Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our text this morning picks up where we left off last week. If you were with us on Easter, you heard the story of the women who found Jesus’ tomb empty, who were told by angels that Christ had risen on the third day, just as He said he would. And you heard how the other disciples initially rejected the women’s testimony outright. It was seen as “an idle tale,” as our translation tells it. It was seen as nonsense, junk, or as Pastor Aune put it, fake news. We here in the 21st century, of course, have the advantage of knowing how the story ends. We know that the empty tomb was not fake news, but good news, for us and for the world.
But the two disciples we meet this week on the road to Emmaus do not have that knowledge yet. Verse 13 opens, “Now on that same day,” meaning Easter Sunday, probably sometime that afternoon. For these two disciples, Cleopas and his unnamed friend, Jesus is still dead. They remain in the darkness of Good Friday. Their hopes for redemption and freedom have been dashed, crucified and buried. Their walk to Emmaus is not one of expectant hope or joyous celebration. It is a slow trudge of defeat and grief and fear.
Yet, it is on that sad, disheartened journey that our two disciples encounter Jesus. Of course, the text tells us they don’t recognize him, at least not yet. Whether Jesus actually looks different or whether God simply clouds the disciples’ perception, we don’t know. What we do know is that a lot happens on that road. Jesus is with the disciples for hours, listening to their stories and teaching them about scripture. And while the identity of this wise stranger remains unknown until the last second, Cleopas and company are engrossed in the conversation. There is clearly something about the stranger that draws them in. As readers, we again have the advantage of knowing the secret. We know what that something is. From our bird’s-eye-view, we know that as the disciples travel that road to Emmaus, they experience the presence of Christ.
But what does that mean, to experience the presence of Christ? Well, take, for instance, what Cleopas and his friend say to one another after they realize that Jesus had been with them all long. They say to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Have you ever had that experience, where a bible verse or a prayer or an encouraging word made something inside you burn? That feeling in your heart or in your gut that you just know is from God stirring something in you? I know I’ve had that before. And it’s really no surprise our two disciples had it too. They got experience what it’s like to have God himself explain his scriptures to them. The living Word of God opened the written word of God to them. And notice that word, opened. Not just explained or gave a little insight, but completely opened. No wonder their hearts burned. That burning feeling all makes sense once they realize who it was that was teaching them. But even in the moment, before they mentally knew who this stranger was, they knew in their hearts. In their gut, they knew that their God was with them.
I have to wonder, did they have that same sense earlier on the road as well? The text doesn’t explicitly say this, but look at the way Cleopas shares so openly with Jesus as he recounts everything that had happened over the last few days. If we look back to Good Friday, you might remember that after Jesus’ arrest, many of his disciples were running scared. Peter, the sort of disciple-in-chief, even goes so far as to deny outright that he even knew Jesus – three times! Because to be associated with Jesus in those moments of arrest and condemnation could have spelled death for Peter as well. Yes, in some ways it was over – Jesus had been killed and things had had a few days to die down. But the threat hadn’t dissipated completely. Yet Cleopas meets some stranger on the street and decides to pour his heart out to him? In his description of the events, he is fairly obvious as to whose side he was on. More than that, he even recounts the “idle tale” they had heard from the women that morning! It makes me wonder if there was something supernatural going on in those moments of sharing. There was a comfort level, a sense of safety that I think only the listening presence of Jesus can bring.
There was something about this stranger, though they did not recognize him. His presence was comforting. His words were wise and illuminating. And at the end of their journey, when, after hours of walking together, they finally make it to Emmaus, our two disciples are not anxious to see him go. In that moment of parting, we get to see a little Jesus fake-out. He makes as if he is going to walk on. The picture in my head has Jesus hamming it up a little. “Well, it was nice talking to you guys. Good luck with the whole empty tomb debacle.” But then the disciples stop him, and invite him to stay. They liked having this guy around. “Stay with us,” they say, hearts burning and full of a hope they hadn’t felt in days.
And he does. Jesus stays with them. But even more than that, they come to realize that Jesus has been there the whole time.
This past week, I learned that the mother of a good college friend of mine has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. This is her fourth bout with cancer. The other three were breast and ovarian cancers, and she’s beat back the disease every time. She’s an incredibly strong and faithful woman – she’s also a staunch Texas Republican, so she’s about the most stubborn and determined person you’ll ever meet. I couldn’t help but think of her this week as I thought through this text, as she finds herself on this journey, this road for the fourth time. Almost as if reading my thoughts, she posted on Facebook the other day that the road she’s on is familiar, and in that, she’s strangely comforted. But it’s not just the familiarity of the journey that brings comfort. It’s the fact that Christ has accompanied her down this road before, and she sees no reason this time should be any different.
Like the two disciples, like my friend’s mom, whatever road we find ourselves on, Christ stays with us. Whether we realize it or not, Christ stays with us. He is there comforting us and teaching us and leading us on. Cleopas and his friend got to experience that first-hand on that Easter Sunday all those years ago. And we, too, have the opportunity to experience Christ’s presence on a daily basis. Christ be with you. Amen.