Summary: The disciples’ walk to emmaus begins a developing Experience of Christ - Heart-Breaking at his death but when Jesus joins them it becomes Heart-Searching and ends as Heart-Burning Experience.
I read about a minister who was given the honour of preaching at an important meeting of his denomination. Just before he was to start his sermon he was seen to be looking anxiously around the congregation. The chairman whispered to him, "What’s the problem? Is there someone here who’s heard the sermon before?" "No," replied the minister, "I was looking to see if there’s anybody who hasn’t heard it before!" How embarrassing! I’m in a slightly similar position, because at Easter, it’s almost certain you’ve all heard a sermon based on what happened on the road to Emmaus - although not from me!
It’s a story worth repeating again and again because it’s at the very heart of the Gospel. It highlights the living hope found only in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. St Paul wrote to his friends at Corinth, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead" (1 Cor 15:19,20). But on that first Easter day that living hope was far from being established in the experience of the two people we read of in the New Testament lesson (Luke 24:13-35). Let’s put ourselves in their shoes as they set out on the seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It was a:
Have you ever noticed that some of the saddest words in our language begin with the letter D? For example, disappointment, doubt, disillusionment, defeat, despair and death. All of these are summed up in the words of Cleopas and his companion to the stranger who joined them on the Emmaus road. They had left the dispirited and confused band of disciples with the events of Good Friday fresh in their memories. We can sympathize with their bewilderment.
The Master they had revered, loved and followed had been horribly put to death - a cruel death of the most degrading kind. Death by crucifixion was the most shameful of deaths; the victim was made a public spectacle, exposed to the jeers of all that passed by. Only a week before, on Palm Sunday, the disciples’ hopes had risen to fever pitch when the excited crowds had hailed their Master as the longed-for deliverer from the tyranny of Roman occupation but now he lay dead in a sealed tomb! Their hopes were dashed; the dream was over!
The band of Jesus’ followers was leaderless and was falling apart, with two of them already on their way home. The reports that Christ’s tomb was empty did nothing to alter their thinking; it only confused them. Their entire world had come apart. The two despondent disciples summed up the situation very neatly, "we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel."
Human hope is a fragile thing, and when it withers it’s difficult to revive. Hopelessness as a disease of the human spirit is desperately hard to cure. When you see someone you love and care for overtaken by illness, which goes on, and on, despair sets in. It almost becomes impossible to hope for recovery, to be even afraid to hope because of not being able to cope with another letdown.
The Emmaus Two had erected a wall of hopelessness around them, and they were trapped in their misery. "We had hoped ..." What they were saying is "We don’t expect it now, but once we did. We had it, this thing called hope, but now it’s gone." I wonder if this is something that we can identify with? Has something or someone come between our relationship with God? If so, listen to the Emmaus story because the heart-breaking experience is only its beginning!
As the travellers made their weary way to Emmaus a stranger fell alongside them. It was going to be one of the most wonderful walks in history! We know, of course, that it was the risen Jesus, but somehow they didn’t recognize him. In fact Luke tells us "they were kept from recognizing him." It wasn’t an accident that they didn’t notice who he is or that they were too preoccupied to look at him in the eye. No, they weren’t allowed to recognize Jesus for a purpose. It was so that they might be in the same position as ourselves some 2,000 years later.
Visual appearances of Jesus ceased at his Ascension. They are not granted to us. Like the two on the road we have to make do with other people’s testimony that Jesus has risen from the dead. Like them we don’t know quite what to make of it. Did it really happen? What precisely happened? How could it have happened? A few years ago the controversial former bishop of Durham, England asked, "Is the Resurrection the result of a conjuring trick with bones?" We have to make up our minds as to what we believe.