Rising Strong: Emmaus
"That same evening, a couple of hours before dark, Cleophas, Jesus’s uncle, and his wife, Mary, who’d been at the cross, were making their way unhappily toward Emmaus, a town seven miles northwest of the city at the end of Ayalon Valley. Two hours’ walk. An overnight stop over on their long journey back to Galilee. Get a leg of the journey out of the way. More importantly, get away from the cauldron of Jerusalem and its destruction of their profoundest hopes. The open road was more dangerous after dark, but it was a place to breathe and unburden themselves of the shattered Illusions they dared not broach in the city, even in whispers. (1)
Arguing, as spouses sometimes do. Mary was cautiously exuberant, hoping the news was true - and more importantly, rerooting their hopes. The tomb was definitely empty. Even stubborn Simon admitted that. And, say what you want about the Magdala woman, she was there when they killed him. Mary had been there herself. And Magdalene had also seen him. Well then? “And don't give me that ‘she's only a woman!’ She was there before any man!”
Cleophus was sourly convinced it was all over. So they had almost tired of snapping at one another, rehashing “And what will we do now?”
Suddenly she put her hand on her husband's arm to silence him. “Someone's back there,” she whispered. They stopped, and Cleophas moved in front of his wife and lifted his stout staff at an angle in front of them, ready.
The stranger was a big man, and the couple tensed. But he was alone. The sky was darkening. The village inn was only a bit up the road. But neither of them could outrun him.
The man raised his hand. “Hello!” he hollered. “I'm alone. Don't be afraid. I mean you no harm. May I join you?”
He approached slowly, hands empty in the air. The couple was stiffly wary, angling their eyes around him in case there were others.
“My name is Cleophas,” the man volunteered, cautiously. “This is my wife, Mary.”
“Are you on your way north?”
“Thank you for letting me walk with you,” the stranger said. “It gets lonely.”
“Yes,” the woman murmured, still watchful, uncomfortable.
“Forgive me. In the silence I couldn't help hearing. You seemed to be mourning. I hope I'm not interfering.”
Cleophas replied, “This weekend. The teacher. We had such hopes.” He fought the tears.
“Teacher?” the stranger echoed.
“Jesus. The Nazarene. It was heartbreaking.”
“Weren't you coming from Jerusalem?”
“And you didn't hear about the clamor last weekend? When he arrived. And the uproar at his trial when all the fools wanted him crucified?”
“We thought...,” Mary said.
“We thought he was the One,” Cleophas interrupted, “you know? The Messiah. He did wondrous things. Curing people. And teaching kindness. Forgiveness. No matter what. But … but then he … pushed things too far. They say he did. They say he claimed he was … he was equal to God. Or something like that.”
“That’s why they killed him,” Mary said. “Then they told the Romans he wanted to be made king. The priest made that up. Because of the Messiah being … well, like David. But he wasn’t like that at all. But the Romans didn’t want trouble. So they crucified him. That gentle, kind man. They nailed his hands and feet, and …,” she began to choke on her tears.
“She was there,” Cleophas said, and put his arm around her shoulders. “Such hopes. But the Messiah’s not supposed to be … degraded like that ... not treated like a dog. The Holy One would never allow that.”
“Why not?” the stranger asked.
“Why not?” the stranger asked.
“The man and wife stopped and stood, unsure again. “Are you a Jew?” Cleophas asked.
“Of course,” the big stranger smiled.
“Then you’ve been taught. The holy books say Elijah would come. That was John the Baptist. Then the Messiah would come, like Moses, and lead us out of bondage again. And like David, he’d make us a people again. Make all things right again.”
“Like the Nazarene,” the stranger said, “just healing, forgiving, bringing only peace.”
“Yes.” Mary’s tears were running freely now, and her husband’s were brimming.
“The holy books,” the big stranger said. “You remember Job?”
“Of course,” Cleophas replied, a bit insulted.”
“But you don't remember, early on? Before Job's friends confused him? When he said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ You were willing to take the good parts - the healing, the forgiveness. But not the pain, not the cost of loving.”
“You've let the priests push aside the prophets. They goad you with fear onto the right road and then they brighten it with the promise to take away all pain, all sorrow. Instead of helping you make sense of it.” He smiled at Mary. “Do you have children?”
“Four,” she said.
“Where any of their births joyous?”
She hesitated. “When it was over.”
“Exactly! Suffering, then Joy. Neither one would have any meaning without the other.”
They began to walk again, more slowly now. And the stranger led them through the Scriptures, quoting passage after passage that showed them how shallow and one-sided their ideas of the Messiah had been.
He reminded them of Isaiah's Messiah, “‘There was nothing appealing about him, nothing to call for a second look. Despised, useless, a man who knew pain like his shadow. Shunned, reviled, dirt. But it was our pains he carried, our burdens, our disfigurements, whatever is wrong with us.’”
The husband and wife listened, fumbling to take it in as he went on and on. “‘He was beaten, tortured, but he didn't say a word. A lamb to the slaughter. Silent. They trampled justice to take him away. Who could have guessed what was really happening? Slain for the sins of my people, buried with the wicked, even though he'd never harmed a soul or said one untrue word.’”
He quoted Zechariah as knowingly as if he had written it himself: “Oh, then I'll rain down a torrent of grace and peace and the house of David and all in Jerusalem. They'll look at Me whom they pierced. They will mourn for Him as for an only child.’ As you were mourning.”
Without realizing, they had walked into the village, where the oil lamps were beginning to puncture the darkness. The inn was just ahead.
“Well, then,” the stranger smiled broadly again. “Here we are. I'll be going on.”
“It's late,” Mary said, a hint of concern in her voice. “It's too dangerous on the road in the dark. By yourself.”
“Have you eaten?” Cleophas asked.
“Not in some time,” the stranger answered.
“Then come in for a bite,” Mary urged. “And stay the night. Not expensive. We checked. And if you haven't enough …”
So they went in and found places in the noisy tavern. When their food came, the stranger reached bread from the basket and said” Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh … Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of Ages, who brings forth bread from earth.” He looked at his two friends, and tore the bread in half, handing them the pieces, taking none himself.
They had followed him a very long time. At the wedding he had transformed water into wine. Out in the stony wilderness, he had - somehow - fed thousands with no more than a couple of loaves. They had heard the Twelve whispering about his mystical farewell meal with them the night before that horrible day.
And in that instant, they knew him. In the breaking of the bread.
Then, suddenly, he was no longer there. And yet ..."(1)
I came across that beautiful telling of our scripture text today in the devotional book I’ve been using throughout the seasons of Lent and Easter,and it just touched my heart. It made me feel like I was there on the road too. The scriptures don’t tell us much about Cleopas or his companion, but church tradition over the centuries has suggested that Cleopas might have been a brother to Joseph, earthly father of Jesus. Whoever these two were, walking on the road to Emmaus, their hearts were full of sadness, and they were overwhelmed and confused, trying to figure out how to make sense of all that had happened. Earlier in the day, some women had reported that the tomb was empty and that they’d had a vision of angels who told them that Jesus was alive. But no one had actually seen Jesus. How could they believe the words of the women? But where was the body? And how could Jesus be the one to redeem God’s people if he’d been executed? How could any of this be what God had intended? How could Jesus be the Messiah? Cleopas and his companion are full of questions, and hearts overflowing, they share everything they’re wondering about with this stranger who has joined them in their journey.
Luke tells us that in response, the man we know is Jesus himself calls them foolish, and then, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpret[s] to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” What a sentence! Imagine being in that conversation with Jesus. Luke doesn’t feel the need to record what Jesus said, however, frustrating me and others for millennia afterwards! Still, Cleopas and his companion don’t recognize Jesus. They do, however, invite him to stay the night and join them for a meal. Jesus agrees. And when he’s at the table with them, he takes bread, and blesses its, breaks it, and gives it to them. And suddenly, the recognize him. And as soon as they do, Jesus is gone.
After he’s gone, they say to each other, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he was talking?” Quickly, they return to Jerusalem and find the disciples and other followers of Jesus gathered together. By the time they arrive, Jesus has appeared to Simon too, and they tell everyone about recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread. After the close of our text for today, Jesus appears here, too. Luke says of those gathered that they were “in their joy … disbelieving and still wondering.” Even with the risen Jesus standing in front of them they can hardly believe it, that’s how hard it can be sometimes to believe the good news, the best news of new life. But they share food together again, and Jesus again opens their minds to understand the scriptures, and he commissions them to be witnesses of all that they’ve heard and seen.
Last week, I know you heard the gospel from John, about Thomas and his doubts, his need for confirmation that Jesus was truly alive. And I’m struck that here, too, there’s so much questioning - even when Jesus is standing right in front of them! They can’t even believe their own eyes. “In joy … disbelieving and still wondering.”
Reflecting on this text, preacher and theologian David Lose writes, “Isn’t that marvelous? That even after all this they still don’t believe. And even more marvelous, that they can be both joyful and disbelieving at the same time.
“Can we just say it ...? Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt, in fact, is probably a necessary ingredient to faith. Faith, by definition, is trust in spite of a lack of evidence. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is more tension-filled. It is acting as if something is true even when you have no proof that it is.
“Which means that when we talk about the “gathering of the faithful,” we’re not talking about the gathering of those whose faith/knowledge is absolute or certain or bedrock. We’re talking about those people who have all kinds of questions and doubts but still find joy and wonder in this message of good news about new life. Or maybe who want to find joy and wonder, haven’t yet, but keeping coming because of their hope.” (2) In joy, disbelieving, still wondering. But sticking with the joy.
The disciples stick with the joy. Because Jesus is made known to them in the breaking of the bread. In the sharing of a meal. We’ll see that again next week, too, in one more Resurrection story. Again and again when the Risen Christ gathers with folks and reveals that he is alive, he shares at table with them. And after just spending all of Lent talking about who Jesus eats with and why meals were so important, that shouldn’t surprise us. You get to really know people when you sit down and share a meal with them. And so the disciples and followers of Jesus get to really know the truth of resurrection when they break bread with Jesus once again. They remember all that he’s said. They better hear all that he’s saying now. And hope and joy balance out the fear and wonder.
Today, friends, we too are invited to come to the table with Jesus. We come as Easter people, yet as people who question and wonder and doubt and can’t even take it in when new life is standing right in front of us. But we come in hope. And our hope does not disappoint us - because when we bless the bread, and break and share the bread, Jesus is made known to us once again, and we become Christ for the world. Amen.
(1) This section is excerpted from OMalley, William J. SJ, “Very Early Sunday Morning,” in All Shall Be Well: Readings for Lent and Easter, Leach, Michael, James Keane, and Doris Goodnough, editors, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015, 307-313.
(2) Lose, David, In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/04/easter-3-b-resurrection-doubts/