Luke 24: 13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him. 17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself….2 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
If there was a time machine that could take us forward or backward anywhere in time, and you could travel in it to any one time and place of your choice, where would you go, and to what time period?
Me, I would take that time machine to the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus on that first Easter Sunday, to join these two disciples and Jesus, for what was the first ever recorded Christian Sunday School Bible lesson. That’s what it was, right? A Bible lesson that happened on a Sunday morning!
I would go there and then for two reasons. The first reason would be to hear from Jesus’ own mouth his exposition of the Old Testament, the Psalms and the Prophets, and how they relate to him, and he to them. Because, sometimes, that’s a bit of a head scratcher. I don’t always see it. I would even take advantage of the occasion to ask him my most pressing questions about the whole Bible.
The second reason that time and place draws me is the importance and the fruitfulness of that time between Jesus’ Resurrection and the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit for the disciples. It was such an important time because the Risen Jesus continued working with his disciples, teaching them and forming them for their ministries and their own Resurrection destinies. What made it so fruitful was that the disciples were empty, broken, open and receptive to Jesus in ways they had not been before his death and resurrection.
Before his crucifixion, the disciples were cocksure about who Jesus was, what he was going to do, and about themselves, how they were going to fit into his kingdom ministry and help him along. And half the time, they were wrong. The disciples not only had to be re-taught and corrected, they had to be broken by Jesus’s death, and by a soul-shaking encounter with the failure and falsehood of their own power, their own virtue and wisdom, after they had abandoned, denied and betrayed him, and had seen all their certainties and expectations about him go down the tubes. One of them didn’t survive that lesson: Judas. But it emptied the others and left them open, willing and waiting to receive a power, wisdom and virtue other than their own, the same power that brought Jesus out of the tomb, alive, risen and triumphant, the power of the Holy Spirit.
I bet that many or most of us can identify with the disciples, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, by the shaking, breaking and dying of our easy, glib certainties and assumptions, by things that we thought were not supposed to happen in God’s good world, and to good, God-fearing people. Like the unraveling of civil society and the rule of law in so many places today. Or the recent terrorist attacks against churches in Sri Lanka and now, recently, in Burkina Faso.
But during this Easter season, leading up to Pentecost, we celebrate a God who works in the world not so much through progress, improvement and reform, but through resurrection. And resurrection always requires that something die. In this post-Resurrection period before Pentecost, even on the road to Emmaus, we see what it’s like to walk and talk with the Risen Jesus, like Cleopas and his buddy did. The effect is not just that they get reformed and improved and tweaked around the edges, and so they have a better day on Sunday than they did on Friday and Saturday. By walking and talking with the Risen, Resurrected Jesus, they too experience something of God’s resurrection power and wisdom. Then they radiate that resurrection power to others.
This same Risen, Resurrected Jesus walks and talks with us even today. He is just as interested in us and in our sharing his resurrection power and life with us as he was for Cleopas and his walking partner 2100 years ago. That’s why I intend, from now through Pentecost Sunday, to preach and teach from the New Testament about Christ’s post-resurrection life and ministry. Because Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry tells us much about how he continues ministering to us and through us today, how he continues walking and talking with us even now.
But that means that my desire to go back in time to First Century Palestine to walk with Jesus and Cleopas and his buddy to Emmaus is not only impossible, it’s pointless, it’s unnecessary. Even if time travel were possible, fat chance of me understanding First Century Aramaic!
There are at least three other reasons why a time trip to First Century Palestine would be pointless and unnecessary: First, we already have all we need to know about Jesus in the Old Testament throughout the rest of the New Testament. I didn’t quite understand that until I purchased a New Testament some time back that had all the Old Testament quotes, references and allusions printed in italics. Some of the New Testament pages were more than half italics. I would show it to you if I could, but I gave that particular Bible away a few years back. Yet all those italics on so many pages opened my eyes to how much of the Old Testament is in the New Testament, how so many of the words of Jesus, Paul and Peter are Old Testament quotations and references. Much of what Cleopas and his buddy heard from Jesus on that first ever Sunday School lesson is probably parceled out, repeated and reflected in quotes and paraphrases all throughout Paul’s letters, Peter’s letters, Hebrews, and John’s Revelation.
A second reason why we don’t have to take a time machine back to First Century Palestine to get personalized, Bible-based, life-resurrecting faith formation lessons from Jesus is because there are other disciples walking with us on our own Emmaus Roads. Groups of two or three, or of two hundred or two thousand disciples. And whenever, wherever, however we gather, there is Jesus.
When the Risen Jesus joined Cleopas and his traveling companion on the Road to Emmaus, he was fulfilling a promise that he had previously made: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” There we even have a good working definition of church: Jesus and some saints in relationship with him and each other, whatever the number.
And that’s where Jesus still shows up today to teach, to comfort, to challenge and encourage: wherever and whenever disciples accompany each other, especially during the difficult and confusing parts of their journeys. He’s always here, whether we recognize him or not. But when we are open, seeking, vulnerable, when our faith in our own and conventional wisdom and power is broken, and we know that we are in need of teaching, comfort, challenge and encouragement, we are then most likely to hear his voice and see his presence, as did Cleopas and his buddy on the Road to Emmaus.
That’s why we here at Zion Mennonite Church are starting up the Stephen Ministry program, under Pastor Jana’s training and leadership: to help us accompany each other on our own rough roads between our own Good Fridays of suffering, loss and confusion, and our Easter Sundays of resurrection and assurance. Whether it’s an illness, a diagnosis, bereavement, estrangement, a major life transition, those are roads that no one should walk alone. But whenever at least two disciples walk these rough roads together, one and one makes three, because of the guaranteed and additional presence of the Risen Jesus.
So, even if there were a time machine that could transport us back to First Century Palestine, don’t bother to get in and crank it up. Just look at the saint next to you, here and now. Actually, he’s already there. He probably put the two of you together.
A third reason that the time machine would not only be impossible, but pointless, is that the fire is still burning. By that I mean “Fires” in the heart. Not heartburn in the medical sense (there’s Maalox for that). I mean the kind of fire that Cleopas and his buddy talked about, when they looked back on that first Sunday School Bible lesson of the church ever and said, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” It’s a fire in the heart of conviction, encouragement, enlightenment, renewal, relief and release, a fire of love, hope and faith in God and in God’s Word. It’s a resurrection fire, the fire that first burst into flame inside an empty tomb.
That same fire would appear again, visibly, fifty days later, on that Pentecost Sunday when tongues of flame hovered over the heads of 120 followers of Jesus, maybe including Cleopas and his traveling buddy. The Risen Jesus is still present to us today, starting and fanning flames in our hearts, flames of resurrection life, faith, a fire that thaws hardened hearts and burns away discouragement, fear and the love of falsehoods.
John Wesley, who started the Methodist movement nearly 300 years ago, had a road-to-Emmaus-like encounter with fire when he attended a reading of Martin Luther’s Preface to Paul’s Letter to The Romans at a house on Aldersgate Street in London. He went there as a man very discouraged about his indifference toward God, and very doubtful of God’s love for him. But here’s how Wesley described his Road to Emmaus experience in the company of other pilgrims: “…while he [Luther] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
To start his Resurrection fires, Jesus still uses the same kindling that “strangely warmed” Wesley’s heart, and the hearts of Cleopas and his traveling companion: “in all the scriptures.” the Scriptures, under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
So a third reason we don’t have to take a time machine back to First Century Palestine for the Risen Jesus to warms our hearts, melt our despair, our defenses and our indifference, is that he is still present, here and now, setting fires within us and among us through His Holy Spirit, and “in all the scriptures.”
I think that it is a God-ordained event, not just a mere coincidence, that we are starting up the Stephens Ministry of congregational care at about the same time that we may engage a Pastor of Faith Formation. Both ministries assure us that we are not alone nor abandoned on the road to our own resurrections.
But let’s not forget that these ministries are, at heart, still Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry to us. Jesus is still “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” He continues walking, talking, teaching and ministering among us today, but in resurrection power and presence. We are but his witnesses and his servants.
We don’t need then a time machine to understand, experience or share what Cleopas and his friend did on the Road to Emmaus. Study “all the scriptures” seriously, prayerfully, with Jesus in mind, and you’ll find him walking and talking with you, to give you foretastes of resurrection life and love. Walk, talk, study and pray with your fellow disciples, vulnerably, truthfully, lovingly, reverently, let him or her walk and talk with you, and Jesus will show up. In the Word of God, the People of God, and The Spirit of God, the Risen Christ still walks and talks with us even here, even now, lighting and fanning fires of Resurrection faith, hope and love.