On the road

Week of Sunday May 8, Easter 3
Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

According to my school English teachers the reading above could be written like this:  While two of them were going home, Jesus appeared to them.

That is the key action of the event. That’s what happened. Everything else falls into one of two categories. Either it adds meaning and significance to the event, or it is padding. Padding is that practice of students everywhere who have to make up a word limit, but have nothing of substance to add to their essay. It is supposed to be more subtle and less obvious to the teacher, than filling two pages by increasing the font size, or the margin width.

I’m harking back to this understanding of literature, which regular readers will remember, because at Easter, of all times, we need to get beyond the literal. Understand what I am saying. I am not denying resurrection. I am saying that often, especially if we are feeling defensive, we reduce the resurrection appearances to literal proofs. Our main concern too easily becomes whether the events literally happened, rather than seeking to understand the significance of the events.

In the main, the gospel stories are not there to prove the resurrection. The audience already was convinced. The gospel stories were to explain the resurrection and its significance for living.

So the bare bones story begins like this:  While two of them were going home, Jesus appeared to them.

The gospels are not padded documents. Every word is chosen. There were no printers or photocopiers, and writing materials were expensive. Padding was too costly. Material was added to the bones of the story to add meaning, and to assist the listener to remember the meaning of the story.

Luke adds to the bare bones like this:  Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

I begin my reading of Luke like this: “On that same day” is when? What does it mean? 
My answer: One of the commentaries reminded me, that it is the first day of the week, the day of resurrection. It’s also the day the church met together in houses to worship. There might be a broad hint to us here!

“Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.” Why Emmaus, and why seven miles? Why not just say going to a village, or going home?
My answer: Sometimes the name in the story has a meaning, or is an allusion; Bethphage is the house of figs, and Jesus is coming through there in the story where he curses the fruitless fig tree, when he is finding Israel has also not borne fruit.  (cf Matt 21) 
Sometimes there is a traditional link to a name. In the entry to Jerusalem, Jesus comes via the Mount of Olives, the traditional location from which it was imagined God’s rescuing armies would enter and free Jerusalem.
Bethlehem is a convenient confluence of tradition (the home of David) and a name; it means House of Bread.

But no one seems sure about the significance of Emmaus. It is not clear where the village actually was. There have been problems identifying it and its meaning from earliest times.  Fitzmyer suggests that Emmaus and seven miles is close enough to Jerusalem that it fits Luke’s overarching theology that the church begins in Jerusalem and journeys out from there. His theology would not fit with the symbol that Matthew uses, where the disciples return to Galilee to meet the risen Lord. (pp1562)

Sometimes the allusion of a gospel writer is forever hidden to us, like the cushion on the boat in Mark 4.33-5.2. It is thought that sometimes a name is included simply because that is the tradition the author and his people have received in a well known story. This is a common explanation for the inclusion of the name of Cleopas in our story this week.

So considering Emmaus and its meaning seems not to bear much fruit. But unless we treat the gospels' stories as deliberately meaning-laden, we will miss much they have to tell us. They are not unvarnished fact, but much more.

It's clear that Emmaus is a picture of an early church, of people meeting together in a house. Although the geographical location and meaning of a “village called Emmaus” is unclear, what is very clear is the other "location" of the early church. The church is on the road. It meets Jesus on the road. (32, 35) The two disciples are on a journey when they meet the unrecognised Jesus. (Two is enough for a valid witness of an event. Two is a symbol of church: where two or three are gathered...) But it is on the road, on the journey that they meet Jesus, that they rehearse the telling of the Christian story, and that the words of scripture burn in their hearts.

We should note that the Greek for “on the road” is literally “on the way.” There is a pun here. Christians referred to themselves as people of the Way. (Acts 19:19) When a blind man by the road, met Jesus who was on the road, and was healed, he followed him on the Way. (Mark 10:32,48-52) The words are the same Greek word. The Christian way of living is to be on the road.

There is more significance in this travelling story. In this early church, Jesus appears in the context of the Eucharist. This has been seen in Luke’s story for a long time. Jesus is not recognised until the travellers invite him into the house. Then he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. If that was not a broad enough hint of what Luke intended, he reinforces the point later on:

35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Jesus is made known in the breaking of bread. That is the key witness of Emmaus, the final summation of their story.

John Petty sums it up beautifully in his commentary this week,

Cleopas speaks of Jesus as paroikeis, which means one who dwells in an area as a sojourner.  The first identification of Jesus in this story, then, is as a stranger, or even, exile.  This is a not uncommon designation for the church as a whole.  We are all sojourners, travelling through life on a spiritual journey.  There's a reason the Christian faith was first spoken of as "the way."  Indeed, the word "parish" and "parochial" have their root in paroikeis.

"Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him."  This recalls the first meal in the book of Genesis--the one where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit.  In that case, "their eyes were opened" and they knew that they were naked.  In this instance, "their eyes were opened" and they recognized Jesus.

This meal--the eucharist--redresses an ancient problem.  The long exile of the human race--the long journey out of Eden--is over.  The new creation has begun.  This is the 8th meal in Luke's gospel--thus, the meal of "the new creation."

Similarly to John’s story last week, Luke has the motif of an eighth day, the day of the new creation.

John (Petty) goes on to say that

John Dominic Crossan calls the Emmaus road story "the metaphoric condensation of the first years of Christian thought and practice into one parabolic afternoon," to which he famously added, "Emmaus never happened.  Emmaus always happens."

The story is not, in other words, primarily a description of an historical event, but rather a story that reflects the pattern of the Christian life as it is lived out by people on their journey through life....

The pattern can be fruitfully contrasted to some of our practice today. Entering the word parochial into Google yields this response at the top of the list:

We all know that in many folk’s minds the two meanings are intertwined. In a delicious irony, parochial church council is not only statement of locality and church structure like diocese, it is a statement of attitude. The irony is true! We become local, inward, narrow, self centred and static. We cease being sojourners, in the world but not of the world, and become locals.  Infamously, we seek to conform the world to our locality and local concerns. How much does such a situation contribute to the loss of burning hearts within us?

Luke presents a church on the move, and he presents the church on the move as the one which meets Jesus.

I’m currently working with folk in two congregations which are on a journey. One is literally selling up its land and beginning again, joining with two other others to build a new complex. The other is staying put, but working to become a completely different kind of church. They are both on the move, and as a consequence, unsettled. Is it in our unsettled times that Jesus is made known to us, or when we have become comfortable and stationary?

In preaching this text of the journeying church to my congregations, I will be thinking about some more characteristics of the story, and wondering how they relate to us. How will Jesus be made known to us as we travel?

Jesus is no longer with the church physically.  He is not the Jesus walking alongside the disciples in Galilee. In one sense we are on our own. How do we meet him in this sometimes lonely journey, going to an uncertain destination called Emmaus, a place we are not quite sure even exists?

It’s tempting to see further patterns of worship and community in the story and find an answer within them.

In the story, the little church is on the road.
It remembers and tells again the traditions of Jesus, his teaching and his dying.
It shares its hopes for the salvation of Israel, and its  despair at defeats and losses.
It reminds itself of the great story of scripture, beginning with Moses and all the prophets...(27)
Its heart burns within it as it makes new discoveries in God’s great story and proclaims the purpose of God.
And when it meets together on the first day of the week, Jesus is made known to it in the breaking of the bread.

We saw already the pattern of Eucharist, in the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread. Some would suggest that in the way the Emmaus Road is told we see the whole pattern of worship in the early church. We meet, we remember, we seek the word, we eat the meal. If we do this on the road, Jesus will continue to be made known to us, despite the fact that we are travelling into new unknown territory.

Fitzmyer says the paragraph above is probably reading the worship pattern of the early church into Luke. We don't really know enough about it to be sure. (1560) But it is true, anyway. If we just meet for coffee and food and fun, there will be no content. The Eucharist of the common meal will degenerate to the concerns of the day.  If we only study the word, and have no community, we will lose contact with each other and, it seems, our hearts will cool and Jesus not be made known to us.


One last thing I will emphasise in my preaching is that Jesus  made known, (35) we do not see him in the flesh. We commonly speak of meeting Jesus, or that he appears. In Luke’s story of the second wave of disciples, of which we are a part, he is made known. That might be a helpful corrective to our  tendency to literalise meeting Jesus when we discuss our faith experiences, which always worries a few folk who don’t feel they have met him in any literal sense.

Andrew Prior
Commentary: The Gospel according to Luke X –XXIV Joseph A Fitzmyer,  Yale 1985

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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