Knowing the Risen Lord
~~The Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate
There are two ways of looking at the resurrection accounts. Some people approach it like this: the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event, it happened exactly the way the various New Testament accounts describe it. Others approach it like this: the resurrection is not a historical event, but a spiritual experience of the continuing power of Jesus in the lives of His followers. And most people who look at it one way are convinced that those who look at it the other way are at least missing the boat, and possibly dangerous heretics or religious maniacs. What Scripture says is that both things are true, and that Christian life in its fullness includes both. And nowhere is that made more clear than in the story of what happened on the road to Emmaus.
The context, of course, is the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning; remember that when the women found the tomb empty and were told by an angel that Jesus had risen, they went back to the disciples to tell them what happened, and Luke’s gospel tells us that they did not believe them because these words seemed to them an idle tale. Actually the words ‘idle tale’ are a watered down translation of the Greek, which means ‘nonsense’; lh/roj (leros)—from where we get the word delirium. They thought the women were raving mad!
And in today’s passage Luke tells us how two of those same unbelieving disciples came not only to believe that the story was historically true, but also to experience His continuing power in their lives. These two had left the house where the women had told their story, and were on their way to a village called Emmaus. They were probably on their way home; Jesus and his followers had come to Jerusalem for the Passover, and now, sadly believing that Jesus’s death meant that all that He had promised was not going to happen after all, His followers begin to drift away. John tells us that even Peter went back to his old living as a fisherman in Galilee. But as these two walk, Luke tells us that Jesus Himself began to walk with them—but their eyes were kept from recognizing Him. They think He’s just another traveller on the road. Why would God do that? Luke doesn’t speculate, but it as the story unfolds, the reason becomes clear.
The person they think is just another traveller gets into conversation with them, and they are soon talking about everything that had happened in Jerusalem over that weekend. They express their own disappointment and sadness about it: We had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel. And they also describe the ‘idle tale’ they had heard from the women. Then the unknown traveller says a strange thing: 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. The traveller began to show them passages from what we now call the Old Testament that explain that it would happen just the way it did happen. It wasn’t cause for sadness, but rejoicing—He had redeemed Israel and the whole world! Later they realised that they could have known that Jesus was still at work simply by reading about Him in the Scriptures: after the two disciples have realized that it was Jesus Who had been with them, one turns to the other and says, Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us? The Scriptures lead us to the risen Lord; whenever we open our Bibles, Christ is present with us, and if we remember what Jesus has taught us we will feel our hearts burn with joy—and because of this story, we will know why. That feeling in our hearts is a sign that Jesus is risen and alive!
But that’s not the only thing that helps the two disciples experience Christ’s presence. When the two disciples and the unknown traveller have arrived at Emmaus, it’s late in the day, so the two disciples invite the stranger to stay with them, and He agrees. As they sit down to dinner, the traveller again does something unexpected. As though He were the host, rather than a fellow guest, He takes the bread that’s on the table, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Then, Luke says, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. There’s really only one thing that this can be referring to: the events of the Last Supper, when Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke the bread, gave it to His disciples and said, This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. Now it’s true that these two disciples weren’t there on that night; Luke tells us that one of the disciples was named Cleopas, and we know that only the twelve were present with Jesus at the Last Supper, and Cleopas was not one of the twelve. Nevertheless, the things that Jesus did that night were highly unusual things for a Passover Meal, or any other meal, and it would be surprising if the twelve hadn’t talked about it to the others. In any case, the language Luke uses here of taking, blessing, breaking and giving is so identical to the language used in his description of the Last Supper, that it is hard for me to believe that anything else is being referred to. And later when the two disciples are back in Jerusalem telling others about it, Luke tells us that Jesus was known to them in the breaking of the bread—using the Greek phrase which by the time Luke wrote his gospel had become a standard way of referring to what we now call Holy Communion. So here is the other way that these two disciples have come to know the risen Lord: in the Holy Communion. When we obey Jesus’s commandment to do this in remembrance of [Him], He is present with us, and when we receive Communion with faith, just as when we read His word with faith, we know His power and presence.
Now we know why God kept their eyes from recognising their Lord: so that even during the period of the physical resurrection appearances, two at least of the disciples come to know the truth of the story and the spiritual presence of the risen Lord in exactly the same way that we can today. These two couldn’t see Him with their physical eyes, even though He was physically present; we can’t see Him with our physical eyes, either, but if they can experience His presence through word and sacrament, we can too! That’s what Luke’s story teaches us: these two disciples needed nothing more than these two things, word and sacrament, to know the historical truth and the spiritual power of the risen Lord: as soon as they understood, the physical body of Jesus disappeared—He didn’t need to stay with them physically, because they had the Scriptures and they had the Lord’s Supper.
A mature faith knows both of these things. There are some who read Scripture every day, but they are ‘lone ranger’ Christians, part of no Christian community, they never gather with their fellow-believers to share the sacraments of the church. There are some who receive Holy Communion regularly enough, but hardly ever open their Bibles. So their hearts do not burn within them; their intellects may accept a theoretical presence of Christ with them, but their hearts are not on fire. The living Lord remains an idea, He never becomes an overpowering reality in their lives, filling them with the power of the Holy Spirit and enabling them to carry His presence to others. The historic Anglican definition of the church is “a congregation of faithful men and women, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered.” Believers need both agents of Christ’s presence in their lives. Sometimes we, like those two disciples, feel that we are unable to recognise Jesus even though we hope He is with us; the way to know that He is, is to read the Scriptures and make the sacraments part of our lives.
There is one thing more, though. Luke’s story doesn’t actually end at v 35; in v 36 Luke says, they told what had happened on the road, (ie how He made Himself known through the Scriptures), and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. And while they were talking about this, says Luke, Jesus himself stood among them. When they shared their experience of Christ with others, they experienced Jesus’s presence in even greater fullness. When we share with others our own experience of what God’s word has said to us, and what Holy Communion means to us, and how Jesus becomes present to us through those things, Jesus becomes even more clearly present with us, and we give others the opportunity to share the blessings He gives to us. This is His recipe for not just knowing about Him, but knowing Him, being in a living relationship with God through Him.