Luke 24: 13-35
Did you notice those words? Just four of them in verse 21, roughly halfway through the passage we heard this morning. “But we had hoped”. I wonder how many times we have spoken those words or words similar.
On this third Sunday of Easter, we find ourselves travelling a road that’s uncomfortably familiar. Regardless of identity or circumstance, we all know this road as we have walked along it and lost our way on it. We have left it behind only to return to it. The road is the road to Emmaus. We recognize it by the words we speak when we walk its uneven and convoluted way one more time: “But we had hoped.”
The words spoken on the road to Emmaus are words of pain, disappointment, bewilderment, and yearning. Words we say when we have come to the end of our hopes — when expectations have been dashed, our dreams are dead, and there’s nothing left to do but leave, defeated and done. But we had hoped.
Cleopas and his companion say those same words to the stranger who appears alongside them as they walk to Emmaus on Easter evening: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Jesus is dead as far as they know. The Lord they staked their lives on, the Messiah they thought would change the world, has died the most humiliating death imaginable, and his promises of a new kingdom have come to nothing. Then they hear that, Jesus’s tomb is empty, and his body is missing. Things have fallen apart. “But we had hoped” for so much.
The walk to Emmaus happens on Resurrection Sunday according to Luke’s Gospel. On the very day we celebrate the resurrection, new life and the hope that it brings, the road to Emmaus appears ahead of us, offering defeat, disillusionment, and misrecognition. Sometimes resurrection takes longer than three days. Sometimes new life comes in fits and starts. Sometimes, seeing and recognizing the risen Christ is hard.
Yet the road to Emmaus, the road of brokenness and failure, is holy ground. It reminds us that Jesus is not who we think he is, and not who we necessarily want him to be. So, who is the would-be stranger on that road? How does he respond when all appears lost? What does he do for the weary and the defeated?
We notice a quiet resurrection. You would think that a God who had suffered a completely unjust death would come back and shout his triumph from the rooftops and prove his accusers and killers wrong. But Jesus does no such thing.
Instead, the risen Christ takes a walk and notices two of his followers walking ahead of him. He approaches them in a manner so gentle, so understated, that they don’t recognize him.
“But we had hoped” he’d be more dramatic. The disappointment we face on the Emmaus road is that of the quiet resurrection. The disappointment of a Jesus who prefers the quiet, hidden encounter rather than the one we expect and crave.
We notice healing through story. As soon as Jesus falls into step with the companions on the road, he invites them to tell their story: “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” Astonished by the question, Cleopas and his companion tell Jesus everything. They share with him the story of their faith — its rise and its fall. They tell Jesus how high their expectations had been for their now-crucified leader. They describe their devastation at his death. Their confusion, their loss, their uncertainty. They tell Jesus the whole story.
Jesus listens, hearing them out and when they’re done, he tells the story back to them. As he does, the story changes. It becomes what it always was — something far bigger, deeper, older, wiser, and richer than the travellers on the Emmaus road understood. “Here’s what you’re leaving out,” Jesus seems to say. “Here’s what you’re missing.”
Jesus in telling the story restores both its context and glory, grounding the story in memory, tradition, history and Scripture. He helps the travellers understand their place in a story that long precedes them, a narrative big enough to hold their disappointment without being defeated by it. When Jesus tells the story, the death of the Messiah finds its place in the redemption, hope, and Godly love that spans the centuries, and the hearts of his listeners burn.
Like Cleopas and his companion, we need Jesus to meet us on the road, and weave memory, Scripture, context, purpose, and history back into the narratives we cling to. “But we had hoped the story was bigger. We had hoped it would have a better ending.” Well, it is. And it does.
We notice the freedom to leave. When the travellers reach Emmaus, Jesus gives them the option to continue on without him. He makes out he’s leaving, placing them in a position where they have to be completely intentional about their desire regarding him. Do they want him to stay? Are they willing to risk hosting a stranger in their home? Do they wish to go deeper with this man who makes their hearts burn, or are they content to leave the encounter where it stands, and return to their ordinary lives without learning more?
What would have happened if Cleopas and his companion said goodbye to Jesus on the road? How would their story have ended if Jesus walked away? The companions would have missed so much. The Messiah they thought they knew and loved would have remained a stranger and they would not have experienced the intimate knowing of the broken bread, the shared cup. The joy of resurrection would not have become theirs.
Jesus allows us to be free to make our own choices. He will not impose. He will not overpower. He’ll make as if he’s moving on, giving us space, time, and freedom to decide what we really want. Do we desire to go deeper? Are we ready to get off the road of failures and defeats and willing to let the guest become our host? Do we really want to know who the stranger is?
“Stay with us.” That’s what Cleopas and his companion say to Jesus. An invitation. A welcome. The words a patient Jesus waits to hear.
We notice the smallness of things. When Jesus and his companions are seated around the table, Jesus takes bread. He takes, blesses, breaks, and gives. So small a thing. So small a thing that changes everything.
Sometimes it’s difficult to trust in the transformative power of small things. But the Emmaus story speaks to this power — the power of the small and the commonplace to reveal the divine. God shows up during a quiet evening walk on a backwater road. God is made known around our dinner tables. God reveals God’s self when we take, bless, break, and give. God is present in the rhythms and rituals of our seemingly ordinary days. God is with us now in these strange days of lockdown, isolation and social distancing.
God is in the text you send to the neighbour you cannot visit. God appears in the Zoom gathering, the livestreamed service, the phone call, the letter. Jesus is the stranger you see in the street when you take a walk, and you smile and say hello. The Emmaus story tells us that the risen Christ is not confined in any way by the seeming smallness of our lives. Wherever and whenever we make room, Jesus comes.
“But we had hoped.” Yes, we had. Of course we had. So very many things are different right now than we had hoped they’d be. And yet, the stranger who is the Saviour still meets us on the lonely road to Emmaus. The guest who becomes our host still nourishes us with Presence, Word, and Bread.
So keep walking. Keep telling the story. Keep honouring the stranger. Keep attending to your burning heart. Christ is risen. He is no less risen on the road to Emmaus than he is anywhere else. So, look for him. Listen for him. And when he lingers at your door, honouring your freedom, but yearning to feed you, say what he longs to hear: Stay with me.