Sunday 8 May 2011

The road to Emmaus

An address given at Templederry & Killodiernan on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, 8th May 2011

Going to Emmaus, Robert Z√ľnd, 1877, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen

St Luke is an immensely skilled story-teller.
In today’s NT reading (Luke 24:13-35), he has given us one of the world’s great short stories, as he relates what happened between Jerusalem and Emmaus on that first Easter day.

He is economical with words, but he paints a vivid scene. There is suspense and character development too. And like the best short stories it leaves us with more questions than answers.

Let’s try to enter the story in our imaginations.

Two disciples of Jesus, Cleopas and his friend, set off walking on the road to Emmaus in the late afternoon.
They walk into the setting sun – Emmaus is about 7 miles west of Jerusalem, much the same as the distance from Templederry or Killodiernan to Nenagh. Their journey will take 2 hours, more or less. And as they walk, they talk – trying to make sense of the shocking events of the last 3 days.

They had hoped that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah who would redeem Israel. But the chief priests and leaders had handed him over to the Roman authorities to be condemned to death and crucified. Their belief in him was shattered, their dreams turned to ashes. And early this very morning, some women of their group had astounded them by claiming to have had a vision in which angels said this Jesus was still alive. The shock of his crucifixion must have unbalanced them. And yet …

As Cleopas and his friend walk and talk, they fall in with a stranger walking the same road. It is Jesus, Luke tells us. But for some reason they do not recognise him, even though they know him so well. Will they recognise him later? We are kept in suspense.

When they explain to him what they are talking about, this stranger/Jesus says, ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ He goes on to interpret for them all that the Hebrew Scriptures have to say about the Messiah. Their hearts are strangely warmed by this conversation. Yet still they do not recognise him.

When they get to Emmaus they press this stranger/Jesus to stay and eat with them because it is late. Finally, only when ‘he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’, they recognise the stranger to be Jesus. He promptly vanishes – but everything is changed for them, changed because they recognise the risen Christ.

Cleopas and his friend recall how their hearts burned within them while Jesus expounded scripture to them on the road. They hurry back to Jerusalem to find the other disciples to tell them about meeting Jesus. But before Cleopas and his friend have a chance to tell their story, those who remained in Jerusalem tell them excitedly, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon’.

Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus leaves so many questions hanging.
For instance, why did Cleopas and his friend not recognise Jesus until they ate together? I can’t believe it was just because the setting sun was in their eyes.

The Gospel stories in which the disciples meet Jesus after his resurrection are mysterious. His friends find it hard to recognise him – not just the disciples on the road to Emmaus, but Mary Magdalen who mistakes him for a gardener, and Simon Peter and other disciples who meet him as they are fishing on the shore in Galilee. He appears and disappears suddenly. The risen Christ is not just Jesus’s corpse magically brought back to life. The stories, I think, are about spiritual meetings - not physical meetings, as you and I might meet as we come and go.

And Christians have continued to meet the risen Christ in ways which change their lives. Just as Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus. Just as St Francis heard Christ speak to him in a ruined church outside Assisi. And just as innumerable others have felt Christ’s presence make their hearts burn right up to our own day. This should not surprise us – after all, in the last words of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

Cleopas and his friend recognise Jesus when the stranger says grace before their supper – when he gives thanks for the food they are about to eat: ‘He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’. This is quite simply what Jesus used to do at the start of a meal. He did it at the last supper, but the Gospels record him doing so many times before. I think he intended his Eucharistic action – the Greek word literally means ‘thanksgiving’ – as a sign that God’s kingdom is present with us. God’s kingdom in which we take God’s good gifts, processed by human hands, give thanks for them, and share them with our neighbours. May God grant that like Cleopas and his friend we too may encounter the risen Christ in the Eucharist, which we with all other Christians re-enact to this day as Holy Communion.

I would love to know what Jesus said to Cleopas and his friend, what made their hearts burn so.
How amazing it would be to hear Jesus open the scriptures in person!

But I will never know. Any more than I can know what Jesus meant when he said ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Or know what happened when Jesus appeared to Peter. Luke simply does not tell us.

Yet that surely is as it is meant to be. I feel certain that the risen Christ reveals to each one of us just those things which are right for us, which we need to know. We recognise this is Christ at work because we feel our hearts warmed. But there are other things which we will never know, which we are not meant to know, and which would do us no good to know.