05 May 2014

Sermon – “Cleopas” (Luke 24:13-35)

In all the Bible I don’t think that there is a more engaging story, a better-told story, than our Gospel reading this morning. It is recounted with such realism and detail that it is difficult not to imagine ourselves there, walking along the narrow, dusty road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on that first Easter afternoon. The time is almost exactly forty-eight hours since Jesus has been crucified. His lifeless body had been taken down and temporarily laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent Jerusalem citizen and a member of the Jewish ruling council. That morning it had been discovered that the final insult had occurred. Jesus’ corpse had been taken from the tomb and nobody was aware of its whereabouts. And so it was not even possible to pay Jesus the final respect of a decent burial. Yes, there had been stories of angelic appearances. But that did not alter the fact that the one on whom they had pinned their hopes was now dead and gone. Not even his body was to be found.

There did not seem to be any point to remaining in Jerusalem, and so the two decided to make the seven-mile walk back to their home in Emmaus. It was natural that both their thoughts and their conversation were dominated by the uncontrollable swirl of events that had brought Jesus before the Sanhedrin, before Pilate and finally to his death. We don’t know at what moment it happened, but somewhere along the journey the two became three.

I suspect that their discussion had become quite animated, to the point where they weren’t really aware of anyone but themselves or of how loud they had become, where anyone walking anywhere near them would have heard every word they were saying. So it may have given them a bit of a jolt when suddenly there was a third voice in the conversation. “What’s all this you’re talking about as you walk along?” Luke tells us that they stopped dead in their tracks, but their surprise could not erase the sadness that was written across their faces.

“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know what’s happened there over the last few days?” And once again they went over the tragic litany of events that had taken Jesus from them. “And we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” They were to learn that this stranger knew far more than they had at first imagined. In a matter of moments they found themselves being caught up into the whole sweep of Old Testament revelation. What had happened to Jesus at Calvary was not a cruel twist of fate, but the outworking of God’s plan from the very beginning.

It must have seemed like no time before they were on the outskirts of their village. The time had come for a parting of ways. Yet there was so much more that they wanted to hear. So they pressed upon him (translated literally, “they forced him”, “they pressured him”) to stay with them. Once inside, they brought out some bread and reclined around the low table. As their guest took it, gave thanks for it and broke it, something (and Luke does not tell us what) caused them to realize that they were in the presence not of a stranger but of Jesus himself. They gazed at each other in amazement; and when they turned look again at Jesus, he was gone. Their hearts pounding within them, their legs could not take them back quickly enough to Jerusalem and to the other disciples, to tell them how Jesus had made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.

A Fable?

Now I use those words very specifically because I believe Luke specifically chose them. They are technical words. We have heard them two chapters earlier in his account of the last supper: “Then [Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’ ” (Luke 22:19). And he uses them again in Acts 2:42 in his description of the earliest church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It is clear that Luke is using sacramental language—and from earliest days the church has drawn the connection between what happened at Emmaus and the Holy Eucharist. St Augustine, for example, writing around the close of the fourth century, states, “No one should doubt that his being recognized in the breaking of bread is the sacrament, which brings us together in recognizing him.”[1] And we find it captured in the words of our post-communion prayer: “You have opened to us the Scriptures, O Christ, and you have made yourself known in the breaking of the bread…”

There is a wonderful truth contained in that teaching. The Reformers of the sixteenth century were accustomed to speaking of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the visible words of God. Just as Christ speaks to us through the Scriptures, we also believe that he comes to us and reveals himself to us in a different way, yet no less real—in a tactile, visual way—as we break bread together in the sacrament. Gathered around his table, Jesus meets with us just as he did with Cleopas and his friend nearly two thousand years ago.

So it is that the story of Emmaus provides us with a wonderful parable of the mystery of Holy Communion—and that is how it is taught and preached again and again today. The problem and the tragedy is that for many in the church today it is just a parable and no more. I remember when we were translating this passage from the Greek, my New Testament professor asked the question, “Suppose you were there with a camera as the two disciples walked along the road to Emmaus. How many people do you think the camera would capture: Three? Or two?” And he made no bones about the fact that he stood firmly on the “two” side.

For him and for many others, accounts such as we have read this morning are fables—wonderful fables, no doubt, powerful fables filled with rich imagery and deep significance, that teach us about the experience and perceptions of Jesus’ earliest followers—and yet, when it comes down to it, just fables nevertheless. In Jesus Seminar founder Dominic Crossan’s words, “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.”[2]

A Fact

I believe that the apostle Paul had exactly such people in mind when he declared, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” The he asserts (and we echo loudly), “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:14-20)

The disciples who arrived breathless back in Jerusalem were not there because they had had some mystical experience breaking bread. No, they were there because they had seen Jesus bodily there before them with their own eyes. He had picked up actual bread and broken it with physical hands. He had spoken to them in an audible voice—and their hearts burned within them.

The good side of the story of my New Testament professor was that his successor was none less than N.T. Wright. His 800-page book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, has been described as the clearest, most thorough and comprehensive study of Jesus’ resurrection in more than a century. Of that conversation that took place along the road, he has said,

Now, suddenly, with the right story in their head and hearts, a new possibility—huge, astonishing, and breathtaking—started to emerge before them… Suppose Jesus’ execution was not the clear disproof of his messianic vocation but its confirmation and climax? Suppose the cross was not one more example of the triumph of paganism over God’s people but was actually God’s means of defeating evil once and for all? Suppose this was, after all, how the exile was designed to end, how sins were to be forgiven and how the kingdom was to come? Suppose this was what God’s light and truth looked like, coming unexpectedly to lead his people back into his presence?[3]

No wonder their hearts burned within them. Their whole world had been turned upside down. They had come to see everything that matters in a new light. And their lives could never be the same again. This is the difference that Jesus’ resurrection makes—and I want to say, it is all the difference.

A Fire

That difference had put a fire within their hearts. Centuries before, the prophet Jeremiah had written in similar terms about his encounter with God’s word: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). Throughout the book of Acts and the remainder of the New Testament we see that fire breaking out in new and sometimes surprising ways. The message of Jesus’ resurrection was one that the church could not contain, even if it had wanted to, so that within a generation there were believers stretched all around the known world.

For those of us who have heard the Easter story for years, there is always the temptation to become blasé about it, for it to lose its newness, its freshness, its radical challenge to all the world’s treasured assumptions—for the fire to grow dim. Even in New Testament times the apostle Paul had to warn the believers in Thessalonica not to quench the Holy Spirit’s fire. And towards the end of his life he found himself writing to his young protégé Timothy, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…” (1 Thessalonians 5:19; 2 Timothy 1:6).

John Stott told the story of Methodist preacher W.E. Sangster interviewing candidates for the ministry. One of them was a rather nervous young man who said he felt he ought to explain that he was rather shy and was not the sort of person who would ever set the River Thames on fire, that is, create much of a sensation. “My dear young brother,” Sangster replied. “I’m not interested to know if you could set the Thames on fire. What I want to know is this: if I picked you up by the scruff of your neck and dropped you into the Thames, would it sizzle?”[4]

I wonder how many of us, if we were really to be honest with ourselves, would be forced to admit that for us the fire has grown dim. Like the believers in Ephesus, we have lost the love that we had at first. We have become lukewarm in our faith. Then I believe we can learn from the two disciples and their experience along the road to Emmaus.

St Augustine observed that when they opened their hearts to Jesus, “unwittingly they showed the doctor their wounds”. May we reveal what lies deep within us to him. May we listen to him and allow him to minister to us by his living and enduring word. And then may we find ourselves saying, “Did not our hearts burn within us?”

Let us conclude by bowing before the Lord and praying together in words from one of Charles Wesley’s hymns.

O thou who camest from above
the pure, celestial fire to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
on the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for thy glory burn,
with inextinguishable blaze;
and, trembling, to its source return
in humble love and fervent praise.

[1]     Letter 149, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures, NT III, 382
[2]     Quoted in N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 656
[3]     N.T. Wright, “The Resurrection and the Postmodern Dilemma”, Sewanee Theological Review 41.2, 1998
[4]     John Stott, Between Two Worlds, 285

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