We sometimes sing a 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. John Sherrill has a story like that in his book They Speak with Other Tongues. He talks about how he was in hospital recovering from cancer surgery. He was lying awake at night, in some pain; there was a boy in the room with him too, tossing and turning and sleeping fitfully. And suddenly, in the night, there was a light in the room; it seemed to be centred on the far ceiling. John watched it for a few minutes, curious, and then he said one word: ‘Christ?’ The light didn’t move, he said, but it was as if it enveloped him, and the pain from his wound eased.
John’s roommate turned on his bed, moaning a bit with pain. John said, ‘Christ, could you help that boy?’ And it was as if the light enveloped the boy too, and immediately he slipped into a peaceful sleep. And then the light was gone.
This was obviously a real encounter with the risen Christ that was so powerful that it changed the rest of John Sherrill’s life; he says in his book that for months afterwards, when he tried to tell people about it, he choked up with tears. 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, in a way that’s clear and unambiguous?”
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, 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 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 they were 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 about something that happened on the day of Jesus’ resurrection; he’s using the story to instruct us about how we can meet Jesus today. The appearance will not be unambiguous; we’ll need to have the Holy Spirit ‘open our eyes’ 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; he wants them to know that this does not mean they can’t experience his presence with them. And that includes us; 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.
Let’s explore this passage a little more. I can imagine this couple walking home to Emmaus, ‘talking with each other about all these things that had happened” (v.14). And then along comes a stranger, and he asks them what it is they’re talking about. Out comes the sad story of Good Friday:
“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” (vv.19b-21a)
In other words, “We thought he was the Messiah, but he obviously can’t have been, because if he was, God wouldn’t have abandoned him like that. But he was such a good guy; we really loved him and believed in him”. But then the story goes on:
“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” (vv.22-24).
What do you hear in their words? I hear bitter disappointment, anger at the authorities, confusion about who Jesus really was. I hear a desire to believe in the resurrection, but also a fear of false hopes, and almost a sense of “I told you it was too good to be true!” – “but him they did not see”.
Sometimes when we come together for worship each week, we come like these two disciples – confused, disappointed, wanting to believe but finding it harder than we thought it would be, hurt by the wounds the world has given us. Maybe we remember a time when faith was easy, and we wonder why it’s so difficult now. Maybe we wonder why bad things happen to good people. Maybe we wonder why we seem to find it so hard to have any real sense of connection with the living God. Maybe we even ask those really threatening questions: “Does God really care? Is God silent? Is God even there at all?”
You see, this isn’t just a story of two disciples who met Jesus on a road long ago: it’s a story about us, too. Let’s go on.
The fellow traveller comes and walks with them, and Luke tells us ‘their eyes were kept from recognizing him’ (v.16). This is our experience today too; often Jesus comes to us, but our eyes are kept from recognizing him. After all, we can’t see him, and it’s sometimes hard to believe in someone you can’t see! I’m reminded of the story of a mom who was reading a bedtime story to her little girl, and the doorbell rang. The mom got up to answer the door, but the little girl said, “Don’t leave me by myself, mommy; I’m scared”. “There’s no need to be scared”, says mommy; “Jesus is here with you”. The very wise little girl thought for a minute, and then said, “Send Jesus down to answer the door; you stay here with me”!
As we come together today, I think of Jesus’ promise that “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). But we often forget that, because we can’t see him. We need to ask God to open our eyes and realize that he is coming to us, particularly in the two main parts of this service: the word, and the sacrament.
Look at verse 32: after the risen Jesus had been revealed to the two disciples, 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?” They were referring to what had happened to them earlier in the day; after they had opened their grief and confusion to the stranger, who they didn’t know was Jesus, 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’ (vv.25-27).
What an amazing experience that must have been! In those days most Jewish people would have been familiar with the story the Bible tells, and would have had some parts of it memorized. But the problem these two had was confusion about the role of the Messiah. They believed the Messiah was going to ‘redeem Israel’ – in other words, lead an army and set them free from their enemies. They heard the stories of King David and prayed that God would send them another one like him. But they hadn’t noticed Psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…they have pierced my hands and my feet” (Psalm 22:1a, 16) – or Isaiah 53:
“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. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6).
So Jesus led them in a Bible study, all from memory, going through all the scriptures and pointing out the things that had been fulfilled in his death and resurrection.
Martin Luther once said that ‘the Bible is the cradle where we find the infant Christ’. That’s why each week we read big chunks of the Bible – Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, Gospel. This is important. Some people think it’s just the appetizer, with Communion as the main course, but it’s not! When the Word of God is read and preached, Jesus is present in it, meeting us, teaching us, opening our eyes to his truth. And often we find, as those two found on the road, that he sort of ‘sneaks up’ on us; we don’t realize until afterwards that our hearts were burning within us as we listened to the message of the Scriptures.
Well, going on with the story, the three travelers on the road finally reached the village of Emmaus. The two invited the stranger into their home, and they sat down to eat together.
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. (vv.30-31).
Strictly speaking, this was not a Communion service – it was an evening meal. But still, when Jesus did those actions from the Last Supper, something powerful happened – something supernatural, that Luke could only describe as ‘having their eyes opened’ – and they realized that Jesus had been with them all the time.
My friend Terry, from my last parish, tells a story of something that happened to him not long after he became a Christian. He had struggled with anger issues in the past, and one day he had an experience – I won’t go into detail about it – that he expected would make him very angry, but to his surprise, it didn’t. He puzzled about that for a few days, until he came to church the following Sunday. He told me afterwards, “I was still wondering about it, until I went forward for communion, and when you put the bread in my hands, I suddenly remembered: ‘Oh yeah – I have help now!’” Like the disciples in Emmaus, when the broken bread was put into his hands, he realized that Jesus had been with him all along.
Holy Communion is Jesus’ gift to us. He commanded us to ‘do this in remembrance of him’. He told us that the cup was the new covenant in his blood, pointing to his death as the sacrifice for our sins. He told us that if we eat and drink, we will have his life in us. We’ll spend our whole lives trying to understand these things, but we’re never going to completely get our heads around them! If we wait until we’ve got them figured out, we’ll wait forever, because Communion is one of those things that you can really only understand from the inside. And even then, we won’t understand much of it – but maybe, as the bread is broken and we receive it, we’ll realize Jesus is with us, like those disciples in the house in Emmaus, and like my friend Terry did.
Well, there are many more things we could say about this wonderful reading, but I need to stop now. So let’s just go round this one last time.
We come here each Sunday longing to meet the risen Jesus. Maybe our week has been tough, like these two disciples on the road; maybe we’re hurt, or confused, or angry, or doubting. So Jesus comes to us here and meets us. As the scriptures are read and preached, he opens our hearts and minds to understand what’s written there. But it’s not just an intellectual thing; it’s relational as well. “Our hearts burn within us” as he opens up the word to us. And then comes the sacrament: his body is broken, his blood poured out, and in the bread and wine those gifts are given to us. So we come in faith, holding out our hands, not understanding, but trusting that he will keep his word. And he does: whether we feel anything or not, he has said it, so we can rely on it.
Let’s pray that this will be real in our experience – so real that we won’t be able to keep it to ourselves, like the two at Emmaus, who ran all the way back to Jerusalem to tell what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.