The story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. It's one of the few Easter stories where Jesus is present from the beginning. Most of the accounts of Easter begin at dawn near the empty tomb. A heavenly messenger announces, "He is not here; he is risen." The visitors, mostly women, become afraid and silent. Only then does the Risen Lord appear.
In this story, however, Jesus draws near to two disciples from the very beginning. He engages them in conversation. He listens as they echo the news of the cross and resurrection. Then he instructs them in the scriptures, and he speaks of how how the Messiah was to suffer and then be raised into glory. The point it, there's no second-hand announcement in this story. Jesus reveals himself. He invites his friends to tell him what they know. Only then does he make himself known, first, as he interprets the Bible, and second, as he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. There's no other Easter story quite like this one.
Yet for all its beauty and power, this story still puzzles me at two points. You can probably guess what they are.
First, Jesus is incognito for much of the story. For the first sixteen verses, Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas do not recognize their Lord. And the minute they do recognize him, he disappears.
Second, and just as perplexing, they don't recognize him in Jerusalem. They see him out in the country. He does not draw near to them in the temple, but on the road. They don't encounter him in the upper room, but around a supper table in a peasant home.
Obviously Jesus is a tough man to pin down. He comes, he goes. When you are able to meet him, it is totally on his terms, at his initiative, in a place you wouldn't expect. This has always been one of the realities of Resurrection. The alleluias of Easter are tempered by the freedom of the Risen Christ. Jesus is free to come and go. He is never where we want him to be.
Around the church, we have had to cope with fleeting glances of our Savior. We speak a lot about the presence of Christ, as if we can simply announce that he is present, and that will make it so. But the truth is far more elusive and mysterious. Remember what the angel said on Easter? "He is risen, and he is not here." As a child, I remember thinking, "Where did he go?"
The story of what happened on the road to Emmaus makes it clear that the Lord is alive, but we can't always tell where he is. If he is present with us, we don't always know it. If he seems nowhere in sight, we may have to trust that he has gone where he is needed most.
At Christmas time a number of years ago, a nearby city thought it was having trouble with vandals. There was a creche scene in the courthouse square. On a regular basis, the baby in the manger kept disappearing. Mary kept pondering, and Joseph just stood there, but sometime every Advent, the baby Jesus disappeared. One year somebody suggested that they take a chain and attach him to the manger. It didn't do any good; he still disappeared. A pastor I know wasn't surprised. He said, "I think the baby Jesus went to Bosnia for the holidays. You see, they need him over there."
Scholars have noted that the Easter stories never directly answer the question, "Did the resurrection really happen?" The assumption throughout the New Testament, of course, is that Jesus Christ is risen and alive; yet the four gospels never actually try to prove the point. Rather than ask the question, "Did Easter really happen?" the gospel writers ask the better question, "Where does Easter happen?" As someone notes, "The resurrection cannot be proven, but it can be experienced by those willing to move to new places of openness and obedience. The synoptic writers do not give arguments; they give maps and mission, places to go and things to do to experience the risen Christ."1
According to the gospel of Luke, resurrection happens on the road. Two disciples are heading out of town, for reasons only they could say. They are sad and disillusioned and we can hear the disappointment in their voices: "We hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. It's been three days since somebody killed him. Some saw a vision of angels, but we didn't see as much as a feather."
It was a seven mile trip, but it seemed much longer. And that's where Easter happens. They talked about Jesus as they walked that whole journey, and suddenly he was traveling with them. They remembered his suffering, and they acknowledged their own pain over the events in Jerusalem. And he interpreted the scriptures to them to put all things in perspective. The two travelers urged their unknown companion to stay the night with them. And while he was there, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and supper became a sacrament. In that minute they knew him, and then he disappeared from their sight.
That very hour, says Luke, Cleopas and his companion got up and returned to the city. I doubt they had gone back looking for Jesus. For he found them when they needed him most, and they wanted everybody else to know that. "The Lord is risen indeed," they said. He warmed our hearts as scripture made sense. He pulled back the veil in the breaking of the bread. It sounds, if you will, like the worship bulletin out of Luke's church. Jesus is revealed in preaching and communion. And just when you think you have him, he goes someplace else. If you ask me, he goes somewhere else where he is needed.
When I went to Haiti for a mission trip last summer, I discovered Jesus has spent some time down there. I realized it when I looked at the photographs from my trip.
It happened outside the church of St. John Bosco. The church building has been reduced to a burned out shell. The sanctuary roof collapsed sometime ago, and the rubble was hauled away. But in Port au Prince, the capital city of Haiti, people still gather for worship at the church of St. John Bosco.
Just over ten years ago, that congregation had a priest named Fr. Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the name of Jesus, he preached good news to the poor. His government heard that as bad news. He proclaimed a gospel of rice and beans for every person in Haiti, and his enemies called him a communist. Through a series of violent incidents, Father Aristide increasingly found himself in the middle of the struggle for a new democracy in Haiti. And he willingly accepted his role because of his passion for the Gospel and his love for his people. His life was threatened many times. The people of his congregation were placed in continual danger, and on one September Sunday in 1988, it had gotten so bad Fr. Aristide decided it was too dangerous to preach and lead the 9:00 a.m. mass. Thousands of Haitians showed up for church anyway. And when Father Aristide looked at the Gospel text from the lectionary, he discovered it was taken from the words of Jesus, who said, "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it." He couldn't argue with that verse. So Father Aristide pulled himself out of bed, put on his clothes, and walked next door to the church to lead the service.
They had just finished reading the Gospel lesson when the congregation came under attack. There was a cry from the street, the smashing of rocks, and a few gunshots. Then all hell broke loose. Men with red armbands stormed the gates They shot their guns. They swung their machetes. They stabbed innocent people. And a number of people died because they sent to worship on a Sunday morning. Father Aristide survived by the skin of his neck and went into hiding.
Ten years later, the church of St. John Bosco still stands. Christians still gather there. I went with some friends to see it. It is a cinder block shell without a roof. There are no pews left, nothing but a few broken blocks for somebody to sit on. Yet every sabbath, they open the doors and it's standing room only. A priest stands up to read the Bible and preach. And somebody carries in a small table where they take the bread, bless it, break it, and give it away.
How can Christian people meet every week in such a place? How can they worship in a place so filled with painful memories? It's because they know a present-tense reality that redeems all their broken hopes.
I didn't see it at the time, but when I got my pictures back, I saw it in a piece of graffiti on the outside of that burned-down church. Somebody took a can of black spray paint and proclaimed the Gospel on the righthand side of the front door. There it is, in just two words in the Creole language: "Viv Jezu." "Jesus lives."
That is the testimony of the church. Some thugs tried to shut down Jesus. And God raised him from the dead. His own people were scared and scattered, and he appeared to them. In one generation after another, somebody tries to repress the church and burn it down. But Jesus Christ goes where he is needed and he gives his Pentecostal fire.
Christ is risen. And to those who need him, he makes himself known in the breaking of the bread.
1 Thomas G. Long, "Proclaiming Easter from the Balcony," Journal for Preachers 13.3 (Easter 1990): 4.