Learning with Jesus (Emmaus Road)

Journeys are often good times to share conversations. I’m sure you can all remember a lengthy train or car journey in which you have talked through many things either with your nearest and dearest or may be a complete stranger. In the gospel account today, the conversation begins with a stranger who turns out to be a best friend.

Of the four gospel writers, only Luke records this story. It takes place on the first Easter Sunday. Two of Jesus followers, but not from the 12 disciples, are making their way out of Jerusalem downhill on the road to Emmaus, probably their home village. One we know is called Cleopas and the other could be his wife mentioned as Mary elsewhere or another member of Jesus wider circle.

Their mood is not good. Their high expectations of Jesus had all been dashed by his untimely death. Reports of the empty tomb and angels had done nothing to raise their spirits. Coming from the women, we can guess that in their culture they we reluctant to it seriously. The stranger allows them to unburden themselves. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ we often say, but this stranger will go further than that.

Luke has a reason for preserving this memory from these friends of Jesus as they walked in the warm spring sunshine. Four key themes emerge from this story which help explain the whole Jesus event in history.

  1. The physical resurrection of Jesus. Luke wants his readers to be in no doubt that Jesus is back from the dead in every sense of the word including his physical body. Jesus walks with the friends on the road initially as a stranger. They are not spooked by him or think him in anyway less than a human presence. He is so normal that they don’t recognise him as Jesus or think him strange in any way. He is just another guy walking on the road. He is persuaded by their hospitality and enters their home to share a meal. Neither does Luke hide the unexpected and supernatural elements of the story. How was it that they did not recognise Jesus who was such a familiar friend? What about the vanishing act at the end and subsequent reappearance in Jerusalem? Yes, Luke wants us his readers to know that the resurrection was unexpected and that Jesus’ physical resurrection body was not always defined by the norms of nature but he is also concerned in his ‘orderly account’ (Luke 1.1) that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ physical body was not there but had taken life again.
  2. The significance of the death of Jesus. At the start of their journey, the friends thought it impossible that the Messiah should be one to suffer. Surely, he should be the all-conquering hero bringing independence, wealth and stability to the nation of Israel. The fact that Jesus was now dead made it clear for them that Jesus was not the Messiah. (Luke 24.21) But it is in this story, on the lips of the risen Christ that we, the readers of the gospel learn that ‘…it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter his glory.’ (Luke 24.26) The many hints and suggestions in the old testament that it was through suffering that the Messiah would be glorified, that it was sin and death that he would defeat rather than the Romans and that he would ‘open the kingdom of heaven to all believers’ is the substance of the conversation which now takes place on the road. The friends reflect later that their hearts were burning within them at this point. (Luke 24.32)
  3. The importance of the scriptures. We might imagine that such an amazing encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus would banish the need for dry dusty scriptures. Surely, it was all to be had in the moment, in the experience. But Luke tells us that ‘Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.’ (Luke 24.27) That must have been some bible study; Jesus showing these friends how he fulfilled the old testament, that he was the climax and the crux of the whole biblical story. For us it reminds us that the scriptures, both old and new testaments are not irrelevant or uninteresting, but it is these written words that point to the living word, Jesus Christ. Our faith is not just built on experience but also a strong oral telling of the story of God preserved in text ratified by Jesus himself.
  4. Jesus is recognised in the breaking of the bread. When the friends are at table, the stranger seems to adopt the role of host. Does he do that deliberately to enable what happens next? To give the friends the best chance they have to recognise them? He takes bread, blesses and breaks it, just as he had done at the feeding of the five thousand and at the last supper. It is in that moment, they recognise him. Not long afterwards as Luke tells us in the book of Acts, they would be ‘breaking bread’ in their homes to remember Jesus.’ (Acts 2.42) What Luke seems to be saying to his readers is that just as the Emmaus friends met Jesus at that moment of the breaking of the bread, so you may also meet him in the same way. Soon, all the followers of Jesus, no doubt encouraged by the experience of these friends, recalled Jesus’ commands at the last supper: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. What the church calls Holy Communion, the Eucharist and the Mass was born.

The story ends with the friends huffing and puffing their way over 7 uphill miles back to Jerusalem as night fell. When they reach the city, they locate the 11 disciples, less Judas of course and their companions and declare that Jesus is risen and has been made known to them ‘in the breaking of the bread’. (Luke 24.35) Bread only is mentioned in this story and perhaps that is the reason why it has been regarded as the principal element of communion by the church. For a prolonged time, due to covid, you are only allowed the bread in the form of the eucharist the bishops have prescribed. Our prayer must be that he will be known to you in the breaking of the bread.

The Emmaus road story always has the power to touch people’s hearts. It was no doubt retold many times by the two on the road and became part of that oral library of the earliest church. Luke has preserved it for the church to the time when Jesus comes again with warmth and humanity into which the supernatural love of God sits so easily. It draws the threads of his gospel together: Jesus is alive, he died for our sins, you can read about him in the scriptures and experience him in the breaking of the bread. What an invitation for us all and for the world that so desperately needs hope.

Easter 3 18.04.2021

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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