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.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Being broken is both terrifying and beautiful. Think about for a minute. All of us experience brokenness in varied ways. Whether we’re talking about broken dreams, broken systems, broken lives, broken promises, broken health, broken hearts, or even broken bread, it all comes back to our capacity to experience the discomfort of brokenness. Some broken things we can fix easily, while other kinds of brokenness may not be “fixed” in this life. To complicate matters, human beings don’t necessarily agree with exactly what’s broken or how to fix it. We even have a hard time agreeing on what we’re seeing!
One way to tell a story about the resurrection is the one we find in this week’s gospel text. The disciples on that road to Emmaus seem to have been in Jerusalem through the whole week-long events that took place: the parade on Sunday, the crucifixion on Friday, the attempt to anoint Jesus’ body with spices on Sunday.
When the spice-bearing women return with a report of angels proclaiming Jesus was risen, these two Emmaus disciples appear not to know what to do with this information. They must be thinking to themselves that the women’s account can’t possibly be true. Some other disciples go test the theory, but apparently see no angels, but no body either.
So our disciples from Emmaus are dejected as they walk along the road, debating the meaning of these events. They remind themselves of what they know about Jesus: he “was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” and “we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” Their proclamation of Jesus is intermingled with doubts: Maybe the body was stolen. Jesus is just a really great man, but obviously no Son of God. There couldn’t really have been angels, could there? That’s just an overactive imagination.
It’s interesting to compare the Emmaus story to the one that Peter tells in the Acts of the Apostles. Here, too, Jesus is “a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.“ Here, too, Jesus has been crucified.
The key difference is that in Acts, Jesus clearly has been resurrected, and Peter is very eager to name that. Gone is the confusion of those first post-resurrection days. Peter speaks with utmost confidence because he can connect Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to the familiar scriptures he has read all his life. Peter names how Jesus fulfills those scriptures.
This week’s gospel lesson speaks volumes about both brokenness and sight.
Because of our own present global situation, this lesson has much to teach us, along with some very good news. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are broken. They share their story, their grief, and their confusion with the stranger on the road, but they have no clue they are speaking with Jesus. It isn’t until another breaking that they recognized his presence among them. Something in the way Jesus breaks the bread opened their eyes to see, yet only for a second. That bit of breaking was enough, however, to set them on the road back to Jerusalem to share this amazing news, to break it open so to speak.
Sight and what we see are keys to this lesson. Perhaps what we don’t see is more to the point.
- How often do we miss evidence of the Christ at work in our world right now?
- And when is it that we see most clearly?
Not in the midst of overstuffed schedules and harried days. Probably not often in the times when life is just rolling along like a lazy river. We see most clearly on either end of the “vision” spectrum: in times of awe, wonder, and joy, and in times of great brokenness, sorrow, and pain. Yes, it’s when the very ordinary, predictable, and comfort of life is shattered that we are truly able to see and understand.
Like the Jesus sighting of Cleopas and his buddy, it takes an awareness of just what has been broken for them to recognize Jesus. On the road they are so focused on their own broken dreams and hopes that they can’t see the risen Christ right before their very eyes—even though they are telling him the story of his own crucifixion. It takes seeing him in the ordinary hospitality of community, the breaking of bread, for them to recognize the presence of divine love.
Many of us are experiencing a time of brokenness right now. Life as we knew it changed drastically because of a microscopic virus. Thanks to COVID-19 we have seen examples of the best and worst humankind has to offer. Everything from fear to bravado is on display.
Our vision has also been shaken up. Now is the time, in the midst of our present brokenness, to look around for signs of Jesus in the world. I guarantee you will find him in both ordinary and extraordinary places, in ordinary acts of hospitality and grace, and wherever suffering, pain, confusion, and lack of hope have stripped the blinders away. There’s where you’ll find evidence of the Christ, of cosmic proportions. Just look. Pay attention. Be amazed.
This week I can’t help but really hear the words of the disciples traveling to Emmaus: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” “But we had hoped….” There are so many tragic endings to this sentence.
- We had hoped this treatment would finally take care of Mom’s cancer.
- We had hoped that this time the pregnancy would take.
- We had hoped that rehab would finally put our son on the path to recovery from addiction.
Our gospel places us in the company of two people whose hopes for Jesus, for Israel and for the future of creation have been dashed. Though the scriptures do not tell us why these two disciples were going to Emmaus, I strongly suspect that they were on their way back home. In any event, it is obvious from their remarks that they had given up on Jesus. They were done with the reign of God Jesus proclaimed and ready to put the whole sad affair behind them.
Although I concentrated on brokeness this year, in years past the emphasis is usually on verse 35 of our gospel where the two disciples, returning from their walk to Emmaus, tell those remaining in Jerusalem how Jesus revealed himself to them in the “breaking of the bread.” We Lutherans are pretty emphatic about the “real” presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine. And that for good reason. For Martin Luther, the true presence of Jesus in Holy Communion was an inescapable connection with justification by faith.
The availability in the sacrament of forgiveness for sin and the promise of eternal life depends not on the worthiness, faith or understanding of the recipient, but on God’s promise to be present in a redemptive way. Faith is not a requirement for the sacrament to be effective. To the contrary, the sacrament generates and sustains faith.
These days, however, we are not breaking bread together as a gathered community. Our position is more that of the disciples on the road with their dashed hopes than the disciples at the table recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread. That isn’t a comfortable place for us. This discomfort has led many of my colleagues to consider ways of celebrating Holy Communion “virtually” online. I have had people ask why we aren’t doing it at GSLC.
Which makes me wonder how we understand the real presence of Jesus. Jesus was no less present to the disciples on the road where they failed to recognize him than he was at the table where they did. The sacrament is not a commodity we need to get our hands on in order for Jesus to be present for us. Holy Communion is a gift through which that saving presence is mediated in a way that nourishes and strengthens the community of believers.
I’m not trying to minimize or discount the importance of the sacraments for the life of the church. But I think we need to be reminded that, even as we are prevented at this time from seeking Jesus through these means of grace, Jesus never stops seeking us.
Jesus meets us on the road, even when we are separated from the rest of the community, even when we have given up and are moving away from him. Jesus seeks us even when we are not looking from him. So:
- Can we recognize this time away from our sanctuaries as an opportunity to encounter Jesus on the road?
- Can we see this time of “fasting” from Holy Communion as an opportunity to sharpen our awareness of Jesus’ presence in our day to day lives?
- Is this a time for discovering holiness in places where it has always been, but our eyes have been kept from recognizing it?
It may be that Jesus is walking with us even now—and we just haven’t seen him yet. So let us take this time that we are not gathered in our physical community of our sanctuary, in the midst of the brokeness of our lives, and look for Jesus all around us.
- In the faces of our neighbors.
- In the faces we serve in our communities.
- In the faces of first responders.
- In the faces of grocery clerks.
- In the faces that deliver food and items to our homes.
Because those will be the places where we encounter Jesus as well. This is a chance for us to see the real presence of Jesus not just in the sacraments, but also in the other places Jesus travels with us as well. In the common areas of brokeness, worry and fear. He is right there walking with as we take our own walks to Emmaus during this time.