Walking the Emmaus Road in Uncertain Times
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 26th of Fourth Month, 2020
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.
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
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 who
have 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 v13 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
(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” (v21). 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
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” (v35). 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.
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