(Luke 24: 13-35)
In this Easter season that extends beyond the day of resurrection itself, we are considering the Easter stories of those in the early days of the church who took time to write them down – taking to heart the essence of Toni Morrison’s quote: if there is a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. Last week we heard Peter’s story of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the beach and the abundance that comes from something much more than nets full of fish.
Today we hear the story of Cleopas and his journey on the road to Emmaus – a journey that had him and his unnamed companion meeting a stranger on the road, until that moment when he was a stranger no more. And so as we listen to his story, listen to God’s word this morning:
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘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. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, 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.’ Then he said 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?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
The walks we took were what I remember most. It was a kind of afternoon ritual my friend and I had. I know in your day there is science to back up the health benefits of walking – increased cardiovascular and pulmonary fitness, reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, how it helps with hypertension. I have no idea what any of that means, but it sounds great. For my friend and I, our walks were a time to unwind, to reflect on the day that had been, and – if the moment struck us – to share our hopes and dreams for the future. Those days were when our walks would go the longest.
On this particular walk, the topic of conversation was…..well, what everyone was talking about, to be honest. How could it not be? I know you have a saying in your time: life comes at you fast. That it most certainly had. Even those who didn’t really know much about Jesus, even they had heard – arrested and put on trial, found guilty, crucified and killed by the powers-that-be. And then, three days later, somehow was dead no more; and word was spreading that he was with his friends again, here and there he was with them, picking up where he had left off and doing what, apparently, he had come here all along to do.
That’s what my friend and I were talking about. And there’s nothing really surprising in that.
What was surprising was that we wound up talking about it with him.
And trust me, I know. Looking back on it, I can’t help but shake my head and laugh at me with the rest of you. How in the world could we not know it was Jesus? That’s what you’re thinking, right? I get it. I’ve heard theories that some say the resurrection changed his facial features or something. That’s not it. See, here’s the thing – the heart can see deep, but the head can only see what it expects to see. And we all were hopelessly stuck in our heads in that moment, because that’s where we go in times of uncertainty. Something big had happened, and we were all still hearing about it. Everything was still unfolding. So we were in our heads when we met him, and despite what we had heard, our brains just wouldn’t allow us to even consider that this could be him.
That is why we didn’t see him for who he was on the road that day. That is why he was to us in that moment nothing more than a stranger.
Albeit a very nice stranger. He took an immediate interest in us, he inserted himself into our conversation and we welcomed him there. What are you talking about, he asked. Have you not heard the news, we said. So we tell him what he apparently had not heard, walked him through the play-by-play of everything that had transpired in a very full, life-comes-at-you-fast couple of days. And, believe me, I totally get the rich irony of the two of us walking and talking with Jesus about Jesus!
And yet he listened to us as if it were the first time he heard it. In fact, it was more than that – he just listened, period. Like, I knew this stranger was fully present with us as we walked and talked. To be honest, I’m kind of surprised we didn’t recognize him then, because in the little interaction we had had with Jesus before, he was a great listener. He was fully present with the people he was around. I don’t know about you, but I tend to get distracted from time to time; someone talking to me and my mind wanders to something else. Not him. He was always fully present with us, even when we didn’t know it was him he was fully present.
We all want to be listened to – I mean, really listened to. Not surface listening, not just catching a few words here and there, but deep listening. We all long for someone to be fully present with us in the moment – not distracted by competing conversations or those strange thin metal boxes you hold in your hands and seem to love so much.
There were so many things those closest to Jesus loved about him, so many things that led them to leave their lives as they knew it and follow Jesus wherever he went. Sure, he was an amazing preacher. Absolutely, he did some amazing things. But I feel pretty certain that if you asked any of them they’d tell you that the main reason they loved Jesus so much was because they knew he loved them. He showed it to them in the way he listened and the way he was fully present.
How, I wonder, are you listening deeply to those in your life? How are you being fully present with them where they are? I mean, when you get down to it, is there anything more loving than that?
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Okay, so before I go any further, let me just go on record and assure you that I am not someone who makes a habit of inviting strangers to my house for the night. That is way outside my comfort zone! Let me tell you a little bit about me: I’m the cautious one, always alert and vigilant. I am risk-averse. I’m the guy who thinks several steps ahead to prepare for what could go wrong. The last thing I’m going to do is invite a stranger I just met into my house.
And so for the life of me I cannot tell you why I wound up doing that. Because again, just to remind you, I’m still not seeing Jesus when I look at him. I’m seeing someone who’s listened to me, someone who’s been fully present in the moment with me. And I guess that, if anything, was why I invited him in. Maybe in a way I was just beginning to see him.
My friend and I prepared a meal, because that’s what you do when a guest comes over. And at some point in all of that, there was a shift that happened. I can’t remember the precise moment; but there was a shift when he, the guest, became the host of the affair. Which is super strange, you understand, because this was my house, my table, my food. He was the guest and I was the host. Until I wasn’t and he was.
And the really strange thing about it was that it felt so natural, like it was the way it was supposed to be. Anyone else had tried this and it would been rude, a breach of decorum. But not with him. Truth be told, he was a natural host, whoever’s house he was in. It seemed perfectly normal when he reached across the table; it felt eerily familiar when he picked up that bread and broke it in half…..
And that was the moment we recognized him. That was when we knew for sure this was the risen Jesus.
We knew it when he broke bread. Even though neither of us had been in the room a few nights before where we heard what he did with the unleavened bread and wine left over from the Passover meal, making something entirely new and beautiful out of it. We knew it was him because the truth of the matter is that Jesus was always breaking bread one way or another. He was always breaking that which needed to be broken and, in that act of breaking, nourish and prepare us for the journey ahead.
He made a habit of breaking our preconceived notions about grace and mercy and love; the notion that those things always came with strings attached to them. He showed us that that didn’t have to be the case. He was constantly turning the tables – not only on the ways we saw and understood power and privilege, but actually turning tables on that power and privilege itself. He was constantly breaking through all the barriers and obstacles that get in the way of us connecting with God, with each other, and with our neighbor; barriers and obstacles that, in the greatest irony of all, we put there ourselves.
Jesus knew that the greatest hindrance to true transformation of the self and the greater world is to believe that everything is exactly as it should be, that nothing ever needs to change, that there is no hope for the future – like a loaf of bread just sitting on the table untouched. Jesus knew that that does no one any good. That’s why he made it his life’s mission to break bread over and over and over again. And that is why we recognized him when he did.
Can I ask you a question, friends? And if I do, will you listen? I wonder in what ways Jesus has broken bread in your life. Those moments, whether tiny glimpses or ongoing sagas, where you see Jesus for who he is and he sees you for who you are and who you can be. I wonder where in your life Jesus has provided you with nourishment and sustenance for the journey, even if you have absolutely no clue where that journey is taking you.
And I wonder, most of all, how you are choosing to share that broken bread with the world you live in, a world that seems to know more breaking than fixing, more wounding than healing? Because that bread, it wasn’t meant to stay on the table after Jesus broke it. We all have some holy work to do in this world of ours. To listen, really listen and be fully present with one another. To break literal bread, even in these pandemic times; finding ways to fellowship and support and care for one another. To follow Jesus’ lead of breaking what needs to be broken in order to allow his grace and mercy and love to fully shine forth.
I don’t know – something to think about. Maybe a good topic of conversation on the next walk you take with your friend. Who knows who you might meet along the way.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar