The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO EMMAUS?

Delivered 5/6/07
Text: Luke 24:13-35
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Do you know the way to Emmaus? It should be relatively easy to find because the text locates the town "seven miles from Jerusalem." But no one has ever been able to identify an "Emmaus" seven miles from Jerusalem. Perhaps there is confusion because two different numbers appear in ancient manuscripts at the point at which Luke gives us the location. Some texts say "60 stadia," and others say "160," which works out roughly to be either 7 miles or 18 miles. Although there are indeed many references to Emmaus in ancient sources, none of them give us any specific directions. Because of this, the unlikely village of Amwas (20 miles from Jerusalem) is currently a popularly recognized site for pilgrimage, even though other towns have stronger claims to be the historical town.

Another point of confusion. Luke says the risen Lord joined a man named Cleopus and one other unidentified individual on the journey. Some have argued that we should assume it was Peter because of the sentence at the end of the lesson that says, "The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon." I don't think I buy that; I suspect those in the Upper Room were thinking of another encounter of which they had just heard. Some have argued that it was Cleopas' wife. After all, the two travelers shared a home to which they invited Jesus for a meal. Others think that the name "Emmaus" (since no town of that name has been located) is really the name of the mystery companion. Nah! I go along with the idea of Mrs. Cleopus, but it really makes no difference.

One way or the other, this marvelous story of Christ's resurrection appearance is a delight. Mark's gospel says that after the resurrection, Jesus "appeared in another form" to two of the disciples "as they were walking in the country," (1) but only Luke gives us the whole story, which begins "that same day," the day of the resurrection.

On the road, Christ's dejected followers are amazed that the "stranger" with whom they are walking has apparently not heard anything about what has happened. Throughout the whole journey, Jesus' identity remains hidden from them. Luke informs us that the stranger is Jesus, but the two travelers do not recognize him. It is a common literary device in the ancient Near East for the audience to be privy to information of which the characters in the story are unaware. Thus, the stranger's supposed ignorance of current events is ironically contrasted with Jesus' followers' actual ignorance of his identity. Undaunted, they proceed to tell him the whole story from their perspective, describing Jesus as a powerful prophet; but it is in their poignant statement - "we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" - that they reveal how very much Jesus had meant to them.

Forms of the verb used here to mean "redeem" are related to the Hebrew term go'el. A go'el is a near family member who has the right and responsibility to "redeem" you - to pay for your release - should you fall upon hard times, be sold into slavery, lose your land, or otherwise become destitute. Redemption, in its fullest Old Testament context, includes intervention which could set you free if you found yourself a prisoner or a slave. Jesus' followers had hoped that his coming would finally free Israel from slavery to Rome, and restore it to its rightful place among the nations. At this point on the road, however, these hopes are dead, along with the great prophet who was to make them real.

Jesus' followers then toss off, as if it were incidental, the story that they had dismissed, namely that angels had appeared to the women who discovered Jesus' empty tomb, telling them he was alive. At this point, Jesus himself scolds his fellow travelers for dismissing the women and their witness. He then undertakes a re-education of the two, beginning with "Moses" (Genesis through Deuteronomy), and all of the prophets, showing them signs about the Messiah, signs about himself, that they have overlooked.

By now the afternoon is well spent and Emmaus is near. The travelers want Jesus to stay with them for a meal. In fact, they are insistent - "they urged him strongly," says the text. It was not out of character for Jesus to stay. He enjoyed socializing over food and drink. He enjoyed the wedding feast at Cana. He ate with "tax collectors and sinners," (and got in trouble for it). He sat at table with his disciples in that famous scene in the Upper Room. Once, he was asked by the Pharisees why his disciples were eating and drinking, and not fasting and praying like the followers of John the Baptist. Jesus answered, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?" (2) So the invitation was extended; he decided to stay.

After a day of walking without realizing in whose company they were, the secret of Jesus' identity is finally revealed. As he breaks the bread and says the traditional blessing, the moment of their last supper with him is re-created - reality shifts, and it is suddenly as if they are once again in the Upper Room - before the betrayal, before the horror, and Jesus is with them, alive and well! Just as suddenly - their memory restored and the institution of the Eucharist recalled - the vision shimmers and goes out, but in that instance they realize that the resurrection has truly occurred. This meal, and with it the institution of Communion, becomes the center of their resurrection testimony. It was in that meal that they saw him, in the breaking of the bread.

Ironically, the seemingly superficial mystery regarding the actual location of Emmaus fits in nicely with the deepest meaning of this passage. Do you know the way to Emmaus? Emmaus may be here, or there, or anywhere. The site of the original episode is irrelevant. Christ will travel wherever his followers are going. Christ will appear wherever they break bread. Even here. Even now.

Amen!

1. Mark 16:12

2. Luke 5:34

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