Two weeks ago, we heard Matthew’s story of the women at the empty tomb. The women were grief-stricken at Jesus’ horrible death. Jesus appeared to them. But they were not at first able to recognize Jesus. Only over the course of the story did Mary realize that Christ was alive and speaking to her.
Last week we heard John’s story of Doubting Thomas. Jesus appeared to the other apostles, but Thomas could not believe that they had seen the Lord. Only over the course of the story did Thomas realize that Christ was alive and could speak to him.
Today, we hear Luke’s story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus. And once again we have disciples who are unable to accept the good news of resurrection. And once again, they come to realize that Christ is indeed alive and that Christ is speaking to them over the course of the story.
All three stories, from three different gospels, describe disciples moving from disbelief and despair to the joy of encountering their risen Lord.
That is the good news of Easter.
Now, it may seem like the disciples should have known better. After all, Jesus had told them, several times(!), that he would die and then rise again. But they had a hard time believing Jesus’ promises, and so they got discouraged.
And we are exactly the same.
Jesus tells us that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is present. Jesus tells us that he will be with us always, to the end of the age. Jesus tells us that he has defeated sin and death. Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is coming. Jesus tells us all that.
And yet, like the disciples, we have a hard time really holding on to those promises. And, like the disciples, as a consequence, we suffer fear and grief and pain and hopelessness.
The good news of these resurrection stories is that Jesus appears to people a lot like us, people who struggle even when they should know better. When we hear about the struggles of the disciples, we are hearing about our own struggles. And when we hear about their breakthroughs, those moments when they suddenly come to understand and to know that Christ is alive, we are hearing God’s invitation to us, God’s invitation to rejoice in the knowledge that Christ is alive, that Christ is here, that Christ is at work in our world.
As we hear the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus on that first Easter morning, we are hearing our story.
And the lesson this story teaches is about learning to see Jesus, who is right in front of us the whole time.
The first bit is funny to me. Cleopas asks Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days…how our chief priests and leaders handed [Jesus] over to be condemned to death and crucified him”? Thankfully, Jesus is patient!
The next bit is poignant. Cleopas continues, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Had hoped. Now they are done with hoping. Even after hearing the report of the women about the empty tomb, they couldn’t believe. They are like Thomas, but worse. At least Thomas stuck around. These two have left the city and all their companions. Their faith has collapsed.
So Jesus leads them back to faith.
Jesus starts with Scripture. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
That teaches us something important. The Bible is a powerful tool for increasing our faith.
That is worth emphasizing. Biblical literacy is low in our country, and getting lower. And it is no coincidence that where biblical literacy is low, Church attendance is down, and fewer people claim a deep and personal relationship with God.
We are doing our best to buck that trend. I am proud of the amount of Bible study we do here at Saint David’s, and I know many of you do more Bible study on your own. That is really important. We all need to know our story, the story of God’s work of redemption for all of creation.
And as we read Scripture, we come to know Jesus better.
It doesn’t happen every time, of course. Sometimes our eyes are kept from recognizing Jesus. Sometimes we are slow of heart. Sometimes a passage seems hopelessly obscure or irrelevant or downright unpleasant. I often wish Jesus would open the Scriptures to me as he does to them. I have LOTS of questions.
But even though we sometimes struggle, we keep reading, and we keep looking for Jesus, because that is how our faith is renewed. And if we can’t find Jesus in one passage, we don’t need to worry about it. We move on. Maybe next time we will see more in that passage.
And every once in a while, as we read, as we discuss, as we listen, our hearts burn within us because God speaks right to us in those ancient words. And in those moments we are in the presence of our risen Lord, and our faith is renewed, and we are given strength to carry on.
That is a good reason to keep reading!
But Scripture alone is normally not enough. At least, it wasn’t for the disciples that day. Their hearts burned within them as Jesus spoke. But their eyes were not opened until Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them. When they saw Jesus doing what he must have done with them so many times, what he did on the last night of his life, what we do in remembrance of him every Sunday, then it all came together. Then they understood that they were in the very presence of the risen Christ. Then they experienced the renewal that they needed.
And that is a reminder, if we need it, about the importance of worship and the importance of sacrament as a way of growing in our faith. We gather each week in Christ’s name to praise God and to share Eucharist. And in some mysterious way, God’s grace touches us, and we are nourished, and we are renewed.
A third lesson comes at the very end. Jesus himself vanishes. And immediately Cleopas and his companion set out for Jerusalem. The hour is late, and they have already walked miles. But somehow they know they need to join with their brothers and sisters in Christ, they need to experience themselves as part of the body of Christ, they need to experience the continuing presence of the one who is with us every time we gather in his name.
At last, enlightened by Scripture, nourished by the sacrament, united with others in the name of Christ, empowered by the Spirit of their risen Lord, they are ready. Ready for mission. Ready for whatever Christ calls them to do.
We do the things we do as Christians—we study Scripture, and we worship God, and we join with others in Christ’s name—not because we have it all together, but because that is how we get it together. In this passage, Jesus is showing us the way to faith and life and joy.
May our eyes be opened to the one who stands before us, inviting us into deeper life with God. In his name. Amen.