The Emmaus story* is, I think, one of my favourite parts of the Bible. However, and I don’t know about you, I can never take it literally. If you do, that’s fine; I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m sharing with you how this story works for me. Grief does strange things to people but it just doesn’t seem likely that these two disciples, after spending several years with Jesus, don’t manage to recognise him when he is walking and talking with them. My experience is that when those we love are taken from us by death we tend to see them where they are not. I remember being several times convinced I had seen my mother after she died, but it was, of course, someone like her, wearing her sort of clothes. As for the disciples, “they were kept from recognising him,” says Luke, but that is to me a literary device to keep us on board this story of human loss and hospitality, as well as for setting what has happened in the scriptural tradition.
I imagine this story arising from a meal, rather than leading to one. I imagine that just these two disciples sat down, on that night in Emmaus, and one or the other, Cleopas or his unnamed friend, broke the bread for their evening meal. But something happened in that moment that was to turn these despairing men into messengers of joy, to make men who had trodden wearily to Emmaus into men who ran full of life and hope back to their friends in Jerusalem. Somehow, Jesus became present to them in that moment in a way that not only changed them but that echoes and re-echoes down through history to our table tonight. Something happened that made this what I call not the Last Supper but the first, the first of a new order. However we read it, and I shall continue with all characters present, I’m sure you have noted that one only of the disciples is named. That’s Cleopas, the shortened form of Cleopatros, meaning glory of the father. Who is the other?
Maybe it’s you or me. Luke has left space for us in his story. Indeed, for William Loader this story, “invites participation. It is in the best sense a faith legend. The risen Jesus appears and just as suddenly disappears. We are not in the realm of a literal understanding of resurrection which would have Jesus brought back to life (like Lazarus) & living a normal life. It is not that Jesus was hiding behind the bushes and slipped in behind and then beside these two disciples while they were walking with his face half veiled to avoid recognition. It was not that he slipped out the door later while they were not looking.”
I agree. Something deeper and more mysterious is happening here; something that is not and need not be confined to a moment in history, nor to the participants in that history, however many and whoever they might have been. This story does invite our participation; it invites us to walk with those disciples, to imagine ourselves with them then, but to translate what we discover into the here and now.
Forget for a moment that the doubts the men had about the women’s reports have proved unfounded; forget that Luke’s readers know about the resurrection, forget that you know. For a moment, journey with that pair, be one of them, be the companion of Cleopas. You are devastated, Jesus has been taken from you; the hopes and dreams of your years together lie in tatters. It is finished, over. What had begun so brightly, so hopefully, is now ended in death and grief. Can you imagine how those disciples felt that day? If you have seen your dreams shattered, if you have had the results of your hard work torn away from you, if you have experienced grief & loss, you will have some idea of the state of those men’s hearts that evening. The walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus was the longest 7 miles you ever walked; every step heavy and hard. Why did you go there? Were you trying to put some distance between you and Jerusalem authorities? Were you trying to put some distance between you and the events you had witnessed and the pain they brought?
Well, the former would have been easier than the latter; you might have shaken off the authorities but you had to carry your grief with you. We can’t run away from our grief; the best we can do is to learn to live with it, manage it, survive it. Perhaps it was only that you had some business in Emmaus which necessitated your presence in the village. In any case, as you walked, the events of recent days went with you in your conversation. Did a stranger join you on your journey? Maybe. It doesn’t matter because for me the most powerful part of the story is to come, and it is the part that fills my heart every time I am privileged to offer the bread and wine of communion. But let’s leave the stranger there.
As you walked, you talked; in your conversation you relived the last days’ events: the horror of the crucifixion, barbarous and brutal enough to witness at any time but the more so when it was your friend and master who was the victim, when it was one whose love and compassion should have brought not crucifixion but respect and honour. Crucified, he had been taken and buried and with him was buried those hopes and dreams. Heavy were your hearts and your steps on that evening journey. The stranger’s words about the scriptures perhaps began to lift your heart, but it was your hearts only, for the moment, and not your head. You arrive at your destination. Luke has the stranger making as if to carry on and you have to convince him to stay, to rest awhile and eat with you. He agrees. You may have missed the moment. A lack of basic hospitality here might have led you to miss something life changing. The small things matter; as it says in Hebrews, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” and, we might add, not only angels.
You wash the dust of your journey from your bodies, turn to your meal; a loaf of bread, some wine. A simple meal, such as you had shared often with Jesus; such as you had shared just a few days before. Then, when you ate together, Jesus had taken the role of both servant and leader, taking the bread and wine and giving thanks for it, breaking it, passing it to his friends. Who will take that role tonight? Luke gives the task to the stranger. See him before you, the bread in his hands.
He grips it, his thumbs move apart as the flesh of the loaf appears through the torn crust, flakes of which fly into the evening air, their shapes caught in the flickering lamplight. In that moment ….. recognition, presence, affirmation, hope. But only for a moment; the stranger is gone, though he is a stranger no more. The hands that broke the bread were, are, the hands of Jesus.
Amy Hunter reports that she once heard a preacher claim that the point of the Emmaus story is that we can recognize Jesus only in the broken bread. The point for me is that yes, in this story, Jesus was recognised in the breaking of bread, but more importantly he is recognised in a familiar act. In that we are reminded that discipleship is not confined to re-enactment at the table but is for all life. For the disciples then and now Jesus may be recognised in every familiar act; whenever disciples walk in our master’s footsteps; whenever our hands are as his hands, our words as his words, our hearts as his heart, then we will recognise Jesus; then Jesus will be here be there. Not physically; that’s not the point of this story except to say that Christ is present in the physicality of bread and wine, in the physicality of their breaking and pouring; in the physicality of our sharing. No this is a deeply spiritual truth and it is most gloriously present in this table but not confined here. “Where two or three gather in my name, I am present with them.” Are these the words of Jesus or the testimony of disciples who knew the utter truth of that for themselves?
Amy Hunter says, “Yes, the story resonates with a sense of the church and its mission and of the tremendous power of the word and the sacraments to connect us with the presence of God. But its image is of God and a church that walk alongside human confusion, human pain and a human loss of faith and hope. Emmaus invites us to expect God to find us. Emmaus challenges us to see that it isn’t our unshakable faith and deep spirituality that connect us with the risen Christ, but our smallest gestures of hospitality and friendship.”
Let me leave you with this thought: while we seek to remember Christ in our own actions, to know him present in our own words, remember that it was Luke’s stranger who became Christ for those lost disciples; so, as you find Christ in the bread of this table, may you find him also anew in the world. Amen.
Two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus are joined by a stranger who talks with them but who they do not recognise until he breaks the bread when he shares their evening meal at their invitation. Then he disappears. Read it for yourself in Luke chapter 24:13-35
This is a sermon that is to be preached at a communion service.