The story of Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, our gospel reading (Luke 24:13-35), is a wonderful but difficult story. Only Luke has this story, and no one seems to know where Emmaus is, just that it was about 7 miles from Jerusalem. That is roughly the distance between here and Elton on the way to Oundle, or Helpston on the way to Stamford. Around here that’s about two and a half hours walk, on the flat. In hilly terrain, somewhat longer. Various candidates have been suggested for the location of Emmaus, but nothing for certain. The name Emmaus in Hebrew means ‘a hot spring’, which would bring the allusion of healing and peace. The disciples were on their way to a village called ‘hot spring’, or Bath as we might call it, a place of refreshment and blessing. And so the story starts to open up into an allegory.
On the way the two friends are weighed down with the despair of grief. They describe the disciples hope that Jesus was the one to bring salvation to Israel, through liberation, and this had all come to a screeching halt when Jesus was betrayed and executed. They don’t recognize him. Why not? Is this the blindness that comes with grief? Mary of Magdala too doesn’t recognize Jesus in the garden in John’s gospel; she too is blinded by grief and despair. They are not expecting to see him, and don’t see the new life possibility. It is easy to become locked into doom and gloom, to be consumed by the death view. But the unknown Christ who comes alongside them brings a vision of new life and invites them to see as possible what they have assumed is impossible. People who do that lift us out of despair and make dreams a reality. They transform the hope of a community and we are called to be people who affirm new life possibilities. With God the impossible can become possible.
That call comes through very subtly. The format of this story is very similar to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:26-39). Here an Ethiopian official is on a journey and Philip hears him reading the scriptures out loud. He asked if he understands what he is reading, if he understands the scriptures. The unnamed official confesses that he does not and so Philip opens the stories and words of hope for him and he begins to see and understand where Jesus fits in. The journey is halted and he is baptized in some water by the roadside and at that point his visitor, Philip, disappears into the landscape.
In the case of the road to Emmaus story the journey ends in the village named ‘hot spring’ and it is in the breaking of bread that Jesus is made known to them. The two stories give us two sacraments: for the Ethiopian official it was baptism, for the two friends it is the Eucharist. In both Christ’s living presence is made known. We meet him as we break bread and we are brought into his fellowship through the waters of baptism.
Where the disciples thought there was no hope, new life springs up for them. With God the impossible is possible and we are called to be people who live and proclaim that hope, faith and trust. We are called to accompany others on their journey to the place called ‘hot spring’ where healing and new life may be found, and Christ becomes present in the breaking of bread.
Emmaus has another resonance. It is mentioned in the Apocrypha as a place Judas Maccabeus camps and from which he launches an attack to liberate the people (1 Maccabees 3:40-4:25). Perhaps the journeying to that place with this resonance of liberation is an attempt by the two friends to reconnect with their hope of liberation after the doomed hope that ended on the cross, or so they thought. Judas Maccabeus in his rallying speech refers to the liberation of the Hebrew people from Pharaoh’s pursuing army at the Red Sea, the passing through the waters of death to new life, and again we have an allusion to how the church came to see baptism. In it we pass through the despair of death to the hope of new life in Christ.
So the story of the journey to Emmaus, with the stranger who is later recognized in the breaking of the bread, brings healing and blessing, life affirmed where they could only see death, liberation found where defeat was expected. It is a story of the true depths of Easter and the hope we have in Christ. We are called to be people who affirm our hope in life, even, especially where all seems lost. With God the seemingly impossible becomes possible and we can trust in his saving hold on his creation.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 3 – Sunday 30th April 2017