“What if they hadn’t asked him to stay?”
That was the question a member of our Bible Study group asked when we discussed the story of the walk to Emmaus. What would have happened if the men on the road hadn’t asked Jesus to stay with the when they reached their destination? That question stuck with me. We tend to just accept the outcomes of our Bible stories as foregone conclusions. We assume that there were no other possible outcomes. But there were always other possible outcomes, because God gives us the freedom to make choices. It was entirely possible that the two men on the road to Emmaus would have allowed Jesus to walk on without them. It’s also possible for us to allow Jesus to walk on without us. He comes to us, and walks with us, but Jesus never forces himself on us. We have to decide whether or not to invite him to stay with us.
The invitation from Cleopas and his friend comes late in the story. They’d been walking along the road to a village called Emmaus, not far from Jerusalem. We don’t know anything about Cleopas; this is the only time he’s mentioned by name. And, of course, his friend remains anonymous. But Luke places them among the disciples who had been in the room when Mary Magdalene and the other women reported what they had seen and heard at the tomb. Cleopas and his companion may also have been among the men who dismissed the women’s report as an unbelievable “idle tale.”
The two decide to leave town. Maybe they were going home, assuming that, with Jesus dead and his body gone, all their hopes had come to an end. Maybe they just needed to put some distance between themselves and the scene of the terrible events of the past three days. When we lose a loved one, by the third day we usually haven’t even had the funeral yet. We certainly haven’t begun to get our minds around our loss. Maybe they just needed to get away so that they could process what had happened.
That’s what they appear to be doing as they walk along the road, discussing all that had happened. As they do, a stranger comes near. We know it was Jesus, but they didn’t know that. Luke doesn’t tell us why they didn’t recognize him. There are all kinds of theories, from God preventing them to the sun being in their eyes. But, whatever the reason, Jesus starts walking with them and chatting with them. Nothing so odd about that. You know how it is—like when you’re standing in a slow-moving check-out line and you just start talking with the people around you.
What is odd is that this stranger seems completely unaware of what has happened in Jerusalem, from where he’s clearly coming, just like them. When he asks them what they’re talking about, they are dumbfounded. What would they be talking about? That would have been like asking any American what they were talking about in the days after September 11th. They are so struck by the idea that they could possibly be talking about anything but what had happened that they come to a dead stop, right there in the middle of the road, with sadness etched on their faces.
But Jesus urges them to tell him more. Their answer, according to Luke, is a pretty clear synopsis of what has happened—not just of the events themselves but of the effect these events have had on them. They described how the man Jesus was respected by so many, and how they had hoped that he would be the one to restore Israel to its former independent national glory—hopes that were crushed when their very own chief priests and leaders had handed him over to be condemned and crucified, just three days ago. Then, they describe the events of that very morning—how they’d been astounded when the women who had gone to the tomb came back with an outlandish story about the tomb being empty of Jesus’ body but occupied by angels saying that Jesus is alive. They told him how some of those gathered together went to the tomb themselves and, sure enough, it was empty—no sign of Jesus or any angels.
That’s when Jesus takes pity on them. His words don’t sound very sympathetic; h calls them “foolish.” But Luke’s readers would have known what he meant. Philosophers of the time used the word “foolish” to describe people without a proper understanding about something. Jesus sets about correcting that situation, explaining to the men how all the Scriptures, from Moses onward, pointed to the man they were talking about, although they still didn’t know he was that man.
They arrive in the village, and Jesus acts as though he will continue on. But, given the lateness of the hour, they invite him to stay. And thank goodness that they did. For it was because they asked him to stay that they sat down to supper together. And, it was in the midst of that supper that they got it. They recognized him. Maybe memories of the last supper they shared with him came flooding back. Maybe seeing him take, bless, break, and give them the bread took them back to the hillside where he had fed thousands in the same way. In that moment, all that they had seen and heard, and all that he had told them on the road, opened their eyes to who he was.
And then, he vanishes. A more literal translation of Luke’s Greek is that he “became invisible” to them. I like that better. “Vanishing” suggests that Jesus left them. “Becoming invisible” suggests that he was still with them, but simply not visible in the way he had been. I imagine there was a moment of stunned silence when Jesus’ chair was suddenly empty. Then there was their excited conversation—not about what had just happened at the table, but about what they had experienced while he had talked with them on the road, as he opened the meaning of the Scriptures to them and guided them to a greater understanding.
They turn right around and go back to Jerusalem. When they rejoin their friends, the eleven apostles and their companions are singing a different tune than they had after disbelieving the women’s report. Now they’re convinced that the Lord has risen indeed! There’s been an appearance to Simon Peter (which the Gospels don’t describe). Then it’s the travelers’ turn to tell their story about walking with Jesus on the road and what happened afterwards, at the table.
“Stay with us,” the two men had said to Jesus. And, because they did, they saw for themselves the truth of the women’s report—that Jesus was alive. Because they asked Jesus to stay, they became aware that, in the midst of their despair, Jesus had been with them all along. Because they asked him to stay, they came to realize that he was the reason they had experienced what we Methodists might call “hearts that were strangely warmed,” as Jesus guided them through the Scriptures while they walked together on the road. Because they asked Jesus to stay, they had good news to share with the disciples back in Jerusalem, who had yet to see Jesus for themselves.
But, what if they hadn’t asked him to stay? What would it have cost them? There would have been no shared, eye-opening meal. No assurance that he was with them in their darkest moments—no assurance that the darkness had, in fact, been dispelled. No “aha” moment, when they realized that the reason their hearts burned within them was that their living Lord had set them on fire. No joyful trip back to Jerusalem to share the good news that they had witnessed Jesus alive, walking and talking and breaking bread with them. Jesus had been with them all along, but they needed to invite him to stay before they could realize those blessings. They needed to ask him to stay before they could pass those blessings along to others.
Our faith journeys are no different from the journey Cleopas and his friend made to Emmaus. Jesus walks with us all the time. He speaks into our hearts, even when we don’t know it’s him. It’s what we call prevenient grace. But to experience the full range of the blessing of his presence, we need to respond. We need to invite him to stay with us.
The Greek word for “stay” also means “to abide.” That’s what Jesus asks us to do as his disciples—to abide in him. We are to abide in him as a branch abides in its vine. But we can’t abide in him unless we invite him to abide with us. Jesus never forces his way into our lives, but he will always accept our invitation to stay with us. “Listen!” Jesus says in the book of Revelation, “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
But what if we don’t ask him to stay? What do we lose? We lose the opportunity to see him in our daily lives. We lose the security that comes from being firmly rooted in him. We lose the confidence we draw from knowing how much he loves us. And, we lose the chance to tell others of the life that he offers when he abides in us and we abide in him.
How, exactly, can we ask Jesus to stay with us? John Wesley gave his Methodist Societies what are called the “General Rules.” They’re meant to be a kind of baseline for leading faithful lives. The first is “Do no harm.” The second is “Do good.” The third one, in Wesley’s words, is “Attend upon all the ordinances of God.” But United Methodist Bishop Ruben P. Job reinterpreted that rule. His version of the Third General Rule is to “Stay in love with God.” The way to stay in love with God is to abide in the love of God’s Son. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love,” Jesus said.
For each of the rules, Wesley gave practical examples. The third rule gives examples of ways that we can make it clear to Jesus that he’s welcome in our hearts and lives. They include participating in worship within a community of believers—his body. We learn his story as we study Scripture, and hear it preached and read, for the entire Biblical story leads up to Jesus coming into the world. We gather with him at the table as we share in Communion. We observe times of fasting or restraint—eliminating things that crowd him out and creating space where we can give him our undivided attention. We pray—alone, with family and friends, and with the church—because what makes someone feel more welcome than talking with and listening to them?
These rules are also called spiritual disciplines. I think a better word for them is “welcome mats.” They say to Jesus, “Stay with us. You are welcome here.” They open the doors of our hearts and our lives so that he may come in and stay with us.
Cleopas and his friend had a choice to make when they arrived in Emmaus. We have the same choice to make, every day. Our risen Lord walks with us wherever we go. He’s ready to speak with us, wherever we are. All he’s waiting for is for an invitation. All he needs is to hear us say, “Stay with us, and he will. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young