Friends I stand here before you today to proclaim this good news: “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” We have all had our moments of the worst thing. The thing we never thought we could recover from. The death. The end of a relationship. The loss of a job we were counting on. The diagnosis. The worst thing.
I’ve certainly had mine. In the spring five years ago I was absolutely drowning deep in my own worst thing when another UCC pastor shared this quote from Frederick Buechner: “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” I grabbed onto that idea like a life preserver. And that is the word for us today as we take a walk on the road to Emmaus with a couple followers of Jesus: Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing. Let us listen now for the word and wisdom of God in this story from the book of Luke, chapter 24, verses 13 through 35.
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Last week I told you that an empty tomb is ambiguous evidence for resurrection. But it is an excellent invitation to trust. An empty tomb is enough to open our mind to hopeful possibilities, but it has to be cemented by a personal encounter with the Risen Jesus. And that’s what happens in the story this morning. For some of you this story may be brand new, and others of you have heard it more times than you can remember. This morning I invite you to let this story surprise you. Today we are going to simply live in the story, listening for a fresh word, and possibly seeing ourselves in it.
So let’s set the scene. It’s still the first day of the week. We know it’s the same day as the Resurrection although the followers of Jesus don’t yet really know what to do with what they’ve heard. The women have received the news from the angels, they’ve shared it with the rest of Jesus’ followers, and Peter has seen the empty tomb. But nobody has seen actually Jesus. And people have regular life to do. So two people set off from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We don’t now know where Emmaus is, but the story says it’s about 7 miles away from Jerusalem.
Who are these folks? They are Cleopas and a companion. Very likely it’s his wife and since another story refers to a couple named Clopas and Mary, we’re going to call her Mary. Because everyone in a story deserves a name. Cleopas and Mary are probably going home. They are disciples of Jesus and have been in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They came happy and excited. Barely a week ago, they were waving palm branches, singing “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” as Jesus entered the city. And they were there when everything fell apart. Possibly they even stood beneath the cross. They are close enough to the Jesus movement to be among those who heard the testimony of the women, and of Peter. But the Passover Festival is over, and Jesus is dead, and “regular life” looms large. So they head home.
BUT they can’t get all of this out of their heads! And who could? The whiplash of emotions has left them reeling. So as they walk along, they talk. When humans experience confusing tragedy, we often have a desperate need to talk about it, to try to make sense out of it. Question: What is that thing in your life that you need to talk about, but haven’t?
So Cleopas and Mary are talking and when a Stranger joins them and asks what they are talking about, here’s what they tell him: We are talking about Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in word and deed, before God and all the people.
Nobody ever forgets where Jesus came from. He never gets away from the stigma of his birthplace, never loses the accent. But Luke has another reason for reminding us of Nazareth. It’s also where Jesus announced his ministry, that the day of the Lord’s release had arrived, and got such a dramatic reaction from his audience. When he declared that the Kingdom of God was for the right people and the wrong people, the right people tried to kill him. Now here, near the end of this book, after people have actually succeeded in killing Jesus, Luke wants us to remember how it all started and so he mentions Nazareth. It all fits together.
This Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet – one who has come in the long tradition of calling the people to their true identity as those loved by God and commissioned by God to be a blessing to the world. Prophets are bad news for the religious and political establishment. They issue clear warnings about what natural consequences people will bring on themselves if they try to choose an identity other than the one God has already given them. Question How do you feel about the identity God has given you?
Jesus was mighty in word and deed. His teachings were as powerful as his actions. What was his teaching? Well in his inaugural speech at Nazareth he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed be released, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Language straight out of the Old Testament prophets, but Jesus got in trouble because he declared that this release wasn’t only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. The folks in Nazareth had never heard such teaching before.
The book of First Corinthians says that the gospel comes not only with words of wisdom but with a demonstration of Spirit and power. With his words, Jesus promised reward for those who risk releasing and being released. With his actions, Jesus demonstrated God’s release. The blind received sight, the lame walked, those who had leprosy were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, and the good news was proclaimed to the poor. Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet, mighty in word and deed.
And somewhere along the way, Jesus’ ministry captured the hearts of Cleopas and Mary. They followed Jesus, and loved him so much that they just couldn’t let him go. Maybe as they were walking along, before they met the Stranger, they were sharing their memories of Jesus, like we do at a wake. “Remember when he brought that poor widow’s son back to life in front of the whole town?” “Yes, and what about that time he healed that hunchbacked woman on the Sabbath?!” “I loved his stories, especially the one about the Rich Man and Lazarus.” “My favorite is the one about prayer, where the mean judge wouldn’t pay attention to the widow. Nevertheless she persisted, and finally got justice.” “Remember how he always compared the Kingdom of God to a fabulous banquet?” “I wish we could had eaten with him one more time.”
Unfortunately these aren’t their only memories, so when the Stranger asks what has happened, they also tell him how everything went so horribly wrong, so fast. The elders and chief priests had enough of this teaching about God’s welcome and release. It didn’t fit their agenda and it threatened their power. So when they got the chance, they took it. They condemned him, our innocent teacher and friend. They condemned him to death. And they crucified him.
Mary may have been one of the women who stood at the cross. Have you ever sat a death watch for someone you love? Wondering if the breath he just took was the last one. Holding your own breath as you wait for the next one. Crying and not crying and not knowing why you switch from one to the other. Silently holding the others who have also come to bear witness to this moment. Mary had done that before with elders: her parents and grandparents and the pillars of her community. But Jesus was too young! His death was too awful! Too public! The moment when we cross the veil should be reverent. But people were mocking him, and shaming him! And yet, she stayed. The women stayed, even though their hearts were breaking. When the emotion was overwhelming and there’s nothing left to fix, the women stayed.
Mary and Cleopas, their hearts are broken not only because their friend died, but because their hope died. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” The one to finally rescue us from Roman occupation. The one to put us back on top. The one to prove us right. Our Messiah. But obviously he wasn’t, because now he’s dead. Everyone knows you can’t kill the real Messiah, they killed Jesus, erego Jesus is not the real Messiah. Just one more in a long line of people who got our hopes up. We really thought he was different, but apparently not. Their only vision, their only hope, their only dream for how the world can change was for Israel to be redeemed in the way they expected. Question: What is the area in your life where you’ve limited yourself to only one solution?
Yes, and besides all this, if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also THIS! It’s been three days. Cleopas and Mary may be remembering something in the back of their minds, something Jesus may have said about three days. But three days is enough time for reality to set in. This is how things are now. And yet, this morning, some of the women in our group went to the tomb and came back with news that astounded us. That word “astounded” means knocked off our feet, flabbergasted, and at a total loss as to how to explain it. We are overwhelmed, confused, grieving, scared, and we have no idea what to think … so we’re just going home.
How does this stranger respond? Some of us grew up hearing a Mean Pirate Voice in the Bible. “Oh how foolish you arrrrre!” This morning would you let God free you from that Mean Pirate Voice? Let Jesus be who he says he is. If my friends were hurting and sad and confused, even if I knew something they didn’t, I would not in that moment tell them they were stupid! And one thing I know for sure is that Jesus is way nicer than I am. So let’s hear that differently.
The Stranger says to them, “Oh you guys. You are hurting so much you don’t even remember what you’ve heard before.” Maybe this Stranger is also a follower of Jesus, and Cleopas and Mary had just never met him, because he remembers things. He reminds them that Jesus had said “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Also he said “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” And even that same morning, the angels had encouraged the women, “Remember how he told you that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. And the women remembered and returned and told all the rest.” The answer was already there! Cleopas and Mary could have seen this coming seven miles away! But this highly intelligent and patient Stranger goes further, laying out the whole Old Testament and showing how it points to Jesus.
Now obviously, we are in on the secret. We know who this Stranger is. But the story is so good because Cleopas and Mary still don’t know who this Stranger is! Question: What is the area of your life where God is absolutely at work and you just don’t recognize it yet?
We don’t know how long this conversation lasts, but it takes at least two hours to walk seven miles. They arrive at Emmaus and the Stranger starts to keep going. But Cleopas and Mary have that quick silent conversation with their eyes that can only be done by couples who have been together for many years. “Should we? Yes. Ok.” And out loud they say, “No friend, stay with us. Yes of course, we insist!”
This is a bit risky for them because they’ve been gone for a while. The bathroom is not clean, nobody knows where they put the sheets for the couch, and y’all know there ain’t nothing in the fridge when you get home from vacation. But they pull together whatever food they have. So we have some peanut butter … and tuna … and bread. Some Doritos and Diet Coke. Despite their meager resources, Cleopas and Mary choose hospitality and generosity and just you watch what happens. Question: Where have you bought into the lie that what you have is not enough for God to use?
Because here comes the miracle! It’s the pattern for the eucharist slash Communion slash the Lord’s Supper, the pattern that Luke’s audience would already recognize: take, bless, break, give. These are the actions of the host of the house, Mary’s job or Cleopas’s job, not the Stranger’s job. But Jesus does it because this is what Jesus always does when he feeds people. At the feeding of the multitudes and at the last supper. Someone else provides the food and Jesus becomes the gracious host at all our tables. This is just an ordinary meal, probably a less than ordinary meal, with a guest who until a couple hours ago was a stranger. This ordinary moment becomes an extraordinary encounter with the Risen Christ.
They take the bread from the hand of this Stranger and suddenly there’s something about his eyes that reminds them of someone, and the line of his nose, and that mischievous slow grin … and HOLY MOSES, IT’S JESUS!
Cleopas and Mary leap from their seats but he’s vanished, although they swear they can still hear that familiar chuckle. With hearts that may just pound right out of their chests, they look at each other, speechless for just a moment, and then they’re both talking over each other. “Did you see that? Did you SEE that? Did you see HIM?!” Cleopas has tears running down his cheeks as he whispers over and over, “I knew it. I knew it. I just knew it.” Mary is laughing in complete delight and astonishment because Mary always laughs at seemingly inappropriate times. She looks at Cleopas and says, “My heart was burning while he was opening the Scriptures to us!”
And all of a sudden, they are fine. Their grief is gone, their confusion is gone, and they feel like so much joy and hope might just lift them right off the ground. Cleopas says, “We have to go back to Jerusalem and tell the others!” Practical Mary refills their water pouches, they cram the rest of the holy ordinary meal into their pockets, and rush back out onto the road. It’s late afternoon and they’ve already walked seven miles today. But it doesn’t matter. They don’t feel the least bit tired and they don’t even think about the fact that they might be on the road after dark. If Jesus is alive, then anything is possible, and everyone needs to hear about it.
When they rush breathless into the upper room in Jerusalem, they find everyone else in the same state of excitement. Peter has seen Jesus. The women got the message straight from angels. And Cleopas and Mary just had a two hour conversation with him. “And he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.” Jesus is alive and everything is possible. Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing. Amen.