Two downtrodden disciples walk out of Jerusalem on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). The past few years of their lives feel like a complete waste of time. The man on whom they banked their hopes and futures was crucified. Dreams of God’s triumph, justice and restoration, smashed as their Lord hung up on a cross slowly suffocating. Where did his power go? Were his words really true? Will they too be hunted down as criminals? Guilty by association? And so they walked away from Jerusalem. Bewildered. Beaten down. Lost.
I think this is why the road to Emmaus sings to me, and why it might be my favorite passage. Ever have those moments where you’ve fallen flat on your face and you wonder where God went? Thought you were following God only to have Him seemingly disappear? Encountered disappointing defeat that makes you feel you’ve been following a fraud? And in response, found yourself trudging on whatever road you can find on your flight out of where you’re called to be?
I have. So did these two disciples.
Then, on the road to Emmaus, someone meets these two dejected disciples. Jesus himself comes to them, though they’re kept from recognizing Jesus. Is it because they’re too caught up in their fears and worries? They’ve bought into all the reasons why Jesus as Messiah doesn’t make sense, so they can’t see Jesus in front of them.
And so they walk on, feeling lost and adrift from Jesus, even as Jesus himself comes to meet them personally. Jesus stands next to them in this time where they feel abandoned, and they don’t recognize him.
Ever been there? I have. Those dark nights where all seems lost and lonely, but then somehow looking back, I realize Jesus was present even there.
To them, this guy seems clueless about the big news story in Jerusalem; somehow he seems befuddled by their depression over the crucifixion of Jesus. According to some women, the tomb was empty. But, these two can’t trust the women’s testimony or the witness of their other companions. That’s too much for them to hope, especially because no one saw Jesus himself.
The man then challenges their blindness as he shares with them the Scriptures. For these men, that meant the Old Testament — the law and the prophets. In talking about the Bible, he teaches them about the mission of their Messiah. A suffering, seemingly defeated Messiah is actually what the Scriptures point toward. Yes, their Lord was crucified. But, in a twist, that crucifixion signals Jesus’ words as truth. Jesus’ death leads to Jesus being glorified. Jesus’ suffering and death aren’t the last words. Jesus is a suffering Messiah. They can’t gloss over or skip over that. Jesus’ suffering does not make him powerless or weak, rather it is the sign that he is exactly who he claimed to be.
As they arrived at their destination and evening approached, they urged the man to stay with them. They still didn’t recognize him, but there was something about him that made them hesitant to let him go.
And Jesus stayed with them — though they still don’t know him or understand his mission. He continued with them and taught them.
As they ate together that evening, Jesus took the bread, broke it and gave thanks. A switch gets flipped in the disciples, and suddenly, they recognize Jesus. The blinders fall from their eyes, and they see Jesus. And as quickly as they can recognize Jesus, he disappears from their sight.
Faith feels a bit like that for me. As soon as I feel Jesus within my grasp, suddenly he seems elusive. Jesus seems tangibly present, and then that feeling disappears.
Having seen Jesus, the disciples rediscover hope and courage. Racing back to Jerusalem, they’re eager to tell the rest of their companions how Jesus met them on the road to Emmaus. They tell what he taught them and how they could finally recognize Jesus when he broke the bread in front of them.
Two dejected disciples learn to recognize Jesus present with them as they engage with the Scriptures and participate in the breaking of bread. So, too, for us, how do we learn to see Jesus with us? Engaging with the Bible and at the communion table.
Jesus talks through Moses and the prophets with these disciples. He reiterates the big story of what God has been up to in Israel’s story, and how the crucified Jesus is the hope that God has promised. Likewise, for us, paying attention to the Biblical story — whether we’re reading it, dialoguing with it in community, or listening to teaching on it — helps us learn what we can expect from Jesus. We learn what God wants to do in the world and in us. We start to get God’s mission. And engaging with God’s story transforms us. In the midst of defeat and triumph, of sorrow and joy, of brokenness and healing, we learn to recognize how Jesus is working in our story. We gather strength to withstand defeat and hope that we are not actually abandoned — even when all other evidence makes us wonder where God has gone.
Engaging Scripture by itself didn’t cause the disciples to see Jesus. Something happened with the breaking of bread. On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and broke it before the disciples. Jesus took simple everyday items — bread and wine — to remind his followers of his purpose and their hope.
And my tradition tends to hold celebration of communion as a symbolic act. We remember what Jesus has done through those symbols. What if communion is more than just a reminder of the Jesus story? What if it helps to see Jesus present with us? Present with us in what seems like loss or defeat. Present with us as we step out in that giant leap of faith. Present with us even as we wrestle doubt. Teaching us even as we think we’ve been abandoned and shipwrecked.
Here’s what stands out most to me in the road to Emmaus: Jesus’ commitment to his followers. These two aren’t positive examples. They reject the witness of their friends back in Jerusalem. They just can’t believe that the women could be right or that their companions’ suggestions that Jesus is alive could be true. They can’t trust. And so they leave. Feeling beaten. Feeling disappointed with the Jesus they followed. After all those years together, Jesus didn’t usher in the hope they expected. Jesus didn’t act the way they thought their Messiah should. Jesus seemed like a failure to them. Disappointment and disillusionment crept in. Have they wasted their lives on this Jesus guy? Can God be defeated by humans? Was Jesus even who he claimed to be?
As they walk, full of doubt and despair, Jesus meets them. He teaches them, yet again. And he doesn’t leave them while they ask their questions. Even as they don’t recognize him, he stays and continues to teach. He stays until their eyes are opened. Jesus is faithful to them. And eventually, their eyes are opened to Jesus.
Likewise for us, Jesus is faithful to us. Jesus still pursues you and me. He wants to teach us, to open our eyes — even when (or especially when) we’re in the midst of disappointment. Jesus dialogues with doubt, instead of running from it. And in the midst of the conversation, Jesus is fully capable of defending himself and revealing himself. It may not happen on a quick or instantaneous time table. It might take a lifetime. But, will we still try to hang in with the journey? Will we be honest with our doubts — whether it is only within ourselves or with a trusted friend? And will we still engage the Scriptures and meet at the communion table — whether we come full of confidence or full of questions?