Our gospel reading from Luke is the well-know story of the Easter morning walk to Emmaus. Luke has given us a carefully crafted story, both simple and profound, written in such a way that we are invited to join with those journeying.
What will we learn by going on this walk with them? We will learn a great deal as we shall see.
Firstly, we learn that the two people walking are probably a couple. While only one is named: Cleopas, he is very likely to be the same Clopas, whose wife was at the foot of the cross on Friday (John 19:25). Cleopas tells us they are part of the inner group of Jesus’ disciples to whom some of the women came excitedly that very morning saying when they went to Jesus’ grave it was empty. These women also claimed angels told them Jesus was alive not dead. General disbelief and puzzlement was the reaction among the followers. Despite this curious news, Mary and Cleopas have left the others in Jerusalem at what is their first chance to get away since the awful Friday. Their twelve kilometre journey to Emmaus would have been forbidden on the previous day, Saturday, the sabbath, when only very short walks were allowed.
Why are they in such a hurry to get away from Jerusalem? It is very understandable from a certain perspective.The involvement of them both, and especially Mary, so close to all the horror, trauma and despair of the Friday, was overwhelming. It was not only what had happened but also what those events meant that had such an effect on them. This is what they are discussing on their long walk this day, when a stranger approaches.
When this stranger asks what they are discussing so seriously they are amazed to find he seems to know nothing of what has been their total preoccupation since Friday and the worst Saturday of their lives. Mary and Cleopas stop in their tracks. Looking sad, they tell him of their shattered hopes and dreams around Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in his message and his wonderful actions. Just over a week ago most of Jerusalem and the many pilgrims there had welcomed him into the city as he rode on an ass and seemed to be fulfilling prophesies about the Messiah as son of David, a messianic title. They believed he would be the long-awaited Messiah.
Instead, he had been killed by the powerful Romans. The Messiah Mary and Cleopas and all the others had followed and believed in had suffered the death of failed Messiahs. And Israel had seen lots of failed Messiahs and their followers in the decades around this time. Jesus was just another one, wasn’t he?
Some background is essential here if we are to understand what is being said.
Many Jewish people at this time were expecting the Messiah to appear. There were a number of ancient prophecies in the Jewish scriptures promising that God would send his representative Son of David with signs and wonders make Israel great again, as in the time of King David a thousand years before. They were looking for a strong Messiah who would:
- Get rid of the occupying pagan Romans.
- Restore true worship in the Temple and among Jews generally.
- Bring about the New Age/ Kingdom of God where justice and peace would be brought to the whole Earth.
- Restore the relationship with God by the forgiveness of Israel’s sins so that Jews at last would have new hearts and so an ability to keep
- God’s Law fully.
- Israel was to come into a new Messianic Age and be saved from suffering any more.
There was in this scheme no allowance for a dead Messiah, killed by the Romans he is meant to overcome, only a strong, victorious one. Jesus of Nazareth being killed by the Romans did not fit the Jewish expectations of the Messiah at all.It seems Mary and Cleopas had accepted this commonly held Jewish set of ideas. Now their hopes had all gone. With their trust in God in tatters, Mary and Cleopas are asking : “ Where are the promises of God? Where is God’s Messiah? Will he ever come to be with us?”
Unrecognised by them, he is standing talking with them in their despair, the stranger whom they will later recognise in the breaking of bread. He is the Risen Christ, having completed what he alone could do and has now done and been raised in glory by God. After Cleopas explains what they were discussing as they walked, the stranger speaks, saying in effect: ”Well you have that wrong . Messiah has to suffer to complete his tasks and then enter his glory. This is only achieved through his death on behalf of God’s people”.
The stranger then went through the Jewish scriptures from Moses and the prophets, spelling out the major themes, pointing to the recent Passover Festival, no doubt, where the Passover Lamb died to free God’s people from death. When the original Passover lamb’s blood was sprinkled on the door lintels of those who identify with the message to do this, the Angel of Death passed over that house. The Passover lamb died for the sake of the people. Again, the stranger probably would have pointed out the Suffering Servant of God in Isaiah 53 where it says: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities and the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him so that with his stripes we are healed.”
And as to the Resurrection where the true Messiah takes his designated place next to God while the New Age is completed, he may have quoted Psalm 110, as the early church did so often:
“My Lord said to my Lord, sit here at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”
This is from the stranger who is no stranger, but of course the Risen Christ himself.
Later, Mary and Cleopas tell each other how their hearts burned within them as they heard the stranger explaining the themes of scripture as they walked.
As we see from the text, he becomes known to them when he breaks the bread in the meal at Emmaus. They will see who he is in the sacrament of the holy meal. He is God’s Messiah and they will know that he is there with them and will never leave them. When they see who he is and how he has so patiently talked to them all the way from Jerusalem, they cannot contain their excitement and the need to get back and tell the others immediately that Christ is risen- he is risen indeed ! Think of the range of emotions this couple have shared on this day and the walk to Emmaus!
From the deepest despair, hopelessness and emotional exhaustion at the start of the three hour walk to the state they are now in of the greatest joy, hope and exhilaration. They must have felt so elated at Emmaus because they immediately set out the walk the twelve kilometres back to tell the others, who they wanted so much to get away from only hours ago!
There is a total reversal of everything after meeting the Risen Christ! And this is not just a momentary instance: their lives will never be the same after this!
So, what do we learn from our walk to Emmaus today with these two people?
We have, like them, met the Risen Christ, perhaps unrecognised at first, but near us always. After that meeting we cannot be the same.
We can now see what he has done for us. He has died for us and is raised, for us! What had stopped our relationship with God has been removed. We are forgiven to become what were always meant to be- the children of our heavenly father.
This begins the lifelong process to change everything: our values, our lifestyle, our behaviour, our attitudes to others and to ourselves. And so much more as well.
God has given us his spirit to lead us and to guide us on the way.
Jesus has promised he is with us to the end of the age.
And the walk to Emmaus is just the beginning!
May we always listen to the Risen Christ teaching us to look in his way at the scriptures so we respond with the cry of the disciple Thomas: “ My Lord and My God.”