I love this story of the road to Emmaus. I have for a long time. But it’s for a different reason now.
Scholars don’t seem to know where Emmaus actually was – but that’s not important. It was far enough to make a good story – and close enough to get back and share it with others.
The best Bible Study ever
What intrigued me was exactly what Jesus said to the two disciples when: ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’. What a Bible Study that must have been! I would wonder how much detail they remembered and then passed on to the other disciples. And what then later found its way into the Gospels?
But then I realized that despite the best Study guide ever, the two still didn’t recognize Jesus! Several miles into the ‘walk and talk’ they still hadn’t twigged.
The gift of hospitality
So, what did it take? It took them being hospitable – dragging Jesus into where they were staying, to share a meal and stop for the night – to break the ‘trance’ that they were in. ‘He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened.’
Maybe it was the familiar words of the blessing. Those same words that he’d used at the feeding of the thousands and at the Last Supper. Maybe they saw his damaged hands for the first time.
We can’t be sure. But if at the end of the day they hadn’t thought about the well-being of the stranger, rather than of their own disappointment, then the encounter with this person who knew Scripture inside-out would just have been an anecdote. Jesus would have just walked on.
Someone once said: ‘The stranger does not come accidentally; he brings a particular gift and illumination.’ (1)
So, there’s something in this Emmaus story about us being generous and hospitable – and that we’ll be as blessed in the giving as the person that we’re being hospitable to.
Why the delay?
What I recognise now though, is that Jesus could’ve just gone: “It’s me! I’m back!” when he first met the two disciples – and saved them the round trip between Jerusalem and Emmaus!
But he didn’t. And I think there’s something to learn in that delay when we think about this passage and when we talk about Jesus turning up in the midst of our disappointment.
We’re not sure why these two left Jerusalem when they did. Seems strange, doesn’t it? The women had reported an empty tomb, a story verified by others. And yet these 2 chose to leave.
Perhaps they thought that the body disappearing was part of a Roman crack-down and they would come after the disciples next. Maybe they’d waited the rest of the day for something else to happen and nothing had. So, they were going home. Back to the security of the familiar.
Whatever the reason for them leaving town, they were hotly debating what had taken place when the stranger turned up. The one who was going to liberate them had been executed and the body gone. The Messiah that they thought they had, hadn’t shown up. Where was God when you needed him? No wonder they didn’t recognise Jesus. Nothing registers when all your hope is gone. You’re oblivious to what’s right in front of you.
“What things?” he says. And gently at times, bruskly at others, he encourages them to share, to voice their doubts. To put into words what was troubling them. And in the course of that afternoon and evening they were taken from ‘We had hoped’ to ‘He has risen indeed’.
On the day that he is risen, when you’d think he’d be seeing as many who loved him as possible, Jesus chooses to spend hours with people on the edge of his circle. With two disciples plagued with uncertainty.
So, here’s the nub of the matter for us. Yes, Jesus will turn up in the middle of our troubles too. But it’s not to instantly wave a magic wand or put a sticking plaster on. Yes, he’s there walking alongside but he’s helping us to speak about our pain, to make sense of it all.
And aren’t most of us somewhere on the road between those two states of being? Somewhere between ‘We had hoped’ and ‘He has risen indeed’. Most of us will have disappointments and failures and deaths of hope and deaths of loved ones. The resurrection doesn’t make those things go away.
But Jesus doesn’t just show up and then leave. He’ll walk with us to where we’re heading, to wherever our Emmaus is. But sometimes he’ll do that as a stranger… And sometimes he’ll challenge us and he’ll ask us ‘What things?’ And it’s in answering that question that we move on. It’s in answering that question that we receive our gift and our illumination.
It may take us more than an afternoon and an evening. Perhaps it will take a lifetime, but maybe at some point we too will get to say: ‘He has risen indeed’ – and then live like we mean it.
‘On our road to Emmaus’ was based on Luke 24: 13-35. It’s a St Zoom’s on-line resource for Sunday 26th April 2020, for virtual consumption during the Covid-19 lockdown! It’s the third in the Easter series by Ian Banks. And it’s given in memory of Ian’s friend and colleague, John Earl, who passed away on April 21st 2020.
- Anam Cara – Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World. John O’Donohue.