April 26, 2020
William G. Carter
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
This is a favorite Easter story for me and for many. After all the commotion on Easter morning, two disciples go for a late afternoon walk. It sounds like they were heading home to a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The Passover holiday had been disrupted by the arrest of their friend Jesus. He had died a brutal death and was buried in a borrowed tomb. On that very morning, news came that the tomb had been cracked open and his body was missing. So they go for a walk.
On the way, Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple are joined by a stranger. We know who it is, but they do not. Not yet. They are caught up in conversation, talking through the traumatic events of the past three days. The Stranger says, “What are you talking about?” It stops them in their tracks.
Cleopas responds, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things going on?” He says, “What things?” And the sad disciple replies, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet.”
This is where the story begins. We are going to hover here for a bit. Because if there is anything Luke’s Gospel that he has repeatedly said about Jesus, it is that he talks like a prophet.
According to Luke, the first sermon Jesus preached was the sermon of a prophet. That day in Nazareth, he opened the scroll of Isaiah, found his place, and announced the Day of Jubilee had come. Then he declared, “This Word is now completed in your hearing.” They all smiled, and nodded, and said, “Doesn’t he talk good?”
But then Jesus told them what prophets like Isaiah could see more clearly than the rest of us: that God loves the Gentile as much as the Jew. With that, they jumped to their feet, grabbed him, and tried to throw him off a cliff. And that was his very first sermon! That time he slipped away, and he explained the event by saying, “A prophet is never received in his own hometown.”
He was right about that. The hometown crowd had already dismissed him as a well-known neighborhood kid. They weren’t ready to receive him as the One who brings the Word of God. In the Bible, that’s what a prophet comes to do. The prophet doesn’t gaze into a crystal ball and predict the future. The prophet speaks the Word of God and does so in the present tense. The prophet says, “Today the scripture is fulfilled.” When the people experience that, some brighten up and others aren’t so sure they want the prophet to stick around.
Did Cleopas and the other disciple forget how they themselves characterized Jesus? “He was a prophet.” What did they expect?
According to the Gospel of Luke, there was a truthful edge to everything Jesus said.
· Asked to identify a neighbor, he wove a story about the outcast Samaritan who shows compassion (10:25-37). That story made his neighbors angry.
· Answering complaints about his inclusivity, Jesus spun another tale, a tale about the Father who welcomed back the wayward child while his older brother snarled about it out in the field (15:13-32). The Pharisees snarled about that one.
· Taking notice of the exclusive invitations to a dinner party and the jostling for good seats, Jesus said to the host, “Next time you have a party, invite the poor, invite the wounded, invite the people who could never throw a party for you.” (14:7-14)
This is how a prophet speaks for God. The prophet is more interested in telling the truth than making friends.
Luke says this is how the story of Jesus unrolls. His prophetic work divided the crowd. Those who were desperate to hear a word from God couldn’t get enough of Jesus. And those who believed they were anointed to protect the words God once spoke are the very ones who wanted to get rid of Jesus, the prophet who now speaks. All of them should have known better. But the truth was hidden.
This is the larger backdrop of today’s familiar story. Two disappointed disciples go for a walk in the country. As the Stranger draws near to walk with them, did you notice how the Incognito Jesus draws them out? “What things? What are you talking about?”
They speak their sadness of how Jesus didn’t turn out as they hoped. Every day they saw his mighty works. They knew he had the approval of both God and the poor. They affirmed him as the Messiah and expected him to redeem all the people. Instead he was captured, condemned, and killed by their own religious leaders.
And then, that very morning, news came that women found the tomb empty. Yet the disappointment of these disciples is so deep, so real, that they would not trust the word. They regarded it as an idle tale.
That’s when the Stranger stops walking and starts talking. “How foolish you are,” he says. “Your hearts are so stodgy.” Later on, they will reflect, this was the moment when those stodgy, slow hearts began to burn. And yet for the time being they still don’t see him.
This is the way the Gospel of Luke describes the truth of Easter. For this writer, the issue is not whether Jesus is alive. Rather, the issue is why more people don’t see him now. For Luke, now as then, it’s the same reason: because they didn’t yet understand the scriptures. According to the story, this is why “their eyes were kept from seeing him.”
As Luke tells it, Jesus has been called to proclaim two interlocking invitations: the whole-hearted love for God and the radical love of neighbor. There was nothing new about this. Jesus speaks what the prophets of God had always spoken. In turn, he was dismissed as the prophets of God were always dismissed. So on the road to Emmaus, he opens the scriptures for them.
· From the books of Moses, Leviticus 16: “He will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been.” He will atone for them and reunite them with God.
· From the prophetic writings, Isaiah 53: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” The Servant will suffer as he brings us back to God.
· From the psalms, Psalm 110: “The Lord said my lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a stool for your feet.” In other words, this is ongoing work. God has raised Jesus to keep winning over his enemies.
Now, it was a seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. At a leisurely pace, that’s about two hours of instruction. Two hours of understanding what kind of Messiah God has sent to us. He will free us from our own sin. He will suffer for doing so. He will keep working to overcome everything that opposes God’s work in the world.
According to one scholar, this is precisely the reason why Jesus didn’t simply appear to them on the road and say, “Hey, here I am.” First, they needed to see Jesus as God has sent him: humble, vulnerable, misunderstood, yet healing, forgiving, and always telling the truth. He was rejected by the world but approved by God. He was crucified yet he forgave the human ignorance that put him on the cross. He was pushed away, but now he draws near on the road. Luke wants us to know this is the way of God in the world.
It is an astonishing Easter story, for it proclaims two truths about us and about God. The truth about us is that we push God away. Perhaps we think we know better. Or we believe the lie that we are self-sufficient. Or we simply don’t like to be pushed or challenged. So we push God away. That’s the truth about us.
The second truth is far greater, the truth about the God that saves us. And here it is: the God we know in Jesus Christ comes back. Out of sheer grace and complete persistence, Christ comes back. The One we thought was gone is now inescapable. The One that the world dismissed now walks with us, whether we see him or not. And he will not back off from his prophetic work, calling us to love God and love neighbor.
As the two-hour Bible lesson was winding up, Cleopas, the other, and the anonymous Stranger drew near to the little town of Emmaus. It was getting late, and the Stranger was traveling to travel on. But they urged him, begged him, to come and stay the night. With a slow smile, he agreed.
You heard what happened: at the table, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Suddenly they saw him, truly saw him. And maybe, at some level of comprehension, they saw what they had known it all along. It was the opening of the scriptures that opened their understanding of who Jesus truly is. And the breaking of the bread sealed it on their newly awakened hearts.
Now that they are convinced he is alive, Jesus vanishes. According to the story, they weren’t sad about that. If anything, that’s when their joy began. They had received an extraordinary gift from him, and just like him, they had miles to go before they would sleep.
It’s a rich story. There are a lot of lessons teased out of it. There is the breaking open of the scriptures and the breaking of the bread, forever holding together the importance of Word and Sacrament. There is the revelation that Christ is alive and the hint that he walks among us. And there is the somewhat comical detail that those of love Jesus most might not be able to recognize him.
What emerges for me, and what I pass on to you, is that the Risen Christ is not sitting on a distant cloud somewhere. He is still very much with us as the scriptures are opened and the Word of God is released again. Our Lord and Savior continues to speak as a prophet. He will not abandon us to stale thinking or fearful flights of foolishness. The Lord knows there is plenty of all that to go around.
No, he speaks the truth that is greater than mere human opinion. When he does, the truth comes with a kind of heavenly heartburn. Christ challenges us to believe deeper and love wider. He confronts our suppositions. He will not let us put him on a first-century shelf or keep him in an unopened Bible. Jesus Christ is alive and hs is still speaking.
As a preacher of the early church affirms, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).” And Christ will keep speaking his prophetic Word until every available human heart loves God and befriends the neighbor.
There are a lot of reasons to go to church, even a technological worship service like this one. Some of us tune in out of habit. Others go for comfort, for a sense of solace. Some are here because friends are also here. Still others go to confirm what they think they already know.
But after hearing this Easter story again, could I suggest the best reason of all? How about if we go to worship to hear Christ open the scriptures? To encounter his voice as he challenges us to love how he loves. To discover all over again that he is alive. To picture him at the center of all life, for surely he is. To perceive how much he loves all of us. To receive the living bread that he breaks and puts into our hearts.
For Jesus Christ is alive. And the best evidence of Easter is how he speaks to us when the scriptures are opened.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.