If you weren’t able to be with us on Sunday, the passage we read together was Luke 24:13-35. It just so happens to be one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and for me, provides the paradigm of what it means to follow Jesus.
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened.
It’s Easter day. We’ve just heard about the group of women that have seen the empty tomb, and Peter has seen it, too. But nobody has seen Jesus. Nobody knows what’s going on. And so now we cut to two disciples walking to Emmaus. Maybe it’s two friends; maybe husband and wife. It doesn’t say. The mention of seven miles probably refers to a round trip. Maybe it’s best to think of Emmaus as a bedroom community for all of the Passover pilgrims ascending on Jerusalem. A comparable walk would be from the church in downtown Tulsa to 41st and Riverside and back. Maybe a 2-3 hour walk.
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
A second mention of talking. The narrator really wants us to notice this. Now for the very first time, we the reading audience see the risen Jesus. Yet these disciples don’t see it. How do you miss Jesus when he’s standing right next to you? Maybe they’re too distracted by they’re own talking. They’re using their mouths instead of their eyes. Is there a lesson in that? What a tragic thing for Jesus to draw near and not recognize it. But it leads to the question: What’s keeping their eyes from recognizing Jesus? Is it the devil? Is it their own stubbornness? Do they just need some eyeglasses? Does resurrected Jesus look and sound totally different, like new-and-improved, or something?
But here we see lesson #1 in recognizing the hidden presence of Jesus: Welcoming strangers. Hospitality. Being willing to be interrupted. Imagine if these disciples had wallowed in their sadness and self-pity to the point of shutting this stranger out of their conversation. I wonder if Jesus had appeared to any other disciples only to be ignored. But Jesus has a way of appearing in the most unexpected places.
And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?”
Ah, Jesus. First words of resurrected Jesus. Two questions. Makes you wonder why they call it the “Socratic method.” More like the Jesus method. At first glance, they seem like such innocent, even throwaway questions. Never. When Jesus asks questions, there are no simple, easy, obvious questions. So why these questions? The first one stops them in their tracks, and communicates to us the readers the mood of the scene. This conversation is no light and chipper conversation.
“The things that happened to Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” they said. “He was a prophet who did powerful miracles, and he was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people. But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel. This all happened three days ago.
And here’s the emotional suckerpunch of the story. We had hoped… Past tense. (Past perfect tense, for the English geeks.) In other words, hope that is no more. Hope that is extinguished. Hope that has been beaten to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat. It was the hope of the Hebrew slaves in Moses’ day who crossed the Red Sea. And it was the hope of the people of Israel who for 400 years had lived in exile in their own land, oppressed by the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. It was a hope whispered in the miracles of a carpenter-teacher. And it was a hope shattered by Roman nails on a cross. Only false messiahs die on Roman crosses.
“Then some women from our group of his followers were at his tomb early this morning, and they came back with an amazing report. They said his body was missing, and they had seen angels who told them Jesus is alive! Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough, his body was gone, just as the women had said.”
Every great mystery story has that moment when all the facts have been revealed. All the necessary pieces for solving the puzzle are on the table. But you still can’t make sense of it all. This is that moment in Luke’s gospel.
Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Lesson #2 in recognizing the hidden presence of Jesus: Interpreting the Bible. Not just reading, but comprehending and assigning meaning. According to Jesus, the Resurrection only makes sense in light of the Scriptures, Moses and the prophets, i.e. the Old Testament, specifically. So read the Old Testament, because it makes the meaning of Jesus life, death and resurrection come into focus.
By this time they were nearing Emmaus and the end of their journey. Jesus acted as if he were going on, but they begged him, “Stay the night with us, since it is getting late.” So he went home with them. As they sat down to eat, he took the bread and blessed it. Then he broke it and gave it to them. Suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared!
Lesson #3 in recognizing the hidden presence of Jesus: Eating together. And this is the climax, the grand finale, that place where these two disciples finally put all the pieces together and have that “aha” moment. This is the first moment that they know that Jesus really, truly, is alive. I wonder what their faces looked like.
This is the eighth scene in Luke’s gospel that takes place around a meal. Remember Zacheaus’ house. Remember the Last Supper. Remember feeding the 5,000. Remember the parable of the prodigal son told at the table of a Pharisee. The number 7 signifies completion, and the number 8 means the beginning of something new. This is the first meal of the new creation, of the new kingdom. And in the ancient near East a meal isn’t just a place to refuel. A meal is a place of intimate relationship and fellowship. It’s the place of deepest community. And it’s in the moment of friendship and community that the disciples finally fully recognize Jesus.
So what does all this mean?
Jesus reveals himself in strangers. He practices mission.
Jesus reveals himself in the Scriptures. He practices formation.
Jesus reveals himself as we eat together. He practices community.
And how do we respond to a God who acts like this?
We welcome strangers. We practice mission.
We interpret Scripture. We practice formation.
We eat together. We practice community.
This is how disciples of Jesus are made.