Emmaus: faith to doubt and back again


Scripture, Luke 24: 13-35 Nigel Bunce

Is the “Walk to Emmaus” a story of a real physical journey, or does it tell of two disciples’ journey from faith to doubt and back again?  I’ll explore this idea in today’s homily.

This homily started out with a comment by Jan, when she and I recorded last week’s Earth Day outdoor service. “Maybe next week we could video the two disciples as they walk to Emmaus?” As I thought about the idea, I said to myself that Michelle and I could be Mr and Mrs Cleopas, while Jan narrated. But we couldn’t ask anyone else to be Jesus in the video, because of social distancing.

But maybe that isn’t a problem. The couple met the Risen Christ, not the earthly Jesus. That’s why they didn’t recognize him. Following that line of thought, I remembered Saul’s famous conversion on the Road the Damascus. Saul had a vision of Christ, light and a voice. It was not a physical meeting [Acts 9: 9]. In these times, it seems almost like a virtual meeting.

Perhaps we could explain today’s Gospel in terms of a vision

Just as Ezekiel did not see a real valley filled with real dry bones [Ezekiel 37: 1-14], perhaps these two disciples took a journey of faith. That would let us to treat this story, symbolically, like a parable. It would be another way to explain it. That would not invalidate the usual explanation of a real journey. It would just be a different approach.

I have often said that Luke was the best storyteller of the four Gospel writers. Think of Luke’s Christmas story of shepherds and angels, or his telling of the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Today’s Gospel is certainly “up there” with them as a wonderful story. But more than that, it’s a story of a journey. In dreams and visions, journeys represent the progress of one’s life.

This journey shows faith to doubt and back again

The Walk to Emmaus, Painting by Fritz von Uhde, 1891. German title, Der Gang nach Emmaus.

The Scripture describes a walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and a return to Jerusalem. On the journey towards Emmaus, the two disciples are despondent. They thought that Jesus was the Messiah. Then he was crucified, and they do not believe that the Resurrection has happened. This part of the journey leads them from faith towards doubt.

Then at supper, they remember the Last Supper, Passover, meal in the breaking of the bread. Suddenly they realize that Jesus has been with them all along. They rush back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples. This is the journey from doubt to renewed and stronger faith. 

Stages of faith

In our own lives, it’s like what James Fowler called ‘Stages of Faith Development’. A crisis of faith happens when we find, for example, that what we learned in Sunday School no longer meets our spiritual needs. Often this takes the form of doubting whether the Bible stories we grew up with are really or literally true. Our first reaction may be to decide to chuck out the whole ‘faith thing’.

But there is another possibility. We can move to a more mature faith. When we realize that many of the Bible’s ‘truths’ are not literal truths at all. As adults, we now have the imagination to look beneath the superficial story to the underlying meaning. Like realizing what Jesus’ parable about a sower sowing seeds in good or rocky ground is really about. Some people have the ability to hear and accept spiritual ideas, whereas others are deaf to them.

Or whether the truth of Luke’s story about shepherds and angels is really a way of saying that heaven and earth were in very close proximity the night of Jesus’ birth. Or whether the walk to Emmaus is really about faith lost and found again. That last idea fits in with one of Luke’s favorite themes, in his parables of lost sheep, lost coins, and lost sons.

So now let’s revisit the Scripture story

On Easter Day, two disciples are walking home from the Passover festivities in Jerusalem. They discuss “all these things that had happened”, presumably the Last Supper, then Jesus’ arrest, trial, and Crucifixion. They meet a stranger, who is Jesus in a vision. But they don’t recognize him.

The two disciples tell the stranger that they expected Jesus to be the Messiah. But what happened had dashed their hopes and dreams, even though some women disciples claimed to have seen angels who told them that Jesus was alive. The stranger tells them that they are foolish. Scripture had predicted all this.

Perhaps Jesus was present only in this sense. Once the two disciples had the time to get over their disappointment, they had all the tools they needed to see things differently. In retrospect, they’d been foolish not to see this.  Now they were ready to move to a new stage of faith. That happened when they took, blessed, and broke the bread at suppertime. I assume that they had been at the Last Supper. It was the “Aha” moment for them. They suddenly realized, “That’s what Jesus did.”  It “turned around” their perspective. So when they turned around and returned to Jerusalem, it was as if they had moved from faith to doubt and back again.

The Emmaus story relies on remembering

The disciples apparently said nothing while the stranger explained Scripture to them. Or, in this alternative explanation, how they remembered their Scripture – Moses, the prophets, the prediction that the Messiah must suffer and die.

Like the two disciples, we encounter 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 from that older tradition.

Afterwards, at the breaking of the bread they remembered the words that Jesus had used over the bread at the Last Supper.. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it. These are the words we use every week at the Eucharist. Because the Eucharist itself is about remembering. In Jesus’ own words at the Last Supper, we eat the bread and drink the cup, “In remembrance of me.”

So I hope that now you can see why it was OK for Jan to record only two disciples travelling the road towards Emmaus. Jesus was indeed there with them, but they did not see him physically.

As Christians, we are used to the idea that Jesus can be with us in this life. To meet the Risen Christ is not the same as meeting the human Jesus in the flesh. Like the two disciples in Luke’s story, may we encounter the Risen Christ in April 2020, even though we cannot see him physically. As Jesus said to the Apostle Thomas [John 20: 29]. “Blessed are they that have not seen, but yet have believed.”