The journey to Emmaus is a story of transformation. Like many other Biblical stories it was not intended to be understood as history. It was rather an archetypal account of how God was encountered and transformation happened for the two walkers.
The story is in two parts: on the way, and in the inn. Five things to note from part 1:
Firstly, this divine encounter happened on the road. It did not happen in a synagogue, or the Temple. The divine met them in the common walk of life. In other words, the divine encounters us not just in religious places but in all sorts of places – and often, I would suggest, when we are walking out in the open air of the country or bush.
Secondly, the two travellers are unknown to us. They don’t seem to be named or referred to elsewhere in the New Testament. They aren’t part of the leadership group of the Jesus movement. They are two ‘nobodies’. And the divine stranger meets them regardless.
This is at the heart of the Reformation message: anyone, anybody, can experience God. You don’t have to be good enough, old enough, rich enough, wise enough, well-connected, or a minister or elder.
Thirdly, this divine encounter came at a time of great need. ‘We had hoped...’ they said. The hope that Cleopas and his companion had was that the messiah Jesus would make a difference in the face of imperial violence. And he hadn’t. Instead that violence had destroyed Jesus.
I wonder too whether they were grieving the loss of an inspirational friend and mentor. Like us when faced with a crisis they are walking their grief and confusion somewhere, anywhere, away... And like them, we too quite often experience, in times like this, the divine in the form of one walking alongside.
Fourthly, they are joined on the road by the Risen Christ in the guise of a ‘nobody’, ‘a stranger’. A brief word about the phrase ‘Risen Christ’: It’s not a precise term. ‘Risen’ is a way of saying ‘Jesus lives on’. But his human body doesn’t. And when the post-Easter stories give Jesus a ‘Risen body’, that ‘body’ is so different from a normal body that the word ‘body’ starts to lose meaning. Indeed often, like in this story, former companions of Jesus don’t recognise this body as Jesus’. It can get confusing.
Similarly with the word ‘Christ’, meaning ‘anointed’, and a translation of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’. But as mentioned before, Jesus did not fit the ‘Messiah’ mould. He did not lead an army or want to, he did not triumph over and slaughter his enemies; rather he loved them and suffered. The early Church struggled with (and I think we continue to struggle with) the idea of a suffering Christ.
So to talk about this encounter on the road to Emmaus we think of this person who walked with Cleopas and his companion as Jesus-but-not-Jesus; as a stranger-but-somehow-familiar; and as God-with-them. In this story the divine comes in the human form, but as one who is unknown.
The plot device of Emmaus is that the stranger-come-Risen-Christ walks and talks but is unrecognisable until the end; and then dematerializes. But the focus is not on this mysterious being but on the transformation of the two travellers. The story suggests that we too, like ordinary Christians at any time in history, can experience such transformation. Indeed one could say that the purpose of any divine encounter is for individual or group transformation.
Fifthly, the stranger/Risen Jesus doesn’t rip open his shirt and say, ‘Ta dah! Here I am guys, with the scars to prove it!’ No, he steers them to their common spiritual resource, what we know as the Hebrew Scriptures. With that source and with other knowledge provided by their context, they discuss and create interpretations that reshape how they understand their experience.
In Reformation-speak the Word is broken open and comes alive. The Word is not the verses of scripture but the intersection of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, from which new insights and hope can arise. The living Word, the Logos, emerges from reflective doubting dialogue.
The mistake is to assume that the words of the Bible deliver certainties. Rather, at its best, the Bible is a collection of types of stories, many imaginative, for discerning the mystery of God. What it offers is like a window that opens out to another way of looking at life. Those who make ideas into certainties need to be careful that they aren’t capturing and containing the faith in idolatrous forms. Idolatry is that which locks faith and God into a fixed form from the past.
Today we have a number of spiritual resources to help us in times of trauma. There are the texts of the major religions but there are also many other spiritual wellsprings. Most historical writings aren’t written to address our specific needs. Many resources are redundant, filled with assumptions from bygone agee. Yet even ancient spiritual writings can be creatively taken out of their context and moulded to fit ours. This is what happened on the way to Emmaus. The verses from Second Isaiah used to understand Jesus’ death were taken out of context and shaped to fit the disciples’ needs.
We are later told that this process of appropriating and applying the ancient writings to their trauma evoked a burning in the hearts of the two travellers. There was something going on that was more than head knowledge. A healing flame had been blown into life within them.
So, to recap the lessons I’m suggesting from Part 1 of the story:
God meets us, wherever we are. Often God meets us when we are walking. God comes whether we are ready or not.
God meets us, whoever we are. Regardless of what we have done or not done, our status or lack of it.
God meets us in our time of need, and ‘walks’ beside us (not in front showing the way, or behind prodding us).
God meets us in order that we might experience transformation, as individuals and/or as a group.
God meets us at the intersection of our experience, the wisdom and reason of our forebears and mentors (some of which is captured in the phrase ‘Scripture and Tradition’), and our own thinking. This confluence we can call ‘The Word’.
Part two of the Emmaus tale is arriving at an inn. Like with his pretence of ignorance on the road, the stranger Christ acts as if he is moving on. But as is the custom of the East they entreat him to accept their hospitality. In the Hebrew ritual of blessing the food the travellers recognise who it is. At which point the author makes the stranger-come-Risen-One disappear.
I find it intriguing that recognition comes by the saying of an ancient prayer – a food blessing or grace. It suggests that it is in praying together [like at our meal tables] we can recognize not just God-in-Christ in our midst, but recognize each other as fundamentally worthy of love, dignity and respect. The Latin phrase ‘Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi’ points to the truth that such prayer shapes our understandings and beliefs.
There are many examples in the history of spirituality where the stranger opens a door into a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God. We need to be always ready and welcoming of strangers – those who don’t fit in and will never fit in – for they may well be the ones who will open a door for us to understand more deeply the mysteries of God. We need to be wary of ‘fences’, visible or invisible, that keep strangers away, and our own habits that do the same.
At the Emmaus Inn the stranger breaks the bread and new understanding and empowerment results. Never underestimate hospitality, sharing food, grace, and gratitude - for through such things can flow the power of life-changing godness. This story, written some 50+ years after the crucifixion, is saying that it was the experience of the early Jesus movement that when they met to break open the Word and to break open the Bread, to share hospitality and extend grace to each other, the transforming power of God was in their midst. When they gathered as nobodies - men, women and children on the fringes of both religion and often society - in the presence of that accepting and relationship-changing grace they became somebodies to each other.
Likewise today when we gather in a service of worship, or for meal together, or to learn about other faiths, or to help others, and the mix of giving, receiving, and mutuality are present, then so too is the possibility of rekindling the fires of our soul and the soul of our community.
The lessons I’m suggesting from Part 2 of this story are:
Don’t underestimate praying together (especially at meal times)
Value those who don’t fit in; who go ‘right’ when everyone else goes ‘left’; who are just different
Try to share food together as often as possible
When this mix of recognizing the holiness of each other, sharing food, and lots of gratitude are kneaded together, a loaf of transformation can be the result.
Emmaus is a story about empowerment. The two dejected travellers on the road are not only cheered up but through the examination of spiritual texts and the texts of their lives, as well as sharing in hospitality at the inn, they are empowered to live as disciples. Such transformation can happen anywhere, with anyone, when experience is shared and grace is present.
Jesus’ life story is that of a nobody who sought to treat everyone as somebodies. Jesus was a nobody who after his death was recognized by the community of his followers as a special somebody. He was the stranger who came to make a difference. A stranger who is still present, if we let our eyes and hearts be opened.