Remembering Jesus on the Road to Emmaus

Scripture: Luke 24: 13-35

The road to Emmaus

Many Bibles identify today’s Gospel passage with the heading On the Road to Emmaus.  The Greek word for road (hodos) is significant.  It also means way, path, or journey. The earliest followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians.  They used the name “Followers of the Way.” The Gospel writer John identified Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life.”  When John the Baptist called people to repentance, he said, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Jesus and the disciples took a journey from Galilee to Jerusalem to attend the Passover; on their way they visited Martha and Mary.  And, of course, the two disciples in today’s Gospel were on a journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

On Easter evening, two disciples met a stranger on the road to Emmaus

The story of the appearance of the Risen Jesus on Easter evening almost tells itself. On their way home from Jerusalem to Emmaus, two disciples met a stranger. He seemed to know nothing about recent events in Jerusalem. So the disciples told him about Jesus of Nazareth. They said that Jesus was a mighty prophet, but the chief priests arrested him unjustly and then crucified him. Yet that same morning, some women in their group went to anoint his body. The tomb was empty, but angels told them that Jesus was alive. At that point, the stranger seemed all of a sudden to become much more knowledgeable. He explained that Scripture had foretold that the Messiah must suffer before the world could recognize him.

It was getting late, so the two disciples invited the stranger to stay with them. He agreed. The climax of the story is that while they were at supper, the stranger took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to the two disciples. At that moment, they recognized that the stranger was Jesus, and instantly he vanished. Even though it was late, the two disciples rushed back to Jerusalem. They told the others that Jesus had appeared to them in the breaking of the bread.

Resurrection is not resuscitation

Think back to John’s Easter story last week.  Like Mary Magdalene in the garden, the two disciples en route  to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus at first. He had become, to use Paul’s language, a spiritual rather than an earthly body. All the Gospel writers realized that the Resurrection was different from resuscitation. Jesus did not come back to life in the ordinary sense. Encounters with the Risen Christ were – and are – not the same as meeting the human Jesus in the flesh.

Today’s Scripture is all about remembering

The disciples apparently said nothing while the stranger explained Scripture to them. But afterwards, they remembered that “their hearts burned within them” when he spoke to them. Then, when the stranger broke bread with them at the meal, they remembered that these were the words that Jesus had used over the bread at the Last Supper.  We use the same words every week.  Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. The story is about Eucharist. The Eucharist is about remembering Jesus’ own words at the Last Supper.  We eat the bread and drink the cup, “In remembrance of me.”

Author Fred Craddock reminds us that Scripture quotes several occasions after the Resurrection when the disciples “remembered Jesus’ words” [Fred B. Craddock, “Luke”, Interpretation Series, Knox Press, Loiusville KY, pp. 284-288].  Craddock also says that there are three times to know an event – before, in anticipation; at the time; and afterwards, in remembrance. Imagine a major life event like your own wedding.  You look forward to it, and imagine how wonderful it will be.  It is often hard to put down a memory in the busyness of the event itself.  But we imprint the event in our minds when we remember it. That means that we put the event back together when we talk about it and share pictures with family and friends afterwards.  It solidifies the memory for us.

We remember the Jesus story

Some pastors complain that their congregations don’t know anything about Bible stories that they have heard all their lives. Yet everyone here today can remember and tell about the Christmas birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and that Jesus told parables and did miracles of healing.  That’s what happened when the disciples talked to the stranger who seemed unaware of recent events. They told him that the chief priest turned Jesus over to Pilate for execution.  Then they explained that they had hoped Jesus was the Messiah.  Finally, they told him about the women who had discovered that his body was missing from the tomb.

The Gospel account parallels our Sunday Eucharist

Author Craddock notes that our Gospel story exactly parallels our Sunday Eucharists, with Word (Scripture and its exposition) then Sacrament (Communion). We remember Jesus when we read a Gospel story about his life or his teachings. Then the preacher interprets that Scripture for our own times. At the Eucharist, we remember the words that Jesus used at the Last Supper, then we partake of the bread and wine at the communion table.

Sometimes we use an Invitation to Communion that reminds us explicitly of today’s particular Gospel story. It begins like this: “He was always a guest. In the homes of Peter and Jairus, of Martha and Mary, of Joanna and Susanna, he was always a guest. At the tables of the tax collectors, upsetting polite company, welcoming the stranger, he was always a guest. But here at this table, he is the host.”

That is exactly what happened when the two disciples invited the stranger to stay and eat with them. They were the hosts. But when the Christ took the loaf of bread, blessed, broke, and gave it, his role became symbolically that of the host, not a guest. Like the two disciples, we at St. George’s have prepared the table this morning, set out the communion ware, bought the bread and the wine. But Christ is the host at our table today; we are Christ’s guests.

“Their eyes were opened”

Luke tells us that when the disciples recognized the stranger, “their eyes were opened.” When Jesus was en route to Jerusalem, he met a blind man who asked to receive his sight. Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you” [Luke 18: 42]. These accounts of opened eyes act as bookends to the Holy Week and Easter story.  The blindness is not physical, or merely physical, but instead spiritual – a blindness that faith can overcome. It is the blindness of John Newton, author of the hymn, Amazing Grace. He, “was blind but now I see”, when he recognized that his life as a slave ship captain was wrong.

You might notice something else in the account of the Road to Emmaus. The stranger interpreted the coming of the Messiah in Old Testament terms, back to Moses and the prophets. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul stressed that his new church members should know the Hebrew Scriptures.  Similarly, Luke locates the Gospel Jesus entirely within the scope of his Jewish faith. Jesus was Jewish, like the disciples, like Luke and all the other New Testament authors. Our Christianity is not an anti-Jewish faith, but one that grew out of that older tradition.

Images for today

Finally, our story today has another implicit meaning. It describes a journey on the Road to Emmaus.  Last Sunday, we baptized a new member of Christ’s family.  I used the metaphor of that person starting out on their life’s journey with Christ.  As we walk up the aisle of the church to reach the altar this morning, may it have many symbols for us.  We journey to meet Jesus at the communion table.  We also remember the journey on the Road to Emmaus that the two disciples took.  It was  in their presence that Christ took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them.

But perhaps the most significant question for each of us is to ask ourselves, “What journey am I on, in my life?”  One can justly say, “If you don’t know where you are going, you aren’t going anywhere.”  It applies to individuals, to companies, to parishes …  It doesn’t only apply to spiritual matters.  Where is my career going?  Where are my relationships (marriage, family, friends) going?  Those two disciples were on two kinds of journey.  On a mundane level, they were  on the Road to Emmaus.  But spiritually, their Road to Emmaus led them to the Risen Christ.  To put that last sentence more prosaically, the disciples were in a time of spiritual transition.  Exciting things were happening.  They didn’t comprehend what was going on while they walked with the stranger.  They had to reach the end of the journey, then understanding dawned on them.