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Let us pray. O risen Christ, open us to the power of your resurrection as we hear it proclaimed today, that we too might rise to new life in you. Amen.
Easter is the celebration of something real happening. Something real happened to Jesus. Something real happened to those who followed Jesus. Something real can happen to you when you believe. Easter is the celebration of something real happening.
I am guessing that Cleopas and his companion left Jerusalem somewhere around 3 in the afternoon. That is the time of the death of Jesus recorded in Luke 23:44–46. Our text tells us that Emmaus was about 11 kilometres from Jerusalem. Normal walking speed is about 5 kilometres per hour, which gives us a trip of around 2 hours. That fits because when the two characters in the story urge the stranger to stay with them they remind him it is almost evening. My guess is that means some time between five and six. When Cleopas and his companion left Jerusalem it was just after the death of Jesus had been confirmed.
These two are walking home. They are sad and likely also at least a little afraid. We needn’t think it unlikely for a stranger to join them as they walked. At the time of the festival in Jerusalem, the roads surrounding the city would be busy. Besides, it would be common at any time of the year for a lone traveller to find at least one other person with whom to walk. With evening approaching and darkness thieves are far less likely to attack a group. There is something bothering these two. The stranger asks them what they have been talking about.
“What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
“The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
They had believed but now that he was dead all hope appears to be lost. These are not people looking for some sort of symbolic way to keep alive the meaning of what Jesus had taught them. They were bitterly disappointed, filled with sorrow. Now they were also confused.
“Some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
Has the body of Jesus been stolen? If so, why? It’s not likely they expected any sort of answer from their unknown companion, but he did have something to say to them.
“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
Every preacher since the beginning of the church wishes that Cleopas or his companion had recorded the specific texts to which Jesus pointed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps he spoke of the promise that God would one day send another prophet like Moses. He would likely have made some reference to the promised Messiah being a descendant of King David. He may have also referred to the prophet Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant.
Tom Wright in his commentary wonders if Jesus might have said something like this. “Hasn’t it occurred to you that all through the Bible God allows his people to get into a real mess—slavery, defeat, despair, and finally exile in Babylon—in order to do a new thing” (Lent for Everyone: Luke, 117). Maybe the same sort of thing must happen in the life of God’s Messiah; it is death that leads to life.
Cleopas and his companion realize their walk is almost over, their village is just past the next fork in the road. This stranger with whom they have had the most remarkable conversation moves as if to take the road to the next village, but they urge him to accept their hospitality.
How about if we stop on our journey to pull out a theological principle from this action of our Saviour? It is obvious to anyone who reads this story that Jesus, in this encounter on the road to Emmaus, was offering to these friends a most gracious invitation to faith in the new thing that God was doing through him. But an invitation is not coercion. In these days when the horrors of religious fundamentalism, and in particular, the brand of fundamentalism practiced by Islamic extremists, is being forced upon innocent people accompanied by the machine gun and sword, let it be said and heard clearly that Jesus only ever invites and then gives us the freedom to say yes or no. If there is someone here today who has never stepped over into the kingdom of God, you need to know that no one will ever be as gracious to you as Jesus and no one will ever respect your right to say no more than the one who wants to be your Lord and Saviour. No history in the church can make it so, or family connection. The spiritual exchange of Christianity is invitation and response.
The stranger stays for supper and the meal becomes the occasion for them to recognize who it is that they have welcomed to their home. When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. They recognized him in the breaking of the bread. Then he vanished from their sight. But I want you to know that Jesus did not vanish from their lives. Something real happened that day.
Let me try to bring this story right up close to each one of us today. I don’t know if you find it odd but I cannot help but wonder that only one of the disciples on the way to Emmaus is named, Cleopas. I suppose there’s any number of reasons for that. You might think that Cleopas goes on to be a famous bishop in the early church, but there is no evidence for that and this is his only appearance in the New Testament. There is one ancient source, which can neither be proven or disproven, that Cleopas was the brother of Joseph and therefore the paternal uncle of Jesus. Another tradition connects Cleopas with someone named Clopas whose wife Mary stood by the Cross, along with Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary’s sister, and Mary Magdalene, according to John 19:25.
But let me add something else to the mystery and suggest what it is that Luke is doing. If you travel to Israel, you can visit many important sites. You can certainly tour Jerusalem and Bethlehem. You can be baptized in the Sea of Galilee and poke around in the village of Nazareth. What you can’t find is Emmaus—there are a number of suggestions as to where this road and village were but nothing definitive.
I often remind us that the audience for the story told by Luke is the church and those whom the church is trying to reach with the good news. In the aftermath of the resurrection there was always going to be the danger that some folks would think of themselves as second, third and fourth class Christians because they were not among the relative few to whom Jesus appeared. Luke wants us to know that something real happened at Easter and something real continues to happen whenever we understand how God’s Word points us to Jesus and whenever we recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Emmaus can’t be found—perhaps we’re meant to understand any road can lead to Emmaus. The companion is not named—perhaps we are all meant to put ourselves in that trio and to feel our heart burning within while he opened the scriptures to us. The New Testament scholar Fred Craddock puts it this way: “His presence at the table makes all believers first-generation Christians and every meeting place Emmaus” (Interpretation: Luke, 287).
There is one other fascinating detail in our text. Right at the beginning of the journey, when the stranger suddenly joins Cleopas and the other disciple, we are told their eyes were kept from recognizing him. St. Paul tells us that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. What Luke is telling us is that God is the one who reveals the truth of his kingdom coming to be in Jesus. The initiative is God’s, not ours.
Something real happened at Easter. God raised Jesus from the dead. It’s not the result of wishful thinking on the part of the disciples; it’s not some sort of mass hallucination. Jesus is truly alive. There is no better, no more lasting proof than this: through the Word of God and through the breaking and sharing of this bread, our eyes are opened and we know it to be true.