Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
So I was wondering a couple of things this week as I was considering the Gospel. I was wondering why Cleopas and his companion were going to Emmaus. I was wondering why Cleopas and his companion didn’t recognize Jesus on the road. And I was wondering why they knew Jesus in the bread breaking, and why this compelled them to run back to Jerusalem. That is what I’ve been wondering this week. Why they were going to Emmaus? Why didn’t they know Jesus? And what about the breaking of bread sent them running back to Jerusalem?
Here is some background on Cleopas to get us started. He is, tradition says, the father of James the Lesser, one of the disciples. He was also thought to be the brother of Joseph, the carpenter, who acted as Jesus’ dad; which made Cleopas Jesus’ uncle. Tradition says that his unnamed walking companion was his wife, named Mary; though the beauty of this companion’s veiled identity, I think, is that he or she could be you or me. It places us on the road with Cleopas, and allows us to ask why we go where we go; and why we don’t see what is right in front of us; and what compels us to return home to our community.
So, there we are on the road with Cleopas and I am wondering: why is he going to Emmaus? I mean through the lens of history, Jerusalem in the days after Jesus’ death was about the most exciting place in the world to be. And yet, they are leaving for Emmaus. Maybe Cleopas has some super important business there, or maybe there was a family emergency that required his presence. But I’m as inclined to think, if I try to put myself in his context, that he just wanted to get out of town.
I imagine things in Jerusalem were intense, if not crazy. Judas was dead. He hung himself. Mary Magdalene was running around claiming to have seen the Lord. She had been so stable when Jesus was alive and now it seemed she was revisiting her demon days. Peter was being his impulsive, bossy self, corralling everyone into the upper room, like he was Lord, only he was hiding them behind locked doors. That was a big difference between him and Jesus. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were vying for leadership like always, but now with Jesus gone, their mother was really egging them on. And then there was Mary, Jesus’ mother, and his brothers and sisters: suffering with inconsolable grief. Everything that seemed so certain when Jesus was around was now in doubt. The community was a mess. Maybe it was time to find a new community. At the very least it was time to get out of town. There are times when we need a break. There are times when we cut and run. These are very different things, and it is important to know the difference.
I am not sure what Cleopas was thinking, but either way, we find him on the road, which brings us to my next question: why did Cleopas and his companion not recognize Jesus? I mean, why did Cleopas and his companion not recognize Jesus? That is a real question. It is a real puzzle. It is a mystery, and it is one I can’t answer. The best I can do is reflect on the impact of meeting Jesus as a stranger, and on the conversation that ensued, and how Cleopas and his companion listened, and why they were able to hear what they heard.
Here is the recap: as Cleopas and his companion were walking side by side, deep in conversation about Jesus, a man appears, seemingly out of know where. They were a bit surprised, but they greeted him politely because they knew, like you and me, how to greet a stranger politely. “What are you talking about?,” he asks? They stopped, astounded, and, turned toward him: “Haven’t you heard of the things that have gone on in Jerusalem these past few days?” “What things?,” he inquires. So they tell their story as they stand there face to face. The stranger listens. Then he responds: “How slow of heart, had the prophets not anticipated this, and was it not necessary that the Messiah suffer first before entering into glory?”
Now he has their attention. He must have seemed sane; we are pretty quick at discerning sanity. Then he turns and heads down the road. Cleopas and his companion catch up on either side, as he begins to interpret how Jesus was revealed in scripture. Side by side they walk as he talks. Sometimes it is easier to listen when we are side by side and on the move. I think about driving my children to school. I think about long walks with my wife and hikes with a good friend. I even remember a few conversations on airplanes with complete strangers. There is something about moving with a person, side by side that opens the heart so it can hear.
But Jesus had been walking side by side with the disciples and quite possibly with Cleopas for years. They had heard his teachings. They had listened to his parables, and then had them explained. They saw him heal the sick and raise the dead. They witnessed him turn to light on the mountain and walk across water. For three years they had been with Jesus, yet in the end Judas turned him in, Peter denied him, and everyone, save his mother and the Beloved Disciple, deserted him at the foot of the cross. For three years they had been with Jesus, and yet the minute he was gone the community fell apart, which is why, I suspect, Cleopas and his companion were on the road to Emmaus. They hadn’t been able to hear Jesus when he was with them. The context of his life clouded their perception. Think of Jesus’ inability to heal the sick in his hometown. Think of Jesus’ comment that a prophet is not heeded in his hometown. Think of the tapes we play in the presence of people we know well. Most of life is not lived on the road to Emmaus. Mostly we live with an internal voice saying….
“I’ve heard that before.”
“I know where we’re going with this.”
“Oh, I can predict what he is going to say.”
“Here it comes, just wait on it, wait on it, just wait on it, here it comes: Princeton!”
I used to know a guy and every time he came around he would always mention he went to Princeton. It was so predictable people would time him. Mostly life is not meeting a stranger on the road to Emmaus. Mostly life is meeting that same old person over and over again. Mostly life is being around people who are so predictable you can see Princeton coming a mile away.
This is why Jesus showed up on the road veiled from the context of his past. Imagine if they thought it was Jesus. Imagine the questions they would have asked. Imagine the way they would have acted. Jesus has something important to say, so he masked his context to make his point. This is why sometimes we need to get out of the context of our life to better hear God. I broke my context last week by going on a clergy retreat at Alderbrook. My room faced east and the sunrise was beautiful on Tuesday and it was beautiful on Wednesday. Had I stayed a bit longer, it might have been beautiful on Thursday, but even if it wasn’t beautiful, the sun would still rise.
Most of life in the kingdom of God is predictable. God is consistent. God gave us rhythms and context and seasons so we could step outside them to better hear God; and so we could live into them to more fully experience the love of God. I needed Alderbrook to be reminded of the value of predictability and I needed to come home to my community to experience its beauty and joy. This is why Cleopas and his companion went running back to Jerusalem. The scripture had always spelled out the role of the Messiah, but for Cleopas and his companion, and everyone else for that matter, they needed to be out of the context of the life of Jesus to see it and then needed to be back in their community to experience it.
Jesus knew this, so he came to them as a stranger on the road, and he knew this, which is why he revealed himself to them in the regular, necessary routine of breaking bread. It is true that familiarity can breed contempt. It is also true that familiarity can foster joy. Jesus reveals himself in the breaking of bread to open our hearts to the joy of the regular, predictable routines of life and how they find their fullest expression in the goofy, idiosyncratic, predictable, long-term relationships that God has set us in. This is why Cleopas and his companion ran back to Jerusalem, to let the joy in their hearts find expression in the lives of Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers and sisters. These are the people God picked for Cleopas and his companion to be in relationship with 2000 years ago, just like God has picked you and me to be in relationship with each other today.
So where does this leave us after a week of wondering about Cleopas, his companion, and their trip to Emmaus? Do we know where we are going now? Maybe. Are we clear about what we are seeing now? Maybe. But maybe it is enough to know we have a place to come home to; a place to marinate in the predictability of the kingdom of God. Maybe it is enough to know we have a place to warm our hearts through the breaking of the bread.