May 10, 2020
Luke 24: 13-35
Last week it was sentence starters. This week our Kindergarten homeschool students are learning to identify the beginning, middle and end of a story. They’re writing very short paragraphs about Pete the Cat, Amelia Bedelia or Rickytickytimbonosarimbosorryborryruchipipberrypimbo. That last one’s not true – nobody wants to write that name out. Even by the tender age of six they are learning that the story develops, but the main characters should remain the same.
Last week Meg used Harry Potter so let’s roll with that. In the first book you meet Harry, and then Ron and Hermione and then you follow those characters through the ups and downs of all their adventures. Now what would you say if JK Rowling got to book seven and just as Harry goes a’hunting for Horcruxes she abandons him altogether and turns the camera instead on Chad. We as the reader might justifiably say “Wait a second, I don’t know Chad. I don’t want to know Chad. I don’t care about Chad. Go back to Harry NOW!”
Every author knows that is no way to structure a proper story.
So let me ask you – why does Luke do exactly that in the final chapter of this Gospel?
Why is it that Luke does just that in the final chapter of this Gospel. A reading from the twenty-fourth chapter.
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.
Not Peter. Not James or John. Hey it’s Mother’s Day. How about Mary? Nope – Luke is having none of it. Instead we’re stuck with Cleopas and, well the other one doesn’t even have a name. Let’s call him No-Name. And don’t blink folks, this is the one and only time you’ll see them. And yet Luke insists that we experience the risen Christ through the eyes of these heretofore unmentioned disciples.
They’re walking to Emmaus. Luke tells us that’s a 7 mile journey from Jerusalem. In truth, there actually is no archaeological site to verify that such a town existed.
Jerusalem of course is very real. Cleopas and No-Name had followed Jesus to the great city, believing that something amazing would happen there – that Jesus would be the one to make everything right. And Jerusalem was where they were greeted as heroes with waving palm branches. But Jerusalem is also where everything went terribly wrong – where Jesus was crucified and all of their hopes with him.
Jerusalem is all-too real. Emmaus however is a bit more fuzzy. So why don’t we say that Emmaus is the place you run to when life goes horribly wrong.
Jesus comes alongside of them on that road. He asks them a question that could begin any one of a thousand conversations: “What were you talking about?” And then comes a truly exquisite narrative detail. Luke says “They stood still, looking sad.”
Think about that. In a story characterized by motion, by disciples running away, they stood still. It’s such a helpless posture.
Is that not Death’s most powerful weapon? The way it can bring all of life to a grinding halt.
It’s been a month since the anniversary but this time of year my mind usually comes back to the April evening when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in Memphis. The photographs from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel are seared into the national consciousness. Joseph Louw is the name of the man who captured the image. He was staying just three doors down from King on that fateful evening. He heard a loud pop and rushed out to see what had happened.
For a moment he stood there on the balcony paralyzed. Death had made its presence known and it had frozen Joseph in his tracks.
He later recalled snapping out of it and thinking “I must record this for the world to see.” So he lifted the camera around his neck and captured the iconic image of Dr. King’s body on the balcony, surrounded by his friends, one of them cradling his head, three of them standing and pointing to a rooftop in the distance where they could see the shooter getting away.
It’s such a helpless posture. Death had come and all those men could do was point at it. Or take a picture of it. They stood still, looking sad.
Cleopas finally responds to the question. He tells this oblivious stranger about Jesus, how he had been put to death, and then Cleopas adds yet another exquisitely heart-breaking line: “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
“We had hoped.” Is there anything more sad than hope in the past tense?
I had hoped that the treatment would work, that we could beat this disease. But death came anyway.
I had hoped that this relationship would bring me happiness – but then it all went wrong.
I had hoped that you could learn to love yourself, but the chemicals in your body just would not allow it.
Cleopas and No Name might be walking to Emmaus, but the truth is they are stuck in a past tense hope.
The turning point in the story comes when this stranger, invited in for dinner, takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it. Now that sounds familiar, right? It’s the language of communion. And that is when their eyes are opened and they see him. Jesus, if even for a second, was standing right before them. They may have been stuck; standing still and sad under the dominion of death, but Jesus was right there with them the whole time. That was enough to set their hearts on fire. And after that they were not stuck at all. Cleopas and No Name got up right then and there and went back to Jerusalem, back to the very situation they had been running from.
I think herein lies Luke’s genius: why does he end this Gospel with two characters we’ve never heard of before? Why does he not even bother giving one of them a name?
Because he knows that this story must not get stuck in one time and place. He knows that the story of Christ’s followers must go on and on and on.
No Name is you. No Name is me. It’s the Gospel’s great “Fill in the Blank,” Luke’s gift to those who would follow Jesus in every tomorrow.
It’s nothing short of amazing to think that all those centuries ago, Luke could imagine generations as of yet unborn who would want to be a part of this story.
And we have entered the story. We know what it’s like to come to a full stand still in the face of death.
And we also know what it is to be at table and suddenly sense a love that satisfies our deepest hungers, our eyes opened to a gift that was there all along. The Risen Christ is with us, friends, with you and me. We may only catch the most fleeting glimpse of him – but someday it will be enough to send us back with hearts on fire to the places we’ve retreated from, so that the story of the death-defeating, hope-restoring love of God can go on. May it be so. Amen.