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Re-Orienting Our Hopes: The Third Sunday of Easter

Sunday, April 26, 2020
Luke 24:13-35

The Road to Emmaus. Surely one of the most beloved accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. It’s unique to Luke’s gospel, and it has some real Lukan characteristics.

Firstly, Luke is big on journeys. Almost half of the gospel is described as a big, long walk from Galilee to Jerusalem. So much of Jesus’ teaching, interactions, and miracles happens in the course of that journey. So here today we have a journey story, too: the walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

Luke is also big on pairs of people. Mary and Joseph, obviously. And Elizabeth and Zechariah. And I suppose Jesus and John the Baptist (cousins only in Luke’s gospel) are a pair too, as well as some of the apostles. And then there’s the prophet pair of Anna and Simeon in the Temple. And here at the end we meet another pair. Though this pair is in despair. They’ve had their hopes crushed, due to what they witnessed in Jerusalem, with the cross…

One of them is named Cleopas, we’re told. Now, this is speculation, but there could be something to it: there are a few similarities between Luke and John’s accounts of the Passion. (And this is unusual, as the fourth gospel is usually way off doing its own thing.) At the foot of the cross, according to John, is Mary (wife or mother), of Clopas. Perhaps that Aramaic name Clopas is the same as the Greek name Cleopas. And perhaps the unnamed disciple here is Mary, wife or mother of Cleopas. It helps flesh out our ideas of the group that travelled with and supported Jesus.

What’s interesting is that their experiences alongside Jesus didn’t open their eyes to the resurrection. Nor, apparently, did the eyewitness accounts of the women, of the empty tomb. Nor did the step-by-step Bible study with Jesus, who remained a mystery to them on their journey! What did open their eyes was the outward symbols of the taking-blessing, breaking, and giving of the bread. The experience of the meal opened their eyes and awakened their faith.

Bread is a powerful thing. It’s hard to keep in stock in stores these days, and even before the pandemic, a friend of mine in the US would mention how, whenever snow is forecast, their grocery stores sell out of milk and bread. We depend on that stuff. It’s so simple, and that’s part of its power. Its simplicity adds to its symbolic potency. Bread is never just bread. Bread evokes the exodus from Egypt. God fed the people on that long (long!) journey, with the bread of angels, manna. Moreover, bread brings to mind the multiplying of the loaves. When Jesus took a few measly bits of bread, and had everyone share it so that thousands of people were filled. When God is present in our table fellowship, we’re awakened to how God can do more than we can imagine possible. Moreover, God seems to see things differently than we do. Where we see scarcity and loss, God sees abundance and victory.

And that’s what’s happening here too, isn’t it? In the first reading today Peter is preaching, and he calls on the people to “repent” and be filled with God’s Spirit. Repentance means turning around. Moving in a different direction, re-orienting ourselves. The two disciples, literally separating themselves from the other disciples in Jerusalem had given up. They were heading their own way. “We had hoped that Jesus was the one to set Israel free,” they told the stranger whom we know to be Jesus himself. They looked at the cross and just saw defeat, tragedy. The death of their dream. But God, apparently, operates differently. The tree of defeat became the tree of victory, we say. Life — new life — comes out of the experience of the cross. We learn, and experience, and grow in self-sacrifice, peacemaking, and the way of love, by gazing on the cross. It takes a re-orientation of our values and assumptions, but that’s what resurrection faith is.

Jesus highlights this in Luke’s gospel. At the Last Supper, Jesus told the disciples that he would not eat again until all had been fulfilled. Well, here he is, in Emmaus, eating. He’s saying to them that, yes, it might have looked like defeat, but actually the cross was the breaking in of God’s love and mercy to our world. And then a few verses after today’s story, Jesus appears to the others. What does he do? Ask for some fish. He eats again. They thought all had been lost, but he had actually been showing the world God’s radical love and mercy. I’m sure the forty long years wandering in the desert felt like being lost, too. But, it turns out that God was bringing them to the promised land.

In our own time — full of anxiety, depression, isolation, illness, death, and concerns about the economy and wariness about some world leaders — we may be experiencing some of the despair that the two disciples felt on the way to Emmaus. But our resurrection faith reminds us to re-orient ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we can just ignore all the terrible things that are happening; those are all very real. And our grief and our anxiety is real. But they don’t have to be the end of the story. Jesus is with us, even if we don’t recognize him. And in the simplest of acts, like the sharing of bread, we might become more conscious of God’s presence, changing our world. Perhaps some of the changes that will take place through this experience will bring us closer to God’s way of doing things. Maybe the table fellowship we see in today’s story is a sign of things to come: an alternative to the hoarding, and the me-first approach that lines some people’s pockets, and lets others starve.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter