Along the Way: A Meditation on Luke 24: 13-35

Along the Way
A Meditation on Luke 24: 13-35
Rev. Michelle Denney Grunseich
Aston Presbyterian Church
April 26, 2020

“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. “

As we begin our time together this morning, I want you to be thinking of the darkest, most treacherous, most frightening road you have ever been on. I can only imagine the breadth of this image in your collective minds at this point—twisting, turning, dangerous roads….some may be in foreign countries, some may be no more foreign than Concord Road on a stormy night. For me, the most frightening road I was ever on was a little stretch of Interstate 95 that winds through a rural area just south of Savannah, Georgia.

Many years ago, when Frank and I were newlyweds, we’d taken a summer vacation down to Florida with our extended family. We were heading back home to Pennsylvania when we got caught in the worst thunderstorm that I’ve ever seen in my life. Our tiny car was not only being pelted by rain that rendered the windshield wipers completely useless, but the force of the wind combined with the rising floodwaters that were rushing across the roadway caused our car to swerve dramatically from the left to the right and back again as Frank tried desperately to steer through the storm. We were the only car on the road, or so it seemed, although from time to time an 18-wheeler would rush past, dangerously close, and the driver would blare his horn as if to say, “Why don’t you get off the road?!”. We wanted to, that’s for sure, but we couldn’t even see the interstate signs, much less a mile marker to let us know where we were.

All I knew is that we were in a tiny little car on a pitch black night driving through the soaking rain and gale-force winds on a road we couldn’t even see. Now Frank is one of the most laid-back, calm, cool-headed people you will ever meet. So, when I looked over at Frank and asked if he thought we were going to be alright, you can imagine my shock and fear to hear him reply, “I don’t know, honey…..I hope so, but I don’t know.”

This all happened a very long time ago….decades, honestly, at this point….but as I read the Emmaus road passage to prepare for today, I remembered that terrible night. I was so scared, and the deep darkness and pouring rain made everything confusing—-you couldn’t tell road from black sky. I remembered the fear and panic I felt. I remembered feeling like there was no hope that we were going to get out of that storm unharmed.

I wonder, then, if some of that fear and confusion that I experienced on that long-ago night on an isolated Georgia road compares at all with what those two disciples might have been experiencing on the road to Emmaus.

They’d left Jerusalem not twenty miles back….the city of promise, and seemingly, defeat–where they’d welcomed the Messiah just a few weeks before; where they’d heard the charges against him read; where they’d seen him pray in that dark garden; where they watched him dragged to a Cross and crucifed; where they’d seen him die…….where they’d found an empty tomb. They’d left a city reeling with confusion. Excited confusion, to be sure, because they believed that their Messiah had been raised from the dead! But confusion, nevertheless. In just a few days time, it seemed as though promise and hope had turned to denial and despair.

And so they walked down this dark road, with broken hearts and weary minds, discussing all of the events between themselves to try to make some sense of it all. I wonder if that stiff, choking grip of fear made their throats tight; or if their hearts hammered rapidly and seemingly out of beat from the chaotic panic that they’d left behind; or if their feet felt heavy with dread even as they wished to run fast and far away. I wonder if those moments at the empty tomb weren’t all rejoicing, but maybe were full of fright, too. I wonder if they found it hard to believe.

One of the things that I think is most mysterious, and yet deliciously revealing, about this passage is not the men’s conversations, or the fact that Jesus himself joins them on the road, or even the sharing of a meal together in which Jesus is at once gone from their sight, although those are all very interesting pieces of the story….no, one of the things that I think is most mysterious has to do with Emmaus itself. No one knows where Emmaus is. Luke, our Gospel-writer, says that it is 60 stadia from Jerusalem. A stadia converts to 607 feet, which is 6.8 miles. However, there are also sources that say that Emmaus is 160 stadia, which makes it 18.4 miles away. Regardless, although historians and archeologists have approximated its location, no one actually knows where Emmaus really is. I love that. I think it adds a theological depth to this passage that is limitless. These two men were leaving a very real, very upsetting, very confusing KNOWN, and they were heading to a very nebulous, very uncertain, very hopeless UNKNOWN…..I can imagine their slow steps and heavy hearts as they walked away from the city of Jerusalem.

Scholars often refer to Luke as “a historian…a biographer….but most of all, a storyteller.” And how true that is. The Gospel of Luke is fascinating to read. Luke focuses on Jesus’ ministry. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke is full of more parables and accounts of the miracles of Jesus than any of the other Gospels. Luke wants us to get in to the story….to feel it and smell it and taste it and experience it. Luke could have written, “Two disciples were walking along the road when they met a man they didn’t know. They invited him in for dinner, and they saw Jesus.” But he doesn’t—-he fills it with all of the wonderfully interesting details that make us feel like we are there. While they were talking and discussing, Luke recounts, 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?” How overwhelmed must these two men have been? To have seen what they saw, and known what they knew? What must it have felt like to hear, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!

How foolish, indeed. How slow of heart, to be certain. How clearly can we see our own faces on the faces of those men upon the road?  Have we walked away more than once from the promise?…..Have we left the empty tomb behind with more questions than answers in our hearts?….Have you walked the unknown Emmaus road feeling discouraged, too consumed by your own issues to recognize the strangers who’ve befriended you along the way? I have. I’ve wandered… searching for things I’ve thought I needed to find…..until I finally realized that, when we find ourselves on the road to Emmaus, we just need to have faith that we’ll be found.

As the gospel story goes on, we read that Cleopas and his friend, the unnamed disciple, invite the “stranger” we know as Jesus to stay and eat with them. And it is at that meal that they realize who He is, as bread is blessed and broken and shared. And in that very moment, “just as their eyes were opened”, Luke writes, that the men recognize Him, and He at once is gone from their sight. I hope that every time we bless and break and share the Bread of Life our eyes might be opened as wide and that we might see as clearly as Cleopas and his friend did on that amazing night. We should want our “hearts to burn with us” as we listen intently for God to speak. We should want to be so filled with awe that we jump up from the table as Cleopas did, so that we can share the Good News that Christ is alive. The promise is true. Despite our fears and our doubts, it is real.

Emmaus is a mystery, just as the road to get there was, and no one really knows how long that road was. Just as none of us can know for ourselves how long our own walk to Emmaus will be…..but we can trust that God is there, walking alongside us, even though we don’t always recognize him as quickly as maybe we should.

We are living through unsettling times, you and me. Strange and unsure times full of both grief and joy; fear and reassurance; happiness and despair. That unsteady grip that each of us has always had on life feeling all the more tenuous these days. But our journey together is still what it always was and always will be…..we are partners on a road that we cannot see the end of, but that we know is faith-blessed….that we know is promise-led….that we know is kingdom-bound. “Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead; don’t walk before me, I may not follow; just walk beside me, and be my friend”… goes the often cited, though anonymous, quotation We keep one another close at heart as we journey on this path…..praying and hoping that we will all be conscientious travelers, with eyes and hearts, and minds open and ready to know God.

Let’s make sure that we don’t let this story end when we close our Bibles, or get up from worship today, or walk out of our virtual church to take care of whatever the rest of life is that awaits us……let us allow Emmaus to be a mystery; let us surrender to the path with all its twists and turns and uncertainty; let us permit ourselves to be amazed by the recreating Spirit of Christ. Amen.