The disciples were devastated. They’d been through the horrors of Jesus’ crucifixion, the ongoing threat to their own safety and the utter uncertainty of their futures, and now they were finding themselves displaced, both physically and emotionally.
Specifically, in today’s Gospel reading two of them had set out on a day-long trip to leave Jerusalem and head toward Emmaus, a town about 7 miles from Jerusalem. There they’d be out of the fray, safe from the threat of arrest, in a place where they could begin rebuilding their lives little by little.
And as they walked they processed with each other all the details of the situation they’d just endured. And as they traveled they ran into another man on the road to Emmaus. He was drawn into their conversation, as it had an intensity that was hard to ignore, and he traveled along with them. The man walking with them had not heard of the events of days past—unthinkable!—so they filled him in and lamented over and over: “We had thought he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
Two travelers, just Cleopas and his companion. Perhaps the reason one remains unidentified is to allow us to insert our own name into the story. Cleopas and David or Debbie or Jim or Mary or Bob or Stan, out on the road, going to Emmaus.
They were religious people, just like us, having walked the several hours to Jerusalem a few days before. With a real sense of excitement, they had gone to the holy city - obviously for the Passover, an event no good Jew could miss; but also to be near Jesus, one whom they had come to look on as Israel's deliverer, the Messiah. But now they were going home...dejected, depressed, defeated.
As they walked, they talked. Probably some about mundane things - taxes too high, wages too low, kids too hard to control - but more probably about their friend, Jesus - his teaching, his healing, the way he seemed to love everyone he met. Suddenly, Cleopas and you are not alone. Someone is walking along with you.
They stop dead in their tracks. Why are you so sad, the stranger says? And they respond, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?"
Cleopas and you begin to describe the events that have made them so heavy of heart - their despair at the loss of someone who had personified their hope for the future. Along with their sadness, they recounted that strange story they had heard from some women friends about an empty tomb, a vision of angels, and a risen Lord. Oh, if only...
Maybe Cleopas and you do not believe the report of resurrection? An intriguing thought, but probably wishful thinking. More likely, grave robbers. Otherwise, why not stay in the city to see if Jesus truly was raised?
But the lesson says, "they were kept from recognizing him." "And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself." And as he talks, a glimmer of hope begins to warm their hearts.
Did Cleopas and you understand? Not quite. But now you have arrived in Emmaus. The afternoon had gone too quickly; you did not want your conversation to end. "Friend, can you stay for a bite of dinner? We do not have much - just some bread and wine - but we would love to have you. Won't you stay, please?" It is only when Jesus takes the bread and breaks it, blessing God and giving it to you that your eyes are opened and you recognize him. Then, as quickly as you realize he is here, Jesus vanishes.
At every turn, Cleopas and I miss the point. We think we know where Jesus is - dead and buried. We are not prepared for a risen Lord, who walks with us along a common road and speaks to us of common things. Finally, it is in the most commonplace action of all - the breaking of bread in an ordinary meal - that it dawns on them who this is.
What is it that keeps their eyes from recognizing Jesus, the one whom we would think they would yearn to see more than anyone in the world? The answer is as simple as they did not EXPECT to see him. Even if the rumors of resurrection are true, Jesus will surely come in with a company of angels. The last thing they expect to see is a Lord who overtakes them on a dusty country road. They are not prepared for the Christ of the commonplace.
I suspect not many of us are, most of the time. Is the problem simply that we have left Jesus in the tomb? In other words, where life is most often really lived - we are content to go it alone. The risen, living Lord we leave back in the tomb, as Cleopas and his companion thought they had left Jesus buried body in Jerusalem.
True, we summon him when things begin to get difficult. We fall on our knees when life begins to crush us down. But the message of the Emmaus Road is that the Lord is with us even when we do not expect him.
As you walk along the road, talking about all the things that have come to pass - participating in the business of living - keep your eyes open. You just may glimpse, out of the corner of your eye, a stranger overtaking you. At first you may not recognize him; but then you will sense a growing warmth, as your heart begins to burn within you. And then comes the moment, magnificent and unexpected, when you see who it is. He will vanish out of your sight. He always does. That is his way. Yet you will know he is always with you.