More than the story of Thomas, I believe the “Road to Emmaus” story to be the most important and meaningful witness of Jesus after the resurrection. For me, his appearances by the tomb or in the upper room can’t hold a candle to this simple story of three people walking down a country road. And that’s your first clue why this story speaks so clearly to me: it resonates with my life. I’ve never had a quasi-supernatural experience with someone I thought was dead and was now alive. That’s certainly never occurred to me in the hours after that someone’s death in a graveyard, by the very spot where they were buried. I’ve also never had a deceased person appear to me in while waiting in a locked room.
However, I’ll tell you what has happened. I’ve walked many a mile on long dusty roads in Randolph County, between little villages in West Africa, and all over Armenia. A couple of people, just talking, as you do, about life, death, and everything in between. Then you pass a village, a train stop, a gas station, and someone joins the conversation. You may be riding the night train between Frankfurt and Paris in an empty car. Then the stranger sitting at the next table speaks. In a taxi, somewhere in the middle of Paris, Mary and Richard climb in. In my halting French and his best English, a story is shared between the taxi driver and the two of us. We’re going to Ireland to preach. The driver seeks prayers because he is separated from his family. He is from Togo. We are all in Paris. I have walked through his village. This story is real, to me, because I lived this story. I can taste and smell the road to Emmaus. If you take nothing else away this morning, I want you to hold onto this: Christ comes alongside us and we are largely unaware. Christ comes alive in conversations. The conversations you least expect to be Holy can be gifts from almighty God.
We need to remember, as we did last week, the events described in this passage occur on the day of resurrection; Easter Sunday. We’ve moved on three Sundays. What we’re reading, these stories, are still the events of that day. All of this was happening at the same time; a rapid succession of events.
Two people are leaving Jerusalem and returning to their home in Emmaus. Clearly, it had been a long weekend. It’s a distance of about 7 miles (60 stadia) from the city limits of Jerusalem to this small village. Who were they? Traditional depictions in art will show them as two men. It may have been two guys or it may have been a man and a woman. One of them was definitely named, “Cleopas”. That’s a guys’ name. We’re told they were disciples and they seem to be pretty close to the inner circle. But it’s not clear how Luke is using the word “disciple” here. The remaining 11 were supposedly holed up in the upper room waiting further instructions and living in fear. Were these two disciples in the larger, generic sense; people who just followed Jesus from afar? I’m not sure about that either.
There’s a decent stream of scholarship and pretty good evidence to say Cleopas was Mary’s brother in law. Yes, that would be Joseph’s brother. So, that would make him, Jesus’ Uncle. This is a man and woman, walking home from watching their nephew die, and supporting his sister in law. This is Jesus’ aunt and uncle. This is family. These are his blood kin. These disciples were family. Again, this was his aunt and uncle. These people knew him from the time he was born in Bethlehem. It the midst of everything that’s going on (his mother is with the disciples and Mary Magdalene) and wants to make sure the rest of his family is alright. It doesn’t get any more basic than this: caring for your family is an important part of life and death.
Jesus plays a little dumb. “So what’s going on?” Jesus asks. This has got to be one of my favorite interactions in the whole of Scripture. It’s one of those utterly human moments where life shines through.
“What are you talking about as you walk along?” How did Jesus keep a straight face?
“They stopped their faces downcast.” Jesus’ uncle, Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”
Have you been living under a rock man? Don’t you read the paper? Don’t you need check your Facebook feed? How can you be so out of the loop?
Did they get it? Do we get it? All they knew to say was to parrot back the news of the past few days. How about the big picture? Yeah the body was gone, but did they get that meant the “resurrection”?
Resurrection is a deceptively simple idea. With (what we think of as) two thousand years of 20/20 hindsight, we believe we’ve got it. We believe we understand the mystery of Easter and what proclaim each time we take Holy Communion. Christ is died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again: Got It! Maybe not.
Remember, I said “deceptively” simple. Things that look incredibly simple can be unbelievably complex and require serious explanation. Simple, everyday things are easy to take for granted.
Take a toilet, for example. Everyone knows how a toilet works. Certainly most people think they do. Don’t you? Do you even know the general principle that governs its operations? It turns out most people don’t.
The most popular flush toilet in North America is the siphoning toilet. Its most important components are a tank, a bowl, and a trapway. The trapway is usually S or U shaped and curves up higher than the outlet of the bowl before descending into a drainpipe that feeds the sewer. The tank is initially full of water.
When the toilet is flushed, the water flows from the tank quickly into the bowl, raising the water level above the highest curve in the trapway. This purges the trapway of air, filling it with water. As soon as the trapway fills, the magic occurs: A siphon effect is created that sucks the water out of the bowl and sends it through the trapway down the drain. The siphon action stops when the water level in the bowl is lower than the first bend of the trapway, allowing air to interrupt the process. Once the water in the bowl has been siphoned away, water is pumped back for next time. Is it simple? It’s simple enough for me to describe in a paragraph but not so simple that everyone understands it. *
That’s how a toilet flushes. We’re talking about the resurrection of the dead and its impact on eternal life as the defining moment of western civilization. That’s a huge topic for a human brain to wrap the medulla oblongata around. It’s elegant, it appears simple, any country preacher can talk about it for hours and hours, and I can describe it a paragraph, but like a flushing toilet, it’s not so simple that everyone can understand it (or even wants to).
It needs some context, opening up, and some churning of the ideas. This is what Jesus does with his aunt and uncle. Jesus flushes out the idea. We go through life with our coffee makers, toasters, and microwave ovens, computers and countless other objects with this kind of attitude: I don’t care how they work, as long as they work. I don’t want to know how my toilet works; I just want to know it does the job. Jesus is not like your toilet.
Jesus comes along side us and says, it’s not enough to say, “I know Jesus has saved me, I know I’m saved, free from sin, stain, and all inequity. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t care how it happened. I got a warranty card I will redeem in Heaven.”
That’s not how this works. In Luke’s story Jesus, “interpreted for them the things written about him in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the prophets.” Jesus wants us to know what’s going on, how our faith works, what salvation means in this world, and in the next. We have a role to play in actively engaging with our resurrection story. Too many of us want to live at arm’s length from the story Jesus is trying to tell. We turn up the volume, walk away, or simply ignore the man walking beside us. We are too busy; we say these things are too much for us to know. They are not?
When he’s gone, did you notice what Jesus’ aunt and uncle said? “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scripture to us?”
You’re supposed to have holy heartburn. That’s how you know this is real. That’s how you know Christ has been close. Don’t reach for the Nexium or Tums. You’ve been going deeper, listening, and conversing with the risen Christ. Let your heart burn. It’s how you know you’re alive.
* Sloman, Steven A. The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. New York: Riverhead, 2017. 7-8.