Cleopas and his friend are leaving Jerusalem. They are in a hurry. It is late afternoon and the worst of the afternoon’s heat is just beginning to subside. The sun is beginning its descent.
They are talking. Nineteen to the dozen. All about what has happened. As they leave the city walls behind, they look around themselves, furtively, as if they think they might be followed.
They head west, following the course of the sun. They are making for a village called Emmaus, where they plan to stop for the night. It will take them a couple of hours.
They seem dejected and agitated.
They talk about the prophet Jesus: the one from Nazareth; the one who has caused such a stir in the city; the one who was squeezed – the Roman authorities on one side, and his own religious leaders on the other.
They turn the events over in their heads. They try to make sense of what has happened; try to come to terms with their own feelings of loss and abandonment. For they too had been followers of this Jesus; not part of his inner band, but part of that larger crowd of people who had been drawn to him as his ministry of preaching and healing had meandered across
They had heard him speak, and his words had power and clarity: they spoke directly to the heart, but at the same time made sense of everything else. So they had become two more of the many, many people who found themselves part of that strange travelling entourage of dreamers and schemers who were with him – some dreaming of revolution, others of heaven.
For them, it was just to be with him. There was something about him – especially his words – which were magnetic. Once you had heard them; once they had penetrated beneath the skin, underneath the radar of pride, there was no turning back. They were hooked. But not in a bad way. It was a liberation, not an addiction. His words had life. It was bliss to hear him speaking, to listen to the things he said.
But now he was dead. He had been executed. Brutally. Horribly. But, like so many of his followers, they had not actually witnessed this. It had all become too dangerous. They had made for the shadows. They thought they might all be rounded up.
They had heard the story. Everyone had. He had been betrayed by one of his own followers; convicted by some kangaroo court of the Pharisees meeting in the dead of night; taken before the Roman Governor; turned on by the crowd; stripped; beaten; crucified: chewed up and spat out – that is how it had seemed to Cleopas and his friend.
It had all happened with astonishing speed. And they were left reeling.
So they walk and talk. And everything that had seemed so full of hope was now plunged into grief and despair. And those big players like Peter and James, who had promised so much and who seemed so reliable, so wise: they disintegrated, they abandoned him too. And in the end he died alone – well, almost alone: John and Mary and some of the other women, they had been there. That’s what they’d been told. But what good did it do? They couldn’t stop it.
But neither could he. That was the painful point of it all. They thought he could. They thought that even then – standing before Pilate, or defying the cruelty of the cross – he might do something or say something that would make everyone see. But he didn’t. As they hauled him up before Pilate he was virtually silent.
That was when many of them had stopped believing. For in the end it was hideous, violent, random. They trapped him. They stretched him out. They pulled him apart. It was all too easy for them. And at the last, he had nothing to say. His life was snuffed out, forgotten. And it was obvious to all of them that he was not a Messiah. Messiahs don’t get crucified.
For that was the other reason they followed; it was the thing that united them all. They had started believing. One by one the belief had spread. Whispered at first, and then, in this last week, shouted from the rooftops – a real gauntlet thrown down to the compromisers and the lily-livered. They had started believing he was the Messiah, the one promised by God, the one who would set them all free. But it seemed stupid saying that now, in the light of all this.
They had got it wrong. That was the plain truth of it. But when they were with him, when they listened to him speak – then it had all been different. And although none of them could really agree on what they wanted a Messiah to be, even that faded away when he spoke, or even when you were just in his presence.
But he was not a Messiah. A good man? Yes. A powerful preacher, a healer, even? Yes. But not from God in the way they hoped.
So it was ended, and all that remained was confusion and regret. Their eyes were closed to him.
Over and over they went. Chewing at the bones of all that had happened. Picking the carcass. Looking at it from every angle. And always finding the same despair and humiliation. They felt lost. They didn’t know where life was going now they couldn’t follow him. They felt stupid. They had placed
such trust in him, such hope. And they’d been wrong.
Still half-a-dozen miles to walk.
Jerusalem is behind them.
It is clear what is happening now. They are getting out, leaving it behind. They are walking towards Emmaus: that much is factually true. But the deeper, harder truth is that they are walking away from Jerusalem. They are leaving all their hopes behind.
There is also an unspoken fear: what happened to Jesus might happen to them. The other disciples have locked themselves away. They are scared stiff about what might happen. They don’t know which way to turn. There is no one to lead. They are all saving their own skin.
And something else nags away at them. There is disappointment that it has all gone so wrong. There is shame that they ended up getting it so wrong themselves. There is fear that they are going to be arrested, that there will be a price to pay. But there is also a whispering disturbance that it is not all
quite over. All through the day, other crazy stories have been emerging. Normally you wouldn’t pay them any attention, but the rumours were starting to spread like a virus. They were contaminated already. Peter and John had been to the tomb in the morning, and to their horror they had found the stone removed and the body gone. This was a real shock and no one seemed to know what had happened. Was it that the soldiers taken him away? But if so, why? Or had some of his own followers done it? But how? After all, there was a guard at the tomb. And were they going to say he had been raised from death?
Then someone had reminded them that he had said himself that if this Temple were destroyed he would raise it in three days. What did he mean by that? Was he speaking about himself? They shuddered at the thought.
Then some of the women – Mary especially, all worked up, defiant, adamant she was – said they had seen him. Seen him alive. This was the last straw. This was madness. And even though no one really believed her, of course some of them wanted to believe, and that was how the rumours started.
That was also when they realized they had to get out. Things were spiralling out of control, and these stories would only make matters worse. They would prolong the agony. Rile the authorities. They would all be rounded up. They would all be crushed.
So they stumble on. The path ahead of them is uneven. The shadows that fall behind them are imperceptibly lengthening. They turn the story over again. They try to make sense of it, justifying their own actions, looking for the clues that will enable them to wipe the whole slate clean, start again somewhere else, somewhere away from Jerusalem and all its longings for God. For in that moment it seemed to them that there was no God, or that the God they had hoped in had never been real. Their eyes were closed. Closed to God. Closed to Jesus. Closed to hope. Nothing made sense any more.
Then – as if from nowhere – there is the steady tread of another pair of feet falling in beside them, picking up the rhythm of their steps. Another person. A stranger. They look at him, half startled that they never noticed his approach, but also glad of some company, someone who might take them out of themselves. They also wonder: how long had he been there? Had they been so caught up in their own conversation that they hadn’t even seen him draw near?
He smiles at them, but they don’t recognize him. It is true, the evening sun is in their eyes; but it is also true that they shield their eyes and look him up and down. But they don’t know who it is.
For a moment no one says anything and a silence rests between them. There is no greeting, no introductions.
Then the stranger speaks. ‘What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?’ he says to them.
And this most innocent, most inviting of questions, has the effect of stopping them dead in their tracks. They look to the ground, downcast and subdued. As they think of what has happened it is almost as if there is no longer any point in going anywhere.
Cleopas replies: ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’
The stranger smiles. ‘What things?’ he asks.
And then the story comes out again. Pouring out. More focused than before, but still as painful and as hopeless, as if you have dredged it so many times you get down to the one unavoidable kernel of the truth of it: ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,’ they said, ‘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 . . .’And as he said these words, he could hardly continue because this summed up the awful, hopeless pain of it all. Yes, we had hoped, and our hopes have been dashed. He pauses, catching his breath, resolving to go on. ‘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 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.’
Another silence. Their story finished. Another smile as the stranger hears and weighs all he has been told.
Cleopas and his friend are unexpectedly unburdened. It has been good to tell their story to someone else, to get it out in the open. They even understand it better for telling it aloud. They see their own mistakes clearly. They had allowed themselves to be misled. They had followed a dream and it had spiralled into a nightmare.
And this stranger has listened with a gracious intensity. In a world of noise and distraction, where most people seem only to think of what they are going to say next, he has listened to their every word. His attention has never wavered. This in itself was a small healing.
And then he spoke again. ‘You fools!’ he smiled, ‘So slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared.’ Then, as they carry on walking, he starts to talk about the Scriptures. But he talks in a new way. He takes the old stories, but he sees them differently.
This is what he says. He begins with things long ago. He travels back into the very beginnings of their faith in order to plot a new course to the present. This is what he needs to show them; that what has happened was necessary, that it had always been this way, that the Messiah had to suffer these things before entering into his glory. It was what the prophets had foretold even if only a few of them had ever glimpsed what it might actually mean.
He started with Moses. He spoke about the night of the Exodus and the blood of the sacrificed lamb painted on the lintel of the doors and the angel of death passing over. He told how God had made a covenant with his people that night, but, like all the other covenants, we had failed to keep
it. We had always gone our own way, hedged our bets, put our trust in ourselves, or hankered after the gods of prosperity and power that we found all around us. He said that even those who had been saved from death, liberated from slavery, the ones who had walked across the dry land of the Red Sea with walls of water to the left and right of them had, in the end, done their own thing and turned their back on God. And all the covenants, and all the rules and all the pleadings, did not change it.
He explained to them how all the prophets had spoken about this disobedience and this wilful turning from the way God had marked out, but it hadn’t made any difference. Then one of them, Isaiah, had this vision of a servant, someone coming from God who would somehow suffer on behalf of all the people, someone who would carry their infirmities and would himself be wounded for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities. And then he actually quoted the prophet: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned our own way, and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquities of us all.’ For the prophet somehow saw that this servant of God would be oppressed and afflicted and would himself be like a lamb led to slaughter.
Then, speaking passionately, powerfully, drawing together the disparate threads of the tapestry of Scripture and creating a new picture, he went back further, back to the very first covenant God had made with our Father Abraham, and how God told him that he would be the father of a multitude of nations. He told of how Abraham’s faith was tested. God had asked him to sacrifice his own son Isaac; and they went up the mountain, and Isaac said to his father, ‘Father, we have kindled a fire to make this offering to God and we have a knife to make the sacrifice, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ And Abraham said, ‘God will provide the lamb for the offering, my son.’ And Abraham bound his son and actually laid him on the wood and raised the knife to strike him. But at that moment an angel called from heaven telling him to spare the boy. Abraham looked around and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. He took the ram and offered it instead. And we always thought that when Abraham said God will provide the lamb he was referring to that ram which he found when his faithfulness to God was proved true, but it wasn’t. And neither does it just refer to the lambs that were slain on the night of the Exodus. And neither does it refer to the lambs that we slay year after year, Passover after Passover, because, in the end, the blood of lambs and bulls cannot take sins away, they are not pleasing to God. They don’t work. No, it refers to something else. A new covenant that God was going to make. Something that would last for ever.
Don’t you remember the prophet Amos raging against the futility of our sacrifices and our worship? He said: ‘I hate and despise your festivals. I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . and even though you offer me your burnt offerings I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.’
Or as it says in the psalm, ‘Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.’
The prophet Micah put it very plainly, stating matter-of-factly what it is that God requires. Is it burnt offerings? Or thousands of rams? Or rivers of oil? Is it the sacrifice of a first-born for the atonement of your own sins? No, what God requires is this: ‘To do justice, and to love kindness, and
to walk humbly with your God.’
Here was the point. God and only God could provide the sacrifice, a life perfectly offered. The Lamb that God was going to provide was his son, not Abraham’s. The Messiah had to suffer, because the Messiah was going to be that Lamb of God, that suffering servant. Not an earthly ruler, another David ushering in another human kingdom, but the one who would bring in the rule of God. That was the reason our people were marked out in the first place. It was so that the light of God might shine through them to everyone. But they always got it wrong. Either obscuring that light altogether, or just keeping it to themselves. The prophets tried to draw us back, but we would not listen. God had to enter the situation himself. Had to take the risk of being rejected, had to show us how to live. God, in the loving
obedience of his son, had to be that Lamb of God that we could not offer and that we could not become. And at the same time, the Messiah had to suffer because we suffer. How could we ever know God’s love if God was always beyond us? How could it be real if it was always the other side of all our suffering and dying? We needed a Messiah who was like us in every respect – one of us – and yet without the sinfulness that kept on meaning we got it wrong.
And so it was inevitable that such a Messiah would be rejected. That was what Isaiah saw, though even when he said it he could hardly have known what it meant. How could anyone? How could the Messiah himself? Because he too would come in the very likeness of the fragile flesh we inhabit, and therefore be subject to its constraints and demands, and especially its pains.
But he would be obedient. Even to death. He would live a life of perfect offering to God and perfect communion with God. He would, in this sense, carry the sins of the world. He would be the embodiment of God’s people and live out perfectly that life of offering that we had failed to live.
At the same time he would show us the depths and the extent of God’s love. He would, in that sense, be paying the price that none of us could pay. Because we couldn’t live such a perfect life. We are always marred by our sinfulness.
Don’t you remember Hosea saying that when Israel was a child I loved him? That I led him with bands of love, with cords of kindness like one who tenderly lifts a little child to his cheek. That is how God loves his people. That is how God loves his world. God will never give up on us. He will go on loving even if we never recognize him or accept him. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love.
But such a love can only be real if it is offered freely. That is what the Messiah does; the Messiah who suffers. And likewise, love can only be real if it is returned with the same freedom with which it is offered. God will not force himself upon you. God will not twist your arm. God will not play dice with you. He is steadfast, faithful, enduring.
What God always wanted was a relationship of love. God’s covenant was always a marriage proposal, not a court order! So God does everything that is necessary to show the depth and nature of love. And then God waits. Waits for our response: the free response of our love to God’s love. That was the reason the Messiah had to suffer. Not just because sins were forgiven, but because it was love.
Don’t you remember what he said: ‘When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself’? That there is no greater love than this, that one should lay down one’s life for one’s friends? That is what he did. That was the reason he suffered.
Don’t you remember all those stories? About lost coins, hidden treasure, even a lost sheep, for goodness’ sake? It was always about love. A love that goes the second mile. A love that suffers to the end. That was the cup he drained to the dregs.
Cleopas and his friend listened intently. This stranger’s words held conviction and precision. He knew the Scriptures so well. The things he said spoke to the heart of their malaise. For the humiliating death that Jesus had suffered just seemed to them to prove conclusively that they had got it wrong, that he wasn’t the Messiah they had hoped for. But this stranger spoke about it differently. He said that Jesus was the Messiah they needed. That his death was a victory. That somehow love was at work upon that cross. That this was what God intended.
Their heads spun with it. No one had spoken about God like this before. Or had they? Their hearts burned within them.
Meanwhile the shadows of the day lengthened. They stretched back down the road, almost to Jerusalem itself. The sun burned a bright, deep orange as it sank beneath the horizon, casting its last bands of light across a sky that had begun its daily shift through the spectrum of colour from vivid red, to a deep, bruised purple and then to the sombre blackness of night. And as the light faded and the conversation continued and the questions bounced back and forth, they reached Emmaus. The time had gone so quickly, and even though it was nearly dark and they knew the day was ending, it seemed like the passing of a moment, that conversation on the road.
They stop outside the house where they are planning to spend the night. For the first time the stranger walks ahead of them. He is going on. But they urge him strongly: ‘Stay with us. It is almost evening. The day will soon be over.’
So he goes in with them. He sits down with them. A table is prepared and he eats with them. But as the bread is brought to them, a shift takes place. The stranger, the guest, suddenly becomes the host. He takes the bread, slowly, purposefully. He holds it up as if he is inviting them to eat. He says the
prayer of blessing; a prayer they all know well, a prayer of thanksgiving to the God who provides their every need, who watches over them and who feeds them.
And then he breaks the bread. It is again a moment out of time brought into time. And they are connected – all these moments, woven together, uniting. As he breaks the bread they see again another loaf on another night, broken and shared, and they remember words of dark foreboding – my body broken, my blood shed. And now they are mixed in with the words that the stranger spoke on the road about a God who suffers, about a death which was a triumph: a triumph of love and a demonstration of what love will do, that it will break for you, that it will shed its blood for you. Only . . .
And then, of course, he is a stranger no more. He breaks the bread, and they remember his words on the road, and their eyes are opened. Not just opened to this stranger’s identity, but to the meaning, to the truth of who he is and what his death meant and where it led – not to a tomb, but to a
table – here in their presence, suddenly made known to them in the breaking bread.
In the same moment he is gone. In that moment of recognition their eyes are opened and he disappears from their sight. And although they long to see him again, they also know they don’t need to. Broken bread will be enough. It was sufficient for eyes to be opened. It will be sufficient until another day dawns, a day beyond the dawning of all the other days that will make up the slow, turning lifetime of a universe, the birth of a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth when they will sit at table again in a new kingdom.
And in that same moment – a moment which is an eternity, a moment that holds within it all that they ever need to know and will spend the rest of their lives unpacking – they get up and return to Jerusalem. They are propelled. They stumble and run and charge back along the same road. They are delirious with joy: the joy of a new beginning, of a new birth. It is night. But the light that is burning in their hearts illuminates their way and casts all fears aside.
They find the other disciples and the other companions gathered together. They tell what has happened. That he met them on the road. That he joined them at the point of their deepest desolation, when they had stopped believing and when everything seemed lost. That he had listened to them and walked with them even though they were getting out. That he had spoken to them words of clarity and truth that made them look again at all they thought they knew and see it in a new light: his light. That they didn’t recognize him. Not then. But they had known him when he broke the bread.
Jesus meets Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus road and listens to their questions. He then opens the Scriptures to them and shows them what it meant for the Messiah to suffer and die.
In pairs or as a small group:
Read Luke 24:13-35.