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The town of Emmaus can't be found on any known map of the Holy Land. Nevertheless, scholars have no doubt that it was a real place. Today, several communities have been identified that might have been Emmaus. When David and I were in Israel in 2010, we visited one of those places. In March, our pilgrims visited another possible location, in the present day town of Abu Ghosh. Pictures of the church and the garden surrounding it are on the cover of your bulletin.
One of my early church memories involves the story of road to Emmaus. When I was in middle school, our church held an event during Lent. It was a multi-night renewal with speakers and worship. The theme of the event was the Journey to Emmaus. My mom and I attended it together. I'll confess that I don't remember all the details. But that renewal event lodged this story firmly into my heart and mind. It's been a touchstone story for me ever since.
I've always imagined its backstory this way: Cleopas and his unnamed friend have been in Jerusalem with Jesus and his followers. Cleopas doesn't appear on a list of the twelve disciples. But Cleopas and his pal are clearly close to Jesus and the disciples. When know this because when the unrecognized Jesus asks them what things have taken place in Jerusalem, they answer him in this way, "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.” Cleopas and his friend may not have been disciples, but they describe themselves as part of Jesus' group.
As I imagined the events just prior to today's story, I decided that these two men lived in Jerusalem. And, after Jesus' untimely death and unimaginable resurrection, they left the city. Maybe they'd had a journey already planned - and since Jesus was dead... or something... they'd go. Or maybe, after everything that had happened, they needed a change of scene. Maybe they were afraid of being arrested by the Romans or the temple leadership. For whatever reason, these two friends of Jesus were leaving their homes in Jerusalem and going somewhere else, away.
I figured that after walking about seven miles Cleopas, his friend, and Jesus (unrecognized), must have stopped at an inn for travelers. And that was where they persuaded him to stay with them and then they shared the meal in which Jesus became known to them in the breaking of the bread. It all made logical sense in my head.
And then, this week, I read an essay written by The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, a Professor of New Testament at Austin Theological Seminary. She wrote something that challenged me to see Cleopas, his companion, and this story, in a whole new way. It blew my mind, honestly. Dr. Aymer writes, "The first appearance of the resurrected Christ in Luke’s Gospel takes place on the Emmaus road on the afternoon and evening of the day of resurrection.... The risen Christ appears to a disciple named Cleopas (v. 18) and the person who shares his house (v. 29), possibly his wife." SAY WHAT NOW? Dr. Aymer continues, "Jesus inserts himself into their heated conversation, explaining the scriptural support for the suffering of the Messiah (vv. 25–27). Yet their eyes are kept from recognizing him until he blesses and breaks bread in their home (vv. 16, 31)."
I actually had to read this paragraph three times. And then I had to go back and re-read Luke and see what she was saying for myself. It's plausible. It's more than plausible. It's likely. So, thanks to Dr. Aymer, here is another totally different way to reimagine the story of these two disciples.
Cleopas and his wife life in Emmaus. They've come to know Jesus and become part of the larger group of support around him - like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, like Mary Magdalene. Cleopas and his wife traveled to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover, as every faithful Jew who could, did in the first century. And, after Jesus' arrest and crucifixion they stayed there with others from Jesus' group. But then, when wasn't clear what was happening: is Jesus dead? Is he alive? What's next? They head home to Emmaus. And then, Jesus, utterly unrecognizable appeared to them on the road. He heard the fear and confusion in their conversation and he taught them. Both. Jesus saw both Cleopas and his wife as worthy of education.
They arrived in Emmaus, as night was falling. Jesus made as if he were going on. But Cleopas and his wife did what was absolutely expected of all first century Palestinians. Because night travel was dangerous, and it was wilderness out beyond Emmaus, they invited him to stay with them in their home. When they gathered to share the evening meal, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it. These were exactly the things that he did when he fed the 5000. And they were exactly what he did at the last supper. Gosh. Maybe Cleopas and his wife were there at the last supper. Or maybe they just head about it in detail from their friends who were. Whatever. In that moment of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing, they got it. Suddenly, they understood that it was JESUS who was with them. And just like that, he was gone.
And then they did the unthinkable. They left the safety of their home and ran the seven miles back to Jerusalem, to tell the others in their group what they've heard and seen. It's another totally plausible way to tell this story, unlocked by Dr. Margaret Aymer.
Why does this retelling of the story matter? There are several reasons.
First and foremost, it encourages us to keep our ears open for what we might be missing in a text. I can tell you that in the literally hundreds of times I've read this story, I never saw what Dr. Aymer saw. Most scholars don't see it. We're lucky in the Episcopal Church that, for the most part, we understand that God calls all people to ordination, not just those who identify as male. But that's not a given in the broader church. And those churches that don't recognize women as having a valid call to ministry base it on the fact that Jesus had no female disciples. And here she is - the unnamed Mrs. Cleopas, hiding in plain sight. She and her husband are having a theological conversation when Jesus showed up on the road. And he explained scripture to them both. Just like he did with Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, Jesus recognized Mrs. Cleopas as a disciple and he taught her. That matters.
Secondly, this story reminds us that we meet Jesus in word and table. He becomes known to us when we come together to read and study scripture and when we take bread, bless it, break it, and share it. Maybe you've noticed that those of us leading worship each week huddle up in the narthex right before we begin. We often say these, or similar words when we pray, "Be present, be present, Lord Jesus Christ. Be known to us in the word, the preaching, the breaking of bread, the prayers, and music." From the earliest days of Christian community Jesus has made himself known to those who love him in word and sacrament. And he continues to do so today. We remember the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing each week when we share Eucharist together. In a few minutes, that's exactly what Will will do when he leads us in the Eucharistic prayer.
Finally, this story reminds us of the importance of the ministry of hospitality. If Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas had just let Jesus walk on by, they would never have known who was in their midst. They felt their hearts burning within them on the road - but it took word AND bread for them to understand. I believe that we continue to encounter Jesus in unexpected ways - and through unexpected people.
Several weeks ago, I met a man named Anthony in our parking lot. He'd just lost his housing and was living in his car. I had a thousand things to do and my confession to you all is that my first thought was that I. Did. Not. Have. Time. For. This.
Luckily, my heart was smarter than my brain. He and I talked for about 45 minutes - I listened to his story. I prayed with him. I invited him to come to church some Sunday - and I hope he will. Then, thanks to those who generously support my discretionary fund, I was able to give him one of the grocery cards I keep in my desk drawer. And I followed him to the local Exxon station and used more discretionary funds to fill his car with gas. He was so grateful. He gave me a hug and then he drove away. But I have no doubt that I met Jesus that morning.
In his evangelism class, Joshua taught us that evangelism is primarily about building relationships. That's what happened in my encounter with Anthony. Through our conversation I was able to point to the presence of God in his life, even when he could not see God's presence for himself.
It's what happened when Jesus met Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas on their journey home to Emmaus. And, it can happen whenever we extend hospitality to others.
The road to Emmaus is a story that keeps on teaching. It shows us what can happen when we keep our ears open for new ways to interpret scripture. It reminds us that we will come to know Jesus fully in word and bread. And it teaches us that we will encounter Jesus in acts of hospitality when we take the time to listen and to engage with another one of God's beloved. AMEN
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