Road to Emmaus
Yesterday marked the sixth anniversary of my friend Kris’ death. I’ve shared stories about Kris with some of you before. I keep thinking about how he would be making the most of this challenging time. Kris would have been the first to organize a Zoom happy hour. He’d be checking in on his students and his friends all the time to make sure we were OK. He would be enjoying the chance to wear a sweatshirt every day. That guy loved a good sweatshirt. One of our friends dubbed him the “sweatshirt sommelier.” But he also loved dressing up in a tux, so I’m pretty sure he would also have talked us into having a Zoom black tie party.
When Kris died back in 2014, there was a memorial service down in Charlottesville. Several of us from the tri-state area flew down together that Saturday, thanks to the incredible generosity of a friend. Some of the folks on the plane I already knew. Some I met for the first time that day. But by the time we returned home, we were all friends. That’s what Kris did best. He brought people together and helped us multiply our friendships.
Grief is never easy. We are intensely aware of that these days. It’s especially hard when someone like Kris dies far too young, with a vibrant, unlived future stretching out in front of him. What we all found comforting – what we still find comforting – is telling stories. We keep him with us by sharing pictures of times spent with him. We tell stories about what he did and said, the countless ways he made us laugh. That’s what we did on the day of his memorial, and that’s what we’ve done in all the years since. Tell stories.
That’s what I picture at the beginning of today’s gospel. These people who had seen Jesus crucified are walking down a long road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, filled with grief. They’ve experienced something traumatic together, something they cannot process without turning to each other and talking about it. There are many surprising things in this story, but I am never surprised to hear that these travelers are, as the gospel says, “talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” Of course they were. That’s how we begin to make sense of what is senseless.
This story takes place later in the day on that first Easter. We don’t know why Cleopas and his companion are on the road. Perhaps they are afraid like the disciples were last week, afraid of the violence and persecution that might break out now that Jesus is dead.
Cleopas and his friend are walking and talking, and then Jesus is there walking with them. They don’t realize that it’s him at this point. It’s unclear why. The text says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Were their eyes clouded by grief? Did Jesus somehow look different than before? We don’t know. But in this moment they do not know who Jesus is.
In a delicious bit of irony they tease this “stranger” about how clueless he is. They’re surprised that this person doesn’t know what has happened lately – doesn’t know who Jesus was and how he was crucified. Jesus plays along, pretending that he has no idea: What things? When, of course, no one knows what has happened better than he does.
Here’s the most painful moment in this story for me. Cleopas and his friend say about Jesus: “But we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free.” Had hoped. So much grief contained in those two words. Had hoped. All that they had wanted Jesus to do for them, all the ways that they saw Jesus turn the ways of the world upside down, all of the possibilities and dreams and freedom that he had offered were gone – or so they thought.
We know something these days about “had hoped.”
We had hoped to be with our friends and stage the musical and have a family reunion and play some baseball. We had hoped to hug grandma on her birthday. We had hoped to be there to say goodbye. We had hoped to gather the whole family together for the funeral. We had hoped to go to the hospital to meet the baby. We had hoped to take that spring break trip. We had hoped to have the wedding this spring. We had hoped…had hoped…had hoped.
What does Jesus do for these heartbroken friends walking down the road? First, he walks with them. Jesus meets them on the road. He meets them right where they are.
He lets them tell their story. He could have corrected them immediately, set them straight, but there’s something important about letting a grieving person tell us how they are grieving.
Preacher Anna Carter Florence reminds us about grief: “It’s the road we all have to walk, sooner or later. We walk it again and again. When we aren’t walking it ourselves, we fall into step with someone else who is taking their turn.”[i] So maybe we learn from Jesus to invite each other’s stories and to listen to each other as we share them.
Jesus also helps these friends see that their story is part of a much bigger story – God’s story, as told in scripture. He opens that story to them in a new way – a way they don’t fully realize until later.
We, too, are part of a much bigger story. A story that, in spite of all its surprises along the way, no matter how many joys or heartbreaks it contains, always ends with resurrection. There is always hope on the horizon, a hope that rests completely in God.
The last thing that Jesus does for these friends is join them for a meal, a simple meal around the table where they offer him some bread. It’s in that simple, everyday moment that they finally realize who he is. He breaks the bread, and their eyes are opened.
It makes me wonder where we might be on the lookout for Jesus among us now. Where is he showing up, and how might our eyes be opened to see him?
I have loved the stories of hospitals playing special songs over the loudspeaker whenever a COVID patient is discharged. Often those speakers are used to announce codes, summon a crisis team, or share other scary news. But in these happier moments the medical staff gather to cheer and applaud as the patient is wheeled out to be reunited with family. It’s a way to remind themselves to stop and celebrate hope in the midst of so much despair. Here’s one of the songs some hospitals have used.[ii] I think you’ll recognize it:
[Play opening of “Here Comes the Sun”]
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it’s all right
Those patients are leaving the hospital with a long journey ahead. But they have life. And they have hope.
Here comes the sun. And here comes the Son – the Son of God, showing up in all kinds of places we might not recognize at first, including our own tables.
How might we see Jesus in each other?
How might we be Jesus for each other?
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] From Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A [an electronic resource], entry for the Third Sunday of Easter
“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” Luke 24:30-31
As I prepared for Betty Schneeberger’s funeral service this week, I had the great pleasure of hearing stories about Betty from her family members and from some of you. Here’s what I learned. Eventually those stories were going to involve baked goods. Betty and her husband Frank ran the Chatham Bake Shop for many years, but even after it closed, they kept baking for friends and family for years after.
Any guesses as to what kind of baked good came up most often? Cookies. When talking about these cookies, people’s faces take on an expression of pure bliss. Even though it’s been years since some of them have had these cookies, they can describe in great detail what the cookies looked like, what they smelled like, and how they tasted.
For each holiday there were special kinds of cookies – heart shapes with pink icing for Valentine’s Day, bunnies for Easter, and owls with chocolate and vanilla icing for Halloween. If you were one of her kids or grandkids, when that holiday rolled around, a package of cookies would appear on your doorstep – whether you were away at college or had taken a job out of state. Those cookies found you wherever you were. And they brought with them a love beyond measure.
We often associate food with love. We gather with loved ones around special meals for Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas. We love catching up with old friends over delicious food. Just recently I was thinking about the many hours I spent playing canasta with my grandparents at their kitchen table. At some point in the game Granddaddy would get out his special snack supply, which often included my personal favorite – chocolate-covered graham crackers. (There’s a chance that he was trying to distract me from the strategy of the game with these snacks, but I could never prove it.) I can’t recall a time when his special snack containers were empty. I could depend on those cookies being there, just like I could depend on the love of my grandparents.
At the beginning of today’s gospel, the people walking along this road to the village of Emmaus feel like everything on which they have depended is gone. This story starts right after our Easter gospel from last Sunday. There have not yet been any Jesus sightings, although the women have told their story of the empty tomb, and Peter has seen for himself that Jesus is no longer there.
The people walking along this road have every reason to believe that Jesus is still dead. They are weighed down by grief, by the shattering of the future they had imagined: “We had hoped,” they say. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem us.”
Suddenly Jesus is there walking with them along the road – but no one realizes who he is. I’m not sure why. Certainly that road to Emmaus is far away from our reality in which every moment of every day is documented and shared with the world, so there wasn’t yet a “#resurrection” movement to follow. Maybe grief had clouded their vision. Maybe a resurrected Jesus looks a little different than the one they had known. Whatever the case, Jesus walks alongside them and talks with them – and even teaches them – without being recognized.
We might wonder why they didn’t know Jesus when he was right there with them, but how often do we miss seeing Jesus too? We know what it’s like to walk through our lives feeling overwhelmed, distracted, weighed down by grief or stress or fear. Every day we are confronted with more violence, this week from Sri Lanka to southern California. The magnitude of it all can keep us from seeing Jesus – especially in the people around us – the people we love most and the people we meet in passing and the people in places around the world. Those people are one way that we encounter Jesus again and again. He is present in all of them, but we sometimes forget to see each other that way.
Do you remember when it is in the story that the people finally recognize Jesus? It’s when they eat together. He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to his friends. And then their eyes are opened.
Does that seem familiar? It sounds a lot like Holy Communion, doesn’t it?
Today we celebrate First Communion for Chloe, Ava, Caitlyn, and Grace. We’ve had a lot of fun learning about this sacrament together. We’ve talked about how Jesus promises to show up when we share this meal. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to get our act together, to have a week of making no mistakes and following all the rules. Jesus is with us in this meal not because we deserve it or have earned the right to receive it, but because he has promised to be here. He has promised to be here with the love and forgiveness that we all need so much.
In Holy Communion Lutherans say that we experience the true presence of Jesus. Sometimes we call it real presence. The wafer and the wine are not just symbols or metaphors. We’re not just re-enacting something that happened centuries ago. Jesus is really here with us now, feeding us and giving us strength to go out and serve others in the ways that he has shown us.
As I was explaining true presence in our First Communion class, I shared a title from one of our Lutheran theologians Timothy Wengert. His chapter about the real presence of Jesus in Holy Communion is called “When Jesus Throws a Party, He Shows Up.” I think it was Ava who said, “Of course he shows up! It’s his party!”
Of course Jesus shows up. It’s his party.
And this party is a gathering of love. A party in which we join with Christians throughout this community and throughout the world, with those who have died and with those who are just being born, with those we have loved and with those we may never meet. We are one in the body of Christ, joined in our call to make sure everyone knows the party is for them too. That’s what those first travelers did: “They told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
We do not walk alone. Like those people on the road to Emmaus, we have good company as grieve together, as we learn together, as we celebrate together, and as we eat together. Jesus is with us. We don’t always notice him. We sometimes wish we could see him more clearly. But he is here.
So he says to us: Hold out your hands. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. I’m right here.
It really is that simple. That simple and that profound. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ