Were it not for the grief of the disciples, the scene would be almost comic.
It’s Easter Sunday, sometime in the afternoon. Two of Jesus’ followers are returning home from Jerusalem after Passover and the shocking turn of events that befell their Teacher. They are trying to make sense out of what happened: How? Why? And while they walk and argue and commiserate, the resurrected Jesus himself quietly appears from behind and begins to walk with them.
“Hey,” he interjects innocently. “What are you fellows talking about?”
They turn, and with a sudden rush of relief and joy, they embrace their beaming Master.
Nope. That’s not how Luke tells the story. The disciples don’t recognize him; or more accurately, they are “prevented from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16, CEB), which suggests that God had something to do with it.
One of them, Cleopas, responds to the stranger with incredulity: “Are you kidding me? Don’t you read the newspapers? You must be the only pilgrim in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the story.”
Jesus plays dumb. “Really? What story is that?”
“The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.” (Luke 24:19-24, CEB)
These disciples know the tomb is empty. When the women first delivered the news to the Eleven, nobody believed them (Luke 24:11); the men had to go and confirm it for themselves. Cleopas and his companion, therefore, have it on Peter’s authority that Jesus’ body was no longer where it was supposed to be.
And they still don’t understand. They can’t grasp the possibility of resurrection, probably because they can’t wrap their minds around the prior idea of a Messiah who suffers and dies on a cross.
Jesus chides them, gently, I think: “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26, CEB). And as they continue to walk to Emmaus, Jesus walks them through Scripture, interpreting messianic prophecy in a way that sets their hearts ablaze.
It’s dusk by the time they reach their destination. Cleopas and his companion insist that their new friend stay with them. But at the dinner table, instead of being the polite invited guest, Jesus takes the role of host. There’s something familiar in the way he takes bread, gives thanks, then breaks and distributes it…
Their eyes grow wide with recognition. And in that moment, Jesus disappears.
Though it’s evening, the two jump up from the table and run back to Jerusalem. They find the Eleven already in a meeting with other disciples, abuzz with their own news: He is risen! It’s true! Jesus appeared to Peter!
The two from Emmaus add their story. And while the whole group jabbers away in wonder, Jesus himself suddenly appears and stands among them. “Shalom!” he says: “Peace be with you.”
And this time, with a sudden rush of relief and joy, they embrace their beaming Master.
No. Not this time either: “They were terrified and afraid. They thought they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:37, CEB). Indeed (to me, hilariously), Jesus had to chew and swallow a piece of fish to get them to believe that he was more than just an apparition. And then, once again, “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (vs. 45).
Oh, how dull of mind we disciples can be; how impoverished our imaginations!
Jesus had told his disciples explicitly: I’m going to Jerusalem. I’m going to be handed over to sinners. They’re going to crucify me. But I’ll raised again on the third day. They didn’t get it. When they found the tomb empty, they still didn’t get it. And even after they seemed to get it, when Jesus came and stood among them–well, you get the picture.
Should we presume that we’re any smarter about such things? Traditionally on Easter, Christians have often greeted one another with the words, “He is risen!” Good words. We believe.
But do we understand?
Lord, we do believe–but help our unbelief, our dullness, our doubt. Resurrection–yours or ours–is too great a mystery for us to fully understand. But thank you for being such a patient teacher. Open the Scripture to us; set our hearts on fire with the truth of who you are, what you are doing, and who you are making us to be, as we walk down the road with you. Amen and amen.