The Walk to Emmaus

Sermon preached by Fr Tom Hurcombe
on Sunday 26th April 2020 (Third Sunday of Easter)
Acts 2.14a,36–41; Psalm 116.1–3,10–end; 1 Peter 1.17–23; Luke 24.13–35

In our gospel today, two of Jesus’ followers are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, reflecting on the events of the last few days.

It’s Easter Day, they’ve already experienced Jesus’ trial, death and burial on Friday, and today, Sunday, some women have been to visit what is now an empty tomb, met by a vision of angels telling them that Jesus is risen.  Terrified, they rushed back to tell the other disciples, who don’t believe them!

These two just don’t know what to make of what’s happened.  They’re joined by a stranger; we’re told he’s Jesus, though they can’t see that.  He asks what they’re talking about.  This stops them in their tracks; they’re sad.  One of them, Cleopas (which is the masculine form of the name ‘Cleopatra’, and not the same as ‘Clopas’, whose wife, Mary, is one of the women), suggests the stranger must be the only visitor to Jerusalem (for Passover) who doesn’t know what’s been happening.  So, Cleopas fills him in.  How disappointed they are, that they thought he was ‘the One’.  That he’d save – liberate, redeem – Israel (from the Romans?).  Though some women went to his tomb that morning and found it empty, and had a vision of angels who told them he was risen, but didn’t see Jesus ….

What does it all mean?  Now it’s the stranger’s turn: ‘Oh, how foolish you are not to understand what’s going on.’  So, he puts them straight, explaining how the whole Old Testament anticipates Jesus, and the events of the last few days – his suffering, death and now, resurrection.

Just then they arrive at their home, and in spite of the stranger’s protests, invite him to stay, because it’s getting late.  Then, unusually, when they sit down to eat, the stranger takes over, as though he’s the host.  He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Exactly the same words used to describe Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper!

Wow!  Whatever has prevented them from recognising Jesus, falls away.

No sooner do they recognise him than he disappears.

Then, in spite of the time, they rush back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

‘Were not our hearts burning within us
while he was talking to us on the road,
while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (v. 32)

they say.  Back in Jerusalem, they learn that Simon too has now seen the risen Jesus.  The resurrection is true!   They share their story:

‘how he had been made known to them
in the breaking of the bread.’ (v. 35)

Luke is a consummate story-teller; look at how he shares Jesus’ parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  His Greek is more sophisticated than the other three evangelists; and he can write in more than one style, particularly imitating, consciously or unconsciously, the ‘Semitic’ Greek of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint (LXX) translated about 200 years before Jesus, and was the Bible of the early Christians. Luke, like the other evangelists uses the Septuagint to frame his story of Jesus, and is full of quotes from it, and allusions to it; but because of his use of the language of that Bible, it’s almost as though Luke doesn’t so much quote it, as add another book to that collection.

In this story the most powerful image for me is the incredible irony, comedy almost, of Cleopas, unknowingly, actually telling the risen Jesus how ill-informed and wrong he is about what’s been happening!   Perhaps we all harbour notions of putting God right about a few things….

We identify with these two characters in today’s story because we understand, perhaps share, their doubts and uncertainties, their hopes and disappointments.

Go to the website to see the Velázquez painting of a black maid serving our pilgrims, and Denise Levertov’s poem about her recognising Jesus before the pilgrims.

But it is the plight of the pilgrims on the road that I want to come back to.  And they are pilgrims – on the Way, on the road with Jesus.  In Acts, also written by Luke, Christianity is described as ‘the Way’ (Acts 9:2) – a pilgrim walking with Jesus, as our pilgrims do.

Nicholas Lash, who was a Cambridge Theology professor, called one of his books ‘Theology on the Way to Emmaus’, because, he suggests, these two pilgrims are us; that we are pilgrims on the road, and we share their doubts and uncertainties, as well as their joy.

George Steiner, another Cambridge academic, in his book ‘Real Presences’ has a passage about the three days, as part of Western culture, not only for Christians, that talks about us all living in ‘Saturday’ – between the despair of (Good) Friday and the hope of (Easter) Sunday.

But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the drama of liberation, of rebirth on the other.*

It has a certain echo in today’s gospel, though the days seem different. It’s the (late) afternoon of Sunday and the two disciples haven’t caught up with the implications of events that Morning – they are still in (Holy) Saturday.  Such is being pilgrims on the road, on the way, to Emmaus.

That we still break bread, as Jesus did, and have for 2,000 years doesn’t actually prove anything, but is evidence itself of the Resurrection.

And here, in this Eucharist, in spite of our present limitations about meeting, and ‘virtual’ and Real Presences, we have a taste of that moment at the table in Emmaus: that the risen Jesus is made know to us ‘in the breaking of the bread.’

* The full Steiner quote:

George Steiner, Real Presences, Faber, 1989, p 231 (the closing paragraphs of his book).

There is one particular day in Western history about which neither histor­ical record nor myth nor Scripture make report. It is a Saturday. And it has become the longest of days. We know of Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross. But the non-Christian, the atheist, knows of it as well. That is to say that he knows of the injustice, of the in­terminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up not only the historical dimension of the human condi­tion, but the everyday fabric of our personal lives. We know, ineluctably, of the pain, of the failure of love, of the solitude which are our history and private fate. We also know about Sunday. To the Christian, that day signi­fies an intimation, both assured and precarious, both evident and beyond comprehension, of resurrection, of a justice and love that have conquered death. If we are non-Christians or non-believers, we know of that Sunday in precisely analogous terms. We conceive of it as the day of liberation from inhumanity and servitude. We look to resolutions, be they therapeu­tic or political, be they social or messianic. The lineaments of that Sunday carry the name of hope (there is no word less deconstructible).

But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the drama of liberation, of rebirth on the other. In the face of the torture of a child, of the death of love which is Friday, even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless. In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer has logic or necessity. The apprehensions and figurations in the play of meta­physical imagining, in the poem and the music, which tell of pain and of hope, of the flesh which is said to taste of ash and of the spirit which is said to have the savour of fire, are always Sabbatarian. They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?

Steiner was a secular Jew, whose family left Germany for Paris, and then for America.  He was educated in Europe and Oxford, where he was famously refused a PhD. He was a philosopher, and literary critic who wrote about the fact that people in Germany in the war could listen to Bach with their families in the evening and then go and work in a concentration camp in the morning.  He particularly introduced continental scholars such as Heidegger to Britain.

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