Based on: Luke 24:13-35
It had been a highly emotional three days for those two people walking home from Jerusalem to Emmaus. First had come the horror of that awful day when a man whom they trusted, a man in whom they had put their faith, was put to death by the Romans. And it was not a quick death – it was crucifixion, an excruciatingly painful and humiliating death. Then, at sundown that same day, the Sabbath began – a time to rest. Ordinarily, rest was a good thing, but at that time, it would have been good to have work to distract them and keep their minds off what had just happened.
But now it was the third day after Jesus’ death, the Sabbath was over, morning had arrived, and it was time to head home. They have seven miles to travel on foot, and they will need all that time to talk over what has happened and to try to make sense of it all, because while they are still coming to grips with Jesus’ death, some women in their circle are telling an incredible story. The women say that when they got to the tomb, they found it empty, and that they had a vision of angels who told them Jesus was alive. Obviously, this must be a case of wishful thinking by these poor confused women – they couldn’t possibly be right, could they? – and so it is with heavy hearts that these two travelers are heading home to Emmaus.
But before long, they are joined by another person traveling down that road, and he asks them why they are looking so down in the mouth. The two disciples can’t believe anyone could be so ignorant of what has just happened in Jerusalem, but this man seems to have no idea why they look so unhappy. So, the two disciples explain the situation: the hope they had put in this man Jesus, how their hope was so violently shattered, and then the completely unbelievable story the women had told.
But, as it turns out, their fellow traveler is not as ignorant as he first appeared. In fact, he seems to have a remarkable grasp of Scripture and how the events of the past few days are not all that surprising after all. So, even though this stranger calls his fellow travelers “foolish people,” his word are so compelling that the two disciples are not offended. Instead, when they are almost home and it looks like this stranger is going to keep on walking, they invite him to come to their home for supper and to spend the night.
Now, we might find it a bit odd that these two travelers would invite a complete stranger into their home, but the people who first heard this story and the people who first read Luke’s Gospel would not have been at all surprised at this invitation. After all, not only was hospitality a time-honored virtue in the ancient Middle East, but it was almost evening and soon it would be dark – and no thoughtful person would strand a traveler on a dark road. In the dark, you can’t see who – or what – is coming at you. A path that is easily followed by day seems to disappear when the sun goes down, and thieves and wild animals are more likely to strike in the dark. But even beyond the real physical dangers that darkness imposes, there is the psychological toll that darkness takes: things that seem merely worrisome at noon can assume disastrous proportions in our minds at midnight.
Human beings have always feared the dark, and this negative view of the dark shows up in Scripture, too:
- The Bible begins with a creation story – Genesis, Chapter 1 – that portrays the earth as a formless void cloaked in darkness, and the first thing that God creates is light. And God calls the light good.
- And the Gospel of John echoes this theme from Genesis in the majestic prologue that opens this Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Light as life, darkness as death; light as good, darkness as evil; light as hope, darkness as despair – these are common themes in Scripture. So, for example, when John tells us that Nicodemus came at night to talk to Jesus, he is suggesting that Nicodemus acted in a cowardly manner, trying to keep his visit a secret from his fellow Pharisees. And when Matthew, Mark and Luke all say that darkness came over the whole land as Jesus was dying on the cross, they are saying that the very earth grieved this death.
And yet, the dark is also where some of the most important and life-transforming good events of Scripture take place:
- Jacob wrestles with an angel all night long and wrestles a blessing out of that encounter.
- Psalm 8 praises the Lord for the glory of the night sky: When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
- The angels come to the shepherds by night, and Joseph decides not to divorce Mary after he has a dream during the night telling him that Mary’s son is God’s son.
- Jesus was raised from the dead during the night. And in today’s Gospel lesson, these two disciples are about to get the surprise of their life when they sit down to their evening meal.
This story is found only in Luke’s Gospel, and it a bit of a mystery. We’ve never met these two disciples before and we won’t meet them again. We know that one is named Cleopas and they apparently know the followers of Jesus back in Jerusalem since they have heard the story the women are telling about the empty tomb. But Cleopas and his fellow traveler are not part of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. So why does Jesus come to them?
I think Luke was saying that Jesus came to these two disciples because even though they were traveling during the light of day, they were in a very dark place. Cleopas and his traveling companion invited this stranger to spend the night with them in order to spare him the trials of a night-time journey but, in reality, they were the ones lost in the dark. And so, Jesus comes to them while they are still on the road and opens the scriptures to them, helping them to remember the things they had heard about the Messiah but, in their despair, had given up on. And then, he accepts their invitation to join them for supper and to spend the night.
When we want to get to know someone better, we often do so by inviting them to share a meal with us. Inviting others to break bread with us opens the door to true companionship. In fact, the English word “companion” is rooted in the Latin word panis, which means “bread.” A companion is someone you literally break bread with. And so the disciples, intrigued by Jesus’ compelling teaching, hope to get to know him better over a meal. But when Jesus breaks the bread, his hosts realize that their guest – their “company” – is actually someone they already know, someone who is already their dearly beloved companion.
Of course, no sooner do those disciples in Emmaus recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread than he disappears. But rather than becoming discouraged, the disciples courageously brave the dangers of the night and return to Jerusalem to tell the faithful ones gathered there the good news.
“Stay with us” – it begins as an invitation, an offer of hospitality. But after the experience of Emmaus, the Church has seen these words as a plea: “Stay with us, don’t leave us alone in the dark.” And what Luke tells us through this story is that Jesus does not leave his disciples alone and adrift – just as he came to those two travelers, he continues to come to us where we are, in the darkness as well as the light.
He comes to us through Scripture as we study and discern with each other what these ancient words mean to us today. Just as Jesus first touched the hearts of those disciples on the road when he opened the Scriptures to them (Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures to us?), he still comes to us through the honest and life-transforming study of Scripture.
He comes to us when we gather to worship and break bread in the Lord’s Supper. But he also comes to us when we gather in less liturgical settings. Based on what I heard about how people in this congregation experienced the Lenten suppers, it would certainly seem that Jesus came to us when we gathered for those simple meals and learned how enslaved people found hope and validation and liberation through the scriptures.
He comes to us through the tender care we take of each other and of people beyond our fellowship, and sometimes he comes to us through the kindness of complete strangers. In fact, there is an old Gaelic saying that goes, I saw a stranger yestere’en. I put food in the eating place, drink in the drinking place, music in the listening place. And in the sacred names of the Triune, he blessed me and my house, my cattle and my dear ones. And the lark said in her song, “Often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.”
It began as an invitation: “Stay with us!” and perhaps at times we still think of Christ as company: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest and let these gifts to us be blessed.” But the truth of the Emmaus Road story is that Jesus is so much more than our guest, so much more than mere company. He is our companion, and he has shown us where he can be found.