On the road out of town
In his sermon on the resurrection appearances to the disciples, in particular Thomas, last week, Stuart said – well, he said a lot of interesting things, actually, but the one which really struck me was drawing out that phrase, “we have seen the Lord”, and his exploration of the ways in which, even today, can still say it, albeit it a somewhat allegorical way.
And it got me thinking about those resurrection appearances, and just how crazy it must have seemed, as one of those who knew Jesus, who had followed him, listened to his teaching, seen him die, for someone to come to you and say those words: “we have seen the Lord”.
Yes, you might think. I’ve seen him too. I saw him on Thursday, taken away. I saw him tried, condemned, executed. You say you’ve seen him alive, but I know I saw him die.
Like it was for Thomas, the declaration “we have seen the Lord” is just too good to be true.
Today’s reading is the story of Cleopas and an unnamed companion. They were part of ‘the group’, as Cleopas names it, not in the inner circle of the twelve, but amongst the wider group of disciples – quite likely they were from Galilee and had travelled to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, as so many did, either because they made that trip with Jesus, or simply as part of their own religious observance.
But now they are walking away from Jerusalem towards Emmaus. Stuart would probably want to put up a map at this point, but unfortunately we don’t know where Emmaus was, except that it was about seven miles away from Jerusalem. Most likely it was simply a stopover, a resting place on the longer journey home.
Emmaus doesn’t matter to the story: where they were going wasn’t important. What was important was where they were leaving. That they weren’t staying in Jerusalem.
They had hoped that Jesus was the one, and they had heard the rumours that Jesus was alive again and had heard confirmation at least of the fact that the tomb was empty.
But it wasn’t enough: they were still going home. Going back to what had been before, to life as they knew it before the hope and disappointment.
Giving up, you’d say, if you were feeling hard.
And that’s where Jesus met them.
On the road out of town.
In Luke’s account, Cleopas and the unnamed other are the first people to see the risen Jesus. I’d never noticed this before; Luke’s telling of the story of the women at the tomb has them seeing the stone rolled away, and the angels declaring that Jesus was alive, and Peter going to the tomb and finding it empty, (the story that Cleopas retells on the road) but makes no mention of Mary’s encounter with Jesus – which Matthew, Mark, and John all record, albeit with varying details.
And I have to wonder about that – it’s the sort of detail which, as you’ve probably noticed, catches my attention in these well-known stories. Luke surely knew about the appearance to Mary – if only because he had Mark’s gospel when he was writing – but he chooses to omit it. Luke, who of all the gospel writers, gave perhaps the highest prominence to the women of the story, and to Jesus’ radical inclusion of them, passes up the opportunity to remind his readers that it the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection.
Instead, he places that first appearance on the road out of town.
There’s so much in this story that is fascinating – you might have noticed that it was a relatively long reading, especially if you compare it with Mark’s account of the same events, which reads, in full:
After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest.
There’s the way they didn’t recognise him until he broke the bread; the way they get the first beginnings of an explanation for Jesus’ suffering; the way he vanished when their eyes were opened, only to appear again when they were back in Jerusalem with the others; so many other details.
But I can’t get past that simple fact that Jesus appeared to these two as they were walking away.
How good is that?
The appearance, the conversation, the exposition from the scriptures “beginning with Moses” – the opening five books of the Bible – “and all the prophets” of all the things that were about him (and if they had had a voice recorder with them for that conversation how many years of theological debate might we have avoided) – all of that comes to a couple of otherwise entirely unknown disciples, one of whom we don’t even get a name for, who had given up and were going home.
And I reckon that this story is a story for every one of us who has ever been that follower of Jesus.
Every one of us who has seen hopes shattered and decided that we dare not hope again, who has heard the rumours of new life and chosen the road out of town.
If the story of Thomas, that Stuart took us through last week, is a story for anyone who has ever doubted, or been afraid, or felt the need for proof, then the story of Cleopas is for anyone who has ever given up. Not just been tempted to, but actually given up.
And it’s not quite the same as, but it’s not entirely different from, the story of so many through the past few years. How many of us got to the point, sometime during the covid lockdowns, where we couldn’t bring ourselves to try again? Where we’d made plans only to have them cancelled one time too many? Where it was easier, safer, just to stick with certainty, rather than hang on to an increasingly tenuous hope.
This is a story for everyone who has ever found themselves as a follower of Jesus wondering what has become of him, why everything has gone wrong, and sadly, reluctantly, deciding to walk away, to leave it behind, to take the road out of town.
And that’s where Jesus met them.
But they didn’t know it.
Their eyes were kept from recognising him.
Kept by him? Kept by their own unwillingness to see?
For whatever reason, as they walked away from the city, they didn’t know it was Jesus when they met him.
Here, again, it seems to me, this story is for us, for those of us who have taken the road out of town. For in their doubt and despair they encountered Jesus in a way, a form, that they did not recognise. Last week Stuart spoke about the ways we can “see the Lord” – in our community, in the gracious love and welcome given in the name of Jesus, in acts of service, in the words of the scriptures, in prayer – and for me this adds another layer. That we see the Lord, and don’t know it. That when Jesus meets us as we walk away, we may not know it is him.
They knew what they saw and heard was good. They listened to everything he had to say, with, they would later reflect, their hearts burning as he spoke, they were so keen to hear more they pressed him to stay with them. I guess if they hadn’t, they would have gone on the next day, and never made it into the story.
On this road out of town they drank in Jesus’ words like they had found an oasis in the desert, but they didn’t know it was him.
Until it all fell into place as he shared a gesture that was so much part of who he was – giving thanks and breaking the bread.
And then, even as he vanished from their sight, they recognised and were able to declare what had always been true:
We have seen the Lord.
And without delay they turned around and took the same road in the other direction. Back into town, back to the uncertainty of what lay before them, back into the mission of God. And after that, we never hear of them again. They weren’t great names in the early Church. Just followers who had walked away, but came back. Because even as they were walking away, they still wanted to hear, to understand, to be given a reason to return.
This is a story of hope, for those of us who recognise ourselves in them.