I’ve always been grateful that I’ve worked in occupations that didn’t require a lot of travel. While I enjoy seeing new places and revisiting places I’ve been or lived before, getting there, especially if it requires a plane ride, can be challenging. It’s not just the hassle; it’s being put in close proximity to strangers, who might want to engage me in conversation.
Why? Because inevitably, the question is posed: “What do you do?” Back when I was a college professor, I learned early on never to say “Religion Professor.” It only took one or two awkward conversations, usually in which my conversation partner expounded on some book they were reading, or wanting to debate the existence of God or talk about the spiritual quest they had been pursuing for the last thirty years, to make me answer “European history” in an attempt to quiet them.
It hasn’t gotten any easier since I’ve become a priest. It’s one of the reasons I don’t even carry books—it’s much harder for onlookers to detect what I’m reading when I’m using a kindle.
I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences. You’re traveling, all you want is to be left alone with your thoughts or your reading, and your seatmate wants to engage tell you everything about themselves, or learn everything about you.
I’ll never forget the uber driver who was so intent on sharing his knowledge of Gnosticism with me that he got lost taking me to my destination in Cambridge Mass, and I had to give him instructions, even though it had been more than 25 years since I’d driven in the city.
One of the things I love about the gospel stories of the appearances of the Risen Christ is how they bring together moments of utter transcendence and awe with daily life and the mundane. In the story of Thomas which was read last week, we heard about the disciples gathered together, the appearance of Christ, and the disbelief of Thomas. We also heard his great confession: “My Lord and my God!” In another story from the gospel of John, the disciples encounter the risen Christ making breakfast for them after they’ve spent the night fishing on the Sea of Galilee.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we have these two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and encountering a stranger as they go. A perfectly ordinary story with an extraordinary conclusion. A perfectly ordinary story, on the one hand, yet on the other, full of mystery and raising many questions.
Two disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. That’s the first mystery: Why and Where? There’s a great deal of uncertainty about the location of Emmaus. There’s no clear village or town in the vicinity of Jerusalem that had that name in the first century—oh, if you visit the Holy Land now, they can show you where tradition says Emmaus was, the house where Cleopas lived, the church built on the site. But all of that comes much later. It’s almost as if these two disciples, one of them unnamed and unknown, the other Cleopas, only mentioned here, were on a journey to nowhere.
And why were they traveling? Was Emmaus their home? Were they trying to escape Jerusalem? Are they fleeing the city? That’s perhaps a better guess. Although Luke isn’t quite so hard on the disciples as the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the disciples had every reason to be fearful—their leader had been arrested and executed by the Roman authorities. Their movement was in a shambles and they had every right to suspect that the Romans would be coming after them, too. So they may have been trying to get away from Jerusalem and return to obscurity. They may have been fleeing for their lives.
While we can only hypothesize about their fear and assume they were grieving as well, the text does tell us that they were in despair. They tell their unkown companion, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” After telling their story and expressing their dashed hopes, they listen as Jesus explains to them again how everything that happened conforms to Hebrew scripture. They are so taken with him that they urge him to join them for dinner. And it’s at dinner that their eyes are opened.
The gospel reads, “When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” It’s a description that echoes Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, and earlier, in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. At that moment, their eyes were opened, they recognized their Lord and Savior, and he vanished from their sight. Now everything made sense to them. The explanation of scripture Jesus had given them helped them make the connection—their encounter with the Risen Christ changed their fear into joy and their despair into happiness. Now they remembered, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”
Whatever plans they had made earlier, whatever reasons they had for leaving Jerusalem to go to Emmaus, didn’t matter any more. They immediately raced back to Jerusalem to see the other disciples and tell them what happened, that Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
What’s so wonderful about this story is its relationship to our lives as Christians. Like those two disciples, we all have histories, backgrounds with Jesus. Some of us have grown up in the church, heard bible stories since we were children, have never not been connected to the faith. Others of us have had different journeys, have little or no background in the church, have found ourselves drawn to Jesus, drawn to God. Still others have had a little of both, wandering in and out over the years, active in the church, then for whatever reason feeling profoundly alienated from it, or only disinterested. We read, discuss, explore on our own.
But too often, most of the time, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Even for many of us who are committed members of Grace, too often it seems like we’re just going through the motions, coming to church because that’s what we do, are active volunteers because, well, somebody has asked us, and we just can’t say no, or say it often enough. But our involvement doesn’t touch us at our deepest selves. Sometimes, all the things that are going on in the rest of our lives, struggles at work or in our closest relationships, worries about health or financial security, bog us down, dash our hopes, blind us to the presence of Christ, and our spiritual lives, our lives of faith, seem to be like discarded trash on the side of the road, as we wander.
But then something happens. A chance encounter, a gracious word, a meaningful conversation, a sacred meal. Suddenly our eyes are opened, our hearts burn within us, and Jesus Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread. We are transformed, and we rush to tell others.
This is a very rich, thought-provoking story. It operates on many levels, inviting us to reflect on our own experience as people of faith, and people seeking faith. It invites us to think about our Eucharistic feast as an encounter with the Risen Christ, and our worship with the liturgy of the word and table, as a self-contained, embodied experience of resurrection. It invites us to imagine our worship and our lives as transformational experiences.
But there’s more. What would have happened if those two disciples had not urged Jesus to stay with them? What would have happened if they had not invited him to dinner? Yes, it was a simple gesture of hospitality, an act of kindness. But it opened their eyes. It changed their lives.
Our worship, our common life, our own individual spiritual journeys are all opportunities to encounter Jesus Christ. But they are opportunities not for us alone. When we invite others to join us, when we invite others into our lives, our stories, and into our worship, we invite them to encounter Jesus Christ. We are inviting them to experience resurrection. We are practicing resurrection. May all of our hearts burn within us, may we know Jesus Christ in the breaking of the bread, and in the fellowship of the table. Amen.