Today’s gospel reading is a superb short story. In fact Saint Luke is a great story teller. Think of how he relates the story of the Good Samaritan. Action packed and a totally unexpected ending. Or the Story of the Prodigal Son – a truly wonderful family saga.
The story called the Road to Emmaus is yet another well planned story. It has mysterious characters – we don’t know initially who the two people travelling are – a stranger enters the story, we are uncertain what will happen and the ending is a true revelation.
In fact it hardly needs any explanation by me, especially as the Reverend McVeety told us quite a bit about it last week. If you saw me slide down the pew I was thinking “oh heck, so what do I say next Sunday?”
Road to Ramsbottom
I have decided to set the scene and then pick just some of the sentences and examine them. I did toy with rewriting it in modern form and calling it the Road to Ramsbottom but I couldn’t quite make that work.
The story is set on the evening of the first Easter Sunday. Two travellers have been in Jerusalem over the weekend and know that Jesus has been crucified. They have heard tales, rumours, that he has risen. They are dejected, disappointed and slowly making their way home a long 8 miles journey on foot from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are joined by a stranger. They don’t realise who it is. Their eyes though were prevented from recognising him.
On Easter Sunday, I told you how I failed to recognise Grace Gore because I was not expecting to see her behind the counter at Marks and Spencers. Although Cleopas and his companion were walking westward into the setting sun and the light could have affected their sight, I think it is far more likely that they were not expecting to see Jesus and were so cast down and wrapped up in their own thoughts that they didn’t look carefully. It is interesting that in all the stories of people meeting the risen Christ there is a failure to recognise him.
Bishop Tom Wright believes that the body of Jesus was transformed in some way. He asserts that they couldn’t see Jesus until they had recognised and understood what had gone before. I am no great shakes as a theologian and I really do not know if that is the answer to that problem. It is enough for me to understand that the first people had difficulty realising that they had met the risen Christ. I think I would have done so in their situation.
The travellers tell Jesus about the events of the past days and they say: “But we were hoping that he would redeem Israel”. They reveal their belief that Jesus was the Messiah and how they felt let down because he had been crucified They thought in Jesus they really had seen the person who would change their world. They had seen his miracles, heard his teaching, and been willing to follow him. They believed he was special. But now that couldn’t be. He had been crucified like a common criminal.
How many football teams have brought in a new manager believing him to be special and would change the fortunes of the club only to be radically disappointed. I am not comparing Jesus to a football manager, although some of the current managers might think they are miracle workers. I am only showing that great hopes and wishes don’t always turn out the way you want and expect. The travellers to Emmaus certainly felt that things had not gone the way they were expecting.
Generations of waiting for the Messiah, and having thought that God’s promise had at last been fulfilled, those hopes were dramatically dashed. It wasn’t just that Jesus was dead and gone. It was sharper than that. If Jesus had been the one to redeem Israel, he should have been defeating the pagans, not dying at their hands.
Slow to understand
Jesus calls the two slow to understand, telling them that this had to happen. The messiah had to suffer before he came into his glory.
It is one of the central tenets of our faith that Jesus suffered for us to redeem our sins but we are looking at the situation with hindsight. We know the whole story, those travellers to Emmaus did not. So Jesus gives them what Reverend McVeety called a Bible study. Retelling them all the total history that had led up to the present events. They needed Jesus to explain the scriptures to them, just as we do.
And then they came to the village and Jesus gave the impression that he was going on – but they asked him to come to their home and stay with them. Jesus did not impose his presence on them. He waited for the invitation, just as he does for us. He does not force his presence into our lives but once we invite him in he can indeed transform them. It doesn’t mean that our lives will be always smooth, without problems but it does mean that we will have the constant assurance of his love
Once in the house of the travellers, a meal was prepared and in typical Jewish tradition, at the start of the meal Jesus took bread, broke it and gave thanks. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they recognised him.
How do we recognise people? By their voices, by their physical appearance, by their laughter. When I was a deputy head in a Secondary School the girls told me they recognised me by my footsteps. They knew when I was approaching by the sound of my shoes on the hard floor. I wore high heels in those days. If I was approaching smoker’s corner and they heard me, out went the cigarettes. I didn’t have to say anything. It saved conflict.
A few weeks ago in Tesco, Alan had the trolley and had moved away from me – I approached him from behind looked at the trolley and said “Why have you bought that? We don’t need it.” A total stranger turned round looking bewildered. I apologised profusely. You would think after sixty years of marriage I would know my husband even from the back view! I was looking for a grey haired man in a red anorak. There are a lot in Tesco. Sometimes recognising someone isn’t easy.
The risen Christ
I may not have recognised my husband, but an ordinary act at the start of a meal showed Cleopas and his companion that they were in the presence of the risen Christ. It was in that one simple action, breaking bread, that uncertainty became certainty, despair became hope, sadness became joy.
How do we recognise the presence of the risen Christ?
Do we find him here in church? Do we see him in the kindness of friends? Do we encounter him through prayer? Does praise through singing joyful hymns bring us closer to him. Do we meet him in the breaking of bread at the communion table?
Eyes and minds open
I believe that we can meet Jesus in any situation if our eyes and minds are open to receive him. Many people through history have encountered Jesus when they were least expecting it and found their lives transformed
After Cleopas and his companion, who may have been his wife, had recognised him, and Jesus had left them, they went back to Jerusalem to meet up with the other disciples to share their experience.
I should imagine that was a joyful, if bewildering, time. And there they found that Jesus had already appeared to Peter ,which must be the greatest stories never told (as we don’t know when or where) but in appearing to the person who had denied knowing him surely means that Peter was totally forgiven. What a terrific end to the story.
So, what can we take from this story 2000 years later?
There may be times in our lives when we find it difficult to see Jesus. When recognising him in our daily activity is not easy. Those times when we are anxious, perhaps life isn’t going to plan. We are a bit bewildered and those times when our faith is less certain. Just like those travellers. Then we need to let the risen Jesus walk beside us. And he will, if we ask. Even if we don’t recognise him. That may be when we are in the company of other Christians or perhaps in quiet moments on our own. I’ll bet those travellers to Emmaus said “I wish Jesus was here.”
But also we need to read the scriptures and pray so that our faith will be strengthened, our belief more certain.
Share our joy
And like Cleopas and his companion, we must share our joy at knowing the risen Christ. In the words of the hymn we have just sung:
We have a gospel to proclaim
Good news for all throughout the earth
The glory of a Saviour’s name
We sing his glory tell his worth.
But most of all we must tell of the joy of knowing the risen Christ
Tell of that glorious Easter morn
Empty the tomb for he was free
He broke the power of death and hell
That we may share his victory
May the joy, the reassurance and the power of meeting the Risen Jesus be ours.