On the Road to Emmaus

The road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It has been a story that I have had on my mind for a while now, and I am still not quite sure what to make of it.

Here is the text:

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas,asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

19 “What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

It is Sunday. Passover is over. And a lot has transpired in the past 72 hours. So these two disciples of Jesus, one name Cleopas, the other remaining nameless, start the seven mile journey back to their home. They are despondent, grief stricken, and terribly confused, trying to make sense of all that they had just witnessed, especially the fact that Jesus, whom they thought was the long awaited Messiah of Israel was now dead, although they had heard rumblings that Jesus’ tomb was empty and women were told by angels that he was alive.

In the midst of trying to comfort one another, Jesus appears, yet they do not recognize him (In many of the post-resurrection appearances people were kept from recognizing Jesus.). Jesus plays dumb and asks what the two of them were discussing.

Luke tells us in verse 27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in the all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

For the entire seven mile journey (probably around two to three hours of time) Jesus explains all of the Jewish scriptures (or the Old Testament, Genesis through Malachi) to these two disciples on how everything points to Jesus and the fact that he came to suffer. I don’t know about you, but the Old Testament can be confusing and hard to understand at times, so to have the Word himself explain the word would be amazing. If there is any sermon or teaching of Jesus to be included in the Gospels, I want this one.

But the weird thing is, it is not included. And what is even stranger for me is that Cleopas and the other disciple do not realize it is Jesus explaining all of Scripture to them. When the two disciples finally reach their home, they convince Jesus to stay with them as it is almost night.

Finally we reach the climax of the story: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:30-31)

First, the words that Luke uses to tell this story are almost the exact words that he used when Jesus instituted the Eucharist just a few days before: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). We do not know if Cleopas and the other disciple were with Jesus on that night, but Luke obviously wants us as readers to recall the Lord’s Supper in this instance.

Second, the disciples only come to recognize Jesus when he breaks bread, not during his teaching. When they report to the Eleven Apostles what had happened, they tell the Eleven “how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread” (Luke 24:35). But after Jesus disappears from their sight, they also realize that there was power and authority in his teaching: “They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32).

This is the reason that this story perplexes me so much: the disciples recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread not during the sermon. In the Evangelical tradition that I am part of, a high emphasis (I might argue too high of emphasis) is placed on the preached word. Everything about Sunday revolves and centers around this passive activity. But in this story, the disciples fail to recognize Jesus through his teaching, which causes me to pause and reflect, “If Jesus’ teaching failed to open disciples’ eyes, what effect will my teaching have?”

However, we have to take into account the disciples’ words to each other in verse 32 after Jesus disappeared – Jesus’ teaching obviously did something to them – so I am in no way trying to divorce Word from Eucharist. The two go hand-in-hand. Without the Word, the Eucharist is devoid of all meaning; without the Eucharist, the Word is abstracted from the everyday routine of life. As Eugene Peterson writes, “Holy Scripture is an orientation in largeness and coherence. Holy Scripture rescues us from out-of-breath stutters of distracted and amnesiac journalists who think they are keeping us in touch with what is important…. Christian practice in matters of spiritual formation goes badly astray when it attempts to construct or organize ways of spirituality apart from the ordinariness of life. And there is nothing more ordinary than a meal” (Living the Resurrection, pp 62, 71).

And maybe that is why Luke includes this story: Even as we now live life post-resurrection, life is still very full of pain, confusion and bewilderment, which is why we need the Word to orient us to God’s cohesive love and plan for the world and the Eucharist to ground us, reminding us that our resurrection life is formed through the ordinary and everyday.

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