Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday of Easter.
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.
When I was in college, I spent a summer abroad in Oxford, and on the weekends, my friends and I explored the greatest hits of England. One weekend we ended up at Salisbury Cathedral. Being the church dork I am, I lingered a little longer in the sanctuary while my friends wandered the grounds. It was a beautiful summer day, and the area was crowded with tourists.
When I caught up with my friends, I found them doubled over in laughter. They thought they had seen me, through the crowd, walking toward them. They had waited for me patiently, but something was strange. I was clearly walking toward them, but I also wasn’t moving.
I didn’t understand, and they were laughing so hard again that they couldn’t speak, so they pointed.
There was a statue in the middle of the grass, part of a modern art installation. The statue was realistic, striding with one foot in front of her as if in motion. Her hair cut and color was a lot like mine. But, I want to point out, she was also made of wood, had vaguely Asian features, and stood about ten feet tall.
How did you ever think she was me? I asked my friends.
She has your walk, they said. Both of them had been fooled, taken in by this wooden giant. She has your walk.
Most of us have ways to be recognized, by design or by accident. Scars, tattoos, birthmarks. An unmistakable voice; a favorite perfume; a way of walking. A sense of humor that comes through even in our texts. Some way that people know us, even before they see our faces.
Grandma didn’t have to put her return address on the care packages she sent me in college. She was the only one I knew who packed up brownies in an old sliced ham tub.
During the winter, if I catch a glimpse of that Land’s End jacket in the office, I know that Jim Burdick is somewhere in the building, being quietly and humbly helpful.
And I don’t have to check the name on the text if a David Rose meme comes through on my phone. I know which friend sends those.
The more we know someone, the less it takes to recognize them. The less we need to see their face to know they’re near.
And yet, somehow, someway, the disciples walking the road to Emmaus do not recognize the risen Jesus.
The gospel text purposefully obscures why this happened. It puts the occurrence into passive voice: their eyes were kept from recognizing him. It’s the only time this happens in scripture—other disciples are amazed to see the risen Jesus, worried he might be a ghost or a prank—but no one else goes on walking and talking with him without realizing who it is. In fact, our other resurrection appearances go to great lengths to say that Jesus still wore the scars and marks from his crucifixion—that he rose in the same body he died in. It’s only these two disciples, Cleopas and his unnamed friend, that meet their savior as a stranger.
I have to think Jesus wanted them to. That it was important that the disciples begin to uncouple Jesus’ face from Jesus’ presence.
In fact, Cleopas names Jesus very particularly as a stranger. He asks, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” And the word he uses doesn’t just mean “someone I don’t know, who is strange to me,” like we might use the word today. In the biblical witness, the word means something more like foreigner—someone who is living in a place they are not from, someone who is strange to everyone.
I don’t know what Jesus looked like to Cleopas and his friend that day, to be identified as a stranger in Jerusalem. Perhaps there was some subtle distinction in dress or grooming that identified him as not a city slicker, and Cleopas was only noting that he wasn’t “from these parts.” Perhaps he looked like a genuine foreigner, a Jew from the various countries Jewish people had been scattered to in the exile, and made their home in ever since—Syria, Egypt, Crete and so on. Perhaps he did not look Jewish at all. All sorts of people, from all over the world, came to Jerusalem for the Passover—the city would have been filled with strangers, and the roads clogged with them, going back where they belonged after the holiday rush.
Whatever Jesus looks like to Cleopas and his friend, his outer appearance marks him as a stranger.
The two disciples are in the midst of a strenuous discussion when the savior-turned-stranger joins them. The Greek uses three different words for this discussion—they are talking, they are arguing, they are emotional.
And so Jesus draws near to them, and asks them what they’re talking about.
This is quintessential Jesus—getting into the middle of things. If I were to see two people on the sidewalk in the midst of a heated, emotional debate, my good manners would tell me to stay out of it. I might try to walk by as if I hadn’t noticed any sort of display of emotion at all, so as not to embarrass anyone. But Jesus puts himself right in the middle of things. His disciples—his friends—his people are upset, and even though they don’t know it, he’s right there.
After a moment of surprise that anyone who’s been in Jerusalem hasn’t heard the news, the disciples explain. It has been a turbulent few days—the fear at Jesus’ arrest, the anger of his trial, the despair of his sentencing, the crushing grief of his death, and now, the confusion about whether he has been raised or not. The women say yes, but the men don’t quite believe them. Even though the women’s account accords with what Jesus himself promised, the men are having trouble believing without seeing it for themselves.
And so Jesus begins to teach them anew.
Just like he’s been doing for three years, Jesus teaches them. With his trademark mix of exasperation and patience, Jesus walks them step by step through the scriptures, just as they walk step by step towards Emmaus.
This is quintessential Jesus—not just doing amazing things but explaining how those amazing things are grounded in God’s mission for the world. Making sure the spotlight is not on the one-off miracle but on the everlasting miracle of God’s love for us.
As the day wears on, the disciples arrive at the village where they are staying, and they invite the stranger to stay the night with them. This is good Jewish hospitality—throughout the Old Testament, the Jewish people are urged to welcome strangers and foreigners into their towns and homes. This is also good Christian hospitality—Jesus has sent his disciples to stay with strangers, and thereby taught them the value of welcoming strangers by the harder experience of being the one in need of welcome.
This strange day ends, as it always does, around the dinner table. I don’t know if it was customary for guests to be invited to break the bread, or if, as he so often did, Jesus was flouting societal conventions. Either way, Jesus breaks the bread.
And this, this—this is quintessential Jesus. In Luke especially, Jesus is always, always eating—so much so that people accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard! Jesus was always gathering people around him, always inviting the lowly to seats of honor, the outsiders to sit next to him, the sinners to pass the bread. When faced with 5000 hungry people, Jesus’ miracle math broke two loaves of bread into 5000 dinners, and when faced with 12 beloved disciples, Jesus’ broke bread and gave it to them as a sign of his own body, his own love, his own everlasting presence, given to them.
And so it is finally here—here, in the breaking of the bread—that the disciples see what is really going on. That they see Jesus has been walking with them all along.
And just as soon as they get that glimpse, he vanishes.
This too, is quintessential Jesus. I wish it wasn’t. I wish Jesus would hang around to be cross-questioned and certified and safely stored away until I need him again. But for some reason, I am always catching Jesus in vanishing glimpses, more of an after-image than anything else.
But when he is gone, the disciples ask themselves: weren’t our hearts burning while he with us? The signs that it was Jesus were there all along:
The one who comes into our mess.
The one who teaches us.
The one who walks with us.
The one who stays with us.
The one who breaks the bread of life for us.
The one who cannot be bound by us.
But who leaves a telltale fire in our hearts.
The disciples had spent three years with Jesus. They had learned to recognize him by his hair, his smile, his voice, his height, his walk. But at a table in Emmaus, they learned to recognize him not by those outer marks, but by his actions: teaching, dwelling, feeding.
We as 2023 Christians are in the same spot as Cleopas and his friend. We could not recognize Christ even if he came to us in the same body he died and rose in—we simply don’t know what he looked like. He is always a stranger to us, if what we are looking for is eyes and voice and height.
But if what we are looking for is deeper than his face—if we are searching for Christ by his actions—then we will find him everywhere, not as a stranger but a constant companion.
We know Christ today by the thousand strangers he inhabits in our lives. The friend who sits with us while we rage and cry. The teacher who patiently points out a better way of understanding the world. The volunteers who spend Saturday afternoon in a church basement ladling out pasta and brownies for unhoused neighbors. The unhoused neighbors who offer their prayers and blessings right back. The public figure who asks for forgiveness instead of blustering their way through. The cashier who is kind when the credit card is declined. The dad with two kids who brought a lost puppy to this church on Thursday, because even though they believe in God they still trusted a church to offer a tired dog water. The coworker who picks up the slack while your brain is in a fog of grief. The activist halfway across the world pouring their life into peace talks, or fighting poverty, or freeing slaves. The person at the end of the pew who prays for you and for your weary heart when you’ll never even know it.
Jesus is always sneaking into our lives wearing the face of strangers. If we know how to look, we’ll see him everywhere. Walking through crowds, ten feet tall for an instant, vanished in the next. Our strange savior, our constant companion.