Luke tells us it is about 7 miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. I do a lot of walking, about 4 miles whenever I go out. I takes me about an hour. That’s trying to walk fast, though, trying to work up a sweat. So, walking at a normal pace, with practice, 7 miles is doable. If we live an active life, some of us might get close and not even realize it. The distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus is not the problem . . . but that’s not the only journey Cleopas and his friend are on.
They are also traveling between despair and faith. These two travelers are taking a journey from “We had hoped” (vs. 21) to “weren’t our hearts on fire?” It’s a journey we all must take. We all must take a walk from despair to faith, from dashed hopes to inspired lives, from lost to found. By looking more closely at this story, we find a roadmap from making that trip.
Why did Luke include this story? We can read from verse 12 to verse 36 – leaving out the Emmaus story – and barely miss a beat. It’s almost as if Luke has inserted a story in another story. Maybe he wanted to remind all of us – even those not in Jesus’ inner circle, the average believers as opposed to the more important disciples – that Jesus has risen for us, too.
If we examine the story, it becomes a kind of allegory for the faith journey. We see the path that we all must take.
Luke 24:13-35 (CEB)
13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him.
17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.
18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”
19 He said to them, “What things?”
They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. 20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.
28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead.29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”
33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” 35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.
The journey from despair to faith sometimes begins with an argument. That’s what the two men were doing. The English translation makes it sound like they were two professors rationally discussing a lecture that had recently heard. In Greek, the words used for “discussing” and “talking about” were words usually describing sermons (homileo) or debates (antiballette; “to place against”). This was no “small talk,” or calm conversation. They were not talking about the weather. Cleopas and his friend were preaching and debating what had happened in Jerusalem. By using these words, Luke tells us that this was a sermon designed to persuade, and argument with a “winner” and a “loser.”
They were emotionally and powerfully laying out their points, trying to convince each other of what had happened. Totally engrossed in this debate and sermon, they do not even notice a man approach; they don’t even notice that he is the very man they were preaching and debating about. (Maybe they’d never actually seen Jesus? Only heard of him?)
When Jesus arrives, I like to imagine him describing the discussion like any good Southerner would – “What in the world were y’all fussing about!?” I also like to imagine Cleopas responding like any of us might, “Are you serious? What rock have you been living under?”
Cleopas and his friend, like many of us, were “fussing” about their faith – struggling to hang on to what they believed just a few days ago. Less than a week ago (Luke says “On that same day” – Easter day!), they had high hopes. But, hopes get dashed, especially in the real world. Dreams we have for ourselves or for our families, for our jobs or for our security, fall to the wayside as reality takes over.
The two travelers had hoped Jesus would be the one to take their people out of oppression, lift the burden of Roman rule. “We had hoped . . .” How many times have any of us said those words? Some of the saddest in all of scripture – certainly some of the saddest in all of human experience. “We had hoped . . .”
This is grief. This is loss. This is something that human beings feel on a regular basis, if we are honest with themselves. Plans we have for the future are lost with the death of a loved one, lost in the limitations of life, lost when other people make other choices. Grief and loss are part of life.
Cleopas and his friend, furthermore, can’t believe that the answer might be better than they ever imagine. “But there’s more,” they say, “some women in our group have left us stunned.” Earlier in the chapter, verse 11, Luke uses the word “nonsense” to describe the women’s report. (NRSV uses the phrase “idle tale”) Guess what? The Greek means more! It is a physician’s term (remember, Luke was a physician) for “delirious babblings of very sick people.”
Into this grief-stricken sermon and debate, Jesus arrives. Once again, I think Jesus was a Southerner, because what CEB translates as “You foolish people!” is actually a term of endearment. It’s like Jesus was saying “Bless your heart. Don’t you know . . .”
How did Jesus minister to these grieving men? By explaining the Scriptures. He showed them that God had been working on all this since the time of the Old Testament prophets – even since the days of Moses!
Jesus teaches them a lesson we can all learn. When lost in grief, trapped in despair, Scriptures show us the way out. Jesus doesn’t try to move too quickly past their pain, like we do sometimes, but dives right in. Walks with them, enters their “sermon and debate,” and wrestles with the pain along with them.
Part of what we learn from this journey from despair to faith is that often despair must come before faith. The heart that is broken by pain and confusion often comes before the heart that is burning with passion and calling.
The heart that is broken by pain and confusion often comes before the heart that is burning with passion and calling.
A broken heart is not the end of the journey, but the beginning. We cannot be human without experiencing pain, without suffering a broken heart. It is to us broken-hearted disciples that Christ comes.
When he comes, Jesus teaches in a way that we can understand (through Scripture and debate?). He shows us his presence in the Bread and Wine of Communion. He uses our worship to set us on fire! Jesus takes our broken hearts and makes them burn!