Encountering Jesus on the Way

On the way to Emmaus

Encountering Jesus on the Way

Luke 24:13-35

All Scripture references NRSV or NRSVue unless otherwise indicated.

At various points in my life, I have had a sense of impending death. It wasn’t that I wanted to die;  I wasn’t suicidal. It just seemed like the issues that surrounded me in my life were so great and so overwhelming that God must surely be bringing me to the end. Death seemed like the only solution.

Looking back, I believe I was right, although not in the way I thought. Over time, I realized that it was not my physical death that was the way out of the problems. Rather, I needed to die to my own plans and my own limited vision. I needed to die to the notion that I could fix the situation if I was just given the chance and tried harder.

Death is real. Through it all, I’ve realized that death is real. So is resurrection. It’s not hard to recognize that death is real. Most of us have lived long enough to lose persons close to us to death. We can watch television news or read the newspaper, and many of the reports involve death. We may try hard as a society to deny the reality of death, but deep down we know death is real and we experience it in numerous ways.

What about resurrection? Yet, it can be incredibly difficult to believe that resurrection is real or is relevant. We tend to assume that the Christian teaching about resurrection applies only to life after physical death. It’s something “out there” we don’t understand. We have not met anyone who has been raised from the dead. So, resurrection is this great mystery that involves going to heaven when we die.

Resurrection on the way. Yet, I want to suggest that to the eyes of faith, resurrection is something that also happens to us “on the way,” throughout our lives on this earth. Encountering Jesus on the journey of life is all about resurrection.  It is catching a glimpse of resurrection on the way. Furthermore, it is this encounter with the resurrected Jesus on our own life journey that leads us to this larger belief that resurrection is real.

A particularly intriguing story about “resurrection on the way” is told in Luke 24:13-35. In this passage, Jesus appears to two lesser-known disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus as they deal both with the reality of Jesus’s death and the perplexing stories that are emerging on the third day.

For Luke, this is the first appearance of Jesus after the resurrection. Luke does not tell us about Mary actually seeing Jesus although he mentions the women at the tomb. He doesn’t say that Peter saw Jesus until the two Emmaus travelers return to Jerusalem to tell the others. He then places those two disciples returning from Emmaus in the upper room when Jesus appears to the larger group of disciples for the first time.  This resurrection appearance “on the way” is crucially important to Luke.

Only one of the two persons on the road to Emmaus is named: Cleopas.  Cleopas does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament so we don’t know anything about him. There has been much speculation about the identity of Cleopas’s fellow-traveler. Since they seem to have gone into the same home, some people speculate that the other person was the son or even the wife of Cleopas. Others see evidence that the companion is actually the author, Luke, himself. Luke’s reluctance to identify himself as an actor in the story is consistent with the rest of the Gospel of Luke and of companion book of Acts. Who but one who had personally experienced the events on the road to Emmaus could tell such a wonderfully detailed story? While we can’t say for sure that Luke is the companion of Cleopas, Luke certainly tells this story in such a way that we can learn much from it.

Through Luke’s account, we can begin to understand how death seemed so final to these two disciples. It was so final in their minds that they did not recognize the stranger walking with them on the way to Emmaus.

Yet, Luke conveys a certain awesome mystery about how they finally recognized Jesus. After all, how can we explain resurrection? How were these two persons able to encounter and eventually recognize the risen Jesus? How in the midst of the finality of death were they able to experience resurrection themselves? What can they teach us about encountering the risen Jesus on the way? How can we also catch a glimpse of resurrection even before our mortal life ends?

The Emmaus disciples have much the same dilemma coming to terms with death and believing in the resurrection as we do. They had followed this Galilean rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. They shared the opinion of the ordinary people that he “was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people…” (Luke 24:19) But in the midst of Jesus’s amazing ministry, they also had hope that here was something even more special:  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. (Luke 24:21)

Yet, everything came crashing down. We don’t know that they witnessed the actual crucifixion, but they clearly knew the details, including the politics behind the scenes…our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. (Luke 24:21) That is what their eyes had seen. Those were the stories that others told them.

This was how they interpreted the scriptures. So, here they were doing the only thing they knew to do, going back to their previous life, traveling back home to Emmaus.

We too tend to see only what is observable to our physical eyes. We likely have an even bigger problem as a society. As modern Westerners, we cling closely to the scientific method. We use this method for more than just the physical reality for which it was intended. We want to use science to explain spiritual reality as well. We put our faith in science. And it just doesn’t work. Not everything is observable to the naked eye.

So, these travelers could experience Jesus right there with them and sharing this amazing interpretation of the scriptures and they still don’t see him. The eyes of world are different than the eyes of faith.

But what then enabled the Emmaus disciples to eventually get beyond that “blindness”? I suggest three keys for all of us to recognize the resurrection of Jesus.

  1. People – Jesus most often meets us through people, even in a stranger.
  2. Stories of experiencing God at work in the lives of people.
  3. Sharing. People and their stories only have an effect if they are shared.

Let’s look at each of these more closely.

People. Openness to resurrection starts with openness to other people. Indeed, the first thing we notice about this story is that there is not just a single solitary disciple on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and (we’ll say) Luke were travelling together. They were talking with each other, processing with each other all that had happened with the death of Jesus whom they had followed. They were companions on the way.

At the same time, their openness to people had begun much earlier when they joined the disciple community around Jesus. What they learned from Jesus and about Jesus was a collective learning. It was made possible by learning from Jesus as a person and from others who had also experienced Jesus’s presence.

But this openness to people did not end there. Their openness did not stop with official accounts or stories from the “important people” on the scene. They were open to presence of Jesus on the road because they were open to interacting with a stranger. Indeed, often Jesus comes to us in surprising ways in the form of a stranger. They could easily have dismissed this stranger asking questions as someone weird or out of touch. How could they relate to a person who wasn’t even aware of the momentous events that had just transpired in Jerusalem? This fellow could have been seen as suspicious, maybe even a spy looking to catch other disciples of Jesus. Yet the disciples on the way welcomed the stranger into their conversation. In so doing, they were welcoming the risen Jesus. They were actually opening the way to a belief in the Resurrection.

Stories. That brings us to our second factor in the disciples’ openness to resurrection: stories. On our life journeys, we need to be open to hearing the stories of faith and hope. We need to hear even the perplexing stories that we don’t understand. We need to hear those stories with an open mind and an open heart to understand what God is saying through those stories.

Cleopas and his companion knew the stories that were circulating. After talking about the crucifixion of Jesus, they added, Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 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. 24 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.” (Luke 24:21b-24)  Cleopas and Luke could put those stories into context because they had heard the stories of Jesus on the road as disciples and heard how those stories affected the stories of other disciples.

Yet, most of all, they were immersed in the stories of scripture. They were familiar with the Torah teaching that one like Moses would come from God and from their own community. When Jesus started sharing from Moses and all the prophets about the Messiah, they had some context, for they knew the stories.

This is a powerful step in our own openness to the possibility and the power of resurrection in our lives. The stories of scripture need to become our stories. The stories of how our spiritual and physical ancestors found faith can become our stories. When we find it hard to believe because of present circumstances, we can remember and recite the stories of how the Holy Spirit has acted for the redemption of God’s people in the past.

Sharing. This brings us to the final key in experiencing the risen Christ for ourselves. I’ve called it “sharing” although I first thought about calling it “fellowship.” “Fellowship” is an old-fashioned churchy word that may not have much meaning in our larger culture. The New Testament word for fellowship is the Greek word, koinonia, which is also sometimes translated as “communion.” But koinonia comes from a root meaning of having something in common, something that together we share.

Thus, people and their stories are not much good kept to themselves. Openness to the resurrected Jesus involves sharing our lives and sharing our stories with others. In the culture of the Bible, and even today, this kind of sharing or fellowship or communion is symbolized most profoundly and concretely in eating together. When you eat with people, you know them and you get to hear their stories.

That’s why the Last Supper of Jesus became for the early disciples a reminder of all the meals that they had shared with Jesus.  It became the basis for what we call “The Lord’s Supper” or “communion.” Jesus knew that this kind of fellowship meal would be the most powerful reminder of his presence.

So, it is with that in mind, that the surprise, the “aha” moment for the disciples of Emmaus, comes when Jesus gives thanks and breaks the bread just as he did many times while he was with them. This really was Jesus! While our modern practice of communion can be a powerful symbol of this sharing or communion, koinonia involves going beyond the symbols of bread and cup to the larger reality of what they represent.

Koinonia communion involves sharing our lives, our meals, our stories, our possessions, and our very selves so that we become open to experiencing the resurrection life of Jesus as a powerful reality in our midst. The disciples’ invitation to a stranger to share the very practical essentials of life led to their experience of the resurrection of Jesus.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 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. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 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?”  (Luke 24:28-31)

In sharing our lives with others and hearing their stories of encountering God’s presence, we also gain the eyes of faith. We recognize the burning of our hearts. We realize that we have been walking with Jesus. We know that we can continue to walk with him.

Thus, it is fitting that as Jesus disappears, these two disciples of Emmaus don’t just sit and marvel at what they have experienced. They go back to the other disciples in Jerusalem and share their story. In the process of sharing their story, their faith is confirmed as the others were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” This mutual sharing strengthens their faith and opens them to the further experience of the risen Christ standing there among them.

God’s alternative approach. Resurrection is not just God’s magical solution for when we die. Resurrection is God’s alternative approach to all of life’s journey. God’s approach is different than our standard human approaches to the problem of sin and death.

We tend to take one of two approaches to life’s journey.

  1. Conservative approach. This approach tries to deny and avoid death by looking back on the road we have come on. As we look back, we think we see some “golden age” back there, and we want to live like that again.
  2. Progressive approach. In contrast, the progressive approach involves thinking that we can always look forward to ever more progress toward some ideal age that we envision. Heaven’s ideal is just ahead if we can see it clearly and work hard enough to get there.

The problem is that the reality of death appears looking back and looking ahead. For conservatives, there really is no “golden age.” At best, there is only a time when I or people like me felt better and safer and more secure, more supported in our opinions, than we do today. Yet, if we look closely, that golden age was not so good after all.

For progressives, the problem is that progress seems to be tediously slow and is always followed by regression or setbacks. Things get better and then they get worse. There is no straight-line progress of humanity to that ideal future; indeed, such a future increasingly appears to be an illusion. We can’t avoid death.

Resurrection assumes that death is real. We can’t deny death, or go back to some golden age. Neither can we avoid death by wishing hard enough and moving forward to heaven on our own efforts. What we can do is face death honestly and open ourselves up to a God of Resurrection.

On the journey to Emmaus, people, stories, and sharing are crucial to our faith experience. That journey can be long and hard, but it is a journey of faith. We may get excited about a Messiah who will bring back that grand kingdom! Our imaginations may be captured by progress toward a glorious future. But eventually, we find ourselves on the way to Emmaus, to what we think is a dead-end journey back home to familiar surroundings.

Yet, embracing that dead-end reveals an open door to the Resurrection. That open door is a stone rolled away from the entrance to a grave. The heart of the prophetic message that Jesus himself lifts up as he shares the scriptures on the way to Emmaus is also the most counter-cultural and astounding: Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

So, if we have listened to God’s people and their stories in that light of faith, we will be open to transformation. Suffering leads to glory. The circumstances we thought were bringing final death can lead to new life. If we share that life and the stories of our lives with others, we will eventually find ourselves sharing the bounty and the blessings of resurrection life in Jesus.

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