13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 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?” 19 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, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 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. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 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. 24 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.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 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. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 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?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Let us pray. Startle us again O Lord with resurrection. We need it desperately. We need each other. We need you. Amen.
I will start with a nerdy tidbit. Get your pencils out. Scholars aren’t sure where Emmaus is. A city by that name was written about by Eusebius and Jerome, but it was pretty far from Jerusalem. And we can be sure this story took place without the use of bicycles. Other scholars zero in on a tiny Jewish settlement called Motza. In Greek, it could have been called Emmaous. I imagine you are very relieved to know that!
Even so, I suspect most of us have not lost sleep about geography lately. Unless you’re a parent helping with homework, and you’ve just learned that there is something called the Southern Ocean. That was me, a few years ago, lying in bed wondering what it takes for a new ocean to come out of nowhere.
We don’t know Emmaus on the geographic level, but we know Emmaus on a spiritual level.
When the game ends in embarrassing defeat, and the sullen crowds gather their stuff and head for the exit while the other team is still hugging, that’s Emmaus.
When the frustration and disappointment is too great for staying still but when the future remains covered in a fog of grief and worry. That’s Emmaus.
When life has changed so much that you scarcely recognize yourself much less the people around you. That’s Emmaus.
It’s precisely not a place but a road, the foggy feeling of being neither here nor there. It’s the walk you take until the phone rings. It’s driving for some silly errand when you just need to stare out a windshield. It’s the buzz of defeat in a mind that won’t sit still and yet has no place to go. That’s Emmaus.
That’s where Cleopas and the other were headed when misery blinded them to Jesus walking along with them. The text says they were talking about the things that had happened. All the things… the crucifixion. The betrayals. The world as they knew it gone. The stranger had the gall to ask about… the things… and they stood there, looking sad. You know, the wordless pause, the lump in the throat, the tear on the edge of their eyelid that betrayed their efforts to seem like they had it all together. Then, words tumble out with a surprisingly sharp tinge of anger, “Are you the only stranger who doesn’t know the things that have taken place these days?”
Then, the anger melted into a torrent of grief upon this unwitting stranger who had the temerity to float a painfully obvious question. Listen – We had real plans! We had a leader! We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel! But it’s over now. Brutally. Totally.
In that flood of words, the disciples had let slip the saddest words in the Bible. “We had hoped…” Hope … in the past tense. If you really want to convey thudding disappointment, those are the words to use. “We had hoped… to take that trip. We had hoped… the treatments or therapy or diet plan would work. We had hoped… he’d be able to keep his job… We had hoped… the church would grow. We had hoped…leaders would work together instead of so much cowardice.” But instead, here we are, wherever the heck we are.
But inside this story was a glimmer. “Some women in our group astounded us.” But you see, when you’re in that triangle of disappointment, fear and hurt, it can be easier to slam the door on tomorrow, hopes and all. A friend of mine described a really rough season for her family, and then she sniffled laughed through the tears saying, “In our house, the Department of Speculation is closed.”
The disciples had a vulnerability hangover now from confessing this, and they couldn’t walk it back. Likely they wanted compassion, a reminder that they weren’t crazy. Grief counselors would acknowledge the many forms of loss they were experiencing: Loss of purpose, structure, a friend, loss of a kind of faith where God comes storming in and beats up the bad people.
What Jesus does next is not intended to teach grief counseling. When someone is grieving you don’t say “It was supposed to happen this way” and you don’t offer lengthy Bible lectures and you don’t hustle off out of nowhere. But Jesus was not there to offer grief counseling. He was offering a new ending to the story. A story not of thudding disappointment but of resurrection. Blinding sunshine breaking over mountains of their pain. That story dawned on them in three important ways.
First, it dawned on them in words, in scripture, in the back and forth of conversation, in the walking story sharing, told in community that takes place along the hardest roads of our lives. Jesus reminds them the story they are telling is not the right story. The story they are in is actually a bigger story. Emmaus is not the road following hideous loss. It is the valley in the shadow of the cross, and a good shepherd is leading them to green pastures of resurrection if they keep listening. It is God breaking into the world with a logic of grace that their minds can’t contain but that’s ok – because that resurrection love will walk with them until they find new footing and it will unravel the knots inside them and will set the nations free from the inside out. Holy words that set your heart on fire, that’s Emmaus.
Second, it dawned on them in the sacrament, in the breaking, the breaking of bread specifically. Jesus met them in the rituals, the table meal, through what is the most tangible, this bread, that cuts through the ache of loneliness and the pangs of hunger. At the table, they were no longer wandering, they were hosted. They were fed. One of my favorite quotes lately is by Goethe, who wrote: “It’s the nature of grace always to fill the empty places.” It’s when you look back on those heartbreaking times in your life and see how many ways you were nourished. It’s that truth you have to chew on for a while. That’s Emmaus.
Finally, it dawned on them with mission. Their hearts had been cold and overwhelmed and suddenly an old spark of hope leapt up again instead them. “Did our hearts not burn inside our chests?” they asked after this encounter. They had work to do now and good news to share. Their limbs were sore but they covered some serious ground after this story. They rushed to reconnect with the church, which in this story just meant all these other folks who had also lived past their worst-case scenario into resurrection news and rolled up their sleeves to serve. Service. Emmaus does that to you.
This week, I heard about a woman who had suffered a tremendous amount of loss in her life. The hardest day was when her birthday rolled around one year, and she realized she had no one with whom to celebrate. Fast forward to nearly 20 years after blowing out candles alone, she continues to lead something called Cindy’s Celebrations. She drives the church van around, picking up elderly people and lonely people and broke people and broken people, and together they surround someone on their birthday. Fancy cakes. Tea cups. Décor. Love. The body of Christ showing up for people in service. Reminds me of the tea ministry here at BPC – if you haven’t heard about it, I will tell you. Reminds me of Christ House, which Kay Taylor will tell you about. That’s Emmaus.
For the Cleopas and the other one, it turned out that resurrection was not a process. Not a weekend retreat. Not a doctrine to which they assented in their mind. It was not the logical next step based on what they knew. In fact, it cut across what they knew. It made them new. Sent them back to where they had been before but this time with new eyes. It was a complete gift, as Reformed Theology has taught us. Try as we might, dear church, to try to pave this Emmaus road, to make it softer, put up street signs and act as ushers and provide adequate lighting, to deliver the dawning for others, resurrection always comes to us a godsend. It cannot be tamed by the scholars nor coopted by the powerful. It is a road for the humiliated and brokenhearted, the lost and the sick, the lonely and the goofy and the worried. Maybe that is you.
If that is you, listen hard to those walking by your side, chew on that truth that seems to be handed to you repeatedly, and then bring good news to someone who is suffering, regardless of how perfectly organized your beliefs are on any given day. Word, bread, mission. I promise you, the body of Christ is there every time.
 With great appreciation to Sam Wells, and his sermon We Had Hoped, preached at Church of St. Martin in the Fields in 2014, and before that in the Duke Chapel. It is one of the reasons I fell in love with this text to begin with. The frame of that sermon heavily influenced this one.