Walking is something very important to me. Most of you know that I walk my dog twice a day. It’s an important ritual to me. Of course, nowadays, with schedules being what they are with a baby to pick up and drop off, we don’t walk at quite the same time every day, but we still do it, rain, snow, or bitterest cold.
Carissa and I have always loved walking together, too. I remember when we went to seminary, we made really good friends with a girl from California. She said, “You two walk so fast!” And then, when winter came, one day out of the blue she said, “I get it now – you walk so fast because it’s cold six months out of the year. I didn’t know that.” Pshh – Californians.
Walking is also important to me because, believe it or not, Carissa only agreed to go on a date with me in the first place because we went on a walk. We were at the Relay for Life event at our college, where you broke up into teams and raised money for cancer research. You walked all night – at least, someone from your team was supposed to. We had a lot of mutual friends and wound up walking with the same team, but they walked too slowly for our taste, so little by little we separated from the pack. And we walked and talked for hours, and I somehow conned her into going to a concert with me the next night, and how she’s stuck with me.
So I know from personal experience that a walk can be powerful. And even if it’s not quite that life-changing all the time, a walk is also something that serves as a good way to clear your head, or to mull something over, or to just get a little bit of exercise. I’ve come up with good ideas on walks, and I’ve worked through tough emotional things. I’ve had deep conversations with friends and I’ve enjoyed the silence of nature.
But I think it’s fair to say that, however great some of your or my walks have been in our lives, we’ve never had a walk quite like the one we read about today from Luke’s Gospel.
Of course, today’s story was about two disciples walking down the road, contemplating Jesus and what had happened with him. When the story begins, it’s still Easter Sunday, the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, and they’re walking about seven miles, from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus. Basically, they’re walking from Marion to Parker. Of course, I don’t assume that many of us have done that, but it’s a perfect frame of reference, because it’s just about the right distance. As you know, if you were to do that, you’d be settling in for a pretty long walk. Anyway, they’re discussing these things that have happened in the last few days (Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, plus the news of the empty tomb they heard from the women this morning), when a stranger comes up and starts walking with them. They don’t know him, but they are surprised when he seems not to know about the last few days. Of course, he actually does, because it’s Jesus; but they don’t know that yet. So they start to share some of their experiences.
They say some really interesting things that might be worth talking about. For example, they say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” “Had hoped” is past tense – they did want that to be true, but no longer believe it to be. That’s probably because, with Jesus dead, they didn’t believe he could possibly be the Messiah. This is very interesting because it rubs against the modern notion that the most important thing Jesus did was come to die. Of course, Jesus’ death is important, but the disciples at the time saw that as a negative, not a positive. We can chalk this up to them being shortsighted, but perhaps their wisdom is insightful; God cannot be the God of the dead only. That’s not very helpful to those of us alive. Rather, God must be the God of the living as well. Seeing the man they “had hoped . . . was the one to redeem Israel” die was a crushing blow to them.
But they’d heard this rumor from the women who, earlier that day, told them that the tomb was empty. Of course, here again we see the ancient world at work. One of the interesting things about Judaism and Jesus in particular is how valuable they saw women being. The wider society in the Roman Empire saw women as useless. But the Judaism of the time had an abiding respect for women that Jesus made an important part of his message. Many of his followers were women, as we know, so their contributions and reports were taken seriously. The Roman culture around them would’ve dismissed the report of the women as unreliable, but in a move that finally shows that some of Jesus’ disciples were actually paying attention to his message, they trust the women. So some of the disciples, hearing this news, go to the tomb where Jesus was buried to see for themselves, and they find it just as the women had told them – empty.
But at this point in the conversation, Jesus (who, keep in mind, these two disciples still don’t recognize) starts to tell them more about this story than they already knew. He goes back, back, back in time to tell them, beginning with Moses, how God was leading all of creation up to this moment, when Jesus could come to be exactly what they had hoped he would be, even if they didn’t realize it. Their hope was lost, but these things that he was saying to them suddenly started to make them look at things with fresh eyes. But even though their conversation was long, it was not long enough for these two, so they asked Jesus to stay with them.
In that moment, they invite Jesus in with a hospitality that shows, for a second time, that they were finally understanding the lessons of Jesus. Jesus was all about hospitality. Remember how he washed the feet of others, even though he was the most special person in the room? Remember how he called little children to his side? Remember how he invited women to follow him, even when the wider culture around him wouldn’t have done that? Jesus was all about embracing everyone who needed it – and these two disciples were getting it.
Now, before we get to the meat of the story, I want to take a brief aside to talk about these two disciples. One of them was named Cleopas. This is a disciple, but not one of the famous 12. He’s just one of the many followers of Jesus. The other disciple is never named. Sure, we could speculate on who it is. But one pastor I listened to this week pointed out how ideal this is for us that this disciple has no name, because it allows us to put ourselves in the story in a way that wouldn’t work otherwise. So let’s think of this story again; you and Cleopas are walking, talking about Jesus. Suddenly this man comes and talks even more about Jesus. You decide to offer him a meal and a place to stay for the night. And that’s when something remarkable happens.
“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,” is what Luke’s Gospel tells us. In other words, they finally get it. The man with them was Jesus the whole time! They were telling him about himself, which is a little weird. But he told them about himself, too. They had the full picture.
Now, there are two lessons to take from this Scripture today, I think. First of all, we as people today are not likely to have this opportunity to host Jesus. But let’s remember something else Jesus said. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Jesus. In this passage, the disciples saw a fellow traveler and offered him hospitality. Let me tell you this; even if that traveler hadn’t been Jesus, they would’ve still seen him, because they offered hospitality to someone who could use it. They offered to share a meal with someone else who was hungry. Even though they didn’t have much, they shared because someone else needed. Whenever we do that, we see Jesus, because that’s what we’re called to do as Christians.
The whole point of our faith is to become more like Jesus, and how can we better honor him than by doing the very things he would’ve done? Just a few days earlier, Jesus had taught these disciples his “New Commandment” – to love one another as he had loved them. That’s what they do in this passage; the see someone, and love him. This is so different from the story we read last week about the 12 who decided to lock themselves in a room because they were afraid. These disciples actually go out into the world, and live the way Jesus told them to. They live out the faith that Jesus taught in their actions.
And while that lesson cannot possibly be overstated, I don’t think it’s the only point of this story. I think the best thing about reading and interpreting Scripture every week as we do in church is that the stories we read are so full of delicious little pieces about God that we could go on forever about them. But while hospitality to others is at the heart of the Gospel, it’s not the only thing we take from this story. If this traveler had been a random wanderer and not Jesus, this would’ve been a very, very good interpretation, and probably the only one. Or perhaps it would’ve been a lesson about how we can learn something from others, even if we feel like we know all there is to know – after all, this traveler sure taught them a lot!
But equally important for us to remember is that the traveler they encounter wasn’t just anyone; he was Jesus. We can forget that Jesus is by our sides. And in this season of Easter, the theme that keeps coming up is people at their lowest, trying to figure out who they are and what they’re supposed to do. And over and over again, what they’re going to find is this: Jesus is right there with them.
They used the past tense to talk about how they felt about Jesus. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But we know from this story that Jesus isn’t about the past; he’s even moreso about the present and the future.
They didn’t need to lose hope, because Jesus is there beside them. Likewise, we have hope in Christ. Did their hope make them immortal, or somehow immune from the ills of the world? No. But what it did was give them a way forward. Christianity is not a religion of easy answers to tricky questions. In fact, it asks more tricky questions about daily living than it answers. But what it does do is offer us a way to live, regardless of our circumstances. We can live with generosity, no matter how much the world smacks us down. We can live with faith no matter how much the world tries to strip it away. We can show kindness when all we get is cruelty, we can show justice when we’re cheated, grace when we’re pushed to punish, love when we’re shown hate – hope, when it seems all hope is lost.
We can do these things, not because we’re perfect, not because we’re better than everyone else, not because we’re just supposed to have a “positive attitude.” We can do them because we have Christ right alongside us. A positive attitude is a powerful thing – but it’s not always what we need. Look at the disciples in this story – Cleopas and this other disciple, who could be you or me. They’re talking about lost hope. They’re in a serious conversation. And they don’t lose that; they don’t decide to just pluck up, have a positive attitude, grin and bear it. No; they tell their story. But more importantly, they live the way they were taught by their Rabbi, Jesus. In spite of their hardship, they live into their calling.
And brothers and sisters, that’s exactly what we’re asked to do. We’re not supposed to just be happy all the time; that’s not what Jesus is asking. Because the kind of Hope Jesus offers isn’t that each day is perfect. Instead, the Hope offered in Christ is a light in the darkness. It doesn’t make the whole world bright all the time, but it gives us a way to navigate, even when everything around us seems to be conspiring against us. These two disciples show us that, by living as we’re meant to, by embracing the call of Jesus, we find him in our lives.
So, beloved, we’re asked this day to not just walk the road, but to walk it with Jesus at our side. And we’re asked to help the other travelers we meet, not just because they might have something to teach us, but because they, too, shine with the light of Christ. And we’re asked to recognize and remember that our Lord and Savior Jesus is about a lot more than just dying; he’s about living. He is about second chances and ways forward. He’s about being able to be free, because although we, too, will die one day, we will do so in the Lord, and with the Hope of tomorrow, in the face of the world’s great ending.
Brothers and sisters, the Good News of Jesus is here. We may have hope, because we are loved. And the one who loves is sitting next to you today, will be driving behind you tomorrow, will be drinking coffee with you the next day, will be playing on the playground with you the day after that. Take care of Jesus, just as he takes care of you. Amen.