In the final chapter of the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, there are three stories about resurrection appearances of Jesus: all of them take place on that first day of the week – the first Easter Sunday, and all of them take place centred on Jerusalem. In this well-known story of the road to Emmaus we join these two down-hearted disciples who have travelled with Jesus and experienced his public ministry and know that he proved himself to be a prophet mighty in word and deed, but their own hope that he would be the one to set Israel free from the Roman occupation had obviously proved to be illusory because Jesus of Nazareth had not been mighty enough to escape death of a Roman cross. So as evening approaches, these two disciples – Cleopas and his unnamed friend – trudge along heading back into their old lives after their experience of being part of this failed revolution. They want to make some distance between themselves and the revolutionary turmoil that would continue to sweep through Jerusalem until all the followers of Jesus were rounded up and had been given their fate. But their ordinary lives will have to take a rain cheque. Because on this day, even though they were headed in the wrong direction, the stranger who has joined them along the road will begin to retell the very familiar story of the history of Israel and their desire for the coming of the Messiah in a whole new way. And when they finally knew the story of God’s people in the right way, they would also have the chance to understand who the stranger of the road really was, and then their eyes could be opened by something as simple as a piece of bread being broken.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (9’20”)
Easter, Sunday 3, Year A. Luke 24
A sorrowful journey; suspense; the interpretation of scripture; a meal, a slow then sudden dawning and a mysterious disappearance. Today’s masterful and rich Gospel, from Luke 24, allows us to join with two downcast disciples who had been with the Eleven on that first Easter Sunday morning, as they make the slow pilgrim journey back from Jerusalem towards the village of Emmaus, described as being ‘sixty stadia’ away – about 12km. Jesus joins them along the way, but they can’t recognise him and take him as just another pilgrim who is surprisingly and ironically ignorant of all of the events that have been taking place the last few days. ‘What things?’ the strange pilgrim asks.
Cleopas and his unnamed companion – it may have been his wife Mary – express their conviction that Jesus was a mighty prophet but also their dashed hopes that he might even have been the Messiah. They talk of the empty tomb and the witness of the women, but they cannot see beyond the harsh and devastating reality of the crucifixion. Unspoken is the assertion that the Messiah should have defeated the pagans, not died at their hands.
The stranger then begins to show them that they had been reading scripture the wrong way round – it is not the story of how God will redeem Israel from suffering, but instead the story of how God would redeem Israel through suffering. He proceeds to retell the whole story of scripture – from the first verse of Genesis to the final verse of Chronicles (which is the end of the Hebrew Bible) which pointed to a fulfilment that could only come about when the anointed of God took all the world’s suffering on himself and died under its weight. But that was not the end of the story, because the anointed one also rose from the dead as the beginning of God’s new creation and God’s new people.
In some ways it is not strange that they couldn’t recognise Jesus in all this. Perhaps he can only be recognised when we read the story of God in the right way. Only then will we be able to see him in the breaking of the bread.