There are a lot of really important things about church ministry, but the story we’re reading this morning—commonly known as the Walk to Emmaus—this story has some personal history for me that always reminds me not to take myself too seriously.  I remember this story well from seminary; I remember students and professors who treated it as if it was the most important story in the Bible, possibly more important than meeting Jesus Christ himself.  This took me by surprise, because I’m pretty sure I got to through most of my first two decades of church without ever having heard it; especially if you are inclined to skip church in the weeks after Easter, you might miss it.  But the seminary types love this story.  And you can always count on Bible commentaries full of flowery rhetoric about the importance of this text.  As I expected, I read one this week that began by calling it “one of the most enticing stories of the gospel literature,” and another who called it a story with “a surplus of meaning” a phrase he felt so strongly about that he wrote it in Latin: sensus plenior.  I laughed out loud, and imagined that Jesus would probably do the same.

          It is a great story though, and I’m going to tell it to you, beginning with examples of why seminarian-types geek out on it the way they do, and then I’ll end with some of the ideas in the story that are worth thinking more about.  I’m not planning to be as “preachy” as I sometimes am about any of it, so you can decide for yourself how great the story really is.  But at a minimum I want to put before you some of the compelling questions that come from this text, questions we all might want to think about some more.  But first, a few things I learned about this story in seminary:

In a literary sense, this story kind of book-ends the ministry of Jesus.  Luke tells the story of Jesus with forty days at the beginning during which he prepares in the wilderness, and then here at the end there is forty days between the Resurrection and his Ascension into heaven.  Here at the end Jesus prepares the disciples to continue his ministry once he is gone.  This is one of those stories about preparation.

It is Easter Day, but not morning anymore, and two disciples, Cleopas and another whose name is not given, have decided to leave Jerusalem and walk to a town called Emmaus about seven miles away.  They have heard news about the empty tomb but they don’t seem to believe it.  And as they walk, they are talking about all that happened in the last week leading up to the death of Jesus.  While they are talking, another man joins them on the road, and it is Jesus, but like in other stories about those who witness the Risen Christ, at first they do not recognize him.  He asks what they are talking about and they tell him, expressing dismay that Jesus has died, and then their mysterious companion corrects them, telling them that what has taken place happened just they way it was supposed to.

Here’s the first thing seminary-types love about this story.  It says that “beginning with Moses and all of the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” and how the Messiah must suffer and die and rise again.  He’s explaining the way that the entire narrative of the Bible is to be understood and how Jesus fits into the story—you might say he’s doing what seminary professors do, and ministers as well, so of course, we love it.  You may remember a couple of summers ago I spent seven Sundays on a sermon series called Understanding the Bible and over and over, I told you about this cycle of creation, death, and rebirth that moves through the Bible.  That’s what’s going on, except Jesus himself is doing the teaching.

Moving on:  the three travelers continue on and they come to a town and the mysterious companion acts as if he will keep walking, but the disciples invite him to stay.  When they are at dinner, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them, and “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”  This is the other point of the story that seminarians just love, for a whole list of reasons:  (1) the story clearly articulates the liturgical formula that happens in the Sacrament of Holy Communion that we “take, bless, break, and then give” the bread.  (2) that just like I tell you every Communion Sunday that it is God’s will that those who wish to meet Jesus find him at the table, it is in doing those four things that we are told the disciples meet Jesus, that “their eyes are opened and they recognize him.  (3) This story is consistent not only with what happened at the Last Supper but earlier in the Book of Luke when he fed the multitudes with fishes and loaves, and later in meals that the disciples will share in the Book of Acts—that’s why it becomes a liturgical formula, and (4) that he does all of this using the ordinary bread that was waiting at that table in Emmaus, so just like we always tell you, it matters not if the wafers are blessed by the Vatican or Nabisco, with or without gluten, Wonder bread, matzoh, or tortillas, Jesus makes himself known to everyone the world round who wants to see, and Jesus does it with something as common as bread.  In all these ways, this is basically the perfect story about Communion.

So for these reasons connected to liturgy and sacraments and academic theology, as I’ve said, plenty of seminary types kind of geek out on this story.  But it’s a powerful story for some other reasons too, and I’ll walk through with you, for just a few more minutes, some of the good questions it raises.

Consider, first, what might be going on spiritually and emotionally for these two disciples who are walking along the road.  Luke gives us just enough detail about these disciples to raise a bunch of other questions about them.  He takes time to point out that they’re having a lengthy conversation about all that has happened to them, and the fact that all they had hoped for has now been taken away.  So we get to see that these two have experienced something very hard that is common to many of us:  they are grieving.  They have had the experience of betting their lives on the wrong thing, and now everything they counted on has changed.  Any of us who has been through a failed relationship, a great betrayal, a job loss, has had some sense of this.  The same kind of feelings come when something terrible thing that happens causes us to question our whole value system.  This story is a good jumping off point for any time at which we lose faith and hope in something we counted on.

Another thing I find so curious about these disciples is this:  even as they are grieving for Jesus, at first they cannot tell that the man who joins them is him.  It’s a poignant comment on how grief works.  How many of us have had something horrible happen, maybe the death of a loved one, and suddenly you can’t seem to pay attention to anything else?  Our broken hearts blind us, one might say.  The pain is so deep that it seems to occupy every corner of your mind and heart.  Of course, it’s not easy to think about this when one is overwhelmed by grief, but there is another side to this as well.  It is profound losses like this, the ones that shake us to the core, that lead us to greater understanding.  Faith is often found in the midst of broken dreams.  No one wishes a period of grief on anyone else, but we all confront grief sooner or later, and often by enduring a season of loss and coming out on the other side, we discover that our faith was stronger than we realized, and that God is most present in our times of greatest need—and we become much better companions to other people we meet who may be suffering themselves.

Aside from the grief they are feeling, something else relatable is happening to these two disciples:  they’ve been through a season of life with Jesus that was profoundly exciting and transformative in every conceivable way, but now it’s over, and walking down the road they are presumably headed back to whatever they were doing before:  back to fishing, tax collecting, the grind of regular life.  Plenty of us have been through something like that, a really fulfilling life experience that comes to an end, and over time the intensity of the experience will begin to fade.   What do we do in life when life loses its excitement and everything seems ordinary?  This too is a question raised by this story.  When Jesus is no longer their daily companion, now that he has gone away and regular life must return, what are the disciples going to do?

For so many of these reasons, I think the part of this story that may have the greatest power isn’t the conversation on the road when Jesus teaches the Bible or the moment when Jesus breaks the bread, but in between.  When they reach Emmaus, they come to a crossroads.  Jesus walks ahead as if he means to go on; the disciples are free to continue on without him, but thank God they ask him to stay.  That burning feeling in their hearts was apparently strong enough that they didn’t want it to end, so they went to the trouble to invite him to stay.  Jesus’ love is always like this.  “We are always free to turn our backs on him…but inviting him to stay is when we are surprised by a life that is infused with meaning.”  (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Third Sunday of Easter)  It’s a subtle reminder that in all of the things we do as spiritual people, our worship and singing together, our prayers, our goods works and shared fellowship and all of the different things we do together as a church community—they are at their essence means of keeping the fire of faith burning with in us.  Doing so takes perseverance, and it is a choice.

So I leave it to you to decide just how powerful this story really is.  It’s got great seminary fodder for teaching theology and sacraments—yes.  And it also raises great questions about grief and loss and the grind of regular life.  It appears at the end of the Gospel of Luke, but for followers of Jesus, then and now, who must figure out life without Jesus right by their side, is really just the beginning.  And although this story does not provide all of the answers, I hope it’s questions will cause you to think about it even more.  Amen.