Rev. Rebecca Heilman

At my previous call in New York City, I was responsible for the homeless shelter in the basement of the church. We co-hosted with the church just two blocks up. They were responsible for finding the volunteers and we were responsible for supplies, cleanliness, etc. Many of time, I would receive a phone call about a host falling sick or the worst, a no-show host. And as much as I would try, about 90% of the time, I was annoyed, livid, disappointed, irritated that I had to give up my night of watching TV or reading my good book or being with my friends to go down to the shelter and fill in as the host. Oh the foul thoughts that went into my head as I rode the elevator down to the basement. It was my road to Emmaus – full of disappointment, irritation at someone’s failure, lots of doubt about the evening ahead, and grief about my long-gone introverted evening.

Cleopas and the unnamed disciple were on that road as well. They were walking away from Jerusalem, from all that they had just witnessed and heard. Away from the execution of Christ, away from the weeping disciples, away from the threat of the Roman authority, even away from the women sharing the goodness of the resurrection. They were walking away from it all with anti-climactic hearts and with disappointment in their speech. Like they said, “we had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel.” In Luke’s rendition of the resurrection, the women at the tomb did not find a body or the risen Christ himself, but two men in dazzling clothes telling them that “he is not here, he has risen.” The women run off to tell the good news, that Cleopas and the other disciples heard, but Peter was the only disciple peaked with curiosity and with belief. Peter runs to the tomb, only to find the linen cloth that wrapped Jesus’s body and then went home amazed at what had happened. Even with all this good news, from multiple sources, Cleopas and the unnamed disciple still don’t believe. They think Christ has let them down, has failed them and Israel. They are walking away from it all and telling the stranger with them all about it. Frederick Buechner, a theologian, describes Emmaus as “the place where we go in order to escape—a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, ‘Let the whole thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.’ Emmaus is where we go, where these two went, to try to forget about Jesus and the great failure of his life.”[1] Ouch. That road is the road of deep, dusty disappointment.

I bet you’ve walked your road to Emmaus, I know I have quite a bit, you’ve heard a little about my dusty, dirty road. As Barbara Brown Taylor, a theologian and author writes, “It is the road you walk when your team has lost, your candidate has been defeated, your loved one has died—the long road back to the empty house, the piles of unopened mail, to life as usual, if life can ever be usual again.”[2] The Road to Emmaus is a road to the way things used to be, the familiar, to the so called “normal” we all have been saying since this pandemic began. The Road to Emmaus is an escape from the reality as we know it, to turn away from the financial worries and endless debt, to focus on the disappointment of numbers at church or events, it’s putting energy into programing that people aren’t ready for or don’t need, it’s the disappointment in the family and friends who are not quite ready to be back to normal, or just the opposite, the bitterness we feel for the family and friends who have been lucky enough to revert to some sort of normal. The road to Emmaus is a road of deep and dusty disappointment.

And Cleopas and the unnamed disciple draw in a stranger into their disappointment, making it quite clear how they feel about Christ in that moment.  Now, we know the stranger is Jesus, the risen Lord, but for whatever reason Cleopas and the unnamed disciple’s eyes are kept closed and it wasn’t by their choosing. There is a divine passive verb used here to tell us that God is at work in causing the action of keeping their eyes closed.[3] Jesus is standing right in front of them, reprimanding them for their foolishness and telling them his entire story from the beginning of the Torah, the Old Testament, but God doesn’t want them to see God just yet. It’s nearing dark, the disciples know it’s not safe for them to be on the road and so they did learn a little something from Christ before his death, they invited the stranger into their home for safety, a meal, and rest. This is where the story gets good.

They gathered and lounged around a table, like they had just five to six days before, anticipating a meal that would nourish their bodies for the next day and it certainly did that evening. When Jesus was at the table with them, he took bread, like he’s done many times before with the disciples, he blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. Brown Taylor continues to write about this passage saying, “The blindness of the two disciples does not keep their Christ from coming to them. Christ does not limit his post-resurrection appearances to those with full confidence in him. He comes to the disappointed, the doubtful, the discontent. He comes to those who know their Bible, but who do not recognize him even when they are walking right beside him. He comes to those who have given up and headed back home.”[4]

Christ doesn’t appear to the Roman leaders who murdered him or to the important people in important places, he shows up in the least of all places, on a dusty road with two extremely disheartened disciples. And what is so interesting about this story is that God doesn’t choose for the disciples’ eyes to be opened while Christ is walking with them, God chooses to reveal God’s self over a meal, in the breaking of bread, in community. God appears when relationships are weaving together during conversation, storytelling, and in breaking bread. God appears in community, in friendships, in laughter, around wine glasses and homemade meals. Resurrection, new life, is in the gathering. It’s in the hope of the gathering. In the genuineness and authenticity of checking in with on one another. It’s in the relationship building and the focusing on the community. It’s in the asking about our friend’s needs, about their lives, their loneliness, the stories that form them and mold them into we know best. The hope of the resurrection is in new life, in the new here and now, the new normal and new usual, the new way of being.

The hope of the resurrection was always in the basement of my last call. While I grumbled and moaned on the way down, the conversation, trust, loyalty, forgiveness and even love that developed in that room and around our metal fold up table that sat of 13 very different people from extremely difficult backgrounds, well that’s where the resurrection took place – among a community.  So often, we focus on the past, on the disappointment of the present. Less often, we notice in the midst of the here and now how God is in face of the other, in the relationships around us, in the bread we break and the simple check-ins we have following worship. Here, when we gathering as an authentic community, is where we find the hope of the resurrection.

[1] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, pp. 85–86

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Blessed Brokenness,” Gospel Medicine, pp. `    20–21.

[3] Carroll, John T.; Carroll, John T.. Luke (The New Testament Library) (p. 483). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[4] “Blessed Brokenness,” p. 22