Reading: Luke 24:13–35
The world witnessed another act of senseless and random violence earlier in the week with the van attack in Toronto, Canada, which left 10 dead and many others injured.
I’m sure it brought back memories for many people here in Melbourne, of both the Flinders Street and Bourke Street attacks, which took place during the past sixteen months.
And it is possibly at times like this, when people, especially those family and friends of the victims, question where God is in all of this tragedy and violence.
Perhaps the story of the Road to Emmaus, from the Gospel of Luke, can help us to understand the answer to that question.
In this story, two of Jesus’ disciples are leaving Jerusalem and heading to the village of Emmaus, which we hear is only seven miles from Jerusalem. It has been three days since Jesus was crucified, and these two disciples were obviously among those who were present, when Mary Magdalene and the other women returned from Jesus’ tomb to say that the body of Jesus was not in the tomb, and that angels had told them that Jesus was alive. And we know from the story that they are both saddened and dejected by Jesus’ death.
Jesus himself approaches the two disciples as they are traveling on the road, but they don’t recognise him. We don’t know exactly why they don’t recognise him, perhaps because his resurrected appearance is somewhat different to how he looked before his death, or perhaps they themselves are too grief stricken; too immersed in their own pain and disappointment, to recognise him.
I’m sure each of us can probably relate to how they were feeling. I’m sure that we have all experienced something in our lives that has left us grief stricken; caught up in pain and disappointment to the point where we are unable to clearly see what is happening around us. I know I certainly have.
As Jesus walks along together with the two men, he begins to tell them stories from Scripture, stories that are actually about him; prophecies that foretell of his coming, and of the salvation he will bring for the people of Israel.
But it isn’t until later, when they are reflecting back on their experience on the road, that they say to themselves,
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
I wonder if that is also true for us? I wonder if at times, it’s only when we reflect back on times of sadness and pain in our lives, that we realise that Jesus was, and still is, with us on our journey, just as he was with the two disciples on theirs?
I’ve talked (and written) a lot in recent weeks about the process of discernment. The process of knowing how, and when, God is active and present in our lives. Henri Nouwen, one of the leading spiritual writers of the twentieth century, refers to the story of the Road to Emmas as
“a gospel story that reveals a spiritual pattern for discovering the real presence of Christ on our road of life”.1
He goes on to say that,
“this pattern of discerning God’s hidden presence involves at least four spiritual practices:
- interpreting scripture, or theological reflection;
- staying, sometimes called abiding or remaining in prayer;
- breaking bread, or recognising the presence of Christ in the Eucharist; and
- remembering Jesus, or the “burning heart” experience.2
Nouwen believes that these components form a biblically grounded practice of discerning the presence of God in daily life.
Speaking to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus asks,
“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
These are among the best known words in the Gospels because they radically change our view of suffering. Rather than being obstacles to the glory of eternal life, pain and suffering actually become the way to it.3
‘In teaching the disciples about the suffering of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, Jesus shows them that what upsets them most— the suffering of the friend they thought to be the Messiah— has become the source of new life. When Jesus opens the scriptures to them, their hearts are set afire. The very thing that made them give up hope and return to their old way of life is converted. That which prevented them from recognising the Messiah on the road is transformed. They are now ready to receive the new thing God is doing in the world.’4
As he accompanies them on the road to Emmaus, Jesus is a stranger to the two disciples. But by the time they reach the village, he has become a friend, and the disciples want him to stay longer. He doesn’t ask for an invitation. In fact, he acts as if he wants to go on. But they insist that he come in; they even press him to stay with them. He accepts their invitation to “stay.”
The word stay is related to the verb to abide, and it has a spiritual meaning in the Gospels. It refers to an inner staying that is both liberating and life-giving. 5 Staying with Jesus, and he with us, requires walking the road together, not turning back, anticipating seeing Jesus in unexpected ways in our hearts.
The disciples were kept from recognising Jesus while they traveled together on the road. But now as Jesus stays with them, and blesses and breaks bread, eats and drinks with them at table, the veil that had prevented them from seeing him on the road is suddenly lifted. Now they know who he is, and that he is still with them.
Eucharist— in both the ordinary and sacramental meaning of the term— is recognition. It is the full realisation that the one who takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread, is the same one, who from the beginning of time, has desired to enter into communion with us.
‘The great event on the road to Emmaus is the new communion. Someone listened, understood, and became a friend. The two lost disciples found a new place where the events that had led to sadness were being transformed into events that brought joy. They recognised that they were no longer alone. After breaking bread with them, Jesus vanished from their side because he no longer needed to be there with them.’6
Now they knew him “by heart” and were set free to return to Jerusalem and bring the good news to others. The same is true for us today. We also know Jesus “by heart”, and we too can be set free.
By discerning God’s presence in our lives, we find ourselves in a place where the events that have led to sadness, are transformed into events that bring joy.
The Lord be with you.
1Nouwen, Henri. Discernment: Reading the signs of daily life (pp. 118-119). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
2Nouwen, Henri. Discernment: Reading the signs of daily life (pp. 118-119). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
3Nouwen, Henri. Discernment: Reading the signs of daily life (pp. 118-119). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
4Nouwen, Henri. Discernment: Reading the signs of daily life (p. 119). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
5Nouwen, Henri. Discernment: Reading the signs of daily life (p. 120). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
6Nouwen, Henri. Discernment: Reading the signs of daily life (p. 122). SPCK. Kindle Edition.