Our current culture tends to encourage us to leave the past behind us and to live in the present moment. For people that have a tendency to get bogged down by prior mistakes there is a certain amount of good advice in that, but in general, if we don’t ever look back, 1) we fail to analyze and learn from our mistakes and 2) we fail to see God’s hand in the difficult times of our lives.
If you read the Bible, the Israelites were constantly looking back for the purpose of remembering 1) the ways they failed to obey God’s commandments and the consequences they suffered as a result and 2) God’s mercy and forgiveness and constant saving them from themselves.
It is difficult to be objective in our observations when we are in the middle of a crisis, but when it is behind us, we often find that what was lost opened a door for something to be gained: a lost job opened the door for a new adventure, a lost relationship opened the door for a different and more meaningful one or the freedom to be more creative, to travel, to learn something new.
Our story in today’s gospel is about some people who are in the middle of a crisis and it is only in looking back that they realize Christ was walking with them through it all.
Two of Jesus’ disciples are walking down the road toward the town of Emmaus from Jerusalem. We are not told specifically, but it is likely that they lived in Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem and had traveled by foot, which was the common method of travel at that time, to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. They had been following the teachings of this new young rabbi named Jesus and he too was in Jerusalem for the Passover. These two were not part of the inner circle that ate dinner with Jesus on Thursday night, but part of the larger crowed that had followed him. One of them is named Cleopas, and it is the only time he is mentioned in scripture. Perhaps they had been among the five thousand that Jesus fed with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Perhaps they had heard him preach or been among the crowds who experienced healing at his hands. They may have been among those who laid down palm branches and their cloaks for Jesus the previous Sunday. I suspect they were among the crowds that witnessed his crucifixion on Friday. Saturday was the Sabbath and travel was forbidden, but today, Sunday they are headed home and their conversation turns to the events of the prior week.
Jesus approached the two on the road and joins in the conversation by asking them what they are talking about. Who is this man, they wonder, that has no idea what happened in Jerusalem this week? They do not recognize Jesus and he does not reveal to them who he is. They proceed to tell him about Jesus’s trial and crucifixion, about his burial and the fact that his tomb was found empty this morning. They share the news that some women had been to the tomb and had reported visions of angels who told them Jesus was alive, but (and I can just hear them) “you know women, the guys went and saw the empty tomb, but no Jesus, no angels.” There is doubt in their voices. There is despair and dismay because the hope that they once had for Israel’s salvation has suddenly been taken away.
Jesus is amazed at the direction their conversation is going. These are apparently individuals who have studied the scriptures, yet they have failed to understand what they have read. Jesus chastises them for their foolishness, their lack of faith in the words of the prophets, and their failure to understand what they have just witnessed. His chastisement must have been done in a kindly manner because he goes on to teach them what the scriptures say and why the Messiah must suffer. There is no indication that they resent him voicing his opinion and telling them they have totally misunderstood everything about their religious beliefs, in fact as the get close to the turn-off for their village, Jesus moves on ahead of them and they call him back, inviting him to stay with them that evening. This was probably not that unusual. Nighttime on the roads back then was very dangerous. There are no fast food restaurants where one can freshen up and grab a bite to eat. Generous hospitality was a way of life with some strict rules because looking out for one another was a life or death matter in this harsh environment. They urge Jesus to come abide with them and he agrees. “Ask and you shall receive” This verse was never intended to be about stuff, but about the presence of Christ’s Spirit. Jesus does not force himself on anyone, but if we invite him into our lives, he never turns down the invitation.
At dinner, they invite Jesus to have the honor of breaking and blessing the bread. As soon as he completes this act, they recognize him. John is being subtle, but he is reminding us that it is in the breaking of the bread, in the Holy Eucharist, that Christ’s presence is most easily recognized by us. Then Jesus does the same disappearing act that occurs in most of his post-resurrection visitations. His purpose has been served, their eyes were opened, and Jesus moves on to visit others. Jesus is no longer bound by the restraints to time and space that we currently experience, yet he makes it clear that he is still fully human. At other times he allows people to touch him to see that he is flesh and blood, not a ghostly phantom. He eats in people’s presence.
These men, pause and think back about their conversation with Christ on the road and they realize that their hearts had been “burning within us” the whole time they had been talking with Christ. Jesus had taken them back through the history of their people, all the way back to Moses to show what God was doing in their midst, then they looking back at the events that led up to their seeing the risen Jesus for who he was, filled them with joy and excitement and hope for the future.
John tells us that after Jesus’ disappearance they got up from the table and rushed back to Jerusalem – a seven mile walk in the middle of the night on dangerous roads, and they sought out the eleven, those who were known to be Jesus’ closest companions, in order to give them the Good News that Jesus was alive. By this time, Jesus has already appeared to Peter, and the eleven now also believed the women. Everyone was gathered together sharing their joy and excitement.
Are you aware of the presence of Jesus walking with you? Have you invited him to come into your home, to bless and break bread with you? Can you look back on your life and see God’s hand at work even during the difficult and trying times? Has your heart ever been “burning inside you” and looking back you realize that was the presence of the Holy Spirit lifting you up when your heart was heavy? Have you read the scriptures and seen God’s hand at work for thousands of years guiding and rescuing his people?
These are difficult times. I am not going to pretend that is not so. But Jesus didn’t promise peace and prosperity. He promised wars, famine, pestilence, earthquakes (Matt 24:7) and a cross, that is life here on earth, but he also promised to be there with us and he promised resurrection as the final outcome. My prayer is that you will ask Jesus to come stay with you, that your eyes will be opened, and that you will know the joy that these two found, the joy that inspired them to turn around and go back to Jerusalem to share the Good News.