(Icons shown for this Walk to Emmaus story are found here.)
I was fortunate to get to prepare this particular sermon, and we were all blessed to hear in our Gospel reading today from Luke a very familiar story, the “Walk/Road to Emmaus”. To me it is very peculiar, though, that this reading was chosen as part of this year’s Lectionary readings after Easter. All of the Gospel readings for Sundays from the start of the Lenten season and for the Easter season this year are from John, except for this one. I have found no official explanation for the selection from Luke on this Sunday, when it is an Easter day story read 2 weeks after Easter. Bonnie said at Bible study on Wednesday that the selectors for the Lectionary really wanted this unique story from Luke read with the rest of the John Gospel stories this year. I think that it is just a great story, and we should read it every year.
This story occurs right after the Easter narrative in the Gospel of Luke, the 12 verses in the Bible just before this reading, and it takes place later in the day on Easter Sunday. The story as written is found only in Luke's Gospel, although a somewhat similar but less detailed one is found in Mark’s Gospel. The location of Emmaus has never been identified for sure, but it was just a few miles from the site of first-century Jerusalem, which was smaller than the city is today.
On our pilgrimage to Israel in September 2008, with Bonnie, Mary and Yo, we visited the town of Abu-Ghosh, located in the middle of the Kiryat Yearim Ridge Route between Tel Aviv and present day Jerusalem, nine miles away. The large church there, at the entrance to Abu Ghosh, is one of the best preserved Crusader era remains in the country. It was built about 1142 by the Crusaders who believed the site to be the biblical town of Emmaus. After being captured in 1187, it basically sat empty for centuries, then was acquired by the French Government in 1899 and placed under the care of the French Benedictine Fathers. Since 1956, it has been restored and run by the Lazarist Fathers. Today a double community of nuns of the Sisters of St. Joseph and monks of the order of St. Benedict continue the worship in the church and offer hospitality, reflecting the ancient story of the disciples on the Jerusalem Emmaus road. It is a beautiful place, and we celebrated communion there in a chapel in the depths of the church. (There was a long slideshow of pictures of this church—with us travelers, too, that we looked at on the laptop in the parish hall.)
Some interesting present day notes about Abu Ghosh:
· Although mostly Muslims live there, it is known for its good relations with the State of Israel and welcoming attitude toward Israelis.
· The Elvis Inn, a restaurant in Abu Ghosh, is known for its large gold statue of Elvis Presley in the parking lot.
· It is popular among the Israelis for its Middle Eastern restaurants and hummus. It is known as the "Hummus capital of Israel". In January 2010, Abu Ghosh secured the Guinness World Record for preparing the largest dish of hummus in the world. Jawdat Ibrahim, owner of the famous Abu Ghosh Hummus Restaurant, organized the event, which brought together 50 Jewish and Israeli-Arab chefs (That is a triumph in itself! Surprise—it took food to bring these people together!). The winning 20-foot dish weighed almost 9000 pounds, about twice as much as the previous record set by Lebanon in October 2009. In May 2010, Lebanon regained the Guinness World Record, more than doubling Abu Ghosh's total.
Leaving the modern-day Abu Ghosh, or maybe Emmaus, let's return 2000 years back to that famous Easter Sunday, where the initial resurrection appearances of Jesus took place on “the first day of the week.” First the women, then other men disciples, discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Two disciples (but not any of the 11 apostles) journeying to Emmaus from Jerusalem “on that same day” recognized their risen Jesus when he broke bread with them at the “Supper at Emmaus”. Later that evening the two disciples returned to Jerusalem to share their story only to hear that Jesus had appeared to Peter, too. And, that evening (in the next few verses of Luke after our reading today), as they all celebrated the good news, Jesus appeared before the entire group and commissioned them to preach repentance and forgiveness to all nations. We heard this similar story last week in the Gospel from John—about the apostles encountering Jesus while locked in the Upper Room.
Based on these events of actual encounters with the risen Jesus, why shouldn’t we think this story is very special?
The story shows us that belief in Jesus as the risen Messiah was not evident to his earliest followers, even after his crucifixion and resurrection. The reason why these people came to believe in him was that he actually appeared to them. In other words, it took Jesus’ appearance and revelation for them to believe. That was true for Peter, and it was true for those who traveled on the road to Emmaus.
Why were the followers even still around? Jesus had been crucified, and had been entombed in the cave with a huge stone and guards to ensure he was not moved. Is it possible the disciples stayed around Jerusalem to attend a "funeral service" for Jesus. Remember that four days after Lazarus' death, there were still crowds of Jews weeping and mourning with his family over his death and burial. That might explain the reason these disciples were talking about events of the past three days with such a sad tone.
The disciple called Cleopas and his companion were walking on that Emmaus road away from Jerusalem. Some believe that the person who walked the road with Cleopas, the unnamed individual he is with is his wife. They also think it’s possible that the woman called Mary the wife of Clopas, one of the women who watched as Jesus was executed on the cross and then went to the empty tomb is the same person. So Cleopas may have been walking the road with someone who had seen the death of Jesus and also his empty tomb. And still neither one had any clue that the stranger they had met on the road was Jesus. Witnessing the empty tomb is not the same as witnessing the resurrection.
Luke says the two disciples did not recognize Jesus. They had realized that Jesus had been a great prophet and, like Moses, “mighty in deed and word”, but they had no idea how much more he was. Jesus had disappointed them: they expected him to deliver Israel from Roman domination, and to begin an earthly kingdom of God. Three days had passed (long enough, in Jewish belief, for the soul to have left the body) and, despite Jesus' statement that he would be raised from death, nothing had happened! The others had told them that Jesus was alive, but when Peter and John went there, all they saw was the empty tomb!
The two disciples responded with hospitality to the stranger who taught them about Jesus and his fulfilling their scriptures, engaging him in conversation and expressing concern for him when he appeared to be traveling beyond their stopping point. "The day is over," they insisted. "It’s getting dark. Come eat with us and rest and be safe." At supper when Jesus blessed, broke and gave them the bread, they recognized him, then almost immediately he vanished. But their experience on the road and at table had transformed them, and they immediately returned to Jerusalem to find the apostles and the rest of their group. (Talked about and showed some icons of the Road to Emmaus and the Emmaus Meal with these disciples.)
Did the disciples need actual “opened eyes” to have table fellowship with Jesus! Others had already done that with Jesus at the Last Supper, but they did not understand. No, it came as a result of this shared meal after His resurrection and revealing to them! What might this say about "full communion" with other Christians? Do we have to wait until we have enough understanding and agreement with other Christian groups before having communion together? Or should we just celebrate communion together and expect God to work it all out? What about communion for children? How much understanding about Christ needs to come first? Should sharing the meal come first and understanding of all the benefits of communion come later?
What makes this story remarkable is how ordinary those people on the road were. We can understand Jesus appearing to the remaining 11 apostles, to his faithful women followers, and even to Paul later on the Damascus Road--all very practical appearances in terms of establishing the church and its mission. But these two Emmaus Road disciples were basically nobodies who had no idea what God might be doing. They could be any one of us, stumbling around with a beginning faith, and trying just to learn more each day about Christ. Their road to Emmaus is an ordinary road, the road each of us is on every day. This is what sets this story apart from other accounts of Jesus’ Easter appearances.
Out of this Gospel story there came a spiritual movement called Cursillo, which originated in Spain in 1949 in the Roman Catholic Church. Cursillo de Cristianidad means "little course in Christianity." The original Cursillo leaders designed the program to empower persons to transform their living and working environments into Christian environments. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Episcopalians and Lutherans, along with several non-denominational groups, began to offer their own Cursillo experience. The actual movement named “Walk to Emmaus” is another ecumenical version of this, started in 1981.
The program's approach seriously considers the model of Christ's servanthood and encourages Christ's disciples to act in ways appropriate to being "a servant of all." The experience begins with a 72-hour short course in Christianity, comprised of fifteen talks by lay and clergy on the themes of God's grace, disciplines of Christian discipleship, and what it means to be the church. The course is wrapped in prayer and meditation, special times of worship and daily celebration of Holy Communion. The “Cursillo or Emmaus community”, made up of those who have attended a weekend, support the 72-hour experience with a prayer vigil, by preparing and serving meals, and other acts of love and self-giving. The experience typically begins Thursday evening and concludes Sunday evening. Men and women typically attend separate weekends. During and after the three days, leaders encourage participants to meet regularly in small groups. The members of the small groups challenge and support one another in faithful living.
The three-day experience and follow-up groups strengthen and renew Christian people as disciples of Jesus Christ and as active members of the body of Christ in mission to the world. Bonnie, Lorraine and I have attended and even worked on Cursillo weekends in the past, Bonnie has been serving as the priest rep for the Diocesan Cursillo board the past 2 years, and Mary Venske is going to a Cursillo weekend soon. Anyone who is interested in more information about this experience please contact one of us.
Finally, I need to mention the Holy Spirit’s role in this story. How do some believe in Christ, and others do not? Martin Luther explained it this way, “We cannot believe by our own reason or strength; it is by the Holy Spirit that one comes to believe.”
The disciples on the Emmaus road eventually discovered it was Jesus, who vanished from them once they figured this out. Then they also recalled that their hearts burned within them while he had been teaching them concerning the Messiah on the road to Emmaus. This was the Holy Spirit at work.
John Tennefoss mentions this frequently in our Bible study—that if we can only rely on the Holy Spirit in each of us, we can do great things for Christ and have peace in our hearts.
So how do WE walk the road to Emmaus? This story in some ways leads us to the church, where we may encounter Jesus in the word and the sacraments. But not just to "the church"--this building, and Sunday worship. We are led even more to the church that meets a very ordinary world, a world marked by human loss and human hospitality. AMEN.
Some ideas and phrases of thoughts for this sermon were taken from writings by:
1) Amy B. Hunter, poet and lay associate for spiritual formation at All Saints Episcopal Church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, as appeared in The Christian Century, March 27-April 3, 2002, p. 18
2) Arland J. Hultgren, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008.
3) Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources.