Seven Miles From Jerusalem, Chased Down By Jesus
As you all remember, the Road to Damascus is the story of when the Apostle Paul had a vision of Jesus and was so overcome by the glory that he was knocked off his horse and went blind.
The Road to Damascus moment is an incredibly vivid and immediate experience of God that instantly changes your life forever.
Many people in the Bible have Road to Damascus moments besides just Paul. Moses sees the burning bush. Isaiah is taken into God’s throne room. The shepherds tending their flocks by night are overwhelmed by the heavenly host of angels.
Each of these is a life-changing experience of God that floods the senses and sets one’s soul ablaze with the Holy Spirit.
But we aren’t studying the Road to Damascus moment in our Gospel lesson today.
We’re given the Road to Emmaus.
The Road to Emmaus is the polar opposite of the Road to Damascus.
The Road to Damascus is marked by suddenness, awe, intensity and clarity.
The Road to Emmaus is shadowed by fear, uncertainty, grief and delay, and the final, healing understanding comes only in the aftermath.
The disciples are really not doing so well by the time they get to the Road to Emmaus.
They’re so tired, both physically and spiritually.
All their hope has been taken away by Jesus’ death.
Their beloved leader and teacher seems to have failed.
He was rounded up as a political prisoner and executed.
Now what are they supposed to do?
But with grief and despair there is at least certainty.
Things are final, wrapped up, put away.
It hurts that Jesus is dead, but at least it’s over.
Now they can go home, swallow their pride and ask for their old jobs back.
It will chafe for a while to put up with the knowing looks and whispers behind their backs of family members and friends about how they went haring off after some itinerant preacher and left everyone in the lurch, but that will eventually blow over.
It will take much longer for the tender memories of Jesus and the wild hope he inspired to fade, but eventually they will. With time.
But suddenly, there is no certainty. There are rumors circulating among the women of the disciples’ group that Jesus is by some means risen from the dead, and everything is upside-down again.
It’s somehow more painful to think of their friends being so deep in denial and crazed grief that they have to make up this mad story of a dead person waking up alive.
It’s too painful, really.
Cleopas and his friend just want to go home and be left alone with their grief, left alone to try and put their lives back together.
A stranger has joined them on the walk, but he seems quiet and kind.
He asks them why they are so sad, what has happened, and they can’t believe he doesn’t know.
How many times have you had that experience?
Some great upheaval or tragedy has swamped your life, and you can’t understand how the world continues to go on like normal.
How is the Earth still turning?
Why is the sun still rising and setting?
How can people look at you and ask how you are?
“How do you think I am?” you may want to snap back.
Everything has fallen apart.
Seven miles from Jerusalem.
That’s where we find our disciples this morning, and that’s where all of us have been at some point in our lives.
Seven miles from Jerusalem and walking away.
They are leaving the center of action, the center of their faith, the center of their hope.
Jesus is dead, and they just want to get away.
Here is where the Road to Emmaus opens its secret solace to us.
The Road to Damascus may be full of flash-bang and fireworks, but it often comes at a sort of random time, happens very fast, and then is gone.
The Road to Emmaus happens to us when we really need it.
Jesus comes to us when we think there is no hope and approaches us quietly, gently, lovingly, not caring whether we recognize him or not, just wanting to be with us and care for us.
Jesus understands that sometimes we are so swamped by our emotions and our circumstances that we can’t even recognize him right beside us, and he shows us that it’s okay.
He will stay with us, walk with us, and help us step by step to see how he has never forsaken us and will not now leave us comfortless.
Because notice what their first interaction is. “Jesus himself came near and went with them…and he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’”
Jesus is curious about what they are talking about.
He seeks them out, and says to them, “Talk to me. Tell me what is on your minds and hearts.”
I think so often when we are struggling, we beg for a word from Jesus, and we forget that he wants to hear a word from us.
He is reaching out to us as much as we are to him.
Our companionship and our problems that we know are so small in the grand scheme of things, are profoundly important to him, and he wants us to tell him about them.
He even wants us to tell him when we’re not sure we believe he’s real and alive, just like these disciples.
So he asks us to talk to him.
And in one of the most poignant moments in the Bible, Luke tells us of the disciples on the road, “They stood still, looking sad.”
We all know what that’s like.
We’re carrying this burden internally, trying so hard to keep moving, trying to keep a stiff upper lip and not show that inside we’re losing hope and losing faith, when someone finally asks the question or puts a gentle hand on our arm, piercing our shell of pride and strength.
We can’t keep up the pretense any more, and we stand still, looking sad.
It’s a painful moment, but it’s such a gift.
That is the presence of Christ, breaking through, in the words of a friend or the kind eyes of a stranger.
That is Jesus reaching out to us and saying, “You matter, and I love you. Talk to me. I’m right here.”
And so when we think no one knows and no one cares and our only task is to stay strong and silent, we need to remember this moment.
We need to quit fighting the unwinnable war of trying to soldier on by ourselves—there is no need to.
Jesus wants us to tell him what is making us grieve and rage and fear and despair.
We need to let our shield of pride be broken by his gentle, questioning presence, because we need him most when we think he’s furthest away.
The Road to Emmaus is about mistaken identity.
The disciples are walking down the road with the resurrected Jesus and in their turmoil, fail to recognize him.
Think of the other great moments of mistaken identity in the Bible.
Joseph’s brothers failing to recognize him when they come to Egypt. Isaac in his old age and blindness being unable to tell the difference between Jacob and Esau. Mary Magdalene thinking the risen Jesus is the gardener and begging him to tell her where her Lord is.
They are all marked by grief, pain and confusion.
Perhaps your moment of recognizing Jesus even in your troubles has already burst to life this spring along with the flowers and budding trees.
Perhaps you are still trudging the Road to Emmaus with the confused disciples, wondering how anything can ever be right again.
Take comfort in the knowledge that Jesus is with us no matter which part of the road we are traveling.
We all cherish our Road to Damascus moments, when God comes crashing through our reality with lights and fireworks and skywriting.
They’re exhilarating and rejuvenating, times that we ponder in our hearts and tell to others and hold up as proof that there’s something beyond the ordinary that is trying to get through to us.
But the Road to Damascus moments happen once or twice in a lifetime.
We spend most of our lives on the Road to Emmaus—confused, weary, a bit heartsick and wondering if we can really trust the Good News we’ve been told over and over.
Is it real?
Is Jesus alive?
Has death been defeated?
Does Jesus really know us and really love us?
When the disciples from the Road to Emmaus finally do recognize Jesus, it is a moment of sudden revelation that comes to them when he breaks bread, so perhaps it is not so different from the Road to Damascus after all.
Resurrection is always a surprise, whether it comes out of nowhere on an ordinary day, or comes at the moment when we have given up hope entirely.
But as we walk the Road to Emmaus, the ordinary days of the ordinary struggles of the life of faith, the road always leads to one place: to the breaking of the bread.
That is what makes our Holy Communion, here at this altar and every day with each other in all of our interactions, so important and so special.
It is the presence of Jesus, Jesus who chased us down on the road to ask us what is troubling our hearts, awakening us to the knowledge that he is always with us, inviting us to be resurrected with him.
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