The key insight we might take away from today’s Gospel — the Third Sunday of Easter (April 26) — from Luke 24, is that the story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus may be one of the most eloquent and beloved stories in the Gospels, but it is actually unnecessary.
After all, Luke 24 flows quite nicely if we have this sequence:
1-12 the women come to the tomb and find it empty; they tell Peter, and he comes, and finds the tomb empty;
36-49 Jesus appears to the apostles in the upper room, eats with them, and gives them their mission, to be witnesses to his death and resurrection;
50-52 Jesus ascends to the Father.
All of this is quite clear and familiar, albeit extraordinary, and we might be quite content with it. So what is the need for the inserted verses 13-35, more than half the chapter, that serve as the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter?
After all, we do not have any clue who these people are — a Cleopas and someone else, presumably his wife — or why they should matter. As they explain to the stranger on the road, they are just people who used to have hope:
But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. (21)
Had hoped: though they heard the stories of the empty tomb, the reports of some extraordinary reversal of death into life, nevertheless they’ve given up, and are merely going home; they are no longer believing in Jesus or their dreams connected to him. All this is a major interruption that is not necessary, and hardly edifying. It is merely about two people, this man and this woman, who are not apostles, not leaders, not chosen, not even the women at the tomb. They are everybody else — they are us, people at a remove or two who learn the hard way that dreams die and that when hope is gone, it is time to go home.
But too: their time on the road, their giving up and going home, their abandonment of discipleship — is just the right setting for the risen Christ to appear unexpectedly, anonymously, in the wrong place, with the wrong people, in the wrong direction:
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. (12-16)
They do not know who he is. They are just honest about the fact that they no longer believe. But a stranger on the road, the no-man, talks to them about the tradition they have known from childhood, their own Jewish tradition, all that is theirs but which they still do not understand:
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 Messiahshould 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. (25-27)
There is no new revelation, no sudden recognition or act of worship: he simply tells them what they already know. They simply keep walking with the stranger, not realizing that their journey to Emmaus — a nothing-place, of no importance — is the journey they had always hoped for, as the Jesus they thought they had lost walks home with them. As they admit later,
Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us? (32)
But they would never have understood even this much, except that when they reach Emmaus, they make a decent gesture toward the stranger:
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.” (28-29)
This is not a Jesus of grand gestures or visions on Jerusalem or encounters with Peter or other apostles: it is simply the Jesus of the open road, the stranger who would without hesitation have simply gone away, if that couple had not the kindness to invite him in. But they do, and he shares their meal, and then everything changes:
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. (30-31)
There are two things to notice here. First, it is with these marginal people, and not with the apostles in the upper room, that the risen Christ first breaks bread. Before he gets to that upper room, he shows himself, to ordinary people who have lost hope, that they might rediscover hope in a meal they share with a stranger. Second, he disappears: it is now up to them to tell the story and make other hearts burn with love.
For it is only when this couple turns around and rushes back to Jerusalem, to tell everyone what happened in Emmaus that Jesus shows up there too:
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!” But then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." (33-36)
In other words, it is Jesus’ accidental/providential encounter with anonymous disciples heading in the wrong direction that is the prompt for his more famous appearance to the apostles, to eat in their presence and send them on mission. The faith of an unknown couple makes the earliest Church happen. Or of many such couples: for who is to say that Jesus did not that very same day meet many other ordinary, disappointed followers on other roads too?
In the typically odd way that is the way of the Gospels, this is a Word for us during the great pandemic of 2020, as it inconveniently intrudes on the Easter season. We are not gathered in a customary fashion in church. We are not following through on the Easter season in the right way. We are at home, distanced, scattered. Perhaps, when we read the papers or scan the web, we are people who “had hoped” but “no longer hope.” The point of this Gospel is that Jesus does not give up on us, and he does not merely wait in the right place at the right time for us to show up. He sets out to find us and walks with us where we are. No big show; perhaps we don't even notice that he is there. If we are scattered, he scatters too; if we are not in the holy city, but on the mundane roads of ordinary life, that is where he chooses to be; if we are marooned at home, distanced and masked, then that is exactly where he shows up next.
So the next time you share a meal in your home, the next time you break the bread with the hungry and homeless as best you can, keep your eyes open: he is right here. May our hearts burn within us!
And as a bonus, here is a lovely short video filmed by Asha, a charity organization in the slums of New Delhi, founded by the courageous and saintly Dr. Kiran Martin. It is amazing to see how people risk their lives to help others. The video is accompanied by the lovely hymn, Abide with Me. And what does Asha mean? Hope: "we had hoped" — we do hope.