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On the Road to Emmaus

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.

--The Way It Is, William Stafford

Road to Emmaus by Duccio di Buoninsegna, c.1308

Cleopas was going home on what I imagine to be a dusty road. The day, warm. The traffic, light. Everyone had been to Jerusalem for the Passover and many had seen the executions. I imagine Cleopas and his companion moving along slowly, faces downcast, shoulders hunched, speaking quietly. I imagine them traveling without real purpose, simply putting one foot in front of the other, following the road home. Their concentration wasn’t on what was ahead, but instead, on what had occurred.

Christian tradition says that Cleopas had a home in the village of Emmaus. At some point Cleopas had left his home and had traveled up the road to Jerusalem. Perhaps on this occasion, he had heard about a Prophet and miracle worker named Jesus of Nazareth. And perhaps he saw this Jesus heal a blind man and heard him forgive sins. At some point Cleopas started to join the crowds who rushed after Jesus to hear him speak until eventually Cleopas began to believe that this man called Jesus was worthy enough to follow. Cleopas became a disciple. Thoughts of returning to his home in Emmaus faded.

Others considered Cleopas a disciple as well. That very morning Mary Magdalene had burst into the room where the disciples were and told them that Jesus was not dead but alive! The stone had been rolled away and his body gone! As the disciples sat wide-eyed, trying to take it all in, Luke writes to tell us that Cleopas was there as well, mute with disbelief. Cleopas was far enough removed from the inner circle of the 12 disciples that only Luke mentions Cleopas at all. But he was at least close enough to the core group of followers to be in the upper room when the news was delivered that first Easter morning.

Sitting stunned in the room with the other disciples, one can clearly hear the thoughts of those there in the room. How could this be? The Prophet we had admired, followed, loved, and learned from was dead. The Prophet who was to redeem Israel and lead the people into a Golden Age had been tried and executed by those he was to save the people from. And now they came with news of his resurrection? How could this be? When the Apostle Thomas eventually heard the news of the resurrection, he refused to believe at all saying, “Unless I put my hand in his side, I will not believe!” But Cleopas did what most of us do when believing in something simply hurts too much --we slip out the back door. We leave, hoping to out run the questions of why did it fail and why is he gone, of what could we have done differently and what do we do now, of how could he be alive and not with us, and is this all a terrible joke? Cleopas left, because in truth leaving is often easier than facing the painful questions and the harrowing possibilities of the answers. Cleopas left that upper room and headed home.

I imagine them walking, attempting to process all that had happened to them, to try and make sense of all that they had witnessed. I imagine them reliving memories and attempting to cope with the horror of his execution and this bombastic news of his resurrection when a man suddenly comes alongside them and says,

“What are you talking about?”

My response would be more along the lines of, why do you care? Why would I tell this complete stranger the dozens of ways my heart had cracked over the course of the last week, as I watched the life I had chosen fall apart, and how I was traveling home to grieve and try to find some way of putting it all back together so that I could eventually raise my head enough to start all over again? But gracious Cleopas says, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened these past few days?” Translation- Have you really not heard?

“What things,” the stranger asks innocently.

In that moment, I imagine Cleopas stopping in his tracks. I can see his somber face and welling eyes and his balled up fists. In that moment the internal dam shook, the supports buckled. And then it all came tumbling out: “About Jesus of Nazareth...”

Cleopas said the name and words poured out, each one stuffed with emotions trying to find an outlet. Not seeing that the stranger was in fact Jesus, Cleopas spoke of his power, and of his death, of why Jesus had come and who he was to save. But now some said he was risen, but they haven’t seen him. He was gone, and they were left behind.

The stranger bursts in, “What little sense you have! How slow of heart!” It is the slap that stops the downward spiral. Wake up, Jesus seems to say, pay attention, I’m about to tell you something important. And he begins to tell a story that will last the rest of the journey. It’s the story of how the Messiah fit into the narrative of their faith and how that greater narrative was so much bigger than their own experiences with Jesus, so much larger than their grief and their fear. The gift that Jesus gave them as they walked along was not merely a tale to distract from their pain and doubt, or an epic saga to pass the time. The gift Jesus gave them was context. As William Stafford writes, in each of our lives there is a thread that we follow. It is unique to us and often we aren’t able to articulate it well and it is misunderstood by others. But it is present and it is true and it is constant. That thread is what links us to the story of love that began long before we were born and will continue long after we die. My thread fits in that context as richly as yours and as perfectly as Cleopas. The story of Jesus was not an island floating aimlessly in a dark vast ocean, it wasn’t some strange anomaly, but an occurrence that squarely fits into a much greater cosmological story. This narrative that Jesus told them didn’t make their pain disappear, it gave that pain a space to speak and be heard, a context in which it could be read. It let them see their thread in that elaborate tapestry.

As they neared Cleopas’ house, I can imagine the relief he felt, “I am nearly home, this is all almost over”. But as they turned toward the house, the stranger seemed to continue on. Jesus’ journey is not over.

Seeing Jesus continuing on, Cleopas called out, “Stay with us!” Jammed between those words, I imagine Cleopas’ yearning: Don’t leave us, yet. Please come in, at least for the night. Eat with us, rest and then go if you must, but not now. I’m not ready. And the Jesus they do not recognize mercifully concedes.

They sit down to a simple meal, tired from the walk, glad of the distraction from their grief, and grateful for the company. The stranger picks up bread as Cleopas raises his head. The stranger blesses it as Cleopas’ eyes seem to narrow and focus. And as the stranger breaks the bread, Cleopas’ heart is broken wide open again as he suddenly sees that the stranger was no stranger at all, but Jesus, the one who he had followed and loved and seemingly lost. Jesus offers the bread, and perhaps, just perhaps, Cleopas sees the scars.

I imagine that in that wondrous moment that their eyes met as Cleopas gasped, the realization sinking in, and that a smile spread across Jesus’ face as wide and as loving as it possibly could. And then in that perfect moment, Jesus was gone and Cleopas understood. His thread continued.

There is a thread we follow, and Christ walks with us seen or unseen, just as he did with Cleopas. If I slip out the back door when no one is looking, the Lord is there. Not condemning but accompanying. At the height of my anger he is there with compassion, at the depths of my despair, he loves. In my doubt, in my fear, in my grief, in my hopelessness, he is there, accepting all the pieces I could never put back together on my own. In my abandonment and isolation, along a dusty dirty road leading back to the place where none of this ever happened, even there, God is. God will sit with me, tell me stories of how his love is bigger than my loss. He will show me how my measly little thread adds to the wonder of the larger tapestry. He will take bread and bless it. And when I am ready to see, God will show himself to me and remind me of who God is. And even in the middle of an unknown murky future and a difficult past, I will remember.

In the moment he understood, Cleopas and his companion did the only thing that they could do; they left again, but this time for an entirely different reason. They closed the door behind them and took the same road they had been traveling all day, that dusty 7 mile stretch of road that led up to Jerusalem. I imagine this time their shoulders were upright, their heads facing what was before them, their conversation punctuated with fits of laughter and joy.

I don’t think this story is about a random visitation of the Risen Christ to two men aimlessly walking down the road to Emmaus. I think it is about a man’s journey home. The funny thing is that journeys are rarely the shape we think they are. A journey begins the moment a question or a longing stirs in your heart, the moment it quickens your pulse and fires your blood. The moment you see what you need to do and are willing to sink your teeth into it. The moment you decide to follow that tiny thread. And the journey doesn’t end at the destination, it ends when it is over. It may carry on further, past the actual destination and the experiences that happened along the way may continually speak until they have nothing left to say. Or it may end before the destination is reached because what your journey was truly about may have nothing to do with the destination you have in mind. Cleopas started his journey the day he left his house in Emmaus and went to Jerusalem and found a Prophet who captured his imagination. And his journey didn’t end until the day he died, for how could he not relive the moments of that week and continually learn from them- from the trial, the execution, the fear, the doubt, that dusty road, or the way Jesus revealed himself in the breaking of the bread?

The other funny thing is that home isn’t always were you live. Cleopas left the upper room to go home, covering that 7 miles to a house that he lived in once. But after Jesus smiled and vanished, Cleopas knew that that house was not where he was meant to be, that it was not his home. Home is the place you are loved, where you are nurtured and grow, where you can fall apart and be accepted. Where you offer care, and where you are cared for. Home was in that upper room where he had heard the frightening news of the Resurrection. Home was Mary Magdalene and Peter, and the others who had given everything to become disciples of Jesus. Home was living out the Gospel and struggling with its meaning with that community. Home was with the Risen Christ because home is always at the end of your thread.

It was that Risen Christ that granted Cleopas the gift of space, the gift of 14 miles to come to terms with what had happened, to hear how his painful story fit into the wonderful tapestry of the Love of God, to find out where home was for him and that he was never alone. That Risen Christ gave Cleopas space to work through the grief to find the glory. To realize that nothing is ever wasted in the hands of the God Who Loves You.

Cleopas went home, bursting through the doors where the other disciples were, and proclaimed what had happened. And instead of muted fear and unbelief, this time, there was laughter.


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