On the road to Emmaus

The 1980s sitcom “Cheers” dealt with events in the lives of characters who frequented a Boston bar bearing the same name. Cheers was their place of escape. When the world around them got too crazy and didn’t seem to make sense, they went to that place where, as the theme song states, “everybody knows your name” – a friendly place where, surrounded by familiar faces, they could, at least for a while, escape the craziness of their world.

In chapter 24 of his Gospel, Luke writes about two disciples on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus. This passage is the only place in the Bible where Emmaus is mentioned. But where is it? All we are told is, it is seven miles from Jerusalem. Unlike other places mentioned in the Bible, it has never been accurately located.

But it’s not so much where it is that’s important but what it represents.

We all have our own Emmaus. Like Cheers, it represents an escape. Emmaus is where we go or what we do to get as far as we can from disappointments and failures we’ve experienced. Emmaus can be a bar, a beach, buying a new car or immersing ourselves in any activity that helps us get some emotional distance between us and whatever is wounding us.

So there they are, these two disciples, making their way to Emmaus, distancing themselves from Jerusalem, the place where their hearts were broken and their hope torn asunder. As they walk, recounting the sad and tragic events that took place, a stranger joins them on their journey. Luke clues us in by telling us the stranger actually is Jesus, but the two disciples, so focused on their loss and dashed hopes, don’t recognize him.

“What are you discussing?” the stranger asks.

The two stop dead in their tracks. “Where have you been? Haven’t you heard what has occurred in Jerusalem?”

The men proceed to pour out the grief of their hearts, reminiscing the miracles they witnessed. They recount healings and renewal and how hope was born again in people’s lives, but it was all for naught. The miracle worker, the Messiah, is dead. And on top of that, his body is missing from the tomb.

What good was it for them to hope? Who would redeem them? Where is their future?

Religious folk often feel unbelief is the biggest barrier to faith, but it is much deeper than that. At the center of our unbelief is fear and hopelessness that keeps us from embracing a lively and empowering faith. The changes taking place in our world are ominously real: political polarization; increased fear and suspicion of anyone different; the environmental crisis; and deadly violence in our schools. We are afraid and we see little hope for the future. How, then, can we speak of hope when we are overshadowed by death, sorrow and loss?

The two continue their journey accompanied by the stranger. But after listening to their tale of hopelessness, he speaks up. “Oh, how foolish you are. Was not this supposed to happen to fulfill the prophets?”

As they walked along, he interprets to them all the things that occurred regarding himself – how God’s vision is being worked out, even in the most hopeless circumstances. As they neared the village, the man seems to continue on. “Stay with us,” they say, inviting the stranger to sit with them.

As he blessed and broke bread, they recognized Christ among them.

How easy it is for us to mourn? The threats to the environment, to peace and justice are real.

But, my friends, like the two on their way to Emmaus, there is an unnamed stranger walking among us, telling us death has not won.

Yes, times are changing, but there are new pathways to walk. Know this – the darkness of Calvary’s cross is outmatched by the glory of Easter. Yes, the road forward will be filled with uncertainty and even fear. But there beside us and all of creation is the stranger who walks beside us on the road. As we break bread, we – like the two travelers to Emmaus – will say, “were not our hearts burning inside us while he talked to us on the road?” And there, with him, we will find strength for the journey, we will find our spirits reignited and renewed with hope to walk toward a new divinely envisioned future.