Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near….
Today we continue an Easter Season Sermon Series called “The Well-Remembered Word,” in which we are imagining a memorial service for Jesus, held several decades after his ascension, where some of the people who knew him best and loved him most would step to the podium to deliver a eulogy—a “good word”—about Jesus, the Word-made-flesh. So far we’ve heard from Mary Magdalene and Doubting Thomas. Today we will hear from those two disciples on the road to Emmaus who were kind enough to write down their comments so I could simply read them to you. They say:
Thank you to the Apostle John for inviting us to share our memories. It’s a great honor to be on the same program as people like Mary Magdalene and Believing Thomas. But before we begin, we should probably clear up a little confusion, because some of you expected to see two men standing up here. You didn’t expect to see a man and a woman. I suppose Luke, who interviewed us for his Gospel and told our story, could have been a little more clear about that, but I don’t think it even crossed his mind. He knew who we were; we were followers of Jesus; and that’s what he said. Well, not exactly. He said, “That same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.” But before that he had been talking about the other followers of Jesus: about the women who went to the tomb that morning, and about the eleven remaining disciples and their companions. So when he wrote “two of them” he meant two of those people who had gathered around Jesus during his earthly ministry: two of his disciples. Not two of the Twelve, but two of the many, many more who followed Jesus and learned from him, and that was us.
But then he says that one of us was named Cleopas, and that’s true, but he didn’t mention the other one. I don’t know why people would assume it was a man. Especially when you read ahead in the story and discover that when we got to Emmaus we invited Jesus to come in and have supper with us. Did you picture us as two men living together in the same house? Doesn’t it make more sense in first century Israel that it was a man and a woman, and that the woman who was walking along with Cleopas was Mrs. Cleopas? Wouldn’t you guess that she was the one who said to Jesus, “Why don’t you come in and have some supper with us? It’s getting late!” It makes even more sense when you read John’s Gospel and learn that one of the women standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus died was a woman named Mary, the wife of Clopas, C-L-O-P-A-S. But couldn’t that just be a typo? (no offense, John). Or another way of saying the same name? KLEE-oh-pas. Kuh-LOH-pas. Tomato. Tomahto. Is it really so hard to believe that the disciple walking to Emmaus with Cleopas was this same Mary, who is elsewhere referred to as the wife of Clopas? Anyway, we know who we are, and again, we are honored to be standing before you today sharing our memories of Jesus.
As Luke has already told you, before we met the risen Christ we believed that Jesus was “a prophet, mighty in word and deed.” That’s why we started following him in the first place. We had the same hopes as anyone in Israel in those days: we were looking for the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would sit on the throne of his ancestor David, run the Romans out of Israel, and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. We were hoping that Jesus was the one. I mean, nobody had ever done the kinds of things that he was doing. No one had ever healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and cast out demons as he had. No one had ever preached with such passion about how things would change when God’s kingdom was finally established, on earth as it is in heaven. We really did believe that he would be the one to redeem Israel, but then, less than a week after he rode into town on a donkey while we were shouting “Hosanna!” he was hanging on a cross, breathing his last. We couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe how quickly things had changed.
We saw them take his body down from the cross. We saw the tomb where Joseph laid him. We waited around for a couple of days with the others, in shock, not knowing what to do, but eventually we decided to go on home. And that’s where we were going when this stranger caught up with us. People have asked us for years, “How could you not know that it was Jesus?” But it’s like Mary said: we had watched him die. No one had ever been more completely dead. The last person in the world we expected to see alive and well was Jesus, and so, even though there was something very familiar about this stranger, we did not consider for a second that it might be him. As Luke put it, our “eyes were kept from recognizing him.” And Jesus wasn’t helping. He was wearing that prayer shawl, so his face was in the shadows. He kept his hands inside the sleeves of his robe, almost as if he didn’t want us to know who he was, almost as if he were waiting for just the right moment to surprise us with his true identity. Looking back, I can almost see why. I mean, has anyone ever had a better secret?
There were lots of people making their way home from the Passover festival that day. Some were from Emmaus, as we were. A good many more were people we didn’t know, going farther. When this stranger started walking alongside us it didn’t seem especially odd, but then we noticed that he was listening in on our conversation, and of course we were talking about Jesus’ death. So, we stopped talking, but he wanted to know more. “What were you talking about?” he asked. And we said, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in the last few days?” “What things?” he asked. “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth,” we said, “who was a prophet mighty in word and deed before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 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. 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.”
And that’s when he said, “O, how foolish you are! And how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” And then he began to quote from the Scriptures all these passages that we had never imagined applying to the Messiah, certainly not before the death of Jesus, but now they made sense! For example: we had thought that Israel was God’s long-suffering servant, but this stranger said, “No! It’s the Messiah! Listen!” And then, even though he wasn’t reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah he quoted it word for word, as if he knew it by heart.[i] We’ve looked it up since. We’ve written it down. He said, “See if this sounds familiar:
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account (Isa. 53:2b-3).
And then he said, “Or how about this?
He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed (Isa. 53:5).
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isa. 53:7).
By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isa. 53:8-9a).
And then he said, “But that was never going to be the end of the Messiah. Death was never going to have the final word.” And then he started quoting from the Psalms. He said:
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption (Ps. 16:10).
He said, “Do you see? It was God’s intention all along to raise his anointed one from the dead, to usher him into his glory. But I know what you must be thinking: Now what? Well, do you remember what King David said, when he was prophesying by the power of the Holy Spirit? It’s right there in the Psalms:
The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool under your feet” (Ps. 110:1).
“Yes,” he said. “The Messiah has done his part, now it’s time for his disciples to do their part (see Luke 24:47-49), and in the end, God will do his part. He will crush the enemies of his Messiah and ultimately he will destroy death itself.”
He quoted one passage after another, proving his point, until we looked up and saw that we had reached Emmaus. The daylight was almost gone by then, and there was nowhere else to go, so we invited him to come in and have supper with us, this stranger. He did. We cooked up a little something and sat down to eat. We asked him if he would like to say the blessing and he nodded, and then he reached out for the bread, and that’s when we saw it: the mark of the nails in his hands. “Jesus!” we said, but as soon as we did he was gone, just like that. We looked at each other in shock. For a full minute we couldn’t say anything. But then we began to babble like idiots. We said, “That was him! That was Jesus! He was right here! And now he’s gone, but oh! Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he was talking to us on the road, and opening up the Scriptures to us?” We had to tell the others, and so, even though it was late, and even though we were tired, we stuffed some bread into a bag and hurried back down the road toward Jerusalem.
We kept talking about the things he had said to us, and kept scolding ourselves for being so dense. It had been right there in the Scripture all along, but we hadn’t seen it, we hadn’t been able to see it. We had been so sure we would know the Messiah when we saw him that our eyes were kept from recognizing the real thing when he was right there among us: Jesus. What had we said about him? That he was “a prophet mighty in word and deed?” Oh, he was that, all right. But he was so much more than that. He was God’s Anointed, the one he had chosen to set his people free. We got so giddy at the prospect that for the last mile of that long walk we broke into a run, and when we got to the place where the other disciples were staying we burst in, out of breath, but before we could tell them our news they said, “the Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” And we said, “He’s appeared to us also!” When we caught our breath we told them the whole story, and all the things he had taught us on the road, and how we had recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
That’s been a long time ago now. Decades have gone by. And yet we remember that day as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. We also remember that Jesus was right there in front of us when it happened, and yet we didn’t recognize him. And the story of God’s suffering servant had been in the scriptures for centuries, and yet we never made the connection. It was humbling, that’s for sure. It still is. But it’s caused us to look at things differently than we used to. Back in those days all we could think about was the redemption of Israel. As we said, we wanted the Messiah to sit on the throne of his ancestor David, and run the Romans out of town, and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. We couldn’t see beyond that. We couldn’t dream any bigger. And so our eyes were kept from recognizing someone who had come, not only for the redemption of Israel, but for the redemption of the entire world. It helps us even now, when we begin to get impatient, when we wish that God would go ahead and do whatever it is he’s going to do. It makes us think that maybe he’s up to more than we know, and maybe it’s already happening, all around us, and that if we could only see things the way he sees them we would know: heaven is coming to earth right now, right in front of us. O, Lord!
Open our eyes that we may see!
—Jim Somerville © 2023
[i] The fact that Jesus was familiar with Isaiah is evident from his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21), where he opened the scroll of the prophet and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” In that same pericope he implies that his understanding of his mission has come from Isaiah 60 and 61. The parallels between Isaiah 53 and the passion of Jesus are uncanny, suggesting that Jesus himself may have read Isaiah 53 as a kind of “script” for the closing act of his earthly ministry.