Lessons on the Road to Emmaus: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

While driving around town running errands this past week, I found myself absorbed listening to a certain interview with Olympic silver medalist Shalane Flanagan. (I would like to say that I’ve run with Shalane before, but really I lined up about 10 feet behind her on the starting line of the Rock ’n Roll Marathon two years ago. The gun went off and she was gone.) An elite marathoner, Flanagan has her hopes set on becoming the first American female to win the Boston Marathon in over thirty years. Disappointingly, however, this year she has been sidelined by an injury she suffered while running on snow and ice. Her father reprimanded her saying “never, Shalane, never take a Ferrari off road!”

As challenging as her return from injury must be, it was another challenge she described that caught my attention. This past year Flanagan and her husband became foster parents to twin teenage girls from Kenya. The twins are already in their senior year in high school, and Flanagan, who has never had children, was suddenly thrust into the role of being a parent to two nearly there, but not yet adults.

She described the time when the girls were most talkative as “windshield time” –  that is, the time they had together during the drive between between home and school or whatever other activities parents chauffeur.

“Whether it’s because they’re strapped in to a confined space for a set amount of time, or because the lack of eye contact feels less intimidating, windshield time is a space where they really open up and share what’s going on in their lives,” says Flanagan.

During my days as a youth minister, I can remember experiencing something similar, finding myself astounded at what the students would talk about in the back of the church van, as if they forgot a set of adult ears were listening a few feet away in the driver’s seat. “You all do know that I can hear you,” I would remind them.

Perhaps you can recall a journey – a long hike, or epic road trip where good friends became great friends, and hours of unhurried conversation bring about a newfound intimacy. The long haul is often made easier with a companion to pass the miles, and windshield time is just the place for such conversations.

Our gospel reading this morning starts with a road trip to a village called Emmaus, some seven miles from Jerusalem.

“What is it that you are you discussing with each other?” the inquisitive stranger asks Cleopas and his companion as they travel along the way.

“Isn’t it obvious?” they might’ve thought to themselves before responding. “What do you mean, what are we talking about? We’re talking about what everybody is talking about!”

“What things?” the stranger persists.

Now, surely Jesus had to have known what these two grief stricken disciples were discussing. But it’s as if he wanted to hear it from them, themselves. “What is it that has you looking so sad?”

And then Jesus listens. Their miraculous experience of the resurrection begins with listening. Jesus does not instantly reveal himself. Nor does he get in their face and tell them “hey guys, don’t be sad, I’m here!” No, amid their sadness and hopelessness, Jesus first listens.

Lesson #1 on the road to Emmaus: True companionship always begins with listening. 

But still, they did not recognize who it was that was walking with them. Could it have been their grief that blinded them? Was it their confusion or self absorption that clouded their vision? Did they avoid looking the stranger in the eye out of fear of what uncertainties their eyes might betray?

After listening to their pain and their grief, after seeing their sadness, the stranger does a remarkable thing: He dares to tell them the truth. He tells them the truth – and at first glance the truth doesn’t always sound so nice, does it? “O how foolish and slow of heart to believe…”

At least one commentator noted, however, that this expression might be better understood as a type of banter, or perhaps even a term of endearment, not unlike “You knuckleheads!” or “Hey geniuses!”

I don’t know about you, but I find that it is often those who know me best who best call me on my own BS! Those people God places in our lives who hold us accountable to what we know to be true, even if we are not acting like it.

Lesson #2 on the road to Emmaus: Not only does companionship begin with listening, True companionship must also risk telling the truth.

Taking a closer look, this narrative hinges on something that has always intrigued me. So often the focus of this story is on the moment when the disciple’s eyes are opened, and Jesus is made known to them in the breaking of the bread. That is, undoubtedly a compelling scene. But there is a crucial moment that precedes this, on which the whole story depends.

Before the breaking of the bread, Jesus, still unrecognized by his disciples, walks on, as if he were going ahead. Did you catch that? He was about to leave. Unnoticed, unrecognized, and uninvited, Jesus does not impose. Faith is not forced upon us without our participation.

So where was he going? What might’ve happened to Cleopas and his companion had they not invited this stranger to stay on? They use the very same word that Jesus had used with his disciples – abide. Abide with us. What would have come of them if they had not practiced this small gesture of hospitality, even and especially in the midst of their confusion and grief?

Surely during their years spent with Jesus, these disciples must have seen him invite countless strangers to break bread together. He ate with all sorts and conditions of men and women: tax collectors and sinners – those who were agents of the Empire, as well as those who were oppressed by that sinful system.

Breaking bread with Jesus did not mean that you were somehow special and  deserving of the honor. Breaking bread with Jesus was an invitation to friendship and fidelity in this new social order – the commonwealth or kingdom of God.

Notice the transformation that occurs for our two travelers: Before they recognize Jesus, these two grieving disciples experience a small moment of resurrection before they even realize who they’re about to encounter.

Surely they are displaying something of their faith, even in the midst of their confusion and sadness. They insist that the stranger abide with them. They practice hospitality.

What a radical message. In a time when we are told it is best to tend to our own and not trust those who are different from us, what a remarkable thing to invite the stranger to stay. The word here for “stranger” is the very same word used for sojourner, alien, or dare we say “immigrant.”

In a time when safety and security trump the biblical mandate to care for the orphan and the widow, the stranger and sojourner in our land, what a subversive act to break bread with one who has been told “You don’t belong here. Go back from where you came.”

Make no mistake: Jesus, in this resurrection story, is a stranger. The undocumented, the unnoticed. Resurrection is realized in the midst of such radical hospitality.

Not only do these disciples recognize Jesus in the stranger, Jesus recognizes his disciples by their welcome, their insistence that he abide with them.

There is much to learn on this road to Emmaus: True companionship starts with listening. True companionship also involves truth telling. And finally, true companionship is irresistibly transformative. 

Just as Jesus was made known in the breaking of the bread, so may we be made known his disciples by our acts of true companionship.

Come, risen Lord, and deign to be our guest;

nay, let us be thy guests; the feast is thine;

thyself at thine own board make manifest

in thine own Sacrament of Bread and Wine.

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