One afternoon this past week, I hitched up the mule team to the plow and headed down to the lower forty to work the dirt for our summer planting. As the acres stretched out before me, I could almost see the crops ready for harvest. I could almost reach out and touch the growing plants. I could just about taste the fresh food on the table. The care that goes into growing the produce, the sweat that it takes to gather the vegetables, and the work that gets it cleaned, prepared, canned and cooked. I love the transformation from dirt to seed to plants to food. It’s like a kind of renewal.
Ok, maybe I don’t actually have mules and a plow or acres of farmland, but I do have a husband with a tiller and a little spot in my backyard that’s perfect for a few plants. And late Friday afternoon, I really did put in three plants for summer squash. This week I hope to add some cucumbers and tomatoes. The point is two-fold: 1. I love digging in the dirt, and 2. the transformation from nothing to harvest is an amazing time of renewal!
According to Luke, it was the late afternoon of that first Easter – those first moments of renewal. Remember what’s going on here: Jesus’ body was missing this morning, and some of the followers had seen him alive! What a crazy day it had turned out to be.
Later that same day two of them were walking to the village Emmaus, about seven miles out of Jerusalem, so it would have taken them a couple of hours to walk there. And as they walked along, they were deep in conversation, going over all these things that had happened today.
Now we are told that one of the two walkers is Cleopas – ancient writings mention that as the name of Joseph’s brother so this could be Jesus’ uncle. And we aren’t told who the other is – although we can rule out the main disciples because these two return to the eleven later in the story. Some scholars wonder if it might even have been Cleopas’ wife walking along with him. We just don’t know – but what we do know is that they are re-hashing the events of the day.
Perhaps these two took off to put some distance between themselves and the others because they were afraid of what the Jews would do when they found them all together. Maybe they are experiencing a little of that disbelief we talked about with Thomas last week.
This is bound to be some scary stuff. And now that they’ve put a little distance behind them, maybe they are feeling like they can have an open conversation between the two of them. One version I have says they were actually arguing – which, now that I think about it, just might give some credibility to the premise that this was husband and wife.
Maybe, whoever these two are, they’ve felt they had to be hushed all day, and they’re just out maybe even walking toward home where it will be safer and calmer and they can clear their heads and maybe make some sense out of this day. I can’t imagine there is anything else they are going to talk about.
And in the middle of their talk and questions, they are joined by a stranger who doesn’t seem to know anything at all about what’s been going on today. These two very sad, very confused people begin to share a little of their story.
I love the parallel here for us. What a comfort to know that when we take the time to wrestle with our faith and our understanding, when we take the time to talk it over with others, that Jesus will walk right along with us. What a blessing that we can run into Jesus at any time!
And as these three walk and discuss, they talk to the stranger about Jesus of Nazareth, the man of God, a prophet, dynamic in his work and his word, blessed by both God and all the people. They tell him how their very own high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him. They share how their hopes are dashed because they had believed that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel. They had faith that this was the Messiah they had been waiting for.
It’s three days after we saw him die, they say – how confusing for folks who were completely believing Jesus is the One to bring Israel back to its full glory – how disappointing for those thinking the Messiah is restoring Israel, saving Israel, redeeming Israel. The women have thrown a kink in everything! they say. Those women have gone off to his tomb and couldn’t find his body – they came back talking about seeing angels – and Mary’s saying that she’s seen Jesus himself! We need to get outside and mow through this a little.
Can’t you just see Jesus shake his head and maybe grin a little as he says to them, "So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can't you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don't you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer, and only then enter into his glory?"
Then Jesus starts at the beginning, with the Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), and he goes on through all the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, and on and on), pointing out everything in the Scriptures that refer to him.
Before long, they are almost to Emmaus. Almost where they are going, and he starts to keep moving on down the road, but they press him: "Stay and have supper with us. It's almost dark, and we can talk some more." So he goes in with them, sits at table with them, takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them. Now THAT’s familiar. And in that familiarity, at that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognize him. And he’s gone – he disappears.
Back and forth they talked. "Didn't we feel on fire as he talked with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us?"
Good grief! Jesus may have been right when he called them thick-headed – the King James Version calls them fools. Could they just not see who he was?
One day, a few years ago, I sat across the table from a man for an hour-long meeting. We were eyeball to eyeball for a whole hour and after the meeting we spent another hour in conversation. And the very next morning, I stopped by the gas station he owns to fill up my car and he had no idea who I was. Didn’t even look familiar to him until I told him who I was.
You see, I was just out of place. He had me connected with the meeting not out in the community buying gas. I certainly can’t think of him as a fool – especially since I’ve done that so many times myself – not recognized someone because they weren’t who I expected to see. People I’ve known for years will come up to me in a store, and I’ll have no idea who they are. They just aren’t supposed to be in the store – they are supposed to be in the place I have them in my mind. I have seen my dry cleaner in the donut shop, and didn’t know who that was for a long time after I left.
People see me in the grocery – and since I’m not in the pulpit in my robe – they cannot place where they’ve seen me before. I have, on more than one occasion, said the words: “It’s nice to see you. I’m your pastor.”
So I completely understand that the man from the meeting didn’t recognize me – but these disciples, these followers, didn’t just see Jesus occasionally in the dry cleaners or for an hour meeting. Some of these folks spent every waking hour for three years in the company of Jesus. They ate with him, they talked with him, they studied with him, they did everything together – how can they not know who is talking to them?
Well, maybe I would have the same trouble – maybe if I knew you were dead this morning and then had a conversation with you this afternoon, maybe my eyes wouldn’t let me see either. I think not recognizing him was only part of the problem, though – and maybe not actually the worst part.
Jesus asked them a question that I never want to be asked: Why can’t you just believe? Now Jesus isn’t chastising them for not recognizing him; he’s not blaming them for questioning what the women saw. Jesus is wanting to know why they can’t simply believe all that the prophets said? “You’ve been told over and over – but you still don’t see what’s going on. Don't you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory? We’ve been over this!”
If they had given consideration to the prophets – if they had taken the time to believe in the primacy of Scripture, the authority of Scripture – it they had simply believed what was given to them plain and simple – they would have no need to dig through this because that work would have been done. They would have been prepared and expecting this to happen just this way. Prepared for the harvest time, if you will. They would have known that the Messiah was going to suffer and die and rise again. They would have understood that this is HOW Israel is going to be redeemed.
Jesus had told them what was going to happen. The Scriptures told them what to expect – had they never read Daniel? Had they never studied Isaiah? Christ HAD to suffer. The prophets are clear about this. The Savior cannot be the Savior without the suffering and the glory that follows. Jesus’ suffering didn’t take away from his being the Messiah – it actually proved who he was!
Jesus is saying: isn’t this just exactly what is SUPPOSED to happen? Isn’t this exactly what should happen to the One God sends? Isn’t this exactly right if Israel is really going to be set free? There are no more sacrifices that have to be made to free God’s people from oppression. The Messiah has taken away that need. In Jesus, the promise of the Messiah is fulfilled. His sacrifice for our sins has saved us – has set us free from sin. God has provided for us – has taken the initiative to act on our behalf – us, we who are powerless to act on our own behalf. God has identified with us, come to live among us, taken on all our troubles, and secured our future… all through Jesus Christ, his living, suffering, dying and now his LIVING again!
And Jesus is explaining to them what all this means – what the Scriptures mean – and that it all makes sense – but they just can’t see it. They aren’t looking with their eyes of faith, and they just can’t grasp it.
Augustine said: Understanding is the reward of faith. So don’t try to understand so that you can believe, but believe so that you can understand.
Believe so that you can understand! Believe so that your eyes are opened and then you can see! It takes faith – TRUST that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world – ONLY then, will we begin to understand, and the pieces will begin to fall into place. And all of them may not ever fall into place for us – that’s why it’s called faith, that’s why it’s called the mystery of faith.
The mystery of faith is something we proclaim each time we have Holy Communion: Christ has died. Christ is RISEN. Christ WILL come again! It’s powerful!
Don’t you see: Jesus – the risen, living Savior – through his resurrection, has returned to us. He is here with us. Alive. The resurrection isn’t something we want or something that comes from inside of us… the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a gift given TO us by our loving and living God. Being a Christian and having faith means we get that. And we get it to the point where we are lifelong learners… people who HAVE to immerse ourselves in the pursuit of relationship with Jesus.
When we do move toward the kind of faith that allows our eyes to be opened – nothing can come between us and our Savior. We are able to see a clear path cut for us, just like that tilling of the dirt in the spring. We’ve been kind of ragged and weedy for so long during the winter months of our lives, but we are growing with deep lush understanding and new growth. With transformed faith, we are able to see the growth, and taste the freshnesss, and enjoy a renewed relationship with our Lord. We are claiming what happens next! We are resurrection people!
God of grace and glory, we thank you that you judge us not by the perfection of our actions, but by our readiness to live boldly by faith. Help us to trust you and follow where you lead, that in Christ, your name may be glorified in the newness of all the earth. Amen.