Recently I was in San Antonio for my half-brother Ethan’s Bar Mitzvah. It was my first Bar Mitzvah, and it was, hands down, one of the best times I’ve had in years. I learned so much about what it means to celebrate well, and to welcome would-be-outsiders in, as I was.
But on Friday evening, at a Shabbat service, a comment was made that has stayed with me ever since. It was a passing comment. If you weren’t paying attention, you probably wouldn’t have noticed it. But the Rabbi leading that Friday evening Shabbat service—who I liked very much, for his wit and welcome, his intentional teaching and care for the children at the service—he said this: “If the Messiah has come, we’re in trouble.”
And that line has stayed with me not so much because I think he was in the wrong. It has stayed with me because, regardless of whether we disagree about the Messiah’s coming or not coming, I think we can all agree with feeling that way—even in these early days after Easter— “If the Messiah has come,” he said, “we’re in trouble.”
If the Messiah has come, perhaps you’ve found yourself thinking, why this suffering?
Something like that question is likely what the two disciples in this morning’s gospel reading were thinking as they were on the way to Emmaus from Jerusalem—a seven-mile journey.
When we catch up with them, the two disciples in this story weren’t with the other disciples. Their separation from the others is itself a sign that things are not right. They are beginning to scatter. We scatter not when things are good, but when we are afraid.
Two disciples are in this story, but only one is named—Cleopas. This is the only instance of a disciple named Cleopas in the gospels, though we do find a “Clopas” at the foot of the cross in John’s Gospel, along with his wife, Mary. So perhaps the unnamed disciple in this story is Mary, Cleopas’s wife. Or, perhaps it’s Cleopas’s sister or brother. Or daughter or son.Or you or me.
The masterful storyteller that Luke was, he could very well have left this second disciple unnamed not because he didn’t know it, but because he knew that, sooner or later, we would all of us find ourselves on this road, feeling precisely this way.
When suffering and grief blind your vision, Luke could be saying, inhabit this story.
The two are talking between themselves when a Stranger approaches on the way, we’re told—a Stranger—who asks what they’re talking about. And their response is sadness, anger, even, at such a ridiculous question.
What else would we be talking about? They want to say, which is the way grief goes. When we are in it, we can’t imagine anyone else not being in it, not being affected by it.
These two disciples are devastated. Their friend and Lord has been executed.
“This death should not have happened,” they want to say. It could have been prevented—should have been prevented, if people were doing their jobs.
And what’s more, some of their own community claimed to have found their friend’s tomb empty that morning, and they’re now suggesting their friend is alive again.
“But we had hoped…,” they say, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.” “We had hoped…” that shalom might finally take root, that liberation from violent oppression might finally come.
Their hope was political and militaristic. It was also ethical, economic, social, and personal.
Hope was in the air. It was palpable. Electric. It was gathering momentum. And moving in their midst, promising change.
Until it wasn’t.
Is there anything more heart-wrenching than hope in the past tense?
And once again, Luke invites us to see ourselves here, on the way with these disciples. Because we, too, had hoped.
We, too, had hopes for peace. For justice.
If you are anything like me, you may even have had great hopes for Easter this year. That maybe this Easter is when we would finally feel some relief from so much tragic news. News of yet another mass shooting—which is what we call them, of course, though such a description fails to account for the sheer, world-upending loss each of these events means for so many people.
Maybe this Easter would mean the end of a senseless war in Ukraine.
Or relief from rampant ecological destruction.
Or maybe your hope was closer to home.
Maybe you hoped you might wake up on Easter and find your family miraculously reconciled.
Or that job offer that you’ve been waiting on finally waiting in your inbox.
Or any number of good, good things for which to hold out hope.
But then, in a matter of hours, days, or weeks, things seem to return to just how they had been before Easter, and we’re left on our own journey saying to ourselves, But we had hoped… But we had hoped.
How quickly our pastel hopes turn to grey.
This Stranger listens patiently as these two disciples recount the tragic recent events and their grief around them. And then, only after listening without interrupting, the stranger speaks. But he speaks without short-circuiting their sadness. He names the fact that suffering has blinded their vision from seeing the Messiah rightly.
Taking a novel approach to their familiar texts, this Stranger invites them to see that rather than their hopes being dashed by suffering, their hope is renewed and fulfilled through suffering.Without baptizing trauma, this Stranger invites them to see that everything turns on how they understand suffering, that the Messiah’s suffering somehow makes room for, holds the full weight of, and ultimately restores all our suffering, sadness, and separation.
But even in all of that explaining, this Stranger stops short of revealing the Messiah’s identity.
This Stranger doesn’t feel compelled to tell them who Jesus is right then and there, for fear of missing his chance. Even as he walks them through the scriptures, from start to finish, this Stranger allows them to have their own experience of the Messiah.
“Trying to talk someone into or out of belief is like trying to talk someone into or out of love,” Amy-Jill Levine writes. “What the heart says is not logical, but for the person in whose chest that heart is beating, what the heart says is indelibly true.”
This Stranger allows love to take its time, to run its course.
After listening and inviting them to reconsider their expectations of suffering, the Stranger in this story is continuing along the road when the two disciples call out, asking him to stay. “It is nearly nightfall. The road is dangerous. There’s no saying what will happen out here. Plus, you’ve been walking for Lord knows how long. You should eat.”
Stay with us, they insist to this Stranger who has encountered them in their grief.
These two still don’t know this Stranger’s name when they invite him in—even as they were sorting out their grief and shattered hopes. And that is essential to this story.
Hospitality to a stranger is the fulcrum of this story that Luke was so compelled to tell that he’s the only one of the four gospel writers who chose to include it.
Even as their neighbors peeked through their curtains or stood on their front porches and looked on. Even, perhaps, as their neighbors went out of their way to let these two disciples know that this kind of an invitation is exactly the kind of thing that has gotten plenty of others into trouble.
An offer of hospitality can quickly turn into an opportunity for theft, violence, or worse. There are things you do, and there are things you simply don’t do. These are the unspoken rules of society.
Still, these disciples choose a different way, choose to invite this stranger in—seemingly without thinking twice. It’s simply what they’ve been shown to do in moments like this.
My mother, who is joining us today, on her birthday no less [happy birthday, mom!] is the kind of person in my life who I think of when I hear of this kind of hospitality. Not to embarrass her, but my mom lives with remarkable generosity. She is the kind of person who is willing even to go into those places that she knows better to go alone. But she goes because she knows that if she doesn’t, there will be strangers who will go without a meal. And the very thought of it would keep her up all night.
It’s that kind of hospitality that’s motivating these two disciples, I imagine, and the stranger welcomes it.
Who comes to your mind when you hear of this kind of kindness shown to a stranger?
And what happens next is nothing they could have seen coming. At their invitation to this Stranger to come into where they are staying, their guest suddenly becomes their host.
Sitting at their table, this Stranger takes their bread, blesses it, breaks it, and offers it to them.
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened,” Luke tells us. “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread,” the fruit of which is that these disciples get up from the table immediately, make a U-turn, retracing their footsteps that seven-mile journey, until they are reunited with their community in Jerusalem.
It’s no accident that this poignant story of a meal shared between friends and a stranger recalls other familiar meals in Scripture.
It recalls the first recorded meal in Genesis, where the two humans in the garden eat the fruit of the only tree they’ve been told to avoid,and their eyes are opened, we’re told…The appearance of death, suffering, and grief in our story is traced back to that first meal.
Luke must have surely had that meal between that couple in mind when he describes this eye-opening meal between this couple and a stranger in this way. It is a creative way of saying: where death entered this story, new life and peace and healing and hope are now bursting forth!
But this story also recalls another meal, from earlier in Luke’s gospel. Even more than the formal last supper with their Lord and friend, this scene recalls an informal meal shared with would-be strangers: the time when the crowds came to Jesus for teaching and healing as the day was drawing to a close (Luke 9).
Overwhelmed by their fears of scarcity, the disciples tell Jesus to send the crowds away to find their own shelter, their own food. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples to feed them.
Taking their offering of loaves and fishes, Jesus blessed it, broke it, and offered it to the disciples, so that they might feed the crowds—until all ate and were filled.
What is Luke doing here? What is he up to?
In this intentional turn away from fear toward hospitality and communion, as you well know, St. Luke’s, strangers become friends, hope replaces despair, and what was lost is made present.
This is, of course, not the suggestion of a resurrection dependent on proper belief or hospitality. Jesus is resurrected regardless, Luke insists. And, here’s where you find it: hosting one another across dividing lines of class, ability, ethnicity, sexuality… finding, as we do, that our Resurrected Lord is there among, welcoming us in.
In their hospitality to this stranger, in their grief and confusion, in their disappointment and sadness and anger, their eyes are opened… their eyes are opened to the presence of the resurrected Messiah in their midst, the Host of the table, at which we are all of us invited.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s your story, too.
In your hospitality and generosity toward the crowds, with whatever you have, you will encounter your resurrected Lord, Luke assures us, and in so doing your hope will be renewed for the journey.
Can I ask you to do something for me for just a moment? Would you please close your eyes, if you’re comfortable doing so?
And if you would, I invite you to remember back to the early months of 2020—before the world came to a sudden grinding halt and we all scattered.
Remember where you were. Remember what you were doing–before the pandemic restrictions began, before we said goodbye to millions, what were your hopes?
What were your hope for our planet?
For our nation?
For our city?
For this community?
For your family?
What were your hopes for yourself?
The disciples in this story had hopes—they hoped for the impossible. They hoped for that which was not accomplished in their lifetime.
Whatever those things were that you were hoping for early on in 2020, they were worth hoping for then. They are worth hoping for now.
We have lost much these past few years. Let us not lose our hope in the God who always surprises us, and who continues to bring dead things to life.
I invite you to bring those hopes into this story, around this sharedtable, with this Stranger. So that those hopes might not be in vain, but so they might bloom into their fullest, most generous, and most generative expression.