(A sermon preached at Grace Anglican Church in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 23, 2023, the Second Sunday in Easter. Access the original sermon audio, with slight differences, here.)
SCRIPTURE: LUKE 24:13-35 (NRSV)
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 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?” 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, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 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. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 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. 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.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 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. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 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?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
When we’re wrapped up in our emotions, it’s easy to miss what’s right in front of us. Sometimes we’re stressed, so we can’t remember where we’ve placed our keys (only, perhaps, to discover that they were already in our pocket) or our glasses (only to find them already on our face). Sometimes we’re excited. A few months ago, I went to the Kentucky Exposition Center to see the Beyond van Gogh exhibit, only to realize it was being held at the Kentucky International Convention Center, two very different places in different areas of town. There are myriad ways our emotions can blind us to the truth, to the details right in front of us, and even send us in the wrong direction. However, perhaps the most blinding of emotions is grief.
Today’s Gospel reading concerns two disciples walking away from Jerusalem, blinded not by excitement but by their distress at the loss of Jesus. The whole arc of Luke’s Gospel has moved toward Jerusalem. By walking to Emmaus, these two disciples are going the wrong way, for they have left Jerusalem, the holy city of God, and the gathered body of disciples. They are literally walking away from the church. However, amid their grief and confusion, Jesus comes alongside these lost disciples and shows them, and us, where we can always find him.
He Meets Us on the Way
We’ve stepped back a few days from where last week’s Gospel episode ends. We’re back on Easter Sunday, and two disciples of Jesus are heading home to Emmaus. I invite you to immerse yourself in the setting a bit. Emmaus is about seven miles from Jerusalem, probably around a two-and-a-half-hour walk, and we know it is nearing evening. We know the name of one of our pedestrians: Cleopas. We don’t know who the other is, though some scholars speculate it is Cleopas’s wife, Mary, as John’s Gospel calls her. Perhaps it isn’t her, or maybe St. Luke didn’t want to name yet another Mary in the already confusing mix. Whoever this companion is, these two are confused, dejected, and headed home when a stranger approaches them on the path.
They don’t recognize him. Luke doesn’t tell us why. We don’t know if he did something supernatural, if his identity was shaded with a head scarf, or if their grief was blinding them to the fact that the one they were grieving over was right beside them. Here Jesus shows us how he often works. Intersecting our path, he journeys with us, even when we’re walking away. He places the right people and circumstances along our way to point us to him. Not everyone has a “bright light from heaven” moment. In fact, in the resurrection appearances in the Gospels, this is seldom the case. For most of us, as Tim Keller says, “Jesus is in your life, and it’s not until after the fact when you realize when he showed up. In your life right now, there might be a person or a trouble that’s pulling you toward God.”
The stranger asks our travelers about their conversation. These two, hanging their head in hopelessness, are amazed that this man has not heard about all the terrible happenings in Jerusalem over the last few days. Cleopas essentially says, “How have you missed this? Are you not from around here? What rock have you been under?!” (It was a rather large rock, as a matter of fact).They tell the stranger all the things that have taken place: how Jesus, who they hoped was the Messiah who would redeem Israel, was handed over and killed, but also how some women just that morning had said that he rose from the dead and that some disciples had seen his tomb empty. They don’t know what to make of it. These two have the details, but they’ve missed the meaning.
Jesus, in a kind, gentle, pastoral tone, politely replies, “Oh, how foolish you are!”
Let me be clear, Jesus journeys beside us even on our wayward paths, but he points us in the right direction. Like these disciples, we often look for the wrong answers, the wrong kind of savior in our lives, and lose heart when things don’t go as expected. The disciples say, “Our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” when that very crucifixion is what gave them redemption. Cleopas and his companion believe they need deliverance from political slavery and freedom from Rome, but what they really need is redemption from spiritual slavery and our bondage to sin. The true Messiah slowly reveals himself to them as he truly is, not as they—or we—want him to be, and the way he does this may look very familiar to you.
He Meets Us in the Word
Jesus leads off by explaining to them all the scriptures in the Hebrew Bible that point to him. “Was it not necessary,” he says, “that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” We don’t know what specific scriptures Jesus cites. Sadly, Jesus’ amazing Bible lesson is not recorded. After all the incredible detail in the rest of Luke’s Gospel about Jesus’ acts and teaching, he broad-swaths it here (he and I will have words about that in the new creation). However, the purpose may be to point out that all scripture—every word of it—points to Jesus. In the words of Luke, “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God. Scripture tells us that we have fallen into sin and are hopelessly bound to it and the death that is its consequence. Scripture tells us that God will send a suffering servant to be, in the words of Isaiah, “pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,” that he would be raised on the third day, that he will ascend and be exalted in glory, and that he will return to make all things new.
Of course, Jesus was only working with the Old Testament in this conversation, but now we have all 66 books of the Bible presenting one vision of the Messiah who not only was to come but came and defeated sin, death, and Satan for us. It is the Bible, uniquely, where we can find the truth about Jesus—the prophecy about his coming, his arrival and teaching, his death for us and his resurrection, and the promise of his coming again.
It has a remarkable effect on Cleopas and his companion. They later reflect, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” He has spoken, not just to their heads, but to their hearts. Christ revealing himself through the scriptures lights the ember of hope within them like a love letter being read by its author. In the words of the bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright,
We too are invited to listen to the exposition of the Bible, to have our hearts burning within us as fresh truth comes out of the old pages and sets us on fire. In this and the following passage, Luke emphasizes what the church all too easily forgets: that the careful study of the Bible is meant to bring together head and heart, understanding and excited application. This will happen as we learn to think through the story of God and the world, of Israel and Jesus, not in the way our various cultures try to make us think, but in the way that God himself has sketched out. Only when we see the Old Testament as reaching its natural climax in Jesus will we have understood it. Equally, we will only understand Jesus himself when we see him as the one to whom scripture points, not in isolated prooftexts but in the entire flow of the story. And, when we grasp this, we, like Cleopas and [we assume] Mary, will find our hearts burning within us.N.T. Wright, Luke For Everyone
He Meets Us at the Table
For Cleopas and his companion, the stranger’s exposition of scripture alone was not enough for them to recognize him, but they are now insatiably intrigued. They want more. They need more. It is late in the day when they arrive in Emmaus. We can imagine the sun creating an amber glow when they invite their stranger inside for a meal.
It is then, in the breaking of bread, that the revelation of Christ is finally made whole. These two disciples, who had been obtuse thus far, suddenly recognize Jesus for who he is. It is an image that points back to his last supper—where he proclaimed that the bread was his body given for us, his blood shed for us—and for the meal in which we signify Christ’s sacrifice. Musician and Biblical commentator Michael Card writes, “What is most significant about this appearance at Emmaus is the fact that Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread. It is a truth that is lived out thousands of times every day all over the world, whenever the faithful come with open eyes and recognize in the bread and the cup the presence of Jesus.”
We meet the Lord through his word and sacraments, and we, like Cleopas and his companion, can’t help but be changed. As the late priest and theologian John Stott writes, “We are people of the Word and the Table, and it is through these two means that the Holy Spirit feeds, guides, and empowers us.” Here, each Sunday, we have the scriptures recited and explained with Jesus at the center, then we meet him at the Table. As N.T. Wright comments on today’s passage, “Scripture and sacrament, word and meal, are joined tightly together, here as elsewhere. Take scripture away, and the sacrament becomes a piece of magic. Take the sacrament away, and scripture becomes an intellectual or emotional exercise, detached from real life. Put them together, and you have the center of Christian living as Luke understood it.”
What has Jesus done here but demonstrated how we would find him from here on out: in the liturgies of the word and the sacrament? Yet after he breaks the bread, he vanishes.
Why does he vanish? “He disappears,” Hans Urs von Balthazar writes, “into the mission of the church.” This is echoed in the last part of our liturgy, the sending, for they are meant to go out. Cleopas and his companion, without so much as finishing their dinner, race back to Jerusalem to proclaim that they have seen the resurrected Christ.
He Meets Us in the Church
If you’re wandering through life a bit lost right now and wondering where Jesus can be found, I urge you: this—the Church—is where you will find him. You will find him in the people who, as his hands and feet on this earth, will walk beside you. You will find him in the proclamation of the scripture that speaks his gospel from beginning to end. You will find him in his body and blood given to forgive your sins. And from these, he will empower you to carry his message to the ends of the earth.
The Book of Common Prayer gleans from today’s story one of Anglicanism’s most beautiful collects. Although it is morning, this collect for Evening Prayer is fitting for us today and always. “Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.”
(Cover image: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Supper at Emmaus, 1629. Courtesy of WikiArt.)