Highworth United Reformed Church

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The Walk to Emmaus

By Mr Geoff Rhodes

Bible Reading:  Luke 24:1-9, 13-35


For our comfort, the Easter story of Jesus Christ being raised from dead includes accounts of the first Easter people, the first witnesses, finding it difficult, both to believe themselves and to convince others, that Jesus was alive.  So, I want to remind you at the very beginning of our thoughts on the Gospel passage this morning of something we easily forget in our familiarity with the Easter story.   That is that the Easter story starts in the darkness of Sunday morning, when everyone is sure that Jesus is dead.   Let us be clear about that.   After the horror of crucifixion, everyone, friend and foe alike was convinced, Jesus was dead.   The disciples in our reading tonight, Cleopas and his friend or possibly his wife, are sure, despite the stories told by the women, are sure that Jesus is dead.

With that thought in our minds let us look at the story of the two disciples on the afternoon of Easter Sunday.   We can well imagine that their footsteps were slow, their eyes downcast as they discussed the implications of the past few momentous days.   So, they were not surprised when a Stranger catches up with them, what does make them stop in surprise is his ignorance of the events in Jerusalem over these past few days.   It is as if someone here did not know that.

They stop and stare, amazed!   Why do they not recognise Jesus?   Why should they?   As I said at the start, they knew Jesus was dead.   They knew along with all Jerusalem, except apparently this Stranger, that he had been crucified.   True, they were discussing the story the women had told, but they do not place any credence on it, put any belief in it.    They know, as everyone did, that crucifixion meant death.   But the stranger has expressed an interest, so Cleopas tells him the story.   It is I think worth re-reading what Cleopas tells him as it is a good summary of the Gospel.:

"About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied.  "He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.   The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him;  but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.   And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.   In addition, some of our women amazed us.   They went to the tomb early this morning but didn't find his body.   They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive.   Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see."

The facts are all there, the ministry of Jesus, the hope of redemption that had filled his ministry with meaning, the crucifixion and the devastation of his followers.   They were able to go on and tell the Stranger that some of the apostolic band had checked Jesus' tomb  and found it empty, adding with tremendous unconscious irony as they looked the Stranger straight in the face: "But Him they did not see."   They note that this was the third day since Jesus had been crucified, and still the idea that the resurrection had taken place does not register with them.   Yes the facts are all there, one more thing is needed and we'll come to that in a moment.

Why do they not believe?

First there is the fact that for ordinary members of the public the authorities carry enormous influence. They still do for us today and we expect them to act on our behalf in dealing with problems, both local and national.   In this case the authorities both religious and civil, the priests and the Romans are in agreement, Jesus is dead.   And this execution of Jesus was a decisive blow to the disciples' faith that Jesus was the Messiah.

Also important is the fact that death and resurrection formed no part of any Jewish ideas about the Messiah's prospectus if you like.   The Messiah would be a conqueror, a fact Jesus had tried to correct by his choice of a donkey for the Palm Sunday triumphal procession.    That is why the disciples had not really taken in what Jesus had said about his coming death and were so shocked by it.   They were hoping, looking, for a Messiah who would break the imperialist domination of the Romans by force of arms.   A Messiah who had been caught by the Jewish authorities, handed over to the Romans and crucified before he had even begun to organize any guerilla operations, popular uprising or open warfare could not be the Messiah!   if,as they believed, the Old Testament prophesied a liberator who would be triumphant, Jesus was already disqualified:  he had died.   So, it is irrelevant to talk of resurrection.  

 So, with the tale told, the Stranger joins in the discussion.   He points our that maybe they have been looking at Scripture in a biased way.   Jesus demonstrates that according to the Old Testament, despite their reading of it, first the Messiah has to die in order to effect his triumphant redemption;  and second that the kind of redemption which Messiah was to effect could only be effected by his dying.   Their expectations of a triumphant Messiah were not wrong, but they were built on a very selective reading of the Old Testament.   They, like everyone else had fastened on to those passages in their Scriptures which talked of a victory over Israel's enemies and the restoration of Israel's land, king and independence.   The passages that talked of Messiah's sufferings and death had not made sense to them - even supposing they had read and paid any attention to them.   So, they had ignored them: they formed no part of their expectations of the Messiah.   True, they had believed what the prophets had spoken: but they had not believed all that the prophets had said.

And so the Stranger leads them afresh through the Scriptures, looking in detail at the programme laid down for the Messiah.    Showing that he must, as Luke's story puts it, "suffer these things and enter into his glory":  that is, his sufferings were to be the actual means by which he would save his people.   The Messiah's death is not an obstacle, proving he cannot be the Messiah but the very method by which the Messiah will redeem his people.

So, Jesus took these two disciples through all the prophecies of the Old Testament which spoke of redemption in terms of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God through Messiah's sacrificial death.   He took then through all the readings with which we are so familiar because we look back at them through the lens of resurrection.   But they were readings they did not understand either because they did not know about them, or because they did not consider the possibility of a resurrection.

Now, throughout all the conversation so far the disciples have not recognized who the Stranger is.   What the Stranger has done is simply to establish that Jesus' death was not the obstacle to his being Messiah that they had supposed:  rather, when the scriptures are properly understood, his death could make Jesus' claim to be the Messiah more compelling and the report of his resurrection more credible.

But if Jesus was alive again, where was he?   And how could anyone recognize him and be sure it was Jesus if they saw him?

This latter question is important to us today.   We need to be as sure as possible that the first disciples were not tricked.   If it was recognized that according to the Old Testament Messiah had to die and then rise again, what was to prevent some religious opportunist after Jesus' death from dressing himself up like Jesus and deceiving the early Christians into thinking that he was Jesus come back from the dead?   After all, there were no photographs in those days, and not even portraits of most people.   How could you be sure  you were seeing the real Jesus?   Remember the arrest in Gethsemane?   Judas, who knew Jesus well, had to identify him with a kiss because most of the people there did not know what he looked like.   So, how in fact, we might ask, turning the question on its head, would, could, the Stranger convince the two disciples that he was Jesus?   He certainly could not do it by simply saying at the end of his convincing Bible exposition, "I am Jesus".   Any imposter could have said that.

No, he does it by an action that no imposter would have thought of.   He does it in a way that is both characteristic of Jesus and clearly remembered by his disciples, a way that no imposter could have known about it, let alone have done.   Persuaded to stay for the evening meal, the Stranger takes the initiative and seated at table, he takes the bread into his hands, says the blessing and breaks the bread.   Such a characteristic gesture.   It is one that only those who were closest to Jesus would recognise.   And Cleopas and friend recognise it immediately and with that recognition Jesus vanishes. But now with light, not heavy steps they speed back to Jerusalem by moonlight to tell their friends of their discovery.

What lessons are there here for us, so far removed from the event?   Several, I think.   First, read the Bible carefully and fully, not selectively.   And read it in the presence of Jesus and preferably with others.   Then the Scriptures will come alive and tell us fully about Jesus and who he is and what he can do for us and all people.

Second, it tells us we are more likely to meet  with Jesus in the ordinary things of life than in the extra ordinary.   These two met Jesus on a journey and recognised him at home at a meal time.

Third, when we have truly met with the risen Christ, then we cannot wait to share the good news with our friends.   Back they rushed to Jerusalem to tell the rest.   Have you ever rushed to tell the Good News of Jesus?

So, as you journey together, look out for Jesus, he will come and share in all you do and be prepared, when you have recognised him, be prepared as Cleopas and his friend were, to tell of the encounter.   God bless us with the presence of the risen Christ.