How much easier to believe and to follow Jesus if we had met the risen Christ!
Liz Stuart, 23 April 2023
Acts 2:14a, 36–41; Luke 24:13–35
I wonder if you have ever walked the ‘walk of shame’. This is a term young people use for the journey back home in the early hours of the morning after a night of heavy partying. It is a pretty miserable experience and sight, a crashing low after a night of ‘fun’ and high energy.
The two followers of Jesus trudging the 7 miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus were on their own walk of shame. The prophet, the one in whom they had put all their hope, had been executed. There was nothing for it but to get out of Jerusalem. They are deflated and probably afraid for their own safety. Note that it is not that they had not heard about the resurrection – they had, from ‘the women’ – but they don’t really believe it because when the men went, the tomb was empty but they did not see Jesus. So, miserable and sexist, they trudge away.
Then they are joined by a stranger, not on a walk of shame, who is able to help them understand what has happened and why, through interpretation of the scriptures. Urged to stay with them when they reach Emmaus, the stranger is revealed to them as Jesus through the breaking of the bread and then disappears. They turn and race back to Jerusalem, where they find the apostles glorying in the truth and joy of the resurrection because Jesus has appeared to Simon. A man – they believe!
If you were at one of our Good Friday services this year you would have sung that wonderful African-American spiritual, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ It is a beautiful song, but the answer is no. We were not there. We did not witness Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Do you ever get ‘apostle envy’ thinking how much easier it would be to believe and to follow Jesus if we had been there, if we had seen these things for ourselves? How can you even begin to understand the resurrection unless you were there, unless you had met the risen Christ? A good many of us will have walked away from some Easters thinking, well that was great, that was moving, that was profound, but how do I actually believe it?
The author of the gospel of Luke has good news for absolutely everyone who did not witness the resurrection.
What the story of Emmaus teaches us first is that Jesus walks beside us even when we are going the wrong way, when we have made the wrong choices and believed the wrong things or not believed the right things. If we really believed that – that Jesus walks with us even when we are going the wrong way – how much anxiety would dissipate from our individual lives and that of the Church? We would be so much more courageous and bolder, so much less risk-averse, so much more tolerant of others.
‘We had hoped’. They are few more poignant words spoken in the gospel than these. You can hear the disappointment and bewilderment in those words. And how they resonate with us to. We come to this table with those words also on our lips. We had hoped, but Covid … We had hoped that the test results would be okay. We had hoped for a little more time. We had hoped that we could get through this. We had hoped that our relationship would last. We had hoped that it would work out. We had hoped, we had hoped.
What we learn from the story of Emmaus is that before our eyes can open to see the risen Lord present in the breaking of bread, we need to tell Jesus about our disappointed hopes, to articulate them to him and to allow the scriptures and his love to cast their light upon them. Confession is not just about articulating our personal and collective sins and failures but also our failed hopes and expectations. This is the prelude to being able to encounter Jesus in the breaking of the bread. It clears our minds and hearts to see clearly.
We are in exactly the same position as those followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus: shaky, confused, unwilling to believe, plodding away in the wrong direction, nursing disappointed hopes. But … Jesus reveals himself to us in the breaking of the bread on this altar.
Third, in showing that Jesus is revealed to Cleopas and his chum in the breaking of the bread the author of the gospel of Luke is teaching us that every Eucharist is an encounter with the risen Christ. We are in exactly the same position as those followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus: shaky, confused, unwilling to believe, plodding away in the wrong direction, nursing disappointed hopes. But we are here gathered around this table, his table, to do as he commanded: to break bread as his body and to drink wine as his blood; and he is as present to us as he was to Cleopas and his travelling companion, as he was to the women at the tomb who no one believed.
This is the place of resurrection for us. Jesus reveals himself to us in the breaking of the bread on this altar. The risen Jesus is here. Can you see him? No. Neither could the Emmaus disciples; they only saw and heard a stranger. He disappeared from their sight when they broke bread not because he had gone somewhere else but because he had become more present – present and known in his resurrected state.
This the extraordinary and enormous mystery into which we are plunged, week in and week out. It is too big, too deep, too awesome to grasp in one week, in one hundred, one thousand weeks; but what strikes me about the disciples on the road to Emmaus is that they were open to strangeness. Despite their despondency, their hearts were open. If we come to worship with our hearts and minds open, confessing our thwarted hopes, listening carefully to scripture, we will encounter something amazing at this table: our risen Lord.