Easter 3 – Annemarie Woodward

St Mary’s Church, Hadlow

Easter 3: Sunday 30th April 2017.

Luke 24: 13-35


Sunset: Sunrise

 May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen

Please sit down.

 Stop all the clocks![1]  Turn time on its head: today we’re going back, right back, all the way back to Jerusalem: back to the day when Mary, the mother[2] of Jesus, finds ‘the stone rolled away’[3] from the tomb; when the risen Christ speaks to Mary Magdalene in the garden;[4] when Simon Peter rushes headlong back to the tomb and sees only ‘the (discarded) linen cloths.[5]     Why? – because it is towards the end of  ‘that same day…’[6]  when Cleopas,[7] together with his unnamed companion, turns his back on the crowded, bustling city of Jerusalem  and sets out on the road to Emmaus.[8]

Who are these travellers? Why are they in such a rush to shake the dust of Jerusalem off their feet?  And what can we – here in St Mary’s this morning – learn from St Luke’s detailed account of what happened to them?

All we know for certain, from today’s gospel reading, is that they are disciples of the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, (albeit on the periphery – these two are certainly not part of the inner circle); they have waited patiently for three days, the longest days in their lives, and … nothing; they know about the empty tomb and the carefully folded grave clothes; and they know – but have dismissed out of hand as nothing more than ‘an idle tale’[9] – what one or two women[10] claimed to have seen and heard – but what on earth did it all mean?

Now, as they walk into the setting sun,[11] their minds are in turmoil, going over everything again and again – like a never ending carousel – but nothing makes sense. They cannot accept that Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the tomb.[12]   What does an empty grave prove? Only that His body has been stolen away.  No wonder they fail to recognise the risen Christ when He appears and starts to walk along beside them[13] on the road to Emmaus – their grief is all-consuming.  In an outpouring of anguish they give voice to grief, to doubt and to despair: a ‘prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people’[14]  – their long-awaited Messiah – has been crucified.   Jesus of Nazareth is dead.

Now this is where we come to the sticking-point: Cleopas pours his heart out to this stranger and, at one point, he cries: : ‘but we had hoped that he (meaning Jesus) was the one to redeem Israel.’[15]  “But we had hoped …” heartbreaking words that conjure up promises that inspire faith yet prove to be false, hopes and dreams that disintegrate into shards of wasted energy, and – worst of all, perhaps – the emptiness of a future that now will never be.

How often do we hear ‘but we had hoped …. but we had hoped she’d be found alive … but we had hoped he’d come through the surgery … but we had hoped there would be time to heal the breach.  Tragedy can, and does, overshadow our lives.  Over a hundred years ago a local newspaper in America ran a short classified advertisement that, for many, speaks to the heartbreak of a future denied:   for sale – baby shoes – never worn.[16]

It would be so easy, at this point, to move on quickly, but if we fail to address the root cause of their pain – deep, despairing doubt – we create ‘the elephant in the room’ that Bishop James speaks of, in our Lent Course booklet, ‘A Place in the Crowd.’[17]   Although it is hard – very hard – at times, as disciples of Jesus Christ we have face up to the reality of doubt.  We know that disappointment – hope denied – is part and parcel of being human; what we are perhaps afraid to admit is that uncertainty and doubt often walk hand in hand with disillusion and disappointment.  Not that they are easy to pin down.  The Apostle James describes the elusive and discomfiting nature of uncertainty when he tells us that ‘the one who doubts is like a wave on the sea, driven and tossed in the wind.’[18]  

There will be times when we feel adrift without an anchor (I know there are times when I’ve felt lost and afraid), but with heartfelt prayer – even if it’s only the anguished cry ‘I believe; help my unbelief’[19] – when we place our trust in God it is possible to come through even the darkest hour  With prayer, and by the grace of God, no matter how many times it raises its ugly head, doubt can never have the last word.

Perhaps the hardest thing of all to accept is that doubt is an integral part of faith. By simple definition faith is trust and belief in the absence of empirical, evidence-based knowledge.  Why else do we speak of a courageous leap of faith?  Faith is not head-based; faith is heart-based.  St Paul makes it crystal clear in his letter to the Hebrews:  ‘faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see.’[20]  Yes, there will be times when we’re not sure, when doubt begins to niggle away at the back of our minds: we are, after all, only human.  No small wonder that the travellers on the road to Emmaus can no longer find it in their hearts to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah.  But can we, for a moment, take a closer look at Cleopas and his un-named, unknown companion: two disciples who are struggling to come to terms with hope destroyed and a future denied; two disciples who are so wrapped up in an arid wasteland of grief that ‘their eyes were kept from recognising’[21] the risen Christ.  Now, take a step back: surely they can be seen as every man, every woman, any day, anywhere? At some point in his or her journey here on earth every disciple of the risen Christ will face doubt, disillusion and despair: we may all find ourselves on that road to Emmaus.

It is with this in mind that we now return to our Gospel reading  – to the point where the risen Christ turns to the travellers, gently rebuking them for their spiritual blindness: ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared![22]  Now, ‘beginning with Moses’[23]  Jesus opens up the scriptures, the Law and the Prophets, revealing how every prophecy (incarnation, teaching, signs and miracles, suffering, crucifixion and, yes, resurrection) has, in deed, come to fruition in Him – Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God.  As St Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians ‘Christ died for our sins and in accordance with the scriptures, and he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.’[24]  On that road to Emmaus, by opening up the scriptures and preaching on the Word, Jesus is re-defining the word ‘redemption.’  He is the Word made flesh.

I wonder, had these two disciples set their hearts on a different kind of Messiah: one who would herald Israel’s liberation from the tyranny of Roman occupation and the corruption of the priesthood?  If so they were not alone.  In the first chapter of Acts Luke recalls that several disciples asked Jesus: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel.’[25] Here, on the road to Emmaus, by opening their eyes  to the seamless nature of ‘all that the prophets have declared’[26] Jesus is revealing the Divine imperative, showing them that it was necessary for ‘the Messiah (to) suffer these things and then enter into His glory.[27]

We now come to the pivotal moment in Luke’s story – the end of the journey (or perhaps the beginning?).  When Jesus is about to leave them, to walk on alone, Cleopas urges Him to stay ‘because it is almost evening and the day is nearly over.’[28]   This is far more than simply traditional middle-eastern hospitality and a natural concern for a stranger’s safety on the road at night.  They really don’t want Him to leave them,[29] they want to spend more time with Him,  and this is why we now find them gathered together to share a simple meal.

Only a simple meal, but what happens next has all the hallmarks of the Eucharist: they have come together on a Sunday; they have listened, carefully, as Jesus “opened the scriptures,” and now their guest ‘takes the bread, blesses it and breaks it, and gives it to them.’[30]   Suddenly ‘their eyes are open and they recognise Him.’[31]  Divine revelation – radical amazement – the Son of God, the risen Christ, seated beside them!  No wonder they shout ‘were not our hearts burning within us while He was talking to us on the road?’[32]  They turn towards Him: but He is no longer there.  Nevertheless they know – instinctively – what they have to do.  They can’t keep this revelation to themselves.  They have to share it – they have to head back to Jerusalem – now.  So they race back down the road, feet hardly touching the ground, only now they’re not heading west, into the darkness; heedless of danger, they turn east towards the sunrise.  And when they arrive in Jerusalem we know that they search until they find that inner circle of the risen Christ’s disciples so that they can declare ‘The Lord has risen!’[33]  This is, indeed, the beginning a new creation.

There is so much we can learn from today’s gospel reading.  If we think back to the beginning we know that Cleopas and his companion have given up on Jesus of Nazareth.  One thing’s for sure – they’re not looking for Him, but He finds them and walks beside them in their grief and desolation.  There will be times when we, too, are in pain – physically, mentally, spiritually – and yes, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, will be there, walking beside us, because, as St Paul tells us: ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers … nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’[34]   

From ‘but we had hoped’[35] to ‘were not our hearts burning’[36] – for these two disciples the road to Emmaus is a roller-coaster of a spiritual journey: from denial and despair to trust and hope renewed.  At the end of their journey, when their “eyes are opened” by divine revelation, they encounter the risen Christ, not only in the Word, but also in the breaking of bread.  We, too, encounter Christ – not only when we gather together, to hear the Word and share the Peace, and to kneel reverently at the altar to share in the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but every day, everywhere whatever we’re doing.  Yes, there will be times of doubt, but if we accept – in our hearts – that doubt is an integral part of our faith, we can place our trust in Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  There will be times when, try as we might, there seems to be no answer, but that’s OK because ‘for now we see through a glass, darkly’, but then we will see face to face.[37]  St Paul goes on to say ‘now faith, hope and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love[38].  The greatest of these is love: what more is there to be said?

Let us pray:  ‘Lord Jesus, stay with us …be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture and the breaking of bread.  Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.’[39]






[1] W.H.Auden (Funeral Blues)

[2] Specific names are not given in Luke, but Matthew states “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” 28:1

[3] Luke 24: 2

[4] St Luke makes no reference to this conversation.  St John’s gospel gives a far more detailed account of the empty tomb and  Jesus’ conversation with Mary Magdalene (John 20: 1-18)

[5] Luke 24: 12 [Mark 15:46 notes that Joseph of Arimathea (a respected member of the Council) bought a linen cloth, took the body of Jesus, carefully wrapped it in the linen and laid it in the tomb.]

[6] Luke 24: 13

[7] The name Cleopas only appears here in St Luke’s account.  Some historians identify Cleopas with Clopas,  (John 19:25), the name possibly being synonymous with  Alphaus, the father of the apostle James (see Mark 3:18).

[8] The village of Emmaus is  described as ‘threescore furlongs’ or sixty stadia [approximately eleven kilometres or seven miles] due west of Jerusalem.  It has been argued that Emmaus did not exist (as such) in first-century Judea.  It was definitely a real location two centuries earlier, identified as the site of the first victory of the Maccabean heroes over the enemies of Israel.  In terms of the Gospel story Emmaus was beyond time. [Diarmid MacCullough A History of Christianity (Allen Lane, 2009) page 95

[9] Luke 24:12  [The original Greek  “leros” (the root of delirious) is far stronger in its condemnation of the women’s account than ‘idle’, suggesting that the women were deluded, possibly out of their minds with grief.

[10] Mary Magdalene, Joanna [wife of Clopas], Mary the mother of James and the other women with them (Luke 24:11). In Judiac Law women were not permiited to witness in any legal case.  Female testimony was acceptable in religious cases, but only if there were at least two women present during the interaction.

[11] By way of contrast, when the children of Israel were in the wilderness they were heading towards the sunrise.  [“They set out from Oboth, and camped at Ire-abarim, in the wilderness bordering Moab toward the sunrise.” Numbers 21:11]

[12] Initial disbelief is not confined to Cleopas and his companion.  All four gospels show that nobody (not even Jesus’ closest disciples) believes the good news of the resurrection when they first hear it.  Luke 24: 13-35; Matthew 28: 16-17; Luke 24: 36-43; John 20: 19-29.  Initial disbelief started with Jesus’ closest companions.

[13] Luke 24:15 “their eyes were kept from recognising him.” [References to resurrection in the Old Testament: the book of Daniel (12: 2)  “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life.”]  (In the New Testament the first references come from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians [3:5 and 15:8] and Galatians 1:16.  These three refer to the resurrection of the soul alone. In the New Testament references to the physical resurrection of Jesus are in the longer version of Mark [the appearance to Mary Magdalene and to the travellers on the road to Emmaus – Mark 16: 9-13].  Note: St Mark’s Gospel was written between 68-70 CE.

[14] Luke 24: 19

[15] Luke 24:21 (one of only three occasions on which Luke speaks of redemption:  1: 68, 2: 38 and 24: 21 ).  Note the past imperfect tense (elpizomen) – we had hoped, but no longer do so.  All hope has now died.

[16] Although attributed to the American writer Ernest Hemingway, his was not the first recorded use of the six-word-story.   Several versions  appeared in the American press well before Hemingway began to write, the earliest being a classified newspaper advertisement in 1906.

[17] Place In the Crowd (Diocese of Rochester Lent Course Booklet 2017) page 4

[18] James 1: 6

[19] Mark 9:24

[20] St Paul – Hebrews 11:1

[21] Luke 24: 16.  It is not clear who kept their eyes from recognising Him, but God may be the implied agent.  [NRSV Bible – Study Version note page 2008]  This is borne out by St Mark in the only other recorded account of the road to Emmaus: “After this He appeared in another form  to two of them as they were walking into the country.” Mark 16:12

[22] Luke 24: 25

[23] Luke 24: 27

[24] 1 Corinthians 15: 3 [St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the very first extant record of Jesus’ resurrection]

[25] Acts 1: 6

[26] Luke 24: 25

[27] Luke 24: 26

[28] Luke 24: 29

[29] The urgency with which they extend their invitation has its echo in Acts when the newly baptised Lydia urged Paul and Timothy to stay with her: ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.  And she prevailed…’  [Acts 16: 15 ]

[30] Luke 24: 30  [NB practically identical to the words set out in Luke 22:19]

[31] Luke 24:31  There is a subliminal link here with the first meal in the Bible (Adam and Eve in the garden).  Their eyes were opened and they discovered their nakedness – because they had disobeyed God.  Here, in the village of Emmaus, the “opening of their eyes” signals a new creation.

[32] Luke 24: 32  [This moment of recognition – of spiritual awakening – has been described as the “radical amazement at the heart of religious experience” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – May 2015) http://www.Awakin.org]

[33] Luke 24: 34

[34] St Paul’s letter to the Romans 8: 38-39

[35] Luke 24: 21

[36] Luke 24: 32

[37] St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 13: 12

[38] 1 Corinthians 13: 13

[39]An abbreviated Collect for the presence of Christ  [Evening Prayer Rite 2 – Book of Common Prayer]