13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven milesfrom Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. 18 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?" 19 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, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 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…
25 Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiahshould suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 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. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within uswhile he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?"
The Servant Girl at Emmaus
She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his -- the one
who looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one had ever looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?
Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he laid on the dying and made them well?
Surely that face -- ?
The man they'd crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning,
Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don't recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she is in the kitchen, absently touching
the winejug she's to take in,
a young […] servant intently listening,
swings around and sees
the light around him
and is sure.
We heard part of the Easter story today from the gospel according to Luke. This gospel tells the intriguing story of the meeting on the road to Emmaus.
What is the popular image of the Christian story of Jesus’ resurrection today? Isn’t it something dramatic and glorious? The son of God reappearing triumphant after death… He should be glowing with a radiant golden light. He should be surrounded by cherubim with their perfect little wings fluttering and impossibly beautiful music coming from their perfect mouths.
This is not the story we are told though…
We learn instead of a mystery – an awkwardness – fear – an empty tomb. The body has vanished. Later, two of Jesus’ followers are walking along the road toward Emmaus. We can only imagine their pain. On the Friday before – the day we call good Friday -- the one they revered, the one expected to rescue their people from oppression, the one they thought would usher in a new day of freedom, the one who was to be the highest of the high had been killed in the manner reserved for the lowest of the low – hung from a Roman cross.
The two encounter a stranger and, at his prompting, talk about Jesus and all that has happened – the story leading from great hope through to the execution and humiliation and then the baffling report that the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid is now inexplicably empty.
We – the readers – know the identity of this mysterious stranger. We know that he is Jesus resurrected and returned, but his followers do not recognise him until much later, when he breaks bread at their table. And then vanishes…
With this appearance of the resurrected Jesus, hope – like the budding of leaves on trees or spring flowers slipping silently from their underground hiding places – returns to the people.
Easter comes at the time of year when life returns to our world. It is no coincidence. The name Easter comes from a Pagan source – Oestre – a Germanic goddess of spring and fertility. Easter arrives with the spring and the resurrection of life from winter’s barren landscape.
The resurrection of Jesus plays a crucial role in Christian theology, which includes an understanding that Jesus came to offer salvation and eternal life. Nonetheless, resurrection itself has been a common theme in religious mythology. The stories of any number of deities include death and triumphant rebirth.
Recurring mythological themes always point to something important. Can there be a more important and powerful story for us than rebirth? Just as life returns after winter’s cold, each of us experiences times in our lives where our green life has died off – in the aching pain of loss, the dark depth of depression, the shattering of our dearest hopes and dreams.
And in these times, we too enter that tomb – without air, warmth, light – we are closed off to life seemingly forever.
We do not remain there forever though. In an almost miraculous way, we are reborn. From somewhere that we often can not begin to understand, light and warmth and love return to our lives and our hearts and once again we learn to live fully and freely.
This miracle too, comes without the aura of radiant golden light or choirs of angels.
It is a gradual miracle – the kind we encounter every day. And it is not a miracle that comes unaided or without effort. Jesus’ escape from the tomb remains a mystery – and it was sudden. Escape from the tombs of despair or depression is mysterious in its own way.
This resurrection is slow and tentative. Step by cautious step, we learn again how to be alive:
How to notice the sunshine of a beautiful day
How to trust a friendly hand or greeting
How to laugh without pain
How to smile without the thought of what could or should have been
How to dream and hope once again
They did not recognise Jesus. This was the Messiah – the resurrected son of God – the divine incarnate – and they could not recognise him as they walked and talked with him.
How can we understand this? After recognising him at last, we are told “their eyes were opened.” Jesus was not hidden, and yet they could not see. Their eyes were closed. And it is then that they recall what they felt in their encounter: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…?”
Would we have done any better than the two who walked along the road to Emmaus? Would our eyes be open to the sacredness in front of us? Would we have the sensitivity to notice the burning of our hearts?
In a Unitarian congregation, we are open to many beliefs – and many beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth.
Perhaps he was the Christ – the God in flesh who came to offer us salvation.
Perhaps he was the radical human teacher who called for a radical upending of an unjust order.
Or a prophet, or guru, or avatar…
I believe that Jesus was divine – in the same way that each of us is. Divinity is not reserved to a single source or person, but spread throughout creation. It gleams from the green of the new spring leaves and shines from behind every pair of eyes.
And our eyes are too often closed to the presence of the sacred among, around, and within us. And we rarely discern the burning of our hearts that is its sign. Denise Levertov concludes her poem:
“a young… servant intently listening,
swings around and sees
the light around him
and is sure”
It’s not a matter of trying harder to see, but the willingness to be receptive to the world. It is not keen vision we need, but to keep our eyes open to what comes – despite the disappointment, discomfort and ugliness that arrives along with the sacredness and beauty and love that we will find.
Take a moment now, to look silently around this special place. As you do, catch each others’ gaze and hold it briefly before moving on to another, and then another.
We are all searchers, journeying a road toward some destination. What may surprise us is that what we seek is often right in front of us if we have eyes open to see and hearts open to feel.
May this truly be a day of light and gladness
For a miraculous rebirth of hope
For the rebirth of all of our lives
And for the miracle of the life that courses through our veins
And burns brightly in every heart
May it be so.