A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
May 4, 2014
The Third Sunday of Easter
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 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; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread (NRSV).
I don’t think you can even begin to imagine how excited I am to preach this morning’s Gospel lesson. My doctoral dissertation was on Luke, and most of one chapter was about this passage from Luke 24. I love this story! And one of the things I love about it is the fact that Jesus himself was walking along with those two disciples and they didn’t know who he was. It makes me wonder how many times he has walked along with us when we didn’t recognize him. But it also makes me wonder how they couldn’t. These weren’t two of the Twelve Disciples, but they were disciples nonetheless. They had been on the road with Jesus; they had heard the sound of his voice, and seen the look in his eye. Luke explains it by saying their eyes were “kept” from recognizing him, but then you have to wonder who was it that was “keeping” them? Was it God? Was he saving it for the surprise ending of this story? Or was it their own minds that kept them from recognizing him? If Robert E. Lee had come up alongside me as I walked to church me this morning, dressed in a Confederate uniform, I probably wouldn’t have said, “General! How are you?” but I might have thought, “These Civil War re-enactments are so authentic! This guy looks exactly like Robert E. Lee!” Those disciples on the road might have thought, “This is incredible: this guy looks exactly like Jesus!” but they didn’t come right out and say, “Jesus! How are you?”
Because they knew Jesus was dead.
They had seen it with their own eyes. In Luke 23 we are told that, “all of Jesus’ acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching these things” when he died (vs. 49). These two were almost certainly in that group. And this would have accounted for their state of mind when Jesus caught up with them. They were headed home, to Emmaus, talking about what they had seen and all the things that had happened in the last few days. The road may have been crowded. The Passover festival was coming to an end. Everyone would be heading home. Jesus could have been perceived as just another pilgrim. But he overheard their conversation and asked them what they were talking about. And that’s when Luke tells us, “they stood still, looking sad.” One of the footnotes in my dissertation mentions that that kind of description is highly unusual in the New Testament. It wasn’t the custom in those times to describe how people looked, or what they were wearing, or how they were feeling. This line reads like something out of a modern novel: “They stood still, looking sad.”
You can almost see them, can’t you?
And you can almost hear them say, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have taken place there in these days?” “What things?” Jesus asks. I love that question; the irony just drips! Here is the one to whom all these things happened asking about the things that have happened to him. At one time I thought Jesus was merely having a little fun with these two, but now I think he really needed to know how they understood the situation. And they tell him. They tell him that Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, had been handed over by the chief priests and elders to be condemned and crucified just three days earlier. “We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel,” they say, meaning, “We had hoped that he was the Messiah, but now he’s dead, and our hopes are dashed.”
Let me say a little more about that:
Traditional Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to come. According to the Judaism 101 website: “Belief in the eventual coming of the Messiah is a basic and fundamental part of traditional Judaism.”[i] Furthermore, “It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the Messiah. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person’s lifetime, then that person will be the Messiah. But if that person dies before he completes the mission of the Messiah, then that person is not the Messiah.”[ii] The “mission of the Messiah” in Jesus’ time was fairly clear: the Jews expected a king who would rout the Romans, restore the kingdom of Israel, sit on the throne of his ancestor David, and preside over an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity.[iii] The disciples on the road to Emmaus had hoped that Jesus would be that person, but now he was dead, and their hope was gone.
Except for one little thing.
Some women in their group had come back from the tomb that very morning with the news that they did not find Jesus’ body there, and that they had seen angels who told them he was alive. “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb,” they added, “and they found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” And this is what they had been puzzling over on the road that afternoon. How did this rumor of resurrection alter their understanding of the Messiah? If he really was alive, how would that change things?
And that’s when Jesus says, “Oh, how thick-headed you are! And how slow-hearted to believe all that the prophets have declared![iv] Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” And then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he began to explain the things that were written about him in the Scriptures. But here’s the problem, at least it was a problem when I wrote my dissertation: Luke doesn’t tell us exactly which passages Jesus referred to. We get some hints in the Book of Acts. When Peter stands up to preach on the Day of Pentecost, he “proves” the Resurrection by quoting from Psalm 16: “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption.” But it may not have been the Resurrection those disciples on the road to Emmaus were having trouble with; it may have been the crucifixion. In their minds the Messiah was supposed to conquer and rule, not suffer and die. They may have been thinking: “If that person dies before he completes the mission of the Messiah, then that person is not the Messiah.”
And that’s where I think—I don’t know, but I think—Jesus may have quoted from Isaiah 53. It’s one of the “suffering servant” passages that the nation of Israel usually applied to itself, but here Jesus may have applied it to himself, and I can only imagine how it would have sounded to those two disciples. Listen:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth…(vss. 7-9). But 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 (vs. 5).
If this was the first time those two on the road had made the connection between that passage and what happened to Jesus it would have been staggering. Their minds would have been reeling. They would have been thinking, “That’s it! That’s it exactly! That’s what happened to Jesus!”
It must have been some Bible study on the road that day, and you can see why these two wouldn’t have wanted it to end. When they got to Emmaus they invited Jesus to come in and stay with them and even fixed him some supper. They asked him to say the blessing and when he had given thanks he broke the bread and that’s when it happened: that’s when they saw him for who he really was. I think they may have remembered seeing him do it at the Last Supper. I think they may have shuddered to hear him talk about his body being broken. But now his broken body meant something else to them altogether. It became the veil in the Temple, torn from top to bottom, so that God could step forth from the Holy of Holies, so that death could be overcome by life. Luke says that in that moment their eyes were opened but maybe it’s just that their minds were finally opened: they were able to see what had been in front of them the entire time—the crucified, dead, buried, and fully risen Christ. And in that same moment he was gone. But they—they gasped with surprise and then shouted for joy, because if it was true that the Messiah had to suffer and then enter into his glory, then Jesus had to be the Messiah, the one they had been waiting for their whole lives! And the dead hope that had been lying at the bottom of their hearts suddenly came to life and leaped from the tomb.
“Didn’t our hearts burn within us!” they said, which may be exactly how it feels when the thing you have always dreamed of begins to come true. In that same hour they got up and raced back to Jerusalem, some seven miles away. They burst into that upper room but before they could catch their breath and share their news someone told them, “The Lord has risen, and has appeared to Simon!” And then they told their story, and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
I’ve been thinking about that story, and about how it might relate to our story, thinking about how sure they were that they had no reason left to hope, except for one little thing: the possibility that Christ had risen. Because if he had risen, well, that would change everything! How many times have we said about something, “We had hoped,” conjugating the verb in the imperfect tense which means we hoped and hoped and hoped that things could be different but finally, in the end, our hope died. Richard Swanson says, “I have heard families use that phrase when they were packing up the things they had brought with them to the ICU. ‘We had hoped … ,’ they say, and then they go home alone. I have heard families use this phrase when addictions return, or jobs go away [or any number of other things that might be mentioned]. Although theologies of hope focus on a dawning future,” Swanson says, “the moment that catches me is that moment of deep disappointment, when only a painfully imperfect verb tense will express what needs to be said.”[v] We had hoped. But if Christ is risen it changes everything, doesn’t it?
Even dead hope can come back to life.
That doesn’t mean that every hope we have deserves to live. There are some hopes—false hopes—that probably need to die. The sooner we crucify them and bury them the better. And if they are false hopes then that’s where they’ll stay. But if they are God’s hopes they will not stay dead. God will not let his Holy One see corruption, and God will not let his holy plans come to naught. God will raise them up again, just as he raised Jesus. We will feel our hearts burning within us as we realize the thing we have always dreamed of is beginning to come true. Let’s remember that the next time we are tempted to say, “We had hoped.” Let’s remember those two disciples on the road to Emmaus thinking their hopes were dead and gone forever, except for one little thing: the rumor that Christ had risen. If that was true, it would change everything.
And it did.
And it does.
Thanks be to God!
[iii] One of the most popular scriptures in that time was from the apocryphal Psalms of Solomon, which said: “Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David, at the time known to you, O God, in order that he may reign over Israel your servant. And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers, and that he may purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample (her) down to destruction” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21-22).
[iv] Thank you, Eugene Peterson.
[v] Richard Swanson’s commentary on Luke 24:13-35 on the Working Preacher website (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1992).
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.