The events in Jerusalem are still very fresh. Jesus had been crucified on The Day of Preparation for the Sabbath. And on this day after the Sabbath strange rumors began to circulate amongst the friends and followers of Jesus that were scarcely believable. To some, reports of the resurrection must have seemed a kind of cruel psychological denial, the rantings of hysterical, imbalanced women.
Two followers of Jesus were walking from Jerusalem to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles away. Under normal conditions, it would be about a two-hour walk. It would seem, as events unfold, that Emmaus was where these two had a home — perhaps they retreated there out of fear of the authorities in Jerusalem. Or perhaps they simply needed to get away from the confusion and uncertainty that reigned in Jerusalem.
They talked about the events of the past days, perhaps trying to process and understand what had happened. While they walked, a stranger joins them, going the same direction — west, away from the city.
The stranger asks Cleopas what they’re talking about. We’re not sure who Cleopas was from the Biblical record. He is only identified once, here in this passage. His companion is anonymous. Some suggest it may have been his wife. John 19:25 does identify a Clopas whose wife was named Mary. This Mary was one of the women who, according to John’s Gospel, watched as Jesus suffered on the cross. We can’t be sure of a connection.
The conversation that ensues following the stranger’s question almost seems a little sharp. Cleopas seems a little rude:
Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things which have happened there in these days?
This leads to the follow-up question, and Cleopas and his companion begin to explain:
They said to him, “The things concerning Jesus, the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people; and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we were hoping that it was he who would redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Also, certain women of our company amazed us, having arrived early at the tomb; and when they didn’t find his body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of us went to the tomb, and found it just like the women had said, but they didn’t see him.”
This is a brief synopsis of the facts of the case.
- Jesus, from Nazareth, was regarded by them as a prophet; they had hoped he might actually be the Messiah.
- However, his condemnation by the religious authorities and his crucifixion by Roman rulers certainly undermined that hope.
- Now, there were the incredible stories from some of the women that the tomb was empty; angels assured those women Jesus was alive, but none of the women could affirm they had seen Jesus.
- Empirical evidence had confirmed this much — some of the disciples went to the tomb and found it empty. But none had seen Jesus themselves.
The stranger in turn is just a little insulting.
He said to them, “Foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!”
He calls them foolish, faithless and ignorant of their Scriptures! And he asserts that all of these things that happened were prophesied about the Messiah:
Didn’t the Christ have to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?
This stranger uses this two-hour walk to great advantage. He teaches them from their own Scriptures — from Moses (the Law) and all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (which would technically include virtually the rest of the Old Testament) — about the work of the Messiah. He is, of course, speaking of himself, but they still don’t know his identity.
When they arrive at Emmaus, they invite this stranger to come to their home with them. This is not so odd as it might seem to some Americans. Hospitality was and is an important feature of Middle Eastern life then and now. And given the time of day, they may have become concerned for this stranger’s well-being:
They urged him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is almost evening, and the day is almost over.”
What happens next is a remarkable moment of self-disclosure. Jesus never actually tells the two disciples who he is. He sits down at table with them. And though it is not his home, he assumes the role of the host! He takes the bread and gives thanks over it, rather than the head of the household.
When he breaks the bread, the two disciples immediately recognize him! And he vanishes! This reveals two things:
- The breaking of the bread and giving thanks was a simple act of table fellowship, something that Jesus had done many times with his disciples. However, the events of the Last Supper had given this act a far deeper significance:
He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19).
It seems significant that he is recognized in the breaking of the bread.
- These events also suggest that Jesus has entered a new reality that transcends physical realities. Though he has a body, and can eat and can be touched, he also seems not to be bound by “normal” limitations of time and space. We see this also in other post-resurrection appearances, when he seems to pass through walls. John 20:26 tells us that he appears in the room where the disciples are, despite the fact that the doors are securely locked.
The two disciples confess to one another that they had had the dawning awareness that something special had been happening earlier:
They said to one another, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?”
Despite the lateness of the hour, and the dark night — albeit, there was likely a moon — they rose up immediately and returned to Jerusalem. One wonders if the pace was quicker on the return!
When they find the eleven disciples gathered together, their own experience is corroborated by Jesus’ appearance to others. They are told:
The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!
These various witnesses begin to confirm what is now undeniable fact — Jesus is risen:
They related the things that happened along the way, and how he was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.
All of us experience loss and grief. We seem to spend our lives saying farewell to people and places and even things that we love. Sometimes that loss can be shocking, like the crucifixion of a beloved man like Jesus.
Grief requires that we process what has happened. Therapists tell us that there are even stages in that process that are fairly typical — denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, acceptance. We may speculate where the two disciples may have been in this process as they talked about the events that had only recently happened in Jerusalem. But they did seem to be trying to make sense of it all.
And there is the twist. Their process of grief was turned on its head when Jesus himself showed up! There had been foreshadowing — rumors that the tomb was empty, angels announcing that Jesus had risen. But these disciples knew nothing yet of the appearances of Jesus.
So, we find a different set of “stages” in this process that turns grief into faith.
- First, Jesus walks with us, even if we don’t recognize him. We Methodists call this God’s “prevenient grace” that precedes that moment of assurance that comes with faith.
- Second, the Scriptures themselves confirm the claims of the coming of Jesus, from Moses and all the prophets. In the hands of a good interpreter of Scripture, we can find types and prophecies of Christ throughout the Old Testament.
- Third, there is the sense of corporate fellowship represented by the disciple’s invitation that Jesus should come and dwell with them. Jesus breaks the bread and was instantly recognized by them in the breaking of the bread. When we gather as the church, and share the bread of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, don’t we also have the opportunity to recognize him in the breaking of the bread?
- Fourth, and by no means least important, is what we might call the inward witness. When the disciples finally realize that they’ve been with Jesus, they proclaim:
Weren’t our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?
Isn’t that the personal, inward experience to which many Christians testify when they come to faith in Christ?
John Wesley’s experience seems to be emblematic of this very sense of assurance. He describes his “breakthrough” one evening at a religious meeting on Aldersgate Street in London:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed [emphasis mine]. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
All of these — the prevenient presence of Christ in our lives through his Holy Spirit; the proper interpretation and application of the Scriptures; the sharing of the means of grace through the Lord’s Supper in the church family; and the personal inward experience of the heart strangely warmed — contribute to the transformation of doubt into faith, and grief into joy.
I really wish I could have taken that walk on the road to Emmaus, and heard Jesus open up the Scriptures:
Beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
I have the feeling that he covered everything they needed to know — as we say sometimes semi-facetiously — from the table of contents at the front to the maps at the end.
I also wish that I could have been with them in the house in Emmaus. I would have reveled in his presence if Jesus had come into my home and broken bread — which is what the experience of faith can be like.
Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) wrote a hymn that reminds me of this episode in the Gospels. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he invites Jesus to come in:
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
Lyte had attended the University of Dublin with the intention of studying medicine, but instead became interested in theology and took Holy Orders. When a good friend and fellow clergyman died unexpectedly, Lyte experienced a spiritual transformation. After 1818, his preaching and writing became more urgent and spiritual. He began to write and publish poems and hymns.
The hymn Abide with me was written in 1847. Only three weeks after its completion, Lyte died of complications from tuberculosis. His lyrics are poignant:
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
May this also be my prayer this day:
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me. Amen.
PHOTOS: "2 disciples on a journey to Emmaus with Jesus" by Leonard J Matthews is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license