Third Sunday of Eastertide
April 30, 2017
Road from Emmaus
Nobody knows for sure were the town of Emmaus was. This much Luke tells us: it was seven miles from Jerusalem. Not much of a commute by modern standards, but for people on foot it would have seemed a safe distance from the heartbreak and chaos of Holy Week. And nobody knows this for sure, either, but it’s a good bet that Emmaus was home for at least one of the people in this story.
My guess is, it was Cleopas whose home was in Emmaus. I figure he was going home disgusted, heartbroken, fed up. I think Cleopas had had it up to here with Jerusalem and everybody in it. He’d seen his fellow Jews pushed around by Roman soldiers and their dignity insulted every day. He’d watched Jesus, the man he respected more than anyone he’d ever met, strung up on a cross like a rag doll. He’d watched religious leaders behave like jealous children, and grown men who’d promised to follow Jesus to the death cut and run at the first sight of trouble.
All that had happened within and just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. I think Cleopas was glad to get away from there.
And if I may say such a thing from the pulpit, I think Cleopas had had it up to here with God, too. Like a good Jew, Cleopas had been raised to trust in God. God will deliver you from the hand of the enemy. God will restore the fortunes of Israel. God will never let you go. That’s what he’d been taught to believe.
And when Jesus came along, Cleopas saw all of those promises coming true. To hear Jesus tell it, the Kingdom of God was in the air like the smell of rain after a long drought. It was coming -- all but arrived. And when he saw those former lepers walking around with skin like a baby’s and cripples dancing about on two strong legs, Cleopas could believe that it was so. Jesus had helped him to see everything with new eyes.
But now Jesus was dead -- flogged, mocked, pierced, and dead. God had him going there for a while, but Cleopas had gotten God’s cruel joke. Things weren’t ever going to change. Life would always be this way. A long, knotted string of broken promises that leads to a grave.
Now Cleopas and his friend are on their way out of that city of despair, on the road to Emmaus. Away from Jerusalem. Away from the broken promises. Away from the smirking soldiers and the shattered body that was proof positive that God was too weak to keep God’s promises, or else didn’t care. They were going home to Emmaus where they could shut the door and give up.
I’ve been on that road myself. Haven’t you? I’ve trusted people to live up to their promises, and then watched them behave as though they never made them.
I’ve visited in the homes of people who had asked to present their children for baptism. I’ve gone over the vows with them, talked about the radical commitment they would make if they were to bring their children to the waters of this font. “Don’t do this if you don’t mean it,” I warned them. “Don’t go through the motions. This sacrament isn’t a piece of liturgical theater. This is about life and death.”
“O No!” they said. “We promise! We mean it.” But after a few months, I see them less and less frequently. Busy, I guess. Other things to do. Pressure of work. I occasionally see their children -- teenagers now – around town. I wonder, Do they even know they’re baptized? Has anybody told them lately that they belong to God?
But that’s only part of the picture. I made a promise, too. I said I’d be their pastor. I said the church would care. I said we’d keep up, have lunch now and then. I made a mental note to phone on birthdays, but I seldom did. How can I blame other people for breaking their promises when I don’t keep my own?
Maybe that bothered Cleopas, too. Maybe he was thinking that he might have stuck with Jesus a little longer – at least as long as the women, for instance. Maybe its wasn’t just God he was mad at. Maybe he was mad at himself, too. Maybe it was more than the sight of Jesus hanging on that cross that Cleopas wanted to get out of his head. Maybe it was the look of his own face in the mirror. At Emmaus there were no mirrors. At Emmaus he could get away.
I can hear him saying to his friend, “Let’s not go back there again. Let’s never go back to Jerusalem. Let’s stay in Emmaus. In Emmaus we can forget.”
Cleopas and his friend were so lost in conversation with one another that they didn’t even notice the stranger walking alongside them. “What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?” he asked.
“You can’t guess? We’re talking about Jesus, who was a mighty prophet, or so we thought. Our religious leaders sold him out and the Romans crucified him. We thought he was the one, the Redeemer! Shows you what chumps we are. Not only that, some women in our group came back from his tomb this morning with some cock-and-bull story about seeing a vision of angels who told them he was alive.”
The stranger began to tell them he was not surprised to hear of all of this. “It’s all in the scriptures,” the stranger said. “Let’s start with Moses.”
What he said about the Messiah and how he had to suffer and die in order for God’s full glory to be made known came as news to Cleopas. It hadn’t occurred to him that God’s glory could be revealed in weakness, that God could keep God’s promises through a cross. It didn’t make sense, but he wanted to hear more.
By then they were at the door of his house. “Come in,” he told the stranger. “The day’s just about over and it’s not safe out after dark. Spend the night.”
For some reason, it was the stranger who took the role of host at the table in Cleopas’ house. He took the bread and said the traditional prayer. He broke the bread, as Cleopas had seen done a thousand times – as he himself had done a thousand times.
At that moment Cleopas wasn’t in his house in Emmaus anymore. He’s on a hillside in Galilee, collecting baskets of leftover bread. It had looked as though the crowd – thousands of them – were going to have to go home with empty stomachs. All the disciples could come up with was five loaves of bread and two fishes, but Jesus had taken the bread -- blessed it, broke it, gave it to them. The crowd had eaten their fill. It takes twelve baskets to collect the leftover bread.
Now Cleopas is by the seashore. Jesus and his disciples are having an impromptu picnic. Cleopas can smell the fish smoking on the fire. Someone has told a joke. Jesus is laughing. He throws his head back and the tears of hilarity are running down his cheeks.
Now Cleopas is in the house of a Pharisee. A woman has come in while Jesus is at the table. She lets down her hair. She breaks the seal on a jar of costly perfume. She’s crying. Her tears fall on Jesus’ feet. She dries his feet with her hair and anoints them with the perfume. The rich fragrance fills the room.
Cleopas is looking at the bread in the stranger’s hands. Only it’s not a stranger. It’s him. It’s Jesus, and he’s not dead. He’s very much alive. As sure as those 12 baskets full on the hillside, as sure as the wood smoke from that fire on the beach, as sure as pungent aroma of that costly perfume, as sure as the memory of all those meals together. As sure as the bread blessed, broken, and given, he’s alive.
The broken promises aren’t important now. What matters is the bread that has been broken. And it wasn’t God who broke the promises. God kept God’s promises. It’s you and I who broke ours. I can’t say that doesn’t matter. Broken promises always hurt. But more important that the promises we broke are the promises God kept.
It’s all there, in the breaking of the bread. Cleopas sees that now. It’s as though his eyes have been opened. He knows that what the women reported is true. I can’t tell you why he knows, but I can tell you how. He knows in the breaking of the bread.
Now Cleopas is on the road again, running. Not away from Jerusalem. Toward it. Toward the promises he broke. Toward the women he had disbelieved. Toward the place where God has called him.
For Jesus is alive not only in Emmaus. Jesus is alive in Jerusalem. He’s alive in the promises God has made and kept. He’s alive to help us keep our new promises. He’s alive right now, in this meal where he is host. He’s alive in the breaking of the bread.
April 30, 2017
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