“Jesus himself came near and went with [the disciples], but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Lk 24:15-16).
Stop and think about that. “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This was the man whom these two disciples had chosen to follow, the man for whom these disciples had given up their jobs and left their families. His good news defined their reality. And suddenly he was gone, brutally executed, his body now missing from his tomb. Imagine how they must have felt.
I can imagine these two disciples, shocked and confused by the recent events, walking down the road. I can imagine them praying the words of our psalm this morning: “The cords of death entangled me; . . . I came to grief and sorrow” (Ps 116:2). I can imagine their eyes, taking in their surroundings but not really seeing them. Is it surprising, really, that they perhaps failed to see what was right in front of them?
But is there something more going on? After all, their eyes were kept from recognizing Jesus. The word translated as “kept” can also mean to hold, to seize, to restrain, to arrest. It’s a forceful word. The disciples don’t just fail to recognize Jesus; they are actively hindered from knowing that this man walking and talking with them is their Lord and teacher, risen from the dead. Disciples in other accounts may not recognize Jesus immediately, but only here are they kept from recognizing him. Only here are the disciples’ eyes made to be closed, to be unable to perceive the reality in front of them.
So what’s happening here? In the way the evangelist distinguishes seeing from perceiving, I am reminded of how Jesus, quoting Isaiah, explains the purpose of parables: “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand’” (Lk 8:10, quoting Is 6:9-10). This seems to be what is happening here. These disciples look at the man accompanying them, but they do not perceive him.
The gospel tells us that two followers of Jesus were walking and talking as they made their way to the village of Emmaus, a distance of about seven miles from Jerusalem. Just a couple of days had passed since the tragic death of Jesus, and the confusion, fear, disappointment, and grief of that event weighed heavily upon them. Some of those closest to Jesus had contributed to the tragedy: he had been betrayed by one of his own disciples, denied by another, and abandoned by his followers and friends, who had fled for their lives. Furthermore, the body had apparently gone missing! Some women who had visited the tomb earlier this same day had reported a strange encounter with“two men in dazzling clothes,” who had greeted them with the amazing news that Jesus was not there, but risen! They had reported this curious and inexplicable experience to the disciples, but the disciples took it to be “an idle tale” and sent them away.[i] And now, as these two were walking along, they were trying to make sense of all of this, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, trying to work through their grief and confusion, trying to find some point of light to illumine the darkness and despair that had overshadowed their hearts.
1 John 4:7-21;
Like the founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, I grew up in an Evangelical tradition of the church. The word ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek euangelion, which means “bearer of good news,” and it is the charism of the evangelical tradition to spread by word the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. And so from a young age I was taught vivid Bible stories in Sunday School,that were often accompanied by handouts that I could take home and color with pictures of Jesus telling stories to children seated all around him. I also learned songs that I would sing ad naseum in the car on the way home such as ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children.’As a child I knew Jesus to be my buddy and as long as I had these Bible stories, songs, and coloring sheets, Jesus was with me wherever I went.
As I grew older, my dad encouraged me to leave the coloring activity sheets behind and begin to listen to what our pastor was preaching in church, something that I wasn’t thrilled about because I didn’t understand the message he was articulating. I didn’t yet have the vocabulary and experience to grasp concepts such as ‘sin,’‘atonement,’ and ‘repentance.’ It would take a while for me to gain an understanding of this adult expression of God, one that seemed so complex and at times frightening. What did resonate with me was when the pastor gave what was called an “altar call.” After the sermon and before the final hymn, he would invite anyone who wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to come forward and stand with him as a public profession of that desire which was the next step in the journey of faith. I think I was eleven when I made my way to the front to proclaim what I already knew in my heart: that Jesus and I had had a personal relationship since before I could remember. I always looked forward to that moment in the service to see who else might come to be friends with Jesus the way I was. I imagine it is with a youthful twinkle in his eye that Fr. Benson once wrote: “If we are to have Jesus our friend, we must know Him to be continually near. The companionship of Jesus! It is strange how many there are who look forward to being with Him in another world, but never think of living fellowship with him here.”[i]
Luke 24: 13-35
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is so mysterious, so baffling, and so awesome that we cannot hope to claim it as a personal reality on our own. We need the assistance, the encouragement, and the challenge that only other followers of the Risen Christ can provide. Individual salvation is a myth.
There are two disciples on the road to Emmaus, a pair, in the way that the Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple formed a pair at the foot of the cross, and in the way that Peter and the Beloved Disciple formed a pair at the tomb. The experience of the Risen Christ is made vividly personal and real to these two on the Emmaus road in the context of a shared journey, shared sorrow, and a moment of recognition and transfigured perception shared. A loaf of bread is broken in two, and the eyes of two disciples are opened in one flash of pure, unmediated knowledge. This is the Lord.
Walk with me. I need to get away. Let’s go to Emmaus. Two friends go walking. Talking their grief, their expectations dashed, dreams shattered. Talking of Jesus, their friend and their hope for the future, now betrayed, executed and buried. They talk of deepening disorientation: the body missing, people supposedly seeing angels. Two friends go walking, raising questions, discussing distress, sharing sorrow and confusion.
Resurrection comes amid the deep loss that plunges us into darkness, when life hurts and makes no sense. When we are bent under the weight heavy hearts, when lips tremble and tears flow. When we call a friend and say: Let’s go to Emmaus. I need to get away. Walk with me.
We continue today, our Easter preaching series “Toward Larger Life: Sermons on Resurrection” where the preacher of the day will take the Sunday texts and look at them through the prism of resurrection and see how they are inviting us into the larger life promised to us by Jesus in his resurrection. Last week Kevin looked at resurrection itself to discover the invitation to larger life. Next week Mark will hold before us Jesus the Good Shepherd and lead us into the larger life promised to us by the Shepherd of our souls. Today I want to ask you to come for a walk with me and see how the journey to Emmaus brings us to that larger life.
Not far from Jerusalem, just off the highway that leads to Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean, on the edge of a small village there is an overgrown right of way used by an Israeli utility company to service the power lines that run above it. It’s a curious spot to take a group of pilgrims but I have been there two of three times in the last number of years, because buried in the brush, and under the tangled and matted grass, lies the scattered remains of an old Roman road running from Jerusalem to Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. When I was first there over ten years ago the curbs and paving stones were quite easy to find. Ten years later, after a decade of rain, the road continues to be washed away, but if you look hard enough (and know what you are looking for) you can find bits and pieces of stone that has obviously been dressed and used for some sort of building project.