And so we walk

I come from a family of walkers. My grandparents never drove anywhere. My grandmother walked to the village to do her shopping or she walked to the bus stop to drive to the city. My grandfather walked to the leather factory every work day and to church on Sunday, he walked to the chicken coop, he walked to his apple orchards on the hill behind the house and on the other side of the valley, he walked in the forest. The only thing with wheels he ever operated was a rattly handcart to bring home sacks of apples to make cider or firewood for the kitchen stove.

My dad drove to work in the city every day. My mother got a driver’s license in her thirties, but one day she backed into another car in a parking lot, nothing big, just a broken tail light, but that was the end of it. She never drove anywhere again. She walked to church, she walked to do her shopping, and she walked to the tram stop when she needed to go to the city. She’s 83, and she still walks pretty much anywhere she needs to go. Occasionally she takes a taxi home when her bag of groceries got a little heavier than expected.

I come from a family of walkers. My siblings and I walked to school every day until fourth grade, and then we walked to the tram stop to get to school in the city. We walked to church, to youth group, to the pool in summer, or to visit friends. One of my friends lived in another village, on the other side of the hill, about five or six miles away, and I loved walking there. I had already discovered that there’s nothing better than walking to think about stuff; it’s something about the rhythm of simply putting one foot in front of the other and letting your thoughts wander.

I wasn’t surprised when I first heard about veterans hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail or the entire U.S. from coast to coast. These warriors seek healing for their wounded souls, hiking by themselves or in groups. Walking is more than a mode of transportation for them; it helps them sort things out, particularly the things they couldn’t just leave behind when they came home from the battle field. Rebecca Solnit wrote, “We are eternally perplexed by how to move toward forgiveness or healing or truth, but we know how to walk from here to there, however arduous the journey.”[1] Life itself is described as a journey, most often imagined as a journey on foot--unless, of course, you sail through life or you cruise up and down easy street.

Jesus and the disciples walked everywhere they went; first from village to village in Galilee, and then all the way to Jerusalem. Walking with Jesus was not just a matter of getting from here to there for them. Walking with Jesus the disciples learned to follow him on the way. They learned that following wasn’t just a matter of their minds absorbing his teachings; it was something they did with their feet, with their whole bodies, it was a particular way of being in the world, a particular walk.

They followed him to Jerusalem, full of hope and expectation, and then things just seemed to fall apart: the temple leadership, the Romans, the crowds, betrayal and arrest, fear and denial, and the terror of the cross. It was as though their whole world collapsed overnight. All they could do was stand and watch from a distance as Jesus was crucified and died. That was the end of it.

We don’t know where to look for Emmaus on the map, the scholars haven’t been able to locate it, but we know the road. It’s where we walk when loss has turned love into pain. Or when our hope has dried up and we can’t tell if we’re sad, furious, or tired. It’s where we walk when faith is little more than a memory. When you have no idea who you might become after you’ve lost pretty much all sense of who you are, you either find yourself a room to hide in or you walk the Emmaus road. Walking gives you something to do; it helps you sort things out; it gives rhythm to the waves of your thoughts and feelings and keeps them from crashing again and again into chaos.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams is the name of a Green Day song that became a signature hit for them back in 2004. “I walk a lonely road,” the lyrics go. “My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me / My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating / Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me / Till then I walk alone”

Sometimes you walk alone. Sometimes you wish you had somebody to walk with you, somebody to listen to your story.

The two disciples were on the road together. They were talking about the flood of events that had washed over them over the course of the past week: the joy of Jesus’ arrival in the city, the shock of his arrest, the guilt they bore for abandoning him, the trauma of his execution, and then, earlier that day, 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. It was Jesus himself, Luke tells us, but they didn’t know that. All they knew were the brutal facts of Friday and the numbness of Saturday and the story the women had told them. Friday was painfully real. The crucifixion was designed to be seen and witnessed by the public. Friday had weight. Friday was verifiable. Betrayal, fear, torture, death, hope shattered and silenced – there was a record of Friday, engraved on their hearts. Easter was 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.[2] Glimmers. Rumors. Baffling tales.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion are not as famous as Mary Magdalene or Peter. We never hear of them again; they were like us, ordinary people struggling to get some perspective on life beyond the wreckage and devastation of Friday. And like us, they were slow-of-heart folk who needed some time to integrate the word that God had raised Jesus from the dead into their own stories. And so they told the stranger about Jesus and how they had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. And then the stranger walked them through the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets. He taught them to recognize the things that had taken place in Jerusalem not only as part of God’s story with creation, but as the heart of that story. With the stranger as teacher, the rumors of resurrection can be heard as echoes of what God has promised. With the stranger as teacher, the suffering and death of God’s Messiah can be recognized as the depth of God’s redeeming love for humanity.

The first disciples began to read and reread the Scriptures in the light of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The ancient texts gave them the language to speak about what God had done through Jesus Christ, and in turn the cross and resurrection became the lens through which they were able to perceive the full depth of Israel’s witness to the faithfulness of God. For these insights they did not give credit to their own cleverness, but pointed to the Risen One himself as their teacher, to a revelation that cannot be manipulated, but is altogether gift. The story only gives us a couple of hints: to be prepared to encounter the risen Christ in our fellow travelers on the road and to be attentive to strangers, to show them hospitality, because through them the Living One may choose to reveal himself to us.

The walk to Emmaus is the walk from hopelessness and rumors of Easter to the world made new by the faithfulness of God. At first, we struggle to squeeze what we are told happened on Easter into our understanding of how the world works. When our eyes have been opened, though, we begin to see how the world fits into the new reality of Easter. The resurrection is no longer the odd event we can’t quite square with our knowledge of the world; it becomes the new horizon that allows us to see all things surrounded and held by God’s mercy. How we understand life and loss and hope now is illuminated by this divine passion for communion that has broken down the gates of hell, by a love more powerful than sin and death. Trusting the contours of this new reality more than our accustomed sense of things is what we call resurrection faith.

Theologian Douglas John Hall wrote 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:

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]

This is not just a clever word play. We stand under the promise of life’s redemption and fulfillment through Christ. And so we walk with him who revealed to us the heart of God.


[1] Wanderlust, 50.

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

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

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