Walking to Emmaus with Jesus (a sermon on Luke 24:13-35)

We sometimes sing an old worship song around here that goes like this:

‘Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus,
to reach out and touch him, and say that we love him.
Open our ears, Lord, and help us to listen;
open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus’.

This song expresses the longing of our hearts in this Resurrection season. At this time of year we read the stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after his resurrection, and maybe when we read those stories we feel just a little envious; maybe we think, “I wish I had been there. I wish he would appear to me too. Then I’d believe in him and I’d never doubt again”.

There are some people today who tell stories of mystical encounters with Jesus. One of them is Anthony Bloom, who had been a young doctor in Paris during World War Two. He was an atheist, but one day he found himself at a meeting where a priest was speaking about Jesus and the Christian faith. Anthony found himself getting angrier and angrier at the things that the priest was saying, but he was an honest man and he knew he should investigate them and find out if they were true. So he went home, found a copy of the gospels, and started to read. Here is how he describes what happened next:

Before I reached the third chapter, I suddenly became aware that on the other side of my desk there was a presence. And the certainty was so strong that it was Christ standing there that it has never left me. This was the real turning point. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the crucifixion of the prophet from Galilee was true and the centurion was right when he said, “Truly he is the Son of God”.

Strictly speaking, this was not an ‘appearance’ of Jesus – Anthony didn’t see anything – but it was obviously a real encounter with the risen Christ that was so powerful that it changed the rest of his life. And again, when we hear stories like this, we might find ourselves just a little bit envious. “Why can’t I have an experience like that? If Jesus is alive, why doesn’t he show himself to me?”

But wait a minute – in the gospels, the resurrection appearances of Jesus weren’t always clear and unambiguous. Let me remind you of a detail that we often forget: when he appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead, they often didn’t recognize him at first. When Mary Magdalene met the risen Jesus beside the empty tomb, we read that she ‘saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus’ (John 20:14); she didn’t recognize him until he spoke her name, “Mary”. Later on, in John chapter 21, after the disciples had been fishing on the lake all night long, we read that ‘Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus’ (John 21:4). We might think it was because the light wasn’t very good, but a little later on, when they were sitting and eating breakfast with Jesus, John adds, ‘Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?”’ (21:12) – a very strange thing to say, don’t you think, if it was absolutely clear who he was?

We get the same thing in our gospel reading for today, the story of the walk to Emmaus. The two disciples – perhaps a married couple – were walking on the road. ‘While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him’ (Luke 24:15-16). It wasn’t until he was sharing a meal with them later that evening, and he ‘took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’, that ‘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?”’ (24:30-32).

Luke isn’t just telling us a story of something that happened on the day of Jesus’ resurrection; he’s using the story to instruct us about how we can meet Jesus for ourselves today. The appearance will not be unambiguous; we’ll need to have the Holy Spirit open the eyes of our hearts so we can recognize his presence in the scriptures and the breaking of bread. But you can be sure that Luke knows exactly what he’s doing: he’s writing his gospel for a generation of Christians who have not seen the Risen Jesus with their physical eyes; he wants them to know that this does not mean they can’t experience his presence with them. Their eyes – our eyes – can be opened too, so that we can see him in places where at first we didn’t recognize him. And two of the most common of those places are the Scriptures, and the breaking of bread, or Holy Communion.

Read the rest here.

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