Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
You’ve all heard this story from scripture many times – at least part of it, anyway, because of the several options that our Book of Common Worship offers as a welcome and invitation to the Lord’s Table for Communion, I almost always use the one that mentions this story. These two disciples were walking out from Jerusalem to the little village of Emmaus on that Sunday afternoon after Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s an interesting story. First, we don’t even know both of their names. Luke, and whoever was his original source for the story, only tell us that one of them was a man named Cleopas, and we can only assume that they mentioned him by name because in the ensuing years after it happened, Cleopas must have become a well-known person, probably a leader, in the very early church. It was a way of validating the story itself to Luke’s original audience, a way of saying “Cleopas himself was there and attested to this so we know it’s true.” On the other hand, I feel a little sorry for the other poor guy who was with him, the other disciple who was just as much a part of this amazing story but whose name is lost to the ages. I can picture him thinking “Hey, what about me, I was there, too!”
Some people have wondered what these two were doing, why they were going to Emmaus that afternoon. We’ll never really know, of course, but I suspect the real reason they were going to Emmaus is that that’s just where the road happened to go. Jerusalem was still clogged with Passover pilgrims and Roman occupiers, and there was no doubt a great deal of chaos within the group of Jesus’ followers as they went through the grief, and anger, and confusion over what they should do next, now that Jesus was dead. Should they all just go home and forget about it all, or what? And so, in the midst of all that, I suspect Cleopas and his unknown friend just needed to clear their thoughts, to sort things out in their heads. So they picked a road out of town to just go for a walk and get away from everything, and the road they picked just happened to be the one that led out to Emmaus. There’s a phrase in Latin, Solvitor Ambulando – “It Will Be Solved in the Walking” – and I think that’s what these two were trying to do.
We do that same kind of thing at times, don’t we? Things start to press in on us from all sides sometimes, and the only way to deal with it is to disengage. To take off for a couple of days. Maybe to go on a retreat. There’s actually a very well-known three-day spiritual retreat that a lot of people take called “The Walk to Emmaus,” designed to help people clear away the cobwebs, to deepen their spirituality and their relationship with Christ, and to help them discern a path forward in their lives.
Usually, though, our walk to Emmaus isn’t anything that in-depth or structured. More often than not, our Emmaus walk is a walk through a Metro Park. Or going to Grater’s for a double scoop of Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip by ourselves. Or getting in the car and driving, without ay particular destination in mind. We each have something that we do when we want to step out of the moment to get some clarity in our lives, to step up onto the balcony, as it were, to be able to see the bigger picture, get a clearer view of what’s going on.
Cleopas and his friend certainly got a clearer view of things on their walk, more than they’d ever dreamt of. Luke tells us that in some way, these two disciples, who had spent many hours, days, maybe even years, with Jesus, didn’t recognize him when he approached them on the road, and as he walked with them and opened up the meaning of the scriptures to them. People have sometimes suggested that maybe the two were just so grief-stricken that they just weren’t paying attention and weren’t really looking at Jesus, and that’s how they didn’t recognize him. Personally, I think that in some way, a physical, but transformed, “resurrection body” must be different in some way, in that its appearance can vary – and that Jesus, the resurrected Lord of all Creation, was just being ornery and was having a little bit of fun with them, the same way that he was in other scriptural accounts where some of his closest friends didn’t recognize him in certain post-resurrection appearances.
One of the reasons I like this passage so much is that if you think about it, it’s actually a model of what our experience as followers of Jesus is supposed to be like, and what the church is really supposed to be all about. We begin on a spiritual journey, and there’s an explanation of the scriptures, and a communal meal, and in those things we encounter Christ; and then we’re sent out to tell others the good news we’ve had revealed to us.
In this model of what our spiritual life, and our life as the church can be like, we all start out on this journey, not completely sure where we’re going, not sure where we’re going to end up, like Cleopas and his friend had done. Full of questions, looking for answers, maybe even caught up in some inner conflict, turmoil, grief and seeking some comfort. And somehow, in the process we encounter the risen Christ. We don’t even necessarily recognize him at the time, in the moment. As we participate in the life of the church, we hear words, catch impressions, get a word of comfort or an insight that suddenly strikes us and we hadn’t thought of before. We’re worshiping as part of a group, singing together, hearing a sermon together, but we might walk away feeling in some way we really can’t explain that the whole message of the day spoke just to us and our heart. Sometimes, it’s only in looking back on those experiences that we realize that in those moments, we actually experienced the presence of Christ, in the same kind of hidden way that Cleopas and his friend had.
Maybe that’s an important part of our spiritual journey as Jesus’ followers. Maybe our gradually recognizing Christ’s presence in our lives is an important part of our discipleship, and the deepening of our own spiritual lives, and for Jesus to be present with us clearly and unambiguously, without any hiddenness at all, just horning his way into our lives and demanding our attention and obedience, would destroy it all. I think that the deepening of our lives in Christ relies on Jesus’ not crashing down the gate and blowing his way into our daily lives. Rather, I think it depends on this ongoing, gradual discovery of his presence, through worship, through sitting at table with him, and with Cleopas, and with his unknown friend, in the Lord’s Supper. In our spiritual lives, things are solved in the walking, because it’s in the walking that we really come to understand who it is that’s walking alongside us – and because Christ is indeed right alongside us in all of our walking, through good days and bad, and because he’s always reaching out for us, moving in our lives, and waiting for us to recognize it’s him who’s doing the moving because he loves us so deeply and dearly, we can all say
Thanks be to God.