It had been a long, challenging day, coming on the heels of a long, challenging week. Cleopas and his friend had been in Jerusalem, and the events of the previous week had been tumultuous. Jesus had entered Jerusalem to loud acclaim by the crowds. The hostility toward him had mounted until that night when he was arrested—betrayed by one of their own. Then there was the trial, and the crucifixion. And finally, the weirdness of that very morning—the women going to the tomb to care for Jesus’ body and coming back with the craziest story about an empty tomb and angels saying Jesus was alive.
The two men had stuck around long enough for Peter to come back with his report that the tomb was indeed empty. But after that, what was the point in staying? Wherever his body was, Jesus was dead, and with him, all their hopes and dreams for a glorious future. They decided they might as well head home.
The day was getting on, but they figured they could make it as far as Emmaus—about a seven-mile walk from Jerusalem. They trudge along, heading northwest, the late afternoon sun sinking ahead of them. As they walk, they talk about all that had happened, throwing ideas and thoughts back and forth, in the way that we talk to each other when there are big gaps in what we know. Filling in details as we remember them, making conjectures, trying to connect dots that never seemed to be related before. Back and forth, back and forth. Absorbed in their feelings. Consumed by what they could hardly believe, let alone understand. Drained by the emotional roller coaster they’d been on.
As they walk and talk together, a stranger joins them. At least, he’s a stranger to them. Luke tells us who he is. It’s Jesus. He asks them what they’ve been talking about. This question literally stops them dead in their tracks, their faces showing their grief and astonishment. It’s incomprehensible to them that anyone could not know about what had happened in Jerusalem.
But the stranger still displays ignorance, so they tell him—about the man Jesus, a prophet mighty in word and deed before God and the people, a man who so threatened the religious establishment that they engineered his gruesome murder on the cross at the hands of the Romans. They told him about the empty tomb. They expressed, in their faces, in their posture, and in their words the despair they felt over how things had turned out. “We had hoped,” they said, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.
Such a sad story, up to this point. We can feel their pain and confusion and the discouragement of hopes and dreams that seemed to have come to nothing. Knowing what we know—knowing who their unexpected companion is—we want them to recognize him. “Look!” we want to tell them. “It’s Jesus! He really is alive and he is walking by your side! Look!”
But they continue to be oblivious, causing Jesus to have one of those head-shaking moments when he realizes how clueless those who love him can be. So, Jesus explains to them all the things they were wondering about before he joined them. Luke doesn’t tell us how they responded in the moment to this stranger expounding to them as they walked along the road. But neither their reaction to the stranger nor their reactions to the past couple of days keep them from offering the required Middle Eastern hospitality to him. When they neared the village of Emmaus and the stranger made to move on, the two men urged him to stay with them.
He agreed and then, at the table, an amazing thing happened. The guest began to play the role of the host. He was the one to take the bread, offer a prayer of blessing over it, break it, and give it to those at the table. And it was in that act—so like what they may have witnessed when five thousand were fed, so like what they may have witnessed in the upper room—that they realized that the stranger who had walked and talked with them in the midst of their grief, was the Risen Lord.
Why did it take them so long to recognize Jesus? A variety of explanations have been proposed to try to make sense of it. Maybe he was wearing a hood that hid his face as they walked, but surely he would have pushed it back when he went inside. Maybe that low-hanging sun obscured their vision. If you’ve ever been driving when the sun is exactly level with your eyes, and you can barely see what’s in front of you, that makes some sense. But they didn’t recognize him inside at the dinner table either, not at first.
Some scholars say that Jesus’ body, raised into new, unending life, didn’t look the same as the physical body he had occupied during his earthly life. Some even speculate that Jesus didn’t actually appear on that road to Emmaus, or anywhere else for that matter, but that he seemed present as a result of the disciples’ shared memories. But bread isn’t broken by memories, no matter how strong those memories are, and it was in the breaking of the bread at the dinner table that the two men knew who had been walking and talking with them on the road.
Maybe it would be better to accept that this is simply a mystery of faith that can’t be explained. But, the question still nags at us. Maybe it’s because we wonder, if it had been us, would we have recognized him? We wonder, even today, do we recognize Jesus when he’s walking by our side? I think that often we don’t, and the reasons we don’t see Jesus are probably the same ones Cleopas and his friend didn’t.
Sometimes the problem is that we are stuck in the disappointment, grief, and pain of the past. When we constantly look backwards, it is impossible to see what lies ahead of us. People who have a hard time forgiving a past hurt have this problem. “We had hoped” that that friendship, that romance, would last forever. But, when it doesn’t, we are unable to forge a new relationship when the old one still haunts us.
People who have been in a bad situation at work have this problem. “We had hoped” that that job would be the one that would satisfy us for the rest of our working lives. But, when it doesn’t, we become wary of investing too much in a new opportunity.
People who are grieving over a past loss have this problem. “We had hoped…” that our plans and dreams would be fulfilled. But, after the rug is ripped out from under us, we find ourselves unable to rely on the promises of the future. That’s where I found myself when I finally became pregnant with Peyton after several failed pregnancies. I found it hard to begin working on her nursery, even after we were well past the point where things had gone badly before. I was still too focused on the losses of the past to count on a more joyful future. We may not see Jesus drawing us forward because we are too focused on looking backwards.
We may be suffering from an even deeper grief—a feeling that God is far away. We feel lonely and separated from the God we love, afraid that maybe God’s back is turned to our situation and God’s ears are closed to our prayers. We may even feel that we have done something t cause God to look away—that we don’t deserve Jesus’ presence. We may not see Jesus because we don’t expect to see him.
Our inability to see Jesus may simply be that we’re not bothering to look for him. We’re busy people! And so, we stop paying attention to the places where he might be sitting, walking, and talking with us. Eventually, it may occur to us that we haven’t seen Jesus for a while, and we assume it’s because he hasn’t been around much. But actually, we’ve been too inattentive to notice him.
Cleopas and his friend may have been in a very similar situation. Maybe their attention was on the practical matter of getting to Emmaus before sundown. Maybe they felt guilty about making themselves scarce while Jesus hung on the cross, and they didn’t expect Jesus to appear to them. Maybe they were entirely focused on the past and on the dreams they were certain had died on the cross with Jesus. They express that mindset in their words, “We had hoped…” Their hopes had been replaced by hopelessness. They saw no reason to look forward as they continued to look back. They believed that the door had closed on the future they had anticipated, and they weren’t looking for a different door that would open to something new.
But none of that kept Jesus from joining them and then continuing to stay with them in their grief. He walked with them and spoke to them, even when they didn’t know it was him. He didn’t wait until they were in a spiritual or emotional place where they could recognize him on sight. He was with them when they couldn’t see him, and he stayed with them until they could.
It may be that the disciples actually were helping themselves get to that point. They did what all of us can do when we’re feeling stuck in the past, when we feel far from God, when we have lost our ability to pay attention to the moments and places where Jesus just may be. First of all, they talked with each other. They exchanged ideas. They asked questions of each other. They tried to make sense of what had happened, together. As they examined the past, looking for the meaning it might have for the future, they were opening the door to what would come next.
Second, in spite of their grief, they were able to offer hospitality to a stranger. They must have made Jesus feel welcome enough that he continued to walk with them on the road to Emmaus. They invited him to stay with them, including him in their evening meal. Opening ourselves to others requires that we focus on someone or something other than our own situation. When we begin to look toward someone else, we begin to look away from our own problems. And in those moments when we can look way from ourselves, it’s pretty likely that we will notice Jesus standing beside us.
Just as walked with the men on the road to Emmaus, Jesus walks with us. We may not see him at first. We may not recognize him, but he’s there. He may look suspiciously like the friend who holds our hand. He may sound an awful lot like the person who talks with us for hours on end as we try to sort out what’s happening in our lives. When we pay attention, we see that Jesus is present, not just in the hard moments but in the good ones, too.
In a few moments, we will come to the table. On that table will be the same thing that Jesus left on the table in Emmaus: bread—taken, blessed, broken, and given by our Risen and Living Lord. It is a sign now, as it was then, that Jesus is present with us. No matter what we are doing, how we are feeling, or what road we are traveling, Jesus left us with this sign that enables us to sing with confidence, “Christ is risen! Raise your spirits from the caverns of despair. Walk with gladness in the morning. See what love can do and dare.” As we come to the table, look into and recognize the face of the Savior, who is walking by your side. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young