On the Road to Emmaus
The gospel lesson for this Lord’s Day, the Third Sunday of Easter, tells us about an appearance of the risen Jesus. For our part, we can already tell that this is a focus of Eastertide. The first of course was on that first Easter Sunday, when Jesus presented himself alive to the women on their way from the empty tomb. The second was in a room where the disciples were hiding behind locked doors, for fear of the Jews. The third is here, on the road to Emmaus. It’s the most comprehensive of those we have seen so far. For this reason, it offers us a broad enough perspective to make a few important observations about the appearance of the risen Jesus, hopefully illuminating what we have already seen in the earlier accounts. Let us note first that the risen Jesus appears in situations of human distress. Second, let us see that his appearance brings new clarity, new direction to those who are witnesses to it. And finally, let us note that his appearing is transitional in character. We will take up each of these in turn.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were devastated. What they left behind them in Jerusalem was the scrap heap of all their hopes. To them Jesus was not only a beloved teacher, he was the salvation of Israel, the fulfillment of all God’s promises. In his presence they held it in their hands. And then it was destroyed, and not by just anyone, and not even by an unfortunate accident, but by the leaders of their own people. How could it be that their own high priests could misuse the word of God to condemn to death a man who obviously came from God? How could they account for this willful blindness, this perversion of justice? The two disciples are disillusioned. Their foundations have been shaken. Nothing makes sense. In this regard, Emmaus does not represent a place to go. But since Jerusalem failed to fulfill its destiny for them and their people, there is nowhere to go. Then a stranger approaches and begins to walk with them. He is eager to join in their conversation.
Have you noticed, both in your life and that of others, that spiritual transformation is often preceded by pain and confusion? We say of someone that he has come to the end of himself. Only then does it seem that he is receptive to an encounter, open to an intervention—in this case, by the risen Christ.
The two disciples do not recognize their fellow traveler; his true identity his hidden from their eyes. He then asks them a question: “What are you talking about?”
We are not inclined to see the questions addressed to people in the Old Testament and the New Testament, whether by God or by Jesus, as questions in the strict sense of the word. When we ask someone a question, it’s for the purpose of soliciting information we don’t currently possess. But that simply can’t be the case with the divine. For example, when God asks Cain: “Where is your brother, Abel?” it’s not because is seeking information about Abel’s whereabouts. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). What then is the point of asking the question?
There is a mystery here. On one hand, God knows the inmost secrets of the heart. On the other, God wants in us a genuine dialogue partner. That’s what it means to be made in God’s image. But there can be no dialogue when one knows in advance all that the other is going to think and say.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke of this mystery in terms of a distinction between two modes of creation: There is the way God creates and there is the way we create. Whatever we create remains dependent on us. For example, when a computer programmer writes a code, it remains dependent on his instructions. That is, the code cannot act independently of its creator. But God can and does create a being that is genuinely free relative to him. That God can do this is a demonstration of his omnipotence. In this relative freedom there is a space for dialogue between Creator and creature, there is an opening for an encounter.
Jesus asks the two disciples questions. When we are lost and confused, we want clear direction. We want a solution to our problem. But that is seldom how God works with us. He does not show us direction, nor does he solve our problems for us, but gives us wisdom so that we can entertain the right questions, and then discover the way for ourselves. Similarly, Jesus does not appear to the two in the splendor of his resurrection glory, thereby in the blink of an eye forever resolving their pain and confusion. He wants them to arrive at their own understanding. That is why he prompts them to bring it to language. This is how we typically work through what is unresolved in us. After they give an ordered account of the events in answer to Jesus questions, he proceeds to help them to locate the suffering of the Messiah in the context of God’s plan of salvation. He does this by opening up the scriptures for them. The death of Israel’s savior did not derail God’s plan; it was central to that plan. When God opens our eyes to this truth, then the Old and New Testaments become an open book to us.
Already we can see in them the beginnings of change. In our grief, we want to be alone; we hardly feel inclined to entertain guests at a dinner party. But the two feel comfortable in the stranger’s presence. To be more precise, they feel positively drawn to him. He has cared for them, as we have already shown. We want to be in the presence of those who care for us. That is why, for their part, they invite the stranger to stay with them. Incidentally, the beautiful hymn “Abide with Me,” is inspired by this story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It is the desire of the disciple in all times and places. Lord, it is evening time; please stay with me. This becomes critical during these times of endless loneliness, especially for those who live alone.
It is interesting that the moment of recognition in the drama is deferred to the very end, when Jesus is at table with them. What is going on here? Note the deliberate language used here. Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread to them. Sound familiar? The Anglican liturgical scholar Gregory Dix called them the “four Eucharistic words.” That is, this is the language of the Last Supper. There Jesus connected with the bread and the cup the suffering he was about to undergo for us and for our salvation. Then it must have come together for the two disciples: the Messiah who suffers! Jesus voluntarily undergoes suffering because what God wants is for his people to worship him, to be his friend, and to eat with him: in short, to be his companions. That is something truly remarkable: God wants us to be his companions! The Eucharist offers a model of this companionship. The risen Christ is present with us too in our Lord Supper celebrations as presider and host.
We said that in consequence of the appearing of the risen Christ to them, the disciples receive new clarity, new direction. It is significant that now the disciples return to Jerusalem. It is a city that is to fulfill its destiny after all. Beginning there, together with the other disciples, they will be his witnesses, then in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We conclude with a remark about the resurrection appearance itself. It’s clear that the accounts want to present them as more or different than a vision or apparition. But yet is clear that Jesus is no longer present in his resurrection body in the same way as he was as an ordinary body, as a body as we know it. He walks through locked doors. He is disguised as a stranger on the road to Emmaus. He vanishes from sight after the disciples recognize him in the breaking of the bread. What is going on here? How are we supposed to understand these appearances? The simple answer is that in the glorified state man apparently does not have the same limitations as he has now. Is that what the NT authors want to convey to us? We have chosen to use the word transitional. Jesus is with his disciples temporarily in this age, but he does not belong to this age. He belongs to the one to come. He waits for us there. Or rather we are waiting for him to come from there to make all things new, so that when he appears we shall be made like him. We call these appearances transitional, because Jesus is our future. He has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. He will come for us from there. And that is our hope, a hope that Easter makes possible. Amen.