Finding Emmaus

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-25 preached on April 3rd, 2016.

Sermon audio

It’s easy to get lost on your way to Emmaus. It’s a hard place to find because it’s really not a place you can find on a map anymore. People have their hunches where it used to be, but there’s a problem with that, too. Depending on what Christian tradition you come from or listen to, Emmaus could be one of more than five different points on your map, and each one is pretty far from the other. Some ancient copies of Luke’s gospel say that Emmaus is 160 stadia (or 31 kilometers) from Jerusalem and some others say it’s only 60 stadia. And in what precise direction? No one knows that either. It’s somewhere between Jerusalem and Galilee. The rest is up to you to figure out.

But let’s say you were on a trip to the Holy Land and you took a stab at it. The best guidebook on the market, one written by Jerome Murphy O’Connor, whittles the most likely spots down to four. You could start with any one of them—and in no particular order you could drive down each one. On one of them, you’d drive up a hill and you’d see a blue sign that says “Crusader Church” with a really helpful arrow pointing the way, but all you’d find ahead of you is a small cinderblock school house. Nobody would be there. It’s abandoned.

So at that point, you might decide to turn around thinking you’ve missed something, and before you recognized where you even started from, you’d find yourself at a dead end. And at that point, you’d figure out that all of the road signs were wrong. None of them are of any help at all. And if you weren’t frustrated out of your mind already, you’d try to find the next Emmaus. There’s three more to go. “Which Emmaus is real? Is there even an Emmaus at all?” Those are some of the questions you might start to wonder.

We had hoped.

Those three words should stand out to us in this passage. Along with “It is finished,” and “Jesus wept,” they’re some of the saddest words in all of scripture.

Two of Jesus’ disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed one, are walking away from Jerusalem. It’s a few days after the important people hung their Master from a tree. They may have seen Jesus take his last breath. They may have seen His head fall to His chest. They may have stuck around to see Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body down from the cross, put Him in a tomb, sealing its entrance with a gigantic stone. And now they’re walking away from it all. It’s over. For 3 years, they followed this man. They loved Him. They invested themselves in Him. Dropped their jobs, left their families, gave it all up. And what’s left to show for it?

We had hoped,

they said.

All that’s left are the shards of things. The broken promises. The jagged edges of memory. Their crushed expectations. They had come all this way with Him—for Him—and the signs were all wrong! So, dejected, they made their way home along the Emmaus Road.

γ

It’s one thing to have faith in a person—someone who you can see, someone with eyes that look at you, and a mouth that speaks to you, and hands that reach out to touch yours. It’s another thing entirely to have faith in a resurrected Savior. That first kind of faith can prove itself well in lecture-rooms and science labs. It can be measured by observers and witnessed by companions. But faith in a resurrected Savior, that’s a different thing. That kind of faith takes a new sort of vision. A whole different sort of witnessing. Faith in a person who walks with you down all your dusty roads, yet doesn’t leave the footprints to prove it. That’s another matter entirely. With eyes of faith, we see Jesus walking beside us, or at least we hope that’s what He does, but sometimes we’re unsure about that. And most times, we’d never dare share such a thing aloud, lest everyone else think we’re out of our minds. But Jesus is our travel companion. Silent most of the time, but still somehow speaking. That’s what Cleopas and his fellow travel companion found out as they walked down the Emmaus Road. At some point along their journey, a third person walks up to them. They strike up a conversation. Jesus says nothing about Himself, he just asks questions and listens.

I wonder what prevented them from noticing that it was Jesus. Did Jesus have a hood over his face, or were all three of these men looking down at the ground as they walked along—too eager to get to their destination to notice anything along the way? It wasn’t until they stopped for the evening, set up camp, and sat down for a meal together that Cleopas and this other unnamed disciple notice that this whole time, it was Jesus who walked this long road with them. Until that moment, their eyes were kept from seeing. Think the Lord’s Supper. Think the feeding of the 5,000. How many times before has it taken food broken, blessed, and shared for people to recognize Jesus? We don’t have fingers enough to count!

Then at all once, their eyes were opened. Passive tense: they didn’t open their own eyes, something outside of them opened up something new in them and suddenly they saw! And just as quickly as they saw Jesus He vanished from their sight—who knows how or what that looked like—but all at once, Jesus disappeared.

γ

Imagine you’re speaking with a woman who has just given birth. Having never given birth before, you ask her,

What was it like?

What would she say? She might share with you how wonderful and joyful it was. Then in the next breath she might tell you about the pain, describing it as far beyond anything she’s ever felt before. She would probably tell you she felt frightened out of her mind. Then you might say to yourself,

How could anything be frightening and joyful at the same time. That makes no sense.

She might also tell you that she feels exhausted but at the same time also full of love. You’ve never experienced those two emotions together before, so you have a hard time imagining anything close to it, but you know she’s telling you the truth because she seems sincere, and who could make up anything like that anyway? Who would ever put those two emotions together that way? Other mothers can come along and hear that and say,

I know just what you mean!

So, how do you describe the greatest event in history: the resurrection of Jesus to someone who doesn’t know? At least there are plenty of mothers out there who understand what childbirth is like. But what if you’re a witness to this one point in history, along the road? The Risen Jesus walks with you, asks you questions about Himself, shares a meal with you, and then vanishes? Who’s ever going to believe a thing like that? And what words are there to convey that experience and all of its emotions to others who weren’t there to experience it for themselves? How would you share it with anyone? What words are big enough for that? And why should you expect anyone to believe you?

We all have personal experiences where we meet Jesus. We could open up the floor and have all of us share our encounters with the Risen Lord, and if 45 spoke, we’d have 45 different stories—not a one like the other, which adds to each story’s authenticity.

Luke is the only gospel to share this story of Cleopas and this other unnamed disciple encountering the Risen Christ as they walk along the Road to Emmaus. If all the other gospel writers wrote about a Jesus-sighting along this same road, in the exact same way, with identical words, that would make me think something was rigged. That would mean that the four gospel writers were swapping notes with one another, making sure that their stories matched up. And that would make me more skeptical. But that’s not what we have. What we have are four unique stories of encounters with the risen Jesus, told so differently that they must have been much more concerned about sharing what they experienced and saw and felt for themselves, because that’s what people do when they’re sharing their hearts with others—they get to the edge of language, not fully able to convey with words what they witnessed, so what we get is their clumsy attempt to give words to an experience that is really beyond words. That’s when we start listening with our ears perked up because we know that we’re hearing a lone witness doing their best to tell their Jesus story,—trying to describe what happened along the road to Emmaus with words big enough for us to find our way there, too.

γ

From my own vantage point, I see that there are much more than four ways to Emmaus. We are all Cleopas’ unnamed companion, and we walk down 10,000 wandering and winding, twisted and treacherous roads. Emmaus didn’t happen just once; and it doesn’t exist in one spot on a map. Emmaus happens whenever hope and mystery, joy and disappointment, doubt and faith commingle. Emmaus exists everywhere, and at every turn! Emmaus happens when a way is made out of no way; when God takes our closed hearts and minds and pries them open to show us glimpses of Jesus—even if just momentary ones before He vanishes from our sight.

γ

The visionary poet, Walt Whitman concluded in his sprawling poem Song of the Open Road with these words:

Camerado, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

γ

If you’re traveling across the Holy Land, you may never find Emmaus. It’s one of those things where you might drive right passed it but never realize it. But it’s not so important to find it anyway. Emmaus isn’t somewhere. It’s everywhere. And it doesn’t so much matter where you walk as much as it matters who walks with you.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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