In a room in Jerusalem, followers of Jesus gather behind closed doors, their fears intensified by events (John 20:19). They are not connected in any way with the news that had begun to percolate through the city. They are behind locked doors, because their fear was dominating their every thought, their every move.
Thomas was not with them. He was elsewhere; not bound by his fear, not huddled behind locked doors. As we heard his story last week, it may well be that he found some certainty, for himself, after the tragic events of the days around Passover. Perhaps he had moved on, back into his life. But the others were gripped by that fear, that uncertainty.
We know, from our vantage point, that those believers were gripped by fear, even though the most amazing story was being recounted, about what had happened to their leader. The tomb was empty, the body was gone. Some were saying they had seen him, alive. But the group in Jerusalem were unaware, it would seem, of any such dramatic news.
That was the case with others, too. On the road to Emmaus, two followers of Jesus lament that their hopes were shattered (Luke 24:21). They are completely unaware of the identity of the stranger who walks with them; they are caught in their own grief and despair at what they had seen happen.
They knew there had been a betrayal, and a trial; they heard the baying crowd, screaming “crucify him”, they saw a savage whipping. He was nailed to the cross, a savage torture, and they could not bear to watch any more.
He was taken down, they were told, and placed in the tomb. That was it, as far as they were concerned. The movement had ended. Their hopes were all dashed. They were out of there, leaving Jerusalem, heading to Emmaus.
So, on the road, they walk from the fateful city: shoulders stooped, cheeks moist with tears, hearts heavy with grief. A stranger falls into step alongside them. A conversation begins, halting, careful, sensitive. Their deep hopelessness is surely understood by the stranger walking with them. He is gentle. They are grief-stricken. We all know those kinds of conversations: words almost too heavy to utter, sadness from the very depths of distress and despair.
Some days earlier, Thomas had uttered prophetic words, before the critical events had occurred, when he cried, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). That speaks for how the disciples were feeling, after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. That most certainly points to how the two travellers, on the road to Emmaus, were feeling, that day, as they walked, and talked, with this enigmatic stranger. They did not know which way they were now going. They did not have any sense of joy, or anticipation, about what lay ahead.
The stranger engaged them in a way that led them back, deeper, into what they had hoped for. He talked, asked questions, shared scriptures, offered insight. They told the story, as they knew it, deep in grief, locked into the events of that terrible Friday and the grief of early morning after Sabbath (Luke 24:22-24). They could not hear, could not comprehend, the insights he offered. He pressed hard, berated them as foolish, explained what had happened (24:25-27); but deaf to his words, blind to his presence, they were caught in their unknowing.
Could this sense of fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness, be a point of connection with the story, for us for this current period? In this time of global pandemic, we are in a period of waiting, not knowing, a time of deepened fear and broken hopes. We look around and see that things are different, so, so different, now. We may be afraid for what will happen next. We do not know what is sure and certain, what is transient and passing. Life has suddenly looked so different.
The two on the road arrive at Emmaus arrive and find their home. At this point, they do something quite amazing. They reach out in hospitality, although their hearts are breaking, and they are emotionally tired and worn. As their companion prepares to walk on to his next destination, they implore this stranger—still unknown, still unrecognised to them—to stay with them, to sit at table, to share a meal (24:29).
That was the moment; that was the time, when the familiar actions pierced the darkness of their despair: he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them (24:30). He was in their home; he was guest, they were hosts. Yet he undertook the role of host: they were now in his place, his home.
And as he spoke the words, the familiar words, a recognition dawned in their minds, a hope began to be rekindled, the green shoots of joy began to grow in the midst of their grief (24:31). Could this really be? Could this be the man of Nazareth? The one on whom our hopes depended? The “prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (24:19)? Yes, the familiar words and actions indicated so. He was, indeed, alive!
It was the breaking of bread which was the transforming event; it was “then their eyes were opened”. In the ordinary and mundane world, suddenly they were aware they were in the presence of God. It was then that the relationship moved into maturity. He was back with them!
Yet at precisely at this moment of recognition, the stranger disappeared from their sight (24:31). The stranger, now known as Jesus, now encountered as risen one. Yet at this moment, they found themselves alone: alone with the certainty of their new-found faith, but together with their leader. And together with others who, in other places, at other times, would experience the same recognition: a flash of awareness, surging joy, and then the sudden disappearance.
Let us remember, then, that precisely at the moment when maturity seemed in view, when the relationship was created: Jesus disappears! Why did Jesus ‘vanish from their sight’? How disturbing that must have been for the disciples!
Perhaps this reminds us, that sooner or later, they were going to have to press on and discover the way ahead for themselves. Those two disciples needed to develop their understanding in relationship with Jesus, but they also needed to go on alone themselves. He couldn’t be around forever. It was impossible for them to hold onto the Jesus they knew.
So too, for all of us, mystical experiences come and go. Moments of assurance are often fleeting. Inspiration is short lived. But despite this, God invites us to remember, and by remembering we create new memories and new possibilities. And as this story notes, hospitality is the open door to enter into a maturity of faith and to gain an expanded vision of what is possible.
And so, at last, the story reaches its climax: not in the spiritual ecstasy of full engagement with Jesus, but rather, returning back home, approaching the gathered group of disciples, zealous to share the excitement of what they had experienced (24:33). “Hey people, look at us; we’ve been changed!! Remember what we were like when we left you? Now we are back, and look what has happened to us!!!”
So the travellers return, expecting to be the missionaries, sharing the gospel, recounting their amazing experience. Out of the darkness of grief and loss, they have moved on to a joyful encounter, to a renewed faith. That’s a sign of hope and encouragement for us, in this period of waiting, unknowing, fearing the worst, hoping for the best. There is the promise of a way out of this current scenario.
The travellers return to Jerusalem, they want to share their excitement, to share that Jesus is alive, to strategise for ways to spread that good news with others. It was time to be identifying with the needy, proclaiming the gospel, being on mission, doing ministry amongst the people.
They have experienced the mission of God, on the road to Emmaus; they know that God has intervened into the passage of history and raised from the dead the once-crucified Jesus. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”, they reflect (24:32). Overflowing with enthusiasm, they want to tell out this news for all to hear! They wanted to tell about the mission of God, at work in the world.
And yet, when they approached the group remaining in Jerusalem, the travellers find they are listening to the stories of the crowd who stayed home – and they too have experienced the mission of God, they too know that God has intervened into the passage of history and raised from the dead the once-crucified Jesus. For they, too, have seen him! (24:34). Overflowing with enthusiasm, they want to tell the travellers from Emmaus what they have experienced!
Might it be, that in these strange, unsettling times, in the midst of continuing uncertainty, in the centre of our unknowing, we might hold to this story? Might we be open to this insight: God comes to us in strange, unpredictable, mysterious ways. May Jesus be present to us, in our unknowing, and enable our eyes to recognise, our hearts to burn, our minds to comprehend. Even now, in this strange, unsettling time. Especially now, in this strange, unsettling time!
As we wait in our homes, as we hope for what will transpire, and we look with faith to the future, may there be a sense that our journey forwards in faith leads us into unexpected delights and enabling encounters, which lead us on to daunting, unforeseen pathways, which become energising, enabling pathways for us all.
So go, journey, travel onwards as the people of the risen one;
in the midst of the ordinary, be attentive to the mystery;
to the opportunity of the moment, bring gifts and resources;
at the time of encounter, be open to the story;
and may the stranger that is Jesus
guide you, confront you, serve you, equip you
to go forth with God’s blessing, to love and to serve.
In the name of Christ: Amen.