Back at my internship site, I gave this sermon on May 8 (Mother's Day).
Think of an event you have coming up—any event. In May, that’s probably not difficult to do. There are Mother’s Day meals, graduations, presentations, final tests, summer trips, quarterly reports (maybe that’s June) the list goes on and on. For that event that you’re now thinking of, there are probably things to do to get ready for it—make food, gather information or research, invite people, pray you don’t forget all the words—then you’ll actually get there and live through it, and finally, the story of that event will be incorporated into the story of your life with all its twists and turns and meanings.
Stories of any kind are generally lived in three parts—preparation of an event or incident, the incident or event itself, and reflection on it. Reflection, hindsight—it’s where the significance of what has happened is most clearly understood. Hindsight is 20/20—there’s a reason we say that. Looking back on the events of a story, we can usually see more clearly why something happened, what we really did get out of it, or—most often—what we should have done or said.
And That is where we are at the beginning of the gospel reading today. Reflection. Two of the disciples who have been in Jerusalem over the past few days are now walking to Emmaus, seven miles away. During their walk, they begin to process what has happened. They discuss Jesus’ crucifixion and what it all meant.
From somewhere, a person joins their group. Traveling with a group would definitely be safer than walking alone. So perhaps that’s not so unusual—except that the two disciples are clearly upset about what has happened, and someone who has not been with them through it—doesn’t even know about it—suddenly joins in as one of them.
As if to prove how clueless he really is, the other person asks what is going on with them, and they reveal the level of their pain as they stop in their tracks. They describe those events—their expectations, hopes, and disappointment. They relive it all. They reveal just how much they do not yet understand by talking about their disappointment along with the testimony of some of the women of their group—though they have heard the good news, they are still upset. To them, the crucifixion was failure—the cross ended the hopes they might have had in the potential of Jesus.
They do not see yet. Why not? It’s quite possible that their grief and their past experiences in the world have blinded them to what radical truth might be there. The experiences of the world have taught them that those who die generally stay that way. The only person they have seen ever raise the dead is now dead as well. To them, then, logically, Jesus is dead, regardless of what the women say.
Jesus responds by correcting them—as he often did while he was with them before. He explains all the way to Emmaus about the Scriptures as a whole—from Moses onward. This is not an isolated prophecy or one verse somewhere, but the entirety of all the prophets. He speaks the Word, but his presence remains hidden from them. For whatever is left of the seven-mile walk without headphones or billboards or storefront windows they simply talk about the Scriptures with Jesus. Even in this familiar way—teaching the disciples—they do not know him on their own. They still do not see.
Even though they don’t see, they still remember their teachings. They extend hospitality to this stranger who appears to be going further all alone. They invite him in after an afternoon on the road. They share their food and lodging with this stranger to keep him safe from the dangers of the night.
Not until they sit down with this stranger are their lives transformed. Jesus somehow takes on a new role here, playing host, he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. As he does this, his true self is made known to them, and they understand. They know that this stranger that they invited to stay in out of the night is in fact Jesus himself. They understand that he has risen, that, yes, the women were right once again. They see, and their worldly assumptions about life and death and Jesus are changed forever.
As soon as they realize all this, though, Jesus disappears, leaving them to reflect again on this new experience. They think about how things had changed for them on the road once he showed up, and they perhaps realize just what it was they were doing in going to Emmaus so alone, forlorn, and hopeless. They get what the cross was about now. It’s about hope, not failure. Their realization of the significance of this event moves them so much that they get up and make the seven-mile trip back to Jerusalem—on foot, once again—to let everyone know about it. Their time in fellowship with Jesus has moved them from their little meal to action.
They go back to Jerusalem to tell everyone the good news, but why would anyone believe it? Why, when the testimony of the women and the explanation of the Scriptures wouldn’t do it, would the rest of the disciples believe them now?
Is it that there are now two sets of witnesses to corroborate the women’s testimony? Maybe.
Is it that Jesus himself walked with them, interpreting the Scriptures? Perhaps. Remember, though, that they did not understand the total truth at that point.
Is it that Jesus was present at the meal? This is perhaps the most likely answer, though it could be a combination of all three. You have to admit, the supporting evidence is starting to stack up.
This, though, is perhaps the tipping point. In the taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing of the bread, the disciples’ eyes were opened and they saw Jesus—they themselves actually did nothing. They didn’t open their own eyes. Their eyes were opened by something beyond their own power or ability. Jesus is the one who acts.
Jesus acts, and only then can the disciples act—only then can they believe. They have realized their calling, and now they are off to live it.
Hindsight teaches us. Remembering and reflecting on an event will help us realize the actual significance of it—whether it’s something of great significance that we need to share or of little significance that we need to let go of.
Hindsight helps us learn…but only about what to do next. Should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve are not possible to do—not really. The closest we get to that is to tell someone we’ve affected that we were wrong or wanted to say something else. It still doesn’t change what happened.
The disciples can’t go back in time and listen with new ears to all that Jesus said about the Scriptures again. They can, however, tell the rest of the disciples that he appeared. They can begin to move forward and tell others about their experience, the hope that has been communicated to them for the whole world. Notice, those are all responses, forward actions lived out in the future, not re-writes of the past.
We, too, move forward. We go from fellowship with Jesus into living out our calling. We are empowered to act only because Jesus acts first. We remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We gather at a table with family, friends, and strangers. We experience Jesus’ real presence in the taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing of the meal, and then we leave the table and go out into the world to live out our calling, communicating the hope of Christ in all we do. AMEN.