I preached recently and was given the Easter Emmaus text (Luke 24:13–35), a story I have never really found interesting. Having to say something on Sunday, though, I am grateful it came to me anew. As I should have expected, the very thing that had kept me from connecting before was now the thing that had drawn me in: the story is so remarkably ordinary. Jesus goes for a walk with some friends and then eats with them and then disappears. Has he forgotten that he just rose from the dead?!
I don’t think he has. I think he’s telling us he’s not the superhero we expected.
These two random disciples (not among the famous Twelve) are walking back home to Emmaus after all the events of Passover week and the unexpected crucifixion in Jerusalem. They’ve been there probably out of custom, celebrating Passover, and then all of these events happened with Jesus of Nazareth. After their friend, their mentor, their hope, had been killed, they headed home, talking together on the way. What else would you do? They’re probably trying to make sense of everything. Trying to put some order to the chaos of despair they’re feeling. Walks are good for this kind of talk. You’ve been there, I imagine: Life is overflowing your seams and a friend says, “Let’s go for a walk.” Or you find your fragile self standing over the sink washing dishes with a friend after a big meal, and because you’re standing shoulder to shoulder, you find you can share. Or a ride home somewhere when a friend asks, “So how are you really doing?” It’s so much easier to talk when you don’t have to look anyone in the eye.
And that’s where Jesus shows up. Just starts walking along with them. Then, in the most impish way, asks, “Whatcha talking about?” Like he has no idea. They’re so surprised by this that they actually stop walking. “Don’t you know? How can you not know what’s happened?” I see Jesus being playful, but I also see him offering them a chance to talk. Like the good friend who knows how heavy your heart is and wants to gently offer you space to talk: “Let’s go for a walk.” They don’t know who he is. They can be honest. “This guy Jesus was a prophet, was incredible, was teaching and healing and doing all kinds of things. We thought he was going to be the one to save Israel, but our religious leaders handed him over to be executed. He died. Three days ago. It hurts. He was our friend. We had started to hope. We thought God was going use him to rescue us from the Romans, that God cared about us enough to save us. But he’s dead. It hurts so much. And then, this morning some friends of ours went to the tomb, and they came back telling us his body isn’t there. They saw angels who said he is alive. None of us has seen him, but that’s the report. He’s alive. I don’t know what to think. I’m kind of afraid to hope it’s really true.”
Jesus, who they think is just a stranger walking along the same road with them, responds, “Don’t you believe it? Didn’t the prophets say this was going to happen? Here, let me show you.” And he does. And apparently, their hearts burn with the truth. In fact, they were having such a good conversation that when they arrived at Emmaus, Cleopas and his friend invited the stranger to stay: “Please, let’s continue this. I’m not ready to stop talking. I really enjoy your company.” So he stays, and they eat together. And then Jesus reveals himself. Even as he’s kind of been revealing himself all along. Then he disappears, and they take it in that Jesus had been with them the whole time. It’s night, but they’re so excited they jump up and immediately head back the seven miles to Jerusalem. Another three hours of walking because they can’t wait to tell their friends that Jesus really is still with them. It might not be what they were expecting, or the way they were expecting, but Jesus is still with them. The story isn’t over yet.
When I’ve read this story before, I’ve often thought I’m a lot smarter than the disciples. Obviously, I would have recognized Jesus, or at least understood the prophets correctly the first time through and not needed the explanation. I would have completely believed Jesus was alive and well. So, I’ve usually been on Jesus’ side when he says, “You foolish and slow of heart!” Silly disciples. Didn’t they know who Jesus was? They’d been with him awhile, right? Hadn’t they read the syllabus?
But this time, I’ve got to say, I’m with the disciples. I’ve been there. Everything hurts. I thought God was supposed to show up and fix things, but he hasn’t. My hope has died. Or my hope has been shattered. So, no. I didn’t recognize Jesus. I scream, “God, just fix it! You’re God, right?! Just do the thing! Be the superhero.” Most often when things are hard, I want Jesus to swoop in with the cape and dramatically fix everything. But, just like with these disciples, Jesus doesn’t show up as a superhero, even though he’s just come back from the dead. He shows up as a friend. He just shows up and walks alongside me for a while. I don’t even always know it until later.
This seems to be the deal, though. Jesus comes alongside us as a friend, doesn’t swoop in as a superhero. He tells us this in John, where he says that he calls us friends, not servants. He shows us this in all of the post-resurrection appearances: cooking breakfast on the beach, going fishing, working in the garden, eating meals, and walking along the road. He gets on with life as a friend. Friendship with Christ, it seems, is how the kingdom of God looks, how it comes to be. Well, that and the whole death and resurrection thing.
One way Christ is present in friendship? The way he was on that road, the way that means we don’t always see it at the time but only later: among our own friendships. When I want the superhero, I have to remember that Jesus is doing something different. It might not be a quick fix to the pain or the struggle. It might be, in the words of Evagrius, that Christ is sustaining us. It might be that when a friend finds me to give me an encouraging word or a hug, that is Christ walking along the road with me, sustaining me. When someone shows up with dinner for you on a night you just can’t handle one more chore, it might be that Christ is breaking bread at the table with you, sustaining you. When you have surgery and a friend volunteers to get your groceries because pushing a cart while on crutches is nearly impossible, Christ is with you. And when a friend calls out of the blue to catch up on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, Christ the Life is walking with you even if your hope is dead. These are the ways we have to look closely for, the ways we often only see later. Indeed, they’re the ways we see when we come to the table together for communion and see one another and see Christ present and sustaining us in so many different ways.
Christ did not leave his friends, even if they all thought he had. Even if they couldn’t see him for a while. Christ has not left us, either, even when we think he has. Even when we can’t see him. It might just be a matter of who we’re looking for. Are you watching the skies for a flash of cape? Or are you looking for our friend in Chacos? Come see him here at the table, and later let’s go for a walk. Amen.