May 4, 2014 Luke 24: 13-35
Rev. Catherine Purves
Where is Emmaus? No one actually knows. There are a few small villages that might have been the biblical Emmaus. Even knowing that it was about seven miles from Jerusalem doesn’t help archaeologists pinpoint the site of what was a little-known place of no real significance, apart from this story. Emmaus seems an almost mythical place. What is its significance for us?
Frederick Buechner, a poetically creative interpreter of the Bible writes that Emmaus is “the place we go to in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, ‘Let the whole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.’” He suggests that when we decide to go out shopping for something we don’t need, or pick up a cheap novel, or even slink off to church as a means of escape or denial, we could be on our road to Emmaus. Buechner says that Emmaus is “whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred; that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that men have had – ideas about love and freedom and justice – have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends.” [Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, p. 85-86]
Buechner does capture the sense of defeat and despair that had descended like a dark cloud upon Cleopas and his companion. They had given up. Their hopes were dashed. Their fears were confirmed. And they were running away. They were on the road to Emmaus. In a similar way, the other disciples had locked themselves in an upper room. And Peter, according to John’s Gospel, had announced, “I’m going fishing,” and the others immediately joined him. All of these acts were comparable to setting out on the road to Emmaus, the road to nowhere, the road of defeat and despair.
Do you know this road to Emmaus? Have you walked on it yourself? Where is it exactly for you, and where does it take you? What do you do when you want to escape, when you want to avoid the obvious, when you can’t handle the harsh reality of life? At least we should be able to admit to ourselves that we are on the road to Emmaus when that is where we are. At least we should be able to recognize our own feelings and fears and know what we are running away from. At least we should be able to see that we aren’t running to anyplace that is a place. Getting on the road to Emmaus is no solution to our problems or our disappointments or our confusions or our doubts. Neither is locking yourself up in the house, or going fishing, or any of the other things you might do to try to escape.
Nevertheless, the two disillusioned disciples were on the road to Emmaus. And, as we so often do, they were engaged in a conversation that could be summarized by the phrase, “Ain’t it awful?” They were justifying their own feelings of depression and hopelessness by repeating to one another everything that they had to be depressed about. And that, then, justified their plodding along on the road to Emmaus, the road of escape and avoidance. By definition, this road to Emmaus was also the road away from faith and hope and fellowship. Ain’t it awful? Yes, we belong on this road to nowhere, where, at least, we don’t have to take risks, or dare to hope for change, or make a fresh commitment, or believe in the true power of God.
Are you willing to admit that you sometimes, maybe often, walk on the road to Emmaus? Think about what it is that you do or where you go when you feel that way. Remember the ‘ain’t it awful’ conversations you have had with yourself or with a trusted companion as you trudged along on that road to Emmaus. Admit to yourself that it is a downhill road that doesn’t really get you anywhere that you want to be. Try to remember what that despair feels like. Now, you are right there with Cleopas and his friend.
But they found that they were not alone! Suddenly, a stranger was there with them. This same stranger also appeared in the locked room where the disciples were hiding, and he met Peter and the others when they went fishing; he called to them from the shore. Jesus comes to us as we are walking on the road to Emmaus. Jesus walks with us. This is really significant! It means that Jesus does not say to us, “If you can come up with a certain amount of faith, then I will walk with you.” He doesn’t say, “Get over your depression, solve your problems, do something good with your life, and then I’ll come and walk with you.” He doesn’t say, “Once you get on the right road, the road that leads somewhere, then you’ll find me on that road with you.” No! Jesus finds uson the road to Emmaus. The thing is, like Cleopas and his friend, we don’t usually expect him to be there, and so we might not even recognize him, or realize that he’s right there walking beside us, because what would Jesus be doing on our road to Emmaus?
What was Jesus doing there with the two retreating disciples? First, he asked them to share with him their deepest fears and doubts and sorrows. In effect, he was asking them, “Why are you on this road?” There was no judgment in the question, only concern for them, and an invitation to them (and to us). He invited them to share their lives with him. Do we respond to this invitation? Do we talk things through with Jesus in prayer? Do we trust in the fact that he cares, that he is walking with us and listening to our confusions and doubts? Or do we assume that we are walking away from him on the road to Emmaus? When prompted, Cleopas and his friend unburdened their hearts to Jesus. They did not hold back. And he listened to it all.
But then, he started to speak. He did not simply allow them to wallow in their ‘ain’t it awful’ assessment of their lives like some nodding and smiling counselor. When Jesus encounters you on your road to Emmaus you should also expect some push back. He is going to challenge you, not from a great height dumping a ton of criticisms on your head, but as your compassionate companion on the road. He’ll walk with you for as long as it takes, but not as a silent partner merely commiserating. He will lead you into the truth. And the truth is that his life – who he is and what he has done for us – changes everything about our lives. Knowing him and recognizing in him the love and the forgiveness and the power of God will stop you dead in your tracks on your road to Emmaus. How can you sing your ‘ain’t it awful’ refrain when you find yourself in the presence of the risen Jesus? Later, Cleopas and his friend were amazed by this and 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?” Jesus listens, and Jesus speaks to us on the road to Emmaus.
Finally, those two companions, wearied by their journey and the emotional roller coaster of their lives, prepared to stop for the night. And they asked Jesus to stay with them. What a simple request. Do we overlook it? Do we somehow assume that after occasional brief encounters with Jesus through prayer and Scripture that we are then on our own? Certainly, this story and others indicate the opposite: that Jesus is willing to stay with us. Often, it is the Holy Spirit who mediates that presence. And we can hardly fail to see the sacramental significance of Jesus being revealed to Cleopas and friend in the context of a meal in which Jesus took bread, blessed, broke it, and gave it to them. Our experience of Jesus’ presence may vary, but just as it was for those other travelers who found themselves on the road to Emmaus, Jesus will draw near to us by listening to the cries of our hearts in prayer, Jesus will speak to us through Scripture, and Jesus will be present with us in the Sacraments. These are the ways in which he fulfills the parting promise that he made to the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus listens, Jesus speaks, Jesus feeds us at his table.
The next time you find yourself on a road to Emmaus – a running away road filled with despair and doubt, an ‘ain’t it awful’ road that appears to be going nowhere – the next time you’re there, expect to encounter Jesus. When you realize that the ‘stranger’ walking with you is Jesus, he will help you to get on another road. Remember, Cleopas and his friend (that same night) turned right around and headed back to Jerusalem. With that decision they were returning to the fellowship of what would soon be the church of Jesus Christ. They left the lonely and discouraging road to Emmaus and were venturing forth on the road that leads to faith and hope. Jesus put them on that road. And he can put us on that road too.