Walking to Easter

We don’t know where to look for Emmaus on the map, but we know the road. We walk on it when loss has turned love into grief. Or when our hope has drained away as though a sinkhole had opened underneath and swallowed it. Emmaus is where we go to walk away from what we cannot forget.

Seven miles is a good long walk. When your heart is heavy and you don’t know who you might become after you’ve pretty much lost all sense of who you are, you go for a walk. Walking gives you something to do. It helps you sort through things. Sometimes you have to be alone – you walk by yourself; you want to be under tall, old trees. And when you know there’s no one else on the trail who could hear you, the words don’t just run through your head anymore, but spill out. You don’t really care who it is you’re talking to, whether it’s yourself, or God, or the trees. You let the anger well up, the disappointment, the doubt, the tears. And you walk; the rhythm of your steps keeps your thoughts and memories from spiraling into chaos. You walk, sometimes by yourself, sometimes with a friend. You tell the story, again and again, to your friend, to yourself, to God, to the trees. Seven miles, that’s a good long walk.

Two of Jesus’ friends, Luke tells us, were on that road – Jerusalem behind them, the city and the events of the last few days. They were trying to cope with the flood that had washed over them: the joy of Jesus’ arrival, the shock of his arrest, the guilt over their painful lack of friendship, the trauma of his execution, and then the astounding story the women told about a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive. It was all too much to take in, and so they walked. A stranger came near and was going with them. Luke tells us that it was Jesus, but they didn’t know that. They didn’t know the man who was walking next to them.

He asked them what it was they were talking about. They stopped and stood for a moment, and then they told the story again; told the man how their hope had grown from a spark to a bright flame in the company of Jesus, and how death had snuffed the flame together with the life of their friend. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped,” they said. Some of us have spoken those words when we were packing up the things we had brought with us to the ICU. “We had hoped,” we said, and then we went home alone. Some of us have used the phrase when we didn’t get the phone call after the job interview that went so well. Some of us were too tired to even say the words when news of yet another atrocity flashed across our screens: Civil war in Syria and South Sudan. Hundreds sentenced to death in Egyptian courts. Over two hundred Nigerian girls abducted from their school because education threatens power.

We had hoped. Emmaus is where we go when we can speak of hope only in the past perfect tense. We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem us from the powers and rulers that oppress us. With every fiber of our being we want to speak of that dreadful Friday in the past perfect, “Our chief priests and leaders had handed him over to be condemned to death and had crucified him, but …”

“But on the third day,” we want to continue… but the two on the road can’t hear that yet. The execution on the cross, that was the public event, the one with all the eyewitnesses. From the road to Emmaus, Good Friday simply rings truer than Easter morning. Good Friday is verifiable, then and now. On the Emmaus road, Good Friday is not only not past perfect, it’s present tense. It is where we live, in the world of betrayal, corruption, violence, death, and shattered hope. “Easter is a rumor by comparison. Someone said that someone saw him, only it didn’t look like him, exactly, and before anyone could believe it was him he was gone. … Now you see him, now you don’t.”[1]

Rumors. Baffling tales. The two travelers told the stranger the story of their dreams and disappointments, and they were quite unable to see outside of their own story. The things they kept rehearsing in their hearts kept them from seeing that it was Jesus, the risen Christ himself who was walking with them.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion are not as famous as Mary or Peter. We never hear of them again; they are like us, ordinary people struggling to keep hope alive. They are also, like us, folk who sometimes struggle to see outside of our own story. Slow-of-heart folk. The story of the resurrection of Jesus is the story outside of our stories, it is the story of God’s faithfulness surrounding our stories of lost hope, the story of God’s creative and redemptive possibilities enveloping our stories of dead ends. It is also the story inside all of our stories. Now you see it, now you don’t.

The stranger listened, and then he retold the story they had just finished, told it right back to them, and in the telling, he wove their loss of hope into the fabric of God’s faithfulness. Now they could hear the confusing rumors of resurrection as echoes of God’s promises to God’s people. Now they could begin to see that the suffering and death of Jesus was not the end of their hope, but somehow a part of it. In the stranger’s words, the promises of scripture opened up like blossoms, and the two companions opened up along with them. “Stay with us,” they urged him when they reached the village and he was walking ahead as if he were going on. “Stay with us; it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. And there, at the kitchen table, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. That’s when they recognized him. That’s when it dawned on them. That’s when the resurrection was no longer a rumor or an idle tale, but their life, their world renewed.

Once they had recognized him in the stranger, in the scriptures illumined by his presence, in the breaking of the bread, they no longer needed to see him. He vanished from their sight. The risen One walks with us on the road through the wasteland of lost hope until we see that the power of God’s suffering love makes all things new. Now we see it, now we don’t.

“The sacred moments,” wrote Fred Buechner, “the moments of miracle, are often the everyday moments, the moments which, if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only… the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our … imagination (…) what we may see is Jesus himself.”[2] The risen Christ subverts our ways of knowing, making an ordinary moment shine with glory and opening to us a horizon of hope and courage we cannot perceive with our minds alone. Before we recognize the risen Christ in the stranger, in the scriptures, and in the breaking of the bread, we try to squeeze what we are told happened on Easter into our understanding of the world. We try hard to make it fit. Afterward, it’s the other way around. Now, how we understand the world is held in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. And how we understand life is illuminated by this divine passion for communion with creation, the pssion that has broken down the gates of hell, the chains of sin, and the tombs of death.

We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what will become of Syria and South Sudan, or of Ukraine and Russia. We don’t know how many executions there will be in Egypt or in Tennessee before we stop killing each other in the name of justice. We don’t know how long girls will be obducted and sold in Nigeria and elsewhere before their lives and freedom will finally be honored. We simply do not know what the future holds. But we believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead. We believe in God who is redeeming all things through Christ.

In his book Why Christian?, theologian Douglas John Hall engages in a series of dialogues with an imagined conversation partner, someone who is “on the edge of faith.” The final conversation in the book is about hope, and Hall talks about resurrection:

Resurrection is the ultimate declaration of God’s grace. It is not ... natural. It is not ... automatic. It is wholly dependent upon the faithfulness, forbearance, and love of God. And just for that reason - only that! - I am able, usually, to sleep at night, to continue playing the piano and writing (…) and taking my aging body more or less for granted “in the meantime.” Because the only thing of which I can be at all confident when I think of my own “not being” is that God will be. I am not so presumptuous as to think that the God who “brought again our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead” (Heb. 13:20) will also, quite naturally, be pleased to bring me from the dead, too. I don’t understand all that. (…) I do not, and I expect I never shall, understand all that. All that I can do is to stand under it.[3]

It’s much more than just a clever word play. All that I can do is to stand under the great promise that gives me hope and sets me free.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s words,  

Deciding to trust the contours of this new reality more than they trust their accustomed sense of things, the [disciples] themselves are changed. They stop hiding and start seeking. They stop making excuses and start moving mountains. They sell all of their stuff and put the proceeds in a common pot so that no one is in need. They lay their hands on the sick. They defy the authorities. They never tire of telling people who gave them the courage to do such things, and they become known for their glad and generous hearts. (…) their way of life becomes contagious. [4]

They become Easter people.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Easter Sermon,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 1995), 10-14.

[2] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 87-88

[3] Douglas John Hall. Why Christian? (Kindle Locations 2113-2119). Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Easter Preaching and the Lost Language of Salvation,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 2002), 18-25.