Joy for the Journey: Reflections on the Walk to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35
What kind of journey are you on? What direction is it taking you?
How is it that these two disciples are not on a journey of joy today? It is the same day, after all, that the women discovered the empty tomb, were told Jesus had risen by two dazzling angels, and ran to tell the male disciples. How is it that, instead of a journey of joy, the walk to Emmaus scene is more like a grief therapy session? “We are not on a journey of joy,” I can imagine these two saying. “We are just trudging down this path paved with disappointed hopes.”
Everybody is on a journey of one kind or another, though we don’t always recognize it and name it. I’ve never been on a cruise, but people who have say things like, “You’d never know that you were on a huge ocean liner cutting across the sea. There was no turbulence. There was amazing food and entertainment. You feel like you’re in a luxury hotel rather than a boat.”
In a privileged, comfortable life, a person might feel that “I’m not on a journey with its attendant discomforts and sacrifices. I’m here in my nest, making it as comfortable as I can.” A colleague was telling me of how, in a sermon recently, he challenged his congregation with the question: How do you suffer or sacrifice on account of your faith? A woman came up to him after the service and offered her answer. “I suffer because of a couple of medical conditions, but I don’t think I suffer or sacrifice on account of my faith.” At least she was honest. But what kind of journey is she on?
What about the man in his 50s whose wife died and who now drinks more than he should? His thought might be, “I’m not on a journey. I’m in free fall.”
I have a number of friends in their 80s who once were avid travelers, but who now stick close to home. “We don’t feel the confidence we did when we were younger,” said one man. “Our eyesight and hearing are not what they were. Our stamina and mobility are not what they were. My wife and I get lots of flyers for trips and tours. We read them with interest. The pictures are appealing. The itinerary is inviting. Then we put them in the recycle bin out in the garage.” Just because they stay put physically, does that mean that he and his wife are no longer on a journey?
There is a woman in her 20s who goes from what she calls, “one dead end job to another.” Where is the journey in that?
Everybody is on a journey, though we don’t always recognize it. What kind of journey are we on? What direction is it taking us? Are we moving in the direction of liberation from destructive habits and debilitating anxiety toward peace, life, and joy? One of the questions the bishop asks candidates for ordination in the United Methodist Church which I thought was interesting is a traditional question that derives from John Wesley. “Are you going on to perfection?” By perfection Wesley didn’t mean perfectionism, the absence from our lives of any mistakes, flaws, or errors. By perfection he meant perfection in love, the intentional, God-assisted journey toward an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ.
And so the disciples on the way to Emmaus, pace down a path of despair. Their conventional hopes for a Messiah who would liberate their people from subjection had no place for a Messiah who would suffer and die, above all on a cross. Jesus, during his teaching ministry, had repeatedly described his journey, but they had not fully heard it because Messianic status did not fit with suffering, humiliation and death.
But now they are joined by a traveling companion. He places their sad journey in a new frame: the journey of Messiah mapped out in scripture. The witness of scripture as he opens it up to them, points to a Messiah who, through suffering on behalf of the people, brings freedom from bondage and victory over anything and anyone that oppose God’s work in the world. Suffering, death, even death on a cross, and resurrection are not mutually exclusive, but are act one and act two of Messiah’s ongoing journey, and of theirs as his disciples.
For Luke the resurrection is a “sign” to see, requiring that one’s eyes be properly opened (v. 16). We remember that in John’s account of the Resurrection, Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener, recognizing him only when he called her name. These two disciples on the road to Emmaus had not yet had the eyes of their faith opened so that they could recognize their traveling companion.
The plot of the walk to Emmaus scene epitomizes the plot of the whole Gospel of Luke (and, for that matter, of John). Jesus is our companion on the way, but we do not recognize him. The astounding tale of the women had not been enough to kindle these two men’s faith. Their recognition of Jesus comes when he took bread, blessed, and broke it” (24:30). In that moment, recognition dawned. In that moment they had a change of heart: from being “slow of heart to believe” (24:25) to having hearts that burned within them as he spoke to them on the road (24:32).
We recognize the Risen Lord as our companion on the way through scripture. And in a thousand moments in between, once we are on the lookout for him as our companion on our journey.
What he did for these two disconsolate disciples he now does for us. He places their way in the context of his Way. He places their journey in the context of his journey. Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel is a journeying figure. In Luke 9:51 we are told, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Thus begins what many scholars refer to as the “travel narrative” of Luke. It ends in chapter 19:45-48 with Jesus cleansing the temple and then daily teaching in the temple, his popularity growing with the people as plots to kill him grew among the chief priests, scribes, and leaders.
His journey represents a new exodus of Israel from sin and death to freedom from sin and freedom for obedience to God. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Lk 9:51) is his going to God. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ now leads Christians on a journey to God, a journey in which disappointed hopes are interrupted by the recognition that the Risen Lord walks by their side. And when we recognize his companionship on the way, we allow him to breathe life into our despair and frame our aimless, anxious journeys in his Way. Now we know who it is who travels with us: He is the Way. Now we know the path along which he accompanies us: it is, as Luke characterizes Christianity, in both his gospel and Acts, “the way” (Acts 9:2; 16:17; 18:25; see also Jn 14:6 and Heb 10:20).
David & I were at the zoo a couple of years ago. We were standing in front of the bear exhibit. The zoo had just recently gotten rid of the cages and built a new, more open habitat for the bears with beautiful foliage, a bubbling creek, and room to roam. The younger bears were strutting their stuff, enjoying being bears in the open space.
But back in the corner there was an old bear. He was a shaggy, mangy old bear and he was putting himself through his paces. On all fours, his eyes on the ground, he would walk ten steps to the right, then do a strange shuddery shake that involved his whole bear body. Then he would turn and pace ten steps to the left, stop for the shake, then turn to do his ten paces to the right. The same journey over and over again.
I stood for I don’t know how long, watching his back and forth. “Look at him,” I said, elbowing David standing next to me. “He kind of reminds me of me.”
“Yeah,” said a man, a complete stranger to me, who was now standing where David had stood. “I know what you mean.”