the process of walking can hide clues that you might otherwise get from body language or facial expression. You really have to listen.
Then there’s a natural informality about being together in some kind of open space as you stroll along. Power games - such as being in someone’s office, facing them across their desk as they sit in their executive chair while you make do with something of a deliberately lower status - all disappear. You are together on level ground, travelling at the same speed, following the same route, hopefully sharing the conversation equally and openly.
I realised later that I probably said more about my own career expectations, and learnt more about my companion’s, than would have happened if we had been in a formal setting. And we became more relaxed with each other in the social times during the conference as a result of our new discoveries about each other.
You also have to be aware of things that are going on around you when you’re walking. There are crossings and turnings to agree upon; there are hazards to watch out for - not just for yourself but for your walking partner also. Your conversation as you walk instinctively takes account of your surroundings and circumstances.
And sometimes, a walk that we may need to make anyway - for example between buildings or along corridors in large buildings - is the precious few seconds that we can give to someone who needs to have a few words with us.
In one of my favourite political dramas on television, The West Wing, the Chief of Staff in the White House often used to say to members of his team who wished to run something past him, “Walk with me”. And in this way he was able to give them an informal minute or two of his time which they could never have claimed within the commitments of his busy diary.
So, what our lecturer was trying to show us was that, for the right occasion, “Walk with me” is sometimes a more appropriate response than “Make an appointment to see me”. Communication happens in many ways; lots of it happens informally, and much of it goes unrecognised as something of real value until we reflect on it.
In our reading today we heard of a walk; in fact we heard of a walk, of an offer of hospitality, and of a supper. The way the story unfolds, we tend to feel that the climax of the story is the breaking of the bread at supper: it’s dramatic, it ends with a sudden disappearance, and Cleopas and his friend have been shaken by the realisation of just who they were entertaining.
But I think we can look at this story and see the walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus as the high point.
- It was during the walk that Jesus came alongside the two people who were confused, distressed, and only partly aware of what had been happening.
- It was during the walk that Jesus met them on their own level, journeyed at their speed, and shared their thoughts as they negotiated the turns and the potholes and the ditches in the track they were following.
- It was there that he listened, and then explained the deeper significance of the previous three days set against the background of the Jewish faith. The gospel writer uses a powerful phrase to describe this: he says Jesus opened up the scriptures for them.
- And later, Cleopas and his friend recall that their hearts seemed to burn within them when the stranger spoke about these things.
I have always believed that it takes time for the fullness of the Easter message to shape our understanding of what it means to say “Jesus is alive!”. The story of the journey to Emmaus is one of the gospel stories which we always hear in church during the Sundays after Easter. It might seem so familiar to us that we fail to see some of the ideas that Luke sought to share with his readers by including it - and only Luke does include it. But I think it still connects with us today if we recognise some of the simplest features of the story - simple features, but perhaps profound meanings.
Cleopas, his friend, and the stranger journeyed together. We often speak of our journey of faith as a way of seeing the changes and slow, gentle progressions through which our faith takes hold of us.
Jesus quietly fell in alongside the two friends. We often feel drawn to walk - not always physically - alongside someone who is having a difficult time knowing that our simple companionship - even the companionship of a near stranger - can be a genuine gift of sisterly or brotherly love when we most need it.
They were journeying away from the fear and stress of what had been happening in the heart of their community. “Fear” and “stress” are familiar words to many of us here today. There are occasions where we can let fresh air and new energy into our faith by getting out of our obsessive places and walking in new grounds where the change of environment refreshes us and helps to change our mood.
Cleopas and his companion opened up, spoke from the heart, and discussed their worries during the time given over to travelling. There are times when we value the intimacy of sharing our thoughts and feelings with someone who is journeying at our pace and is instinctively in step with us; someone who will share the challenge with us as we face turnings, hazards, diversions and hold-ups along the way, sometimes holding back, sometimes taking the lead, but always alongside.
Through the guidance of Jesus, the two disciples recognised the truth of the resurrection and began to realise its meaning. Sometimes, equally through the teachings of Jesus, we sense that we are blessed when we experience a special moment of understanding, a calmness, an assurance, a heartwarming touch which can only be from God.
In that simple story, Luke has released many profound ideas about the risen Jesus. Cleopas and his friend were the most ordinary of people; they were not really part of the inner circle. Like many of the disciples, they only had a vague grasp on what Jesus had been trying to teach them. They may even have been walking away from what looked like a failed attempt to bring about the Kingdom of God. And yet Jesus walked with them, listened to them, spoke with them, taught them, healed them of their fear, blessed them, and gave them hope which they could share with others.
This has been the experience of many who have looked back and recognised when Jesus quietly fell in with the pace of their journeys; times when he listened, challenged, brought light into a dark situation, and gently strengthened their faith and their confidence.
These simple encounters still come about - especially through the love, understanding, sharing and blessing that we bring to others as we follow his message.
And through those experiences, and others still to be shared, Jesus is alive!
And despite every setback as we travel onwards, the Kingdom of God comes closer with each step we take with our companions on our pilgrim journey.