This Road to Emmaus

Fritz von Uhde / Public domain

Synopsis: When Jesus was crucified, his followers couldn’t imagine how such an awful event led to their salvation. What if this pandemic is another “awful event” that somehow becomes powerfully redemptive?

Scripture Reading: Luke 24: 13-35

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Why is life so hard?

That was probably the question on the minds of those two men walking that long seven-mile road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We don’t know much about who they were except that the name of one of them was Cleopas.

While they were walking along, they discussed the events that had taken place in Jerusalem concerning Jesus’ crucifixion. Suddenly, Jesus walks up to them and begins traveling with them – but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Jesus asks them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’”

Imagine what would happen in today’s society if someone walking down the street caught up to two strangers having a conversation and said, “Hey guys! What are you two talking about?” That person would probably be considered rude and be told, “Get out of here! Mind your own business!”

But back in Jesus’ time, it was common for a group of travelers to allow a single traveler to join them since traveling long roads alone was not a safe thing to do.

It’s also interesting to note that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This phenomenon, where Jesus appears to be able to disguise and then reveal himself, took place more than once after Jesus’ resurrection. In John’s gospel, he disguised himself as a gardener before revealing himself to Mary Magdalene, and Mark’s gospel reports that he appeared to these two travelers “in another form.”

We might ask, “How is it possible to meet the Lord and not know it?” In Matthew 18:20, Jesus tells us that whenever two or more gather in His name, He is there, too. When he said this, he didn’t mean that he would be there in his physical nature – as Jesus of Nazareth. It would indeed be impossible for him to be physically in the midst of everyone, all around the world, who are gathered together in His name.

He meant that he would be there in his true spiritual nature – as the Christ.

Their eyes were kept from recognizing him because our physical eyes can’t perceive Spirit. In fact, our eyes perceive little of God’s vast, infinite Creation. But because we have been taught to believe only what we can see with our eyeballs, we are “blind” to Christ’s presence within every human being – not realizing that He not only dwells within us but also walks beside us.

In response to Jesus’ question, Cleopas basically says to this “stranger,” “Where have you been the past three days, man? Haven’t you heard the awful news?” Now, Cleopas doesn’t use the word “awful,” but I’m sure Our Resurrected Lord read the despair written all over their mopey faces. So, he asks, “What things?” As far as he was concerned, there wasn’t anything to be depressed about.

Cleopas proceeds to inform him about a prophet mighty in word and deed, whom the people hoped might be the one to redeem Israel, was handed over to be crucified by their own chief priests and leaders. While they had heard some reports that he might still be alive, they didn’t know for sure since they haven’t seen him alive for themselves.

Cleopas’ news report reveals two things about him and his fellow traveler. First, we know Cleopas was not one of the twelve disciples, so the two of them were probably among the many followers of Jesus. They hung around Jerusalem long enough to hear the reports of his empty tomb, but since they didn’t actually see him alive, they hightailed it out of there because followers of Jesus were being arrested.

Second, they obviously understood Jesus as a kind of superhero Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans. We can’t blame them. Many people – even some of Jesus’ closest followers – held this idea about him. If Jesus was this kind of Messiah, then his mission was a total failure, and their depression was justified.

How different are we from them? How many of us had grand hopes and dreams for the future only to have them seemingly dashed by this pandemic? How many of us have felt as if the Lord is truly dead? “Where are you, Lord? Why is this happening? Why aren’t you here?”

Jesus says to the two men on the road to Emmaus, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah wshould suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then he began to teach them the scriptures, especially the parts that describe the Messiah as a suffering servant.

“Foolish” is the Greek word (ah-NO-Ee-tos), which literally means, “without understanding,” but it also carries a sense of blame in a moral as well as an intellectual sense. The use of this word suggests that their condition was a result of their own indifference and self-reliance.

Didn’t these followers hear anything Jesus taught them? Yes – they heard and probably understood at least on some level. While most of Jesus’ followers were not educated men like the Pharisees and Scribes who studied the scriptures, they had teachers, like Jesus, to teach them the scriptures and how to apply it to their lives.

So, the problem wasn’t as much a lack of understanding as an unwillingness to put Jesus’ teachings into practice. What most of his followers wanted to hear coming out of the mouth of their Messiah was his endorsement of their traditions and their nationalistic goals. Since most of what Jesus taught wasn’t about that at all, how many of his teachings went in one ear and out the other?

How different are we from them? How many of us Christians today don’t want to hear what Jesus taught about equality – that everyone is equally loved by God – that everyone deserves peace, happiness, and prosperity in equal measure.

That’s what Jesus taught, and it’s not difficult to understand, but not-so-easy to live by. Yet that’s the only way we’ll ever “get” the value of his teachings– by putting them into practice and experiencing for ourselves how much better life is.

Are we allowing Jesus’ teachings to change our minds, hearts, faces, conversations, and actions? When life doesn’t go the way we think it should, and the Lord draws near to help us to see things differently, do we listen to Him, or do we tell Him, “Get out of here! Mind your own business!”

Our two travelers didn’t say that. They listened intently to this “stranger.” How often do we receive messages from the Lord through strangers? When we are depressed about the events of our lives, how often do strangers help us to see things differently, broadening our perspective beyond our little selves, and lifting our spirits?

When our travelers finally came near the village, they urged the stranger to stay with them, so he stayed. This tells us a couple of things about the Lord. First, he will not enter our lives uninvited. In Greek, the word Emmaus means “medicinal springs,” so there must have been healing springs there. Unless we invite the Lord into our lives, there can be healing – no relief from our suffering.

The second thing this verse tell us about the Lord is that it doesn’t take much convincing to get him to stay with us. All we have to do is invite him. Because he loves us, he wants to heal us. He wants to help us understand Life – so that we can live out of the love, peace, and joy that is our natural state of being.

While these two men were walking down the Emmaus road, talking with the Lord, at some point, their hearts opened, and they embraced a broader perspective about what had happened in Jerusalem – one that replaced their short-sighted, nationalistic vision with something far more magnificent: a vision of the promise of eternal life in a world ruled by Love.

Through this time of communion with the Lord, they were healed. They were finally able to understand how those “awful events” in Jerusalem actually accomplished their salvation.

That road to Emmaus was the time of the first coming of Christ. This road to Emmaus is the time of the second coming of Christ. I know, this is definitely not how we envisioned the second coming Christ to happen – much like Cleopas and his companion didn’t expect their Messiah to end up crucified.

Jesus taught us who we are long ago – that Christ is literally within us and walking beside us. Now is the time to be it – to be the extension of God’s Love we were created to be – to witness the return of Christ within ourselves and others.

How can we do that?

First, we need to trust God. If we honestly believe that God is good and that God is all-powerful, then we must believe that God can use this pandemic for the good of all. Yes, it’s difficult to believe that when we see so much suffering. We understand the ways of the world quite well, but the ways of Spirit – not so much. But just as in Christ’s first coming, what we see as an awful worldly event can turn out to be a powerfully liberating spiritual event.

We can trust that while we might not get everything we want, we’ll get everything we need. In Jeremiah 17:7-8, we read, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”

This pandemic is like the year of drought. In ancient times, a drought was a disaster because people relied heavily upon agriculture for survival. In our times, a pandemic is a disaster because we rely heavily on commerce. But the truth is that in all times, we can rely only on God to provide for our needs. If we do, we’re like that tree planted by water – by the living water. Without fear, we are free to extend love.

We need to stop judging others. We all know that Jesus taught us not to judge one another. Yes, that teaching is one of our favorite ones to ignore – to let go in one ear and out the other. It seems it’s our favorite thing to do – especially these days.

I am an Easton Ambassador, and one of my jobs is to greet people coming to the outdoor farmers’ market in Scott Park. This is the first year in the market’s 268-year history that the outdoor market hasn’t been in Center Square. Scott Park is a larger space, which makes it easier to social distance.

One of the rules to enter the market is that a mask covering the nose and mouth must be worn. Most people comply, but every week a handful of people walk right by me without a mask, ignoring my pleas to stop. One man does it this every week, with a very defiant attitude.

We report people we are keeping an eye on by entering them into our work phones as “people of interest.” So, I entered this man as a person of interest. I didn’t know his name, so I called him the “unknown unmasked man.”

That got me thinking about something ironic: Now, it’s the unmasked who are the villains. It’s always been the masked ones we’ve judged as no good – even at the beginning of this pandemic, when the CDC told us not to wear masks because there was a shortage, and they needed to be available for healthcare workers. Then the masked were shamed. Now, it’s the unmasked.

But then some of the unmasked are fighting back and shaming the masked. One day while I was working on the streets of Easton, I received a sermon. I received a sermon from a guy who chastised me for wearing a mask like it was some kind of sacrilege. “Think about what you’re doing! There’s nothing wrong with God’s air; breathe God’s air!”

It’s crazy! You see, that’s just how much truth our judgements have. They are based only on our own ideas, not on reality. They can shift at the blink of an eye. Today’s hero can become tomorrow’s villain.

Psychologist Tara Brach talks about how our judgements create “unreal others.” This tendency to create unreal others is strong especially when we’re under stress because we just can’t deal with these people when we have so much else to deal with. It’s easier to just write them off – to consider them a hopeless case.

When we judge people, we close-off our hearts to them. They become inhuman, like machines, without thoughts and feelings, desires and dreams. But in truth they are exactly like us, doing what they think is right, feeling the pain of this pandemic, having desires and dreams that appear to be forever thwarted.

Those wearing masks may be feeling more acutely the pain of fear for their own health or the health of loved ones. Those not wearing masks may be feeling more deeply the pain of economic stress and social isolation. Our circumstances may be different, but we are one with the pain.

One way to make a person real to us again is to ask a simple question: “I wonder what it’s like to be them?” Since my spouse’s immune system is compromised, I wear a mask, but I also wear a mask to protect other people’s loved ones because they are just as important to them as mine are to me.

But what if my situation were different? What if the virus itself wasn’t such a threat, yet I’ve lost not only my job, but also my rich social life? How frustrated might I feel? Might I choose not to wear a mask to express my frustration and my wish for this pandemic to just go away so I can get back to my life?

Finally, we need to be One. That’s why the judgments have to go. Judgements drive a wedge between us, creating the illusion of separation. God didn’t create us to be fiercely independent; God created us to be in relationship – with Him, with one another, and with all of Creation for all eternity.

If that is the truth of our existence, if we are in this eternal relationship, then imagine how much better Life would be if we choose to value every part of it? That’s what Unconditional Love is all about – valuing something just because it exists – just because it is alive – and sharing this life with us.

When we finally decide to be the Unity we are in Christ, there’s no challenge on face of the Earth, including this pandemic and the many other challenges that face us today, that can’t be overcome with Unconditional Love – the most powerful force in the Universe.

What a great opportunity this is to choose to be One. For the first time in a long time, the entire planet has the same enemy, one we will never defeat unless humanity joins together as One – until every single human being values the life of every other human being, and not only other human beings, but every other form of Life on this planet.

This isn’t a choice that can be made for us by some worldly hero or cosmic avenger. In the past, we relied on our leaders to make these choices – to create laws and policies and institutions to take care of people – to do the right thing for the good of all. That hasn’t worked out very well.

And that’s why the people are now taking the cause of Jesus into their own hands and putting his teachings into practice. Can you see it? People are reaching out for unity all around us. Some are reaching out by fighting against racial injustice or environmental threats. Others are reaching out by simply offering to help others in need in whatever ways they can.

So, I invite you to witness the return of Christ within yourself and others through these expressions of Love. Look for love and respond with love – especially if someone is behaving badly because God values them too.

This road to Emmaus is a challenging journey, but the Lord is not dead. He’s walking beside us.

Let’s pray together: Lord, when we experience hardships in life, we invite you to walk with us as we struggle to understand our experiences. We are willing to open our hearts, listen to you, and invite you into our lives so that through a new perspective, we can reach Emmaus and be healed. Amen.

RESOURCES

Brach, Tara. Radical Compassion: LEARNING to LOVE YOURSELF and YOUR WORLD with the PRACTICE of RAIN. Kindle Ed. Viking Life, 2019.

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