They are walking through the afternoon, to a place called Emmaus.
They trudge along, heads down, dejected and lost.
A stranger joins them on the road.
“What are you talking about?” he asks.
They are amazed, and they tell him a story
- a story of a man named Jesus, who spoke of God in a new way.
- Who worked wonders among the people.
- Who they had hoped would save them from Roman occupation. Until he was killed. Some women told a story that he was raised from the dead –
- but really, how could that be?
Each of us is on a journey.
Maybe it is a journey heading straight toward a goal –
or maybe it is a wandering journey, with an unclear destination.
Our journey may be leading through green meadows beside still waters –
or we may feel we are on a steep and rocky climb, ever upward
Sometimes in our journeys we lose all our footing and feel like we are in free fall.
And sometimes we get stuck.
Whether in comfort and complacency, or in doubt and despair,
sometimes we seem to come to a stop in the road.
During my study this week, I came across this story, told by Alyce McKenzie, a professor at Perkins School of Theology:
I was at the Philadelphia zoo some years ago. My older brother Wade and his family had joined my family for a zoo day. The kids were watching the seals, but Wade and I were standing in front of the bear exhibit before we went to join them. The Philadelphia zoo had recently gotten rid of the cages and built a new, more open habitat for the bears with beautiful foliage, a bubbling creek, and room to roam. The younger bears were strutting their stuff, enjoying being bears in the open space.
But back in the corner there was an old bear. He was a shaggy, mangy old bear and he was putting himself through his paces. On all fours, his eyes on the ground, he would walk ten steps to the right, then do a strange shuddery shake that involved his whole bear body. Then he would turn and pace ten steps to the left, stop for the shake, then turn to do his ten paces to the right. The same journey over and over again.
I stood for I don't know how long, watching his back and forth. "Look at him," I said, elbowing my brother standing next to me. "He kind of reminds me of me."
"Yeah," said the man, a complete stranger to me, who was now standing where Wade had stood. "I know what you mean."
Cleopas and his friend are in such a place.
They cannot see the whole picture,
because they are stuck in a place of “we had hoped.”
So the story they tell the stranger misses the point.
The irony is, as we know, the stranger is Jesus himself.
They tell Jesus his own story.
At this point, perhaps we’d like to see Jesus come back with a gentle, compassionate response.
We’d like some comfortable pastoral care from Jesus.
Instead, Jesus sounds impatient.
“Have you even been paying attention?
“You seem to have missed part of the story.”
Instead of telling them what they want to hear,
he tells them what they need to hear.
As I’ve shared with some friends this winter and spring the challenges facing St Michael’s and my own struggles, a few of them have responded,
“What is all this teaching you? What gifts does this hold?”
Not always the gentle commiseration I was looking for.
But in the end, more helpful.
And I’ve realized something.
I have seen a number of counselors and spiritual directors who are supportive and kind.
Who hold my hand and encourage me when I am hard on myself (which is always.)
But sometimes what I need is someone who will kick me in the pants.
Someone who will hold my feet to the fire and help me out of the stuck places.
Cleopas and his friend tell their story,
and they are stuck on the haunting phrase, “We had hoped . . . “
Amy Hunter, poet and episcopal lay leader, writes,
For them the story is over. Their hopes have proven empty, and they are defeated. But then Jesus tells the story back to them, this time through the lens of their own faith tradition and scriptures. "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe. . ." The story is not about them and their disappointment, he says. It is about life, the universe and everything in it.
Jesus reconnects Cleopas and his friend with their religious tradition.
He reminds them what they know about God and God’s faithfulness to God’s people,
throughout centuries of history and prayer.
He reminds them of the prophets and the long years of waiting for the messiah.
He reminds them of a God who has always been in the business of redemption.
Jesus joins Cleopas and his friend on the road, and tells them what they need to hear.
Then he joins them for supper,
where he somehow becomes the host.
He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them.
And suddenly they know him.
They know who it is that has walked with them, listened to them, and taught them.
They know who it is who has brought them to this moment,
even though they thought they were the ones inviting him in.
Alyce McKenzie writes about this story:
The plot of the walk to Emmaus scene epitomizes the plot of the whole Gospel of Luke (and, for that matter, of John). Jesus is our companion on the way, but we do not recognize him.
That is what this story is about.
Whatever journey we are on – Jesus comes alongside us and walks it with us.
The road to Emmaus is an ordinary road –
the road each one of us is on every day.
Cleopas and his friend could be any of us.
Again, Amy Hunter:
This story shows us a God who walks alongside human confusion, human pain and human loss of faith and hope. Emmaus invites us to expect God to find us. Emmaus challenges us to see that it isn’t our unshakable faith and deep spirituality that connect us with the risen Christ, but our smallest gestures of hospitality and friendship.
The story ends with Cleopas and his friend returning to the other disciples.
From trudging away in despair,
they now rush to share their joy.
Their road forward is with the community of followers,
to study the Word
and break bread together,
and invite others to journey with them in new life and new hope.
Jesus has led them out of their own box of expectations and assumptions,
into nothing less than God’s own mission of love in the world.
Their journey ahead may take them, with the other apostles, to unknown places and new understandings –
but now they know that Jesus will go with them all the way.