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 and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word 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 was 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.” Then he said to them, “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 should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Luke 24:13-35
Some stories begin with a phrase that tells you immediately what to expect. “It was a dark and stormy night…” is one of those openings. Another would be “Once upon a time, long, long ago in a land far away…”
By reading those words you immediately know what the setting will be for the story to unfold- a spine-tingling thriller, or a fantasy in a land of make believe.
The novelist John Gardner once said that there are only two plots to all the stories ever told; a stranger came to town, and someone went on a journey. Maybe it is because there is something in the human spirit that loves a story and warms to a familiar beginning that caused Luke to record this account the way he did, a resurrection story among the best known and most loved of all: a mysterious stranger invited and unveiled and a journey fulfilled more completely than ever imagined. Yet, interestingly, all of this- at least in my mind- is played out in a minor key. (Is that how you read this story, too? I wonder…)
It is Easter evening and the sun has not yet set on the glow of resurrection day. Still, the shadows are lengthening and this fate-filled day is coming to an end. Long – long before wifi and cell phones, before radio and telegraph, only a very few know what has already taken place in Jerusalem. No smoke signals were sent out. These disciples, and nearly everyone else are oblivious to what has taken place at the tomb.
Hardly anyone has heard the Easter message (just two Marys, Joanna & Peter- according to Luke.) The powerful drama of the stone being rolled away is put in context by these understated lines of this evening conversation.
We celebrate Easter as the day that changed history- the pillar of faith for 2 billion Christians worldwide, yet this afterglow of Easter is, again- understated.
Why do you think that is?
In the gospels at large, the resurrected Jesus appears in the most ordinary of circumstances. With the women in the garden, with two men walking a dusty road, a private gathering in an upper room; some fishermen working a lake. What do you make of that?
As the author Philip Yancey has put it: a superhero would have dazzled the crowds with a showy miracle, or swaggered onto Pilate’s porch on Monday morning to announce, “I’m back!”
Jesus’ appearances show a different pattern: he mostly visited small groups of people in a remote area or a closed room. Jesus’ approach was, well- understated- visiting those he knew in places set apart.
When you read through all the post-resurrection accounts, you find that Jesus reappeared in almost whimsical ways… sometimes incognito, sometimes passing through locked doors, giving veteran fisherman pointers, eating some of their ample catch.
The very ordinariness of the post-resurrection encounters makes them all the more believable, humble, real.
In one sense Easter changed everything; in another sense, life went on as before, even for the first who met Jesus again…
In Jesus’ resurrection those who knew him well had a glimpse of a new reality, an advance clue to God’s plans for restoring a broken world.
In the meantime they may have felt abandoned and confused, their leader more absent than present.
So the afterglow of Easter is important for us, for this is where we live.
I think these are really the best Sundays of the church year because they reflect not only the disciples’ reality in the first century but also ours in the 21st.
Things stay the same, then Jesus appears and mixes things up and things change, then things go back to being the same, then Jesus arrives again. …
Life is full of an unrelenting sequence of ups and downs, sadnesses and sorrows, but also joys and wonders, and they are all interwoven with appearances of Jesus, who shows up, unexpectedly, unbidden, to make a difference.
Much as the disciples experienced with Jesus, sometimes we sense God’s close presence, and sometimes we do not. Occasionally we, too, feel like giving up and resuming our old, ill-fated lives.
It may well be that Jesus rationed out his appearances to help prepare his followers for the way life goes on; that the reign of God set in motion with the resurrection cannot be stopped — neither by his death nor by their own; that life in God is more than a sum of all the good deeds we can muster, and that Christ is not absent, no matter how little evidence we seem to come up with. The story of the afterglow of Easter is a story for all of us.
There’s a story shared by the writer Anne Lamott about a writer friend of hers that seems to make some sense of all of this. She took her two-year-old up, along with a friend, to Lake Tahoe during the summer. They were staying in a rented condominium by the lake.
And since it’s Tahoe and there is gambling there, the hotels have curtains and shades that block all the light so that you can stay up all night in the casinos and sleep in all morning. One afternoon, Anne’s friend put the baby to bed in his playpen in one of these rooms, in the pitch dark, and went to do some work.
Just few minutes later her friend heard the baby knocking on the door from inside the room, and she got up, knowing he’d crawled out of his playpen. She went to put him down again, but when she got to the door, she found he’d locked it. He had somehow managed to push in the little button on the doorknob. So he was calling to her, “Mommy, Mommy,” and she was saying to him, “Jiggle the doorknob, darling” and, as it turned out–English was not the language his mother spoke to him; it was Urdu- the baby didn’t understand.
After a moment it became clear to the baby that the door wasn’t going to be opened, and panic set in. He began sobbing. The friend ran around like crazy trying everything possible, trying to find that tiny metal rod above the doorway, calling the rental agency where she left a message on the machine, calling the manager of the condo where she left another message, and running back to check in on the little boy every minute she could.
And there he was in the dark, this terrified little child.
Finally she did the only thing she could which was to slide her fingers underneath the door, where there was a one-inch space. She kept telling him over and over to find her fingers. Finally somehow he did. So they stayed like that for a really long time, on the floor, him holding onto her fingers in the dark. He stopped crying.
Eventually he relaxed and she kept saying, “doorknob, doorknob, doorknob,” and every so often he’d jiggle the knob, and eventually, after maybe half an hour, it popped open.
Anne Lamott says, “I keep thinking of that story, how much it feels like I’m that infant in the dark and God is the friend whose language I don’t yet understand. And…I… I just hold onto those fingers underneath the door. It isn’t enough, and yet, somehow, it is.”
Jesus has not left us after all. He’s loose, he’s out there, he’s in here: and lives on in all who make up “the Body of Christ.” Including you and me.
The story of Emmaus, the Easter afterglow- is our story. Jesus has been with us long enough to teach us how to follow; how to care as he did, to love as he did, and to reach out as he did (even under locked doors.)
May we trust those fingers under the doors, and trust each other to be led by the One who loves us all- and asks us to follow with faith, mercy and care. In Jesus’ name. Amen.