At some point during the day on that first Easter, two disciples of Jesus, not part of the inner circle of the eleven but two who were part of the crowd, decided they had had enough. Just like the story of Jesus appearing to his disciples without Thomas that we looked at last week, its important to remember that while we may be two weeks out from Easter now, Luke maintains that this trip to Emmaus happened that day. In fact, in Luke’s gospel, everything from resurrection to ascension happens that same day. Now logistically that means these two went seven miles to Emmaus, realized that they had seen Jesus (who stayed with them remember, because it was already late), went seven miles back to Jerusalem, told the others, Jesus appeared there, took them out to Bethany, and then ascended into heaven. That’s a lot for one day. And at the beginning of Acts Luke changes the order, explaining that Jesus appeared to them over the course of 40 days before ascending. So there’s potentially something going on with the timeline, but regardless of that there’s a potentially huge theological insight there. Alan Culpepper, who’s the former dean of Mcafee School of Theology in Atlanta, identifies it, he says “Easter is not over at sundown Easter Sunday. It stretches into the rest of our lives. Luke’s Gospel…stretches Easter day into the series of experiences that happened thereafter. All the rest of the story will be an extension of the Easter reality: The Lord is risen and he comes back and meets us on the road to Emmaus.” Easter is not just a day in history, Easter is the experience of the risen Christ in our lives and the resurrection of our own lives that we experience. Easter is not a thing that happened it is something that is still happening. Jesus is still risen and still meeting us on the road, hoping that we will recognize him and run and tell about it.
But on that day, these two disciples decide to get out of Jerusalem and head to Emmaus. We’re told that the town is seven miles away from Jerusalem. Interestingly, there are Greek manuscripts that say Emmaus was 20 miles away, which makes getting there and back in one day even more impressive. Wherever the city is it was not a famous city, it was not significant in the greater world around it, we don’t hear about it anywhere else. Being a small and insignificant town may have been part of the appeal for the disciples, maybe Emmaus is a place they know that they can get away from everything, a place they won’t be bothered. Like Thomas last week, these disciples are making a rational move, they’re getting out of dodge. There’s no reason, practically or emotionally, for them to stick around in Jerusalem. Practically, if they’re going to be arrested it is most likely to happen in Jerusalem, and emotionally, why would they want to stay and relive what had happened over and over. Getting away from grief has a powerful draw to it, avoiding the things that bring up memories, that make us relive times, whether they’re good or bad, is a tempting way to live. Frederick Buechner saw that reality and potential in Emmaus, he argued that for modern times what matters about Emmaus is less its geography and more the state of mind it points to. He said Emmaus is
“the place we go to in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say, ‘let the whole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.’ Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and braves and loveliest decay and die; that even the noblest ideas that men have had – ideas about love and freedom and justice – have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends.”
So they’re getting out of town, trying to get away from it all, but they can’t escape what’s happened so they’re talking to each other, trying to make sense of everything, of how things could have gone so wrong, of what happens next, trying, I think, to have a private moment away from everyone and everything. And some yahoo comes up invades their moment and says “hey, whatch’all talkin bout?”
You know those people who can’t read the tone of a room? This stranger, who we know is Jesus but they don’t, is one of those. “Whatch’all talkin bout?” He’s on the same road, he’s coming from the same place, he should know what’s happening and what they might be talking about and be perceptive enough to give them some space but he apparently doesn’t and isn’t and, what the heck, sometimes being able to let it all out to a stranger helps right? The people closest to us can be too close at certain times, too desperate to help, sometimes you need someone who doesn’t have their own perspective to add. And so these disciples proceed to spill their guts to this stranger, “we had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.” “We had hoped…” are hard words, aren’t they? “We had hoped the treatment would work this time, we had hoped this job would last longer, we had hoped he had hoped he had finally gotten that under control,” it is those deep, hard things that set us on our roads to Emmaus. The stranger/Jesus, has apparently never taken a counseling course. He proceeds to explain to them why they’re wrong. Just an aside, if you’re not Jesus that’s probably not the best way to respond to people’s “we had hoped” moments. But in this case, because its Jesus, they don’t punch him in the face, they appreciate what he says, so much so that they ask him to stick around and stay with them, and as they’re gathered around the table they finally realize who it is they’re seeing. And in that moment he’s gone. They rush back find out that the other disciples have seen him too, and then, Jesus appears to all of them and begins to discuss what comes next.
Like with the story of Thomas that we focused on last week, this text has something to say to us individually about how we relate to God but also, I think, something that speaks to us in community and how we relate to one another.
The first is this interesting tidbit, the moment the two disciples realize who it is that they’ve been talking to he’s gone. The moment they catch on to the fact that they’ve been dealing with Jesus he disappears. A lot of times that is the reality of how we feel or react to God’s presence. It is a fleeting thing. It is there for a moment and then it is gone all too quickly. It is never constant, steady, or predictable. Even those of us with the best prayer lives, who spend hours reading scripture, those of us who embrace the best spiritual practices have moments when God’s presence disappears and the world seems to close in and trap us.
When faced with that reality it is important for us to learn to treasure the experiences that have come before. I’ve mentioned before Daniel Day, longtime pastor at First Baptist Raleigh’s, story of his friend who lost her children in a tornado and said years later in response to a question about what she took away from that tragedy, “its important to know the songs before midnight.” We build our faith over time so that we can reach back to key moments in the past when we cannot find them in our present. The two disciples showcase this, when Jesus leaves they say “Weren’t our hears burning when we were with him?” They realize what an important experience it was after the fact. Faith is a long game, and the stories of faith we find in scripture aren’t of people who are constantly feeling the presence of God. No, the difference between those who keep their faith and those who lose it isn’t that the first group experiences God more, its what they do with those experiences. Its how they allow those experiences to sustain them and guide them and push them through until another moment comes. It’s the difference between Judas, who betrays Jesus, and the other disciples who stick around. When Judas gets disappointed with the way things were going he let that take over and destroy anything that came before. Faith is learning to treasure the experiences that come before and let them carry us through the moments where the experiences don’t come.
So that’s a word for us and our own individual faiths, but we can’t miss the word for us in community that’s here as well. The two disciples discover that this stranger they’re with is Jesus as they’re sitting around the table. Not in worship, not at a revival, not in the middle of some huge gimmicked event with lasers and a smoke machine, sitting around the table, breaking bread with a stranger, they realized they’re in the presence of the Lord. It is in community that we find the presence of God. “Wherever two or more gather in my name there I will be.” But that’s not all that’s going on here, it brings to mind another story of a table in Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. If you remember the story, every day the rich man has an elaborate feast for himself, everyday Lazarus, a beggar, sits at the gates of the man’s estate going hungry. When the rich man dies he finds himself where he didn’t want to go, he ends up in Hades and he sees Abraham and begs him to send Lazarus to warn his brothers and his friends. Abraham isn’t moved, eventually he says “if they didn’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Two stories that pivot on what happens at a table. These two disciples open their table to a stranger and realize they’ve been in presence of God. The rich man closes his table off, and realizes too late that he’s missed the point all along. When we open our table to the stranger, when we share our lives with each other, that’s when we find the presence of God. Together, when we walk our journeys together, share our tables, together, seek to live our lives together in real community…we realize that the risen Lord is with us.