There is a recognition problem on the road to Emmaus. Jesus comes near to Cleopas and his companion and walks with them on the way, but they don’t recognize him. The text doesn’t say why they don’t recognize him. They are, or had been, followers of Jesus, they’d walked many a road like this with him before, but they don’t recognize him this time around. Maybe he looks different. Maybe he sounds different. Death and resurrection, do after all, have a way of changing you.
But the recognition problem could have been solved easily. All Jesus had to do was say, “Hey, it’s me!”
Why didn’t he do that? Is he just messing with them? Sure, the delayed recognition makes for a better story, in fact that’s what drives this narrative forward. But wouldn’t it have been better for Cleopas and companion to have known sooner? In fact, wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus had appeared to them back in Jerusalem a little earlier on this Easter day, and saved them the bother of escaping the city and heading out on that dusty road to Emmaus?
Or, did they need the journey? Perhaps the biggest challenge on the road to Emmaus isn’t the challenge of recognition. Perhaps it’s the challenge of transformation. And transformation, especially the important transformations in life, the ones that take us through the valley of death to the new life that awaits on the other side, these journeys take time. Often, they are difficult journeys. Sometimes there are no shortcuts.
This is an Easter story after all. Cleopas and companion began their Holy Week with Jesus in Jerusalem. They had great hopes. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel. But their hopes were crushed. Instead, they experienced the greatest trauma of their lives. They stood by helplessly as their friend and leader was betrayed, tortured, wrongly convicted and crucified. They fled the scene and went into hiding, locking the doors behind them. They had to wait there the whole Sabbath day, grieving, fearful that any moment soldiers might break down the door and arrest them. Then on the next day, they’d had enough. They decided to flee, leaving the pain and trauma of Jerusalem behind. They had to get out of town.
So they take the road to Emmaus, walking westward towards the Mediterranean. Not the way they’d come into Jerusalem, no that would have been risky, the authorities might be watching for them to go that way. So, they travel a new road. And as they journey, they start to process what has happened, they talk, still overwhelmed by sadness, grief and despair. And in their frazzled state, Jesus comes alongside and walks with them, but they don’t recognize him.
He begins as any good counsellor might, asking them to tell him what happened, ‘why are you so sad?’ And so they do. There’s something about walking and talking that is good for us, that helps us to process our emotions and share our stories. Jesus listens for a few kilometers, and then he speaks. He begins to interpret the scriptures for them, he starts to open up the story of their lives, to give them the back story, to put it in context, to explain why it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things. And as he speaks, their hearts begin to burn within them.
When is the last time that your heart burned within you? What does that even mean? It certainly means that we’re no longer just in our heads the way we often are. We’re not talking about logical arguments here. We’re talking about new insights that move us in some way, that arouse a passion deep within us, whether that passion is anger or joy or beauty or love or a thirst for justice, or maybe an emotion that we can’t even articulate. To have your heart burn within you is to be moved, to feel something, it’s the beginning of a transformation deep within your soul that will never leave you the same again.
Their hearts burned within them, something started to shift, but there was no recognition yet. They came near the village to which they were going, and Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “stay with us because the day is almost over.”
Hospitality is such an important spiritual practice. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Cleopas and companion offer hospitality to the stranger they have met on their journey. It is a sign of openness, of relationship, it’s an act of compassion towards another. Their practice of hospitality readies them for the next phase of their own transformation. There is something about inviting Jesus into our lives that is life changing.
Jesus goes in to stay with them, and at table he does what he has done so many times before: he takes bread, he blesses and breaks it, and he gives it to them. It’s a rhythm, a ritual, a remembrance. This is the choreography of life that Jesus makes known to us. Taking, blessing, breaking, giving. Take up what you have been given, offer thanks to God, break open what needs to be broken, give to those gathered around you, friend and stranger alike. Take, bless, break, give.
And in the breaking of the bread, their eyes are opened and finally they recognize him.
But that’s not the end of it. The journey isn’t over. Because that same hour, even though it is dark, even though it is late at night, even though the road is dangerous, they get up and return to Jerusalem. The verb that Luke uses here gets lost in translation. The Greek word that we translate “get up” is “anastantes”, the verb form of the noun that means resurrection. This is a resurrection story. Cleopas and his companion rise up and return to Jerusalem. They have been transformed, having passed through the shadow of death to new life.
They return to Jerusalem, to the place where they started, but they are not going back to normal. They have changed, and so has Jerusalem. Their sad and frightened band of disciples is now bursting with energy and excitement. “The Lord has risen indeed.” And they will never be the same again. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s words in his Four Quartets,
“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”
Where are you on your journey today?
Are you getting out of town or are you on your way home? Have you met anyone along the way? Is your journey changing you?
What are the things that are moving you these days? How is your heart burning within you? What things seem important that you hadn’t noticed before? What resonates, what’s different, how are you changing? These are the clues that point to where our journey is headed.
And whether we’re getting out of town or returning home, Jesus walks alongside us on our way, though we may not yet recognize him. And as he speaks to us on this road, our hearts will burn within us
Where are you on your journey? What’s burning in your heart these days?
Homily. Yr A Easter 3, April 23 2023 Trinity
Readings: Acts 2.14a,36-41; Ps 116; 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-35