We Had Hoped – Sermon on Luke 24:13-35 for Easter 3A

On Easter Day, we saw the Resurrection from the viewpoint of those women who were the first to arrive at the empty tomb, and last week we heard the same story from the perspective of those disciples who were closest to Jesus, but Thomas was missing that day. He had to come back a week later, to experience the risen Lord.

Today, we hear the same day’s story, but it’s from the perspective of some followers of Jesus who were not among the twelve, but they had followed Jesus closely enough to have been deeply affected by the events of the previous 72 hours.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 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.” 

Then he said to them, “Oh, 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.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. – Luke 24:13-35

If we were to read on just a few more verses, we would see the disciples all gathered together, with Jesus standing among them, opening their minds to understand the scriptures (v. 45), just as he does with these two on the road to Emmaus.

And who are these two disciples? Cleopas is only mentioned in this one story, and only Luke tells it. The disciple walking with Cleopas is never named, but there is nothing in the text that tells us this other disciple had to be a man. Even looking at an artist’s famous depiction of this scene, we can’t see the two disciples’ faces, only their backs. The disciple walking with Cleopas could have been a woman. It could easily have been Mrs. Cleopas.[1] That would make sense, when they invite Jesus into the home they apparently share.

But it doesn’t really matter if the other disciple was friend or spouse. What matters is that Luke tells this story in such a way that we can each put ourselves right there on the road, walking and talking intensely about these things that have just occurred. Things that disturb us. Things that have shaken our world.

These disciples are in the pit of despair. When they tell the stranger who joins them “we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel,” it’s clear that those hopes have been dashed. We had hoped … In Greek the imperfect tense indicates continuous action that flows from the past, but it doesn’t tell us if that action is still going on.[2] How long had they been hoping? However long it had been, the events of the past few days had brought an end to their hoping. Hope was behind them, in the imperfect past.

We like to think in future tense – things will get better, the sun will come up tomorrow, life will go on, even after deep disappointment and even through grief. But life doesn’t happen in future tense, does it? Quite often, life hands us the imperfect tense: we had hoped

Maybe you have experienced that kind of deep disappointment. Maybe your long-held hopes have been dashed. Maybe it is hard for you to recognize that Christ is walking beside you, just as he walked beside two disciples who didn’t recognize him on their way home from Jerusalem. Fear and despair can do that. They can make us blind to the One who walks with us through our deepest hurt.

But resurrection is just as real as dashed hopes. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to hope just yet, but know that Jesus died in order to be raised from death, so that you could experience resurrection, too. So don’t worry if hope seems a thing of the past for now. The risen Christ walks beside you, even if you don’t recognize him. And the people in this church are here to help you see him.

Cleopas and (maybe) Mrs. Cleopas show us some things to which we should pay attention. First, their hearts were burning as Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures. Scripture was an integral part of their walk with Jesus. Just as Jesus went back to the beginning of Genesis, outlining salvation history from the books of Moses and all the prophets, Christ invites us to dive into scripture and study it together. When we read God’s Word in community, we help each other see God’s truth more clearly.

We can also hold each other accountable, not only for continuing to read the Bible, but to interpret our reading through the lens of good scholarship. There’s a lot of false teaching out there. We can help each other stay true to the gospel when we question one another and ask, as the early Pietists did who influenced John Wesley, “Where is it written?” As theologian Molly T. Marshall puts it, “we need others’ interpretations to challenge [our] narrowness of heart.”[3]

Second, these disciples recognized Jesus when he took the bread, blessed it, broke the bread, and offered it to them. This four-part action reminds us of what we do every time we observe the sacrament of Holy Communion, but that’s because it was Jesus’ normal practice whenever he ate with others. And Luke loves to tell us about these meals!

But there is something else you should notice in this practice of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread. And I wonder if this is the reason the disciples finally recognized Jesus as their risen Lord. Up to this point, the stranger walking with them, talking about scripture, reluctantly accepting their hospitality – this person has been their guest. They’ve included him in their conversation and invited him into their home.

But when Jesus picks up the bread, he takes on the role of host. Suddenly, Jesus is the one doing the inviting.

This is how Jesus comes into our lives, too. We may invite him in, not really knowing what it will mean to become vulnerable to this stranger, but when Jesus enters our lives, he becomes our host, and we are his guests.

This is fellowship, and it is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus – fellowship around the Word, fellowship around the Table, fellowship in our day-to-day living.

You can be a believer by yourself, but if you want to be a true follower of Jesus, it has to happen in community, keeping fellowship with other followers of Jesus. Walking together, we teach one another what scripture means, and we remember together Christ’s great sacrifice for us in the sacrament of Holy Communion, that meal we share at Christ’s Table. Walking together, we serve others and share the good news of what Christ has done for us and in us.

Walking together, we also remind one another that our future is filled with hope, through the promise of resurrection. This church is here to offer hope when you have given up hoping.

When Cleopas tells the stranger on the road, “We had hoped he would be the one…” we can feel the sorrow, the pain, the feeling of … hopelessness. Where do we go from here? What now?

You might be thinking the same is true in your life, in this church. Where is the hope we are supposed to celebrate during Eastertide?

And Jesus calmly picks up a loaf of bread, breaks it, blesses it, and offers it to you. He’s been with you the whole time you were fretting, the whole time you didn’t recognize him. Maybe you didn’t recognize him as he opened scripture to you, but here, at table, with a simple loaf of bread, Jesus reminds you he’s with you.

And then he disappears, at least from sight. But he’s still present, and I think it’s important to notice what the disciples do. They don’t sit there wondering about what just happened. They don’t clear the table, put out the candle, and head to bed, wagging their heads.

They get up, and they get moving. They have a story to tell. Their hearts have been strangely warmed, and their eyes have been opened to the reality of resurrection. The very thing they’d hoped has come true. They can’t sit still. They get up, and they get back out on the road they just traveled. And they invite you to do the same.

[1] Thanks to Martha Spong (formerly of revgalblogpals.org) for suggesting the possibility of “Mrs. Cleopas.”

[2] Richard Swanson. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1992

[3] Molly T. Marshall, Feasting On The Word, Year A, Vol. 2, 422.

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