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Walking the Emmaus Road in Uncertain Times

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 26th of Fourth Month, 2020

Speaker: Brian C. Young

Scripture: Luke 24:13–35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

Good morning, Friends!

This week, Lois Jordan wrote to us here in the office and asked a question: “Are we in

a liminal space as we live through this pandemic—leaving a familiar way of life, and not sure what life will be afterward?” We liked that question so much that we put it in the

Friendly Visitor, which you may have seen. The word that Lois used, liminal, is one that you

hear in theology and philosophy every now and then; it refers to indefinite spaces that lie

between better-defined regions. A liminal period is one in which something has ended, and something else has not yet begun. Liminal spaces can also be ones where two different environments come together and create something that is neither one nor the other; so thresholds, and shorelines, and borderlands are liminal spaces.

In the passage we’ve heard read this morning, two disciples find themselves in liminal

space, betwixt and between. The wonder of being in Jerusalem with Jesus, as he preaches and teaches and confronts the powers, has ended. That way of life, for whatever brief period it was theirs, has been taken away by his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. And whatever comes next has not yet arrived. On the Emmaus road, they are grappling with how to make sense of all that has happened, including the report, early that morning, that Jesus’ tomb is empty.

If you were with us on Easter, you might remember that we looked at Mark's account of

the women who came to the tomb early on the day after the Sabbath: remember that they

were preoccupied with how they were going to get into the tomb so that they could take care of Jesus' body: “who will roll away the stone?” Very quickly, that problem became a non- issue, and they had a much bigger one: how to understand what had happened. Where had the Master's body gone? What did the messenger mean when he said, “He has risen; He is not here”?

Here in Luke's Gospel, the problem of understanding has been compounded: in the

earlier part of chap. 24, the gathered group of Jesus' followers hear the reports of those whohave been to the tomb; Peter even has been there himself, and seen the cast-off burial

clothes, and nothing else; so the testimony of the women has been confirmed. But this pair of disciples don't even have a stone-at-the-mouth-of-the-tomb problem to occupy their minds, as they walk along.

Now: these disciples—what do we know about them? Only one is named: Cleopas,

and the name is about all we have. This is the only place in the Bible he appears. It’s possible he might be the husband of the Mary who is mentioned in John 19:25, as one of the women attending Jesus at the cross; but there the name of her husband is recorded as Clopas or Clophas, so it’s not clearly the same person.

We know even less about the other disciple; Luke gives no name. More than one

commentator points out that often in the Gospels women are nameless, suggesting that this

might be the case for this second disciple (e.g., Ringe, 287). So it could be that Mary, not named here, and her husband Cleopas or Clophas, are the ones who walk together—a married couple discussing this problem that they share with the other followers of Jesus.

Not much is definitely known about their destination, either: Emmaus in Hebrew means

“warm wells,” a not uncommon place name in first-century Palestine. As to its location, while there are a number of possibilities, it was likely west/northwest of Jerusalem, and v. 13 says about seven miles distant (the Greek has “60 stadia,” a Roman measurement of about 200 yards); seven miles would have been a reasonable half-day’s walk, even with a return trip in the evening.

(Note some manuscripts have “160 stadia” in v13, which would be 18-20 miles.

Evidence for this variant includes a town called Emmaus in the Maccabean period (200–100 BCE); 18 miles might be a full day's walk, but then the two would have to have been really motivated on the return trip...)

So, note that a lot of the above is speculation; there are many details here that we just

can't know. But if this were a married couple traveling along, perhaps they were returning to their home village, to check on things in their household. After all, they have been away from home for who knows how long, with everything that's been going on in Jerusalem. They are not the only disciples in this time after the empty tomb, this liminal territory, who seek a return to the familiar. So it's time to get out of town: time for them to put their bodies to work. Maybe that will help. They'll talk as they walk, and see if they can make sense of any of it.

We return to the problem: these two, and the rest of their community, had great hopes

which were dashed by the crucifixion. The strange news of the early morning makes the

burden even harder to bear... there is some vague glimmer of hope that this strange news

brings, but it's only a glimmer amidst the cloud that surrounds them.

Then, when they are joined by a mysterious stranger, who professes not to know what

has been happening in Jerusalem, Cleopas tells him of their hope: “we had hoped that he

was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21). This phrase can also be translated, “we had hoped that he was the one who would set Israel free”; so this was the desire of a people under the domination of empire: hope for redemption or liberation was partly hope for Israel's release from the rule of Rome. This kind of hope looked for a Messianic power that would beat the power of the world at its own game. So these two disciples are here confessing that, having hoped in that kind of power, they now find themselves powerless.

So then the stranger, rather than commiserating with them in their powerlessness, invites them deeper into it: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (v26) He shows them from the Scriptures what they lack in their understanding—and something in them responds; their hearts burn, even though they're not yet ready to acknowledge it.

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be powerless. Whether we like to admit

it or not, we are a pretty powerful bunch. We’re used to having autonomy; we want to depend on our own resources; we like to make our own decisions. And more than that, our situation as educated white people confers on us considerably more power in the form of unearned privilege—power that much of the time we can forget we even have, which is what makes it so powerful. But the COVID-19 crisis has changed that in so many ways.

Prior to these past couple of months, the only other experience I’ve had like this was

during my first year of seminary, in 2005–2006. At the time, I was the board chair for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). Some of you will remember that beginning in November 2005, that organization was plunged into a crisis when four men who were part of CPT’s team in Iraq were abducted in Baghdad. At the time, Maxine Nash, a member of West Richmond, was also on the Iraq team, although I don’t believe she was in Iraq at the time of the kidnapping.

As board chair, I was asked to be part of CPT’s crisis team during the abduction. We

were on the phone daily, sometimes more than once a day, for hours at a time. As the crisis unfolded, we put tremendous energy into media messaging. Thankfully this was before the era of widespread social media, so it was mostly press releases and e-mails, but we were constantly crafting words that we thought might have an impact on the kidnappers, and trying to control which information got out, and when. CPT mobilized supporters in the US, Canada and Britain, with regular vigils to keep the situation in the public eye. Members of our team spent countless hours supporting the families of the four, which for the most part was welcome.

That, at least, was helpful to the families in need. But in the end, it seemed that very

little of it was truly effective—at least the parts that I could see. Our attempts to control

information and craft messages seldom had the effects we wanted. The contacts that our

team made in Iraq and elsewhere always promised much, but never seemed to deliver

anything more than blind alleys and dead ends. And some of you know that one of the four, Tom Fox, was separated from the others and murdered, before the others were eventually rescued by the British military.

That’s the only experience that I can compare to the kind of powerlessness I feel

today. None of us has the power to stop COVID-19. There are things we can do to keep

ourselves safe, at least we those of us who have privilege, and those things are important.

But part of doing those things to be safe and to keep others safe, means that I don’t even

have the power to go to the hospital to say goodbye to a beloved member of this meeting, and to offer comfort to her family.

In this kind of situation, I suppose I could join the chorus of voices calling for an end to

self-isolation and distancing, the “re-opening” of the economy, and a return to supposed

normalcy. Give me my power back!

Or, like those disciples on the Emmaus road, I can confess that my hope in the power

of the world is gone, and listen for God’s invitation deeper into that powerlessness. I don’t fully know what that looks like, for me, and so I can’t prescribe what it would mean for any of you. But I think that’s what this passage calls us to, today.

One of the things that is exceptional about the Emmaus story is the way in which Christ

is revealed. Unlike some other places in Luke’s Gospel, there is no heavenly host proclaiming from on high; there is no dramatic transfiguration with dazzling white garments. Instead, Christ is veiled from the eyes of his companions until they enter into fellowship with one another; and then he is “made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (v. 35). Just as Christ was made known to those disciples in a very ordinary act, he is made known to us today. Yes, our fellowship with one another is constrained by present circumstances—but we can still choose ordinary acts that reveal Christ’s presence: the bag of groceries left on someone’s front porch; the telephone call to say you are thinking of and praying for someone; the donation made to one of the many groups working with and for those who are hurt most by this crisis.

Part of the discipleship journey, in this liminal space we find ourselves in, is to

acknowledge that we are powerless in many ways; to repent of our grasping after the power of the world, and to seek the power of God—power that is revealed in weakness; power that does not seek to dominate others; power that sustains life and denies death; power that manifests itself in countless small acts of fellowship and sharing and love.

Friends, let us wait on that power, together.

This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian C. Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.

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