Cleopas and his companion – perhaps his wife, if we accept a connection with the Mary, wife of Clopas named in John's Gospel – they had given up. For some time, they had followed Jesus faithfully, and taken hope in his message of healing and liberation. They had looked forward to a glorious kingdom of justice and peace, Israel restored to right relationship with God and freed from its oppressors, and for a little while, their own small and ordinary lives had seemed like part of something more important, something holy, something eternal. But in the space of a few days, everything had fallen apart. Mary had seen Jesus crucified, seen him die, and the strange story of an empty tomb left her mystified but cold. Cleopas, like most of the other men, had probably stayed in hiding, and now he just wanted to get out – to go home to Emmaus, and get right away from the scene of his shattered dreams.
As they walked, their thoughts and their words must have gone around in the futile, circular way that those of despondent and despairing people often do: Cleopas, perhaps, talked about the night in the garden, where he'd been on the fringes of the action, and Mary about the next horrible day. What could they have done differently? What could Jesus have done differently? Why didn't he use the power he'd shown before? Why hadn't the other disciples taken some action? What would happen now? Would the others end up arrested and killed as well? Would they themselves be safe, if they stayed away for a while? By the time the stranger began walking with them, their conversation would have been travelling around in tight little twists of pain, anger, resentment, and fear. Then, they had to explain everything again from the start for him…
Once they had told their story, the stranger seemed not to care very much about their inner turmoil, but embarked on a long justification of recent events, taken out of the Torah and the prophets. He was still talking when they reached their own home in Emmaus, and for decency's sake, they had to ask him in. They scraped together some supper, from what they had carried with them, and asked the guest – because thatès what you do – to speak the blessing. They heard the familiar formula: Barukh atah, Adonai Elohaynu, melekh ha-olam... Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe... and suddenly they knew him, in the words they had so often heard him speak. Their abandoned hopes flashed into life – and then he was gone. They may well have cried out in shock and loss, but their whole encounter with him suddenly took on a different meaning. How could they have been so wrapped up in their own misery that they didn't recognise him? How could they not have taken in his teaching?
Cleopas and Mary were still deeply confused, but now they needed to go back to the others, share their story, compare experiences. The empty tomb began to make some sense to them, gave them hope where none had been. Their fear of the authorities was probably as great as ever, but the future now lay in being with other followers of Jesus. So they hurried back.
This is all imagination, of course, spun from the filaments of Luke’s narrative, but it arises from the fact that the story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus is such a classic illustration of the way in which good, decent, loving people can behave when they have given up on a project, a relationship, a resolution, or a belief. We draw in our horizons to what we ourselves have experienced; our trust in others shrinks. We blame circumstances and other people for our loss of hope, and instead of being open to teaching and to the encounter with God we run around in ever-tightening circles of recrimination and fear. Rather than welcoming those signs which might encourage us, and draw us to new tasks and new prospects, we retreat to the company of those who share our disillusionment, and cling to control what little we can. Fortunately, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is also a classic illustration of God's infinite gentleness and patience with us, and of the love of Christ, which is never withdrawn from us.
Even if we are running away, Christ comes to us. Even if we are wilfully deaf and blind to him, and only recognise the lesson later, Christ teaches us. However reluctantly we may offer hospitality, Christ accepts our invitation and honours it with the gift of his presence, and when we gather, whether in twos and threes or in a larger group, Christ is in the midst of us, blessing, breaking, and sharing what we offer, making it holy and uniting it with the gift of himself, broken and shared in service and sacrifice. Any gift of ours, no matter how small (or even how grudgingly offered), can be used and transformed by God.
The structure of the Eucharist echoes this resurrection encounter. We come as individuals, with our cares, our fears, our sorrows, and our doubts, and Christ meets us in teaching, in all the wisdom and challenge and difficulty of scripture, in history and prophecy and in the news of the Gospel. We offer what we have carried with us – the brokenness of our confessions as well as the presentation of our gifts – and both are transformed. Our sinfulness is healed by Christ's absolution, our gifts of money, time, and talent become the nourishment of our community in its worship and its corporate life, and our gifts of bread and wine become the nourishment of our community in Christ's body and blood. If we are open and attentive, we recognise him in this blessing, breaking, and sharing, and even if the recognition is fleeting, it draws us to God and unites us with others who have shared our experience, joins us more surely to the body of Christ, and then sends us into the world to make the joy of the resurrection manifest. Whenever we gather in this sacramental way, we walk the road to Emmaus – in both directions. That doesn't mean that all our confusion or pain or fear will be taken away, but that we are given hope and strength to transform it, and a community in which to live out that transformation.
There are, of course, many roads to and from Emmaus, and to and from Jerusalem, for that matter. There are many ways in which we learn of God, and from God, through scripture or other reading, through the testimony of nature and of other people's goodness and wisdom. There are also many moments of sudden encounter and recognition, in meditation, in beauty, in the faces of friends and of strangers. Our response to our learning, and to our encounter with Christ, must ultimately be one of hope in the resurrection, and however obscure our understanding may be, this hope is not something we can hug to ourselves for our own comfort; it compels us to share our experience. That is why, as Christian communities, we must face outward, and find ways in which to communicate our hope and our joy to those with whom we come in contact, not by any heavy-handed, aggressive proselytising, but by sharing the fullness of our life: sharing our care for one another and the society around us, being a prophetic voice for the marginalised, practising beauty in our relationships as well as in our worship, and being willing to talk, however haltingly and uncertainly, about what we feel and believe about God. All of this involves making ourselves vulnerable, not scurrying back to the safety of the house in Emmaus, but using it instead as a base for our engagement with the world and with the risen Christ. We don't, in our society, risk arrest or torture for this. We may risk feeling uncomfortable or ridiculous, but that is a small danger on the road back to Jerusalem!
As we move through this Eastertide, I would suggest that we keep the story of the disciples from Emmaus before us. Whenever we feel the urge to retreat to a tight little world over which we may feel we have some – though largely illusory – measure of control, and where we imagine we'll be safe, or at least not bothered, let us remember our encounter with the risen Christ, the encounter which we renew whenever we gather in for the Eucharist. In that encounter may we find the will, the courage, and the joy to be Christ's life in the world. Amen.