Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“What Happened on the Road” (Luke 24:30-35)
April 30, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Last week my daughters Becky, Abi, and Emily, along with Mike Tanner, joined me and about twenty thousand of our closest friends at Phillips Arena in Atlanta for the epic concert of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. During the concert they played their song “Learning to Fly” and thousands of us joined Tom as he sang:
Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up
And the world got still…
Well, the good old days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn
I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
Well some say life will beat you down
Break your heart
Steal your crown
So I started out for God knows where
I guess I’ll know when I get there
(From the 1991 album Into the Great Wide Open).
In today’s gospel lesson two of Jesus’ disciples, one named Cleopas and the other whose name Luke does not mention, had “started out down a dirty road” from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Life had beaten them down, broken their heart, and stolen crown because as far as they knew, Jesus, the one whom they had been following, the one in whom they had placed their hope, was dead—and their hope had died along with him. They had heard rumors about his possible resurrection, but did not know what to think.
Luke tells us, “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them” and yet “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:15-16). They did not recognize the very one about whom they had been talking, the one who had indeed died but was now raised from the dead. When the Risen Jesus asked them what they had been discussing, the two disciples stopped waling, and as Luke puts it, “They stood still, looking sad” (24:17).
In his classic 1957 novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac recalls a morning during his first journey across America in which he too “stood still, looking sad”:
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost (Penguin Classics edition 15).
Can you relate at all to that? Have you ever had a moment—fifteen seconds, or perhaps fifteen months or for some, maybe even fifteen years—during which you did not know who you were, during which you were far from home, during which, like Cleopas and his friend, you have “stood still, looking sad”? If so, take comfort, you are in the right place today.
Back to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus…In response to Jesus’ question about what Cleopas and his friend had been discussing, Cleopas asks Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” Jesus responds with yet another question, “What things?” And Cleopas and his friend respond by pouring out their hearts about Jesus, a “prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” who had been condemned and crucified. Then they said to Jesus, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” and expressed their doubt about rumors about Jesus’ possible resurrection (Luke 24:18-24). Jesus did not lecture Cleopas and his friend; he listened to them.
And only after listening to them pour out their hearts, Jesus lovingly asks, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” and then Jesus went on to show them how “Moses and all the prophets,” the entire Old Testament, pointed to him (Luke 24:26-27). Wouldn’t it be great to have a recording of that! Incidentally, this was not the first time Jesus had expressed that the primary function of scripture is to point people to salvation through him, as he had earlier taught: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).
Cleopas and his friend had hoped Jesus was the one who would save them. It looked like their hopes had been dashed by Jesus’ death on the cross, but their need for hope remained. Alison Sudol, who is not only the lead singer of the band A Fine Frenzy but also an actress who played in the 2016 film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, sings about the need we all have for hope:
Making the best of it
Playing the hand you get
Well, you’re not alone in this
There’s hope for the hopeless
There’s hope for the hopeless
(From the 2007 album One Cell in the Sea).
The good news of the gospel is that there is indeed “hope for the hopeless.” The Risen Jesus, without being asked, came alongside Cleopas and his friend and shared the gospel, words of hope about their salvation, words of a hope that had not been dashed because the same Jesus who had died on the cross had indeed been raised and would soon “enter into his glory.”
As they neared Emmaus it looked like Jesus was going to continue on down the dirty road, but Cleopas and his friend invited him to dinner, and then something incredible happened—as Luke tells us, “When (Jesus) was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30-31). Notice that Cleopas and his friend did not recognize Jesus by their own efforts, but rather, at the moment Jesus broke the bread “their eyes were opened.”
And when their eyes were opened their hearts were flooded again with hope. They had hoped Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel—and he was. Their hopes had not been dashed after all. Yes, Jesus had been crucified, but Jesus had also been raised from the dead. There was indeed hope for the hopeless, not just for Cleopas and his friend, but for the whole world. Jesus came not only to redeem Israel, but also to redeem the whole world.
This actions of Jesus at the table as “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30) not only hearkened back to his miracle of the feeding of the multitude, but also his institution of Holy Communion. Many people have experienced how they have felt for themselves the love of God at Holy Communion, how, like Cleopas and his friend their eyes have been opened at Holy Communion to recognize that they have not been alone on the road after all.
Years ago I was the vicar of a small church plant in Charlottesville, Virginia. We met every week in an elementary school cafeteria—setting up and taking down chairs, the altar, the sound system, the pulpit every week. Our music minister was the leader of a couple local bands and was excited about an opportunity to earn some additional money each week. The first Sunday he was worshiping with us I gave him communion along with the rest of the congregation. Later that week he shared with me over coffee that he had never actually received communion before, in fact that he had never even been baptized.
As I began feeling like a slacker because I had not known that, he shared with me how as soon as he received the bread and wine at Holy Communion, for the first time in his life, he felt the reality of the love of God for him. His eyes had been opened to the love of the Risen Jesus, for him. And yes, he was soon baptized.
It can be the same when the gospel is preached or when the scriptures are taught—as Cleopas and his friend said to one another “Were not our hearts burning within us while (Jesus) was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). Many people have experienced their hearts being deeply touched by hearing the gospel preached. I personally experienced this again and again as a boy when I heard the Reverend Renny Scott preach in Fairfax, Virginia at an Episcopal church called Church of the Apostles. Hearing Renny preach the gospel began to set my heart burning with the reality of the love of God for me.
That is also exactly what happened with John Wesley, the great nineteenth century priest, who actually had his conversion experience ten years after he had been ordained to the priesthood. In 1735 he had sailed to America to serve as a priest in Savannah and experienced what he considered both professional failure in that his ministry had not gone well, and personal failure in that the women with whom he had fallen madly in love married someone else. He returned to England depressed and then on May 24, 1738, as he wrote in his journal, this is what happened:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me.
What did Cleopas and his friend do after experiencing their hearts burning with the love of God and their eyes being opened to recognize their Risen Savior? They went right back down the same dirty road back to Jerusalem, their dashed hope having been fully restored. When they found the other disciples, they began sharing in the joy of the resurrection—“Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” And as Luke so understatedly put it, “Then they told what “happened on the road” (Luke 24:35).
Maybe you, like Tom Petty, have started out down a dirty road all alone—or like Jack Kerouac have been far from home and forgotten who you are—or like John Wesley have experienced professional and personal failure that has left you depressed—or like Cleopas and his friend, have had your hopes dashed, leaving you standing still, looking sad—“making the best of it, playing the hand you get.”
Well, you are not alone on the road after all. The gospel brings hope to the hopeless. And as you start out yet again down a dirty road heading for God knows where, take comfort, because the Risen Jesus comes alongside you to set your heart burning anew with the love of God and to open your eyes to recognize him in the breaking of bread. Don’t worry, because you’ll know when you get there—and when you do, you too will share with others what happened on the road.