A burglar broke into a house and was looking around. He heard a soft voice say, “Jesus is watching you”. Thinking it was just his imagination, he continued his search. Again the voice said, “Jesus is watching you”. He turned his flashlight around and saw a parrot in a cage. He asked the parrot if he was the one talking and the parrot said, “yes.” He asked the parrot what his name was and the parrot said, “Moses.” The burglar asked, “what kind of people would name a parrot Moses?” The parrot said, “the same kind of people who would name their pit bull Jesus”.
It’s very disconcerting to think that God can be watching us, indeed is with us, at any time, yet this is what the story of the journey to Emmaus was all about. I want, this even, to try and make some sense of that story, and consider what it might mean for us, who are trying to find and follow Jesus in Farnham in 2019.
To make any sense of Emmaus, we need to look back into the Hebrew Scriptures, because this was the bible that Jesus and the disciples knew and used, and when we do that we can find some rather surprising things. So, we’re staring in Genesis, a very long time ago.
Abraham and Sarah were very old and had no children but, according to the story in Genesis, God makes a promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will have many descendents. In the story of Abraham and Sarah there is a crucial verse upon which the whole story hangs: God asks Abraham, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” In other words, is there anything the Lord cannot do?
The Lord appears to Abraham by the trees of Mamre as he sits in the shade of the tent door. Abraham lifts his eyes and sees three men standing by him, and then he bows himself to the ground; he knows it is the Lord. The three men, or angels, are referred to collectively as the Lord. Abraham provides a meal for them, and God promises Abraham that his wife Sarah will have a son. Sarah, who is eaves-dropping outside the tent, laughs at the very thought of it! The Lord, hearing the laughter of Sarah’s soul, asks Abraham, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
It feels like a trick question, rather like “have you stopped beating your wife, answer yes or no?” If we say yes something is too hard for God, then seem to be denying God’s power. If we no, nothing is too hard for God, our experience makes us, at best, uneasy in such an affirmation.
Why am I telling you about the story of Abraham and Sarah, when we have that glorious story of the journey to Emmaus to consider? Because the story of Abraham and Sarah underpins the story of Cleopas and his friend with Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.
Luke 24: 13 – 35
Cleopas and his friend walk along the road to Emmaus discussing the death of Jesus and the events which surrounded it. Though they do not recognise him, Jesus joins them and together they discuss the Scriptures. Later, we are told that their hearts burned within them as Jesus spoke to them. Arriving at their home, they invite Jesus to stay with them; he is reluctant to come in, but agrees and they eat together. In the story of Abraham and Sarah, Abraham is joined by the Lord, they eat together and, later in the story, beyond what we read today, when Abraham and the Lord travel to see Lot, Lot invites the Lord to stay with him. The Lord declines, Lot insists, the Lord decides to stay with Lot and together they share bread. The stories are very similar, indeed change the names and it’s pretty much the same story, and, most crucially, the Gospel of Luke was written partly for the worship of the early church, and on the day when the Jews would read the story of Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish Christians used the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The story of Emmaus, then, is one of God journeying with his people, of God being with his people in their darkness and, ultimately, of God bringing life out of death and the creation of a new community.
When we visited the holy land, we went to Emmaus, at least I thought we did. Now I’m not so sure. Having done more research, the actual location of Emmaus is more of a mystery than I first thought. There are several places that claim to be Emmaus. One is Emmaus Nicopolis (18 miles from Jerusalem); another is Kiryat Anavim (7 miles from Jerusalem on the carriage road to Jaffa); another is Coloniya (4 miles from Jerusalem, also on the carriage road to Jaffa); another is el-Kubeibeh (7 miles from Jerusalem, on the Roman road to Lydda); yet another is Artas (6 miles from Jerusalem); and the final claimant is Khurbet al-Khamasa (10 miles from Jerusalem on the Roman road to Eleutheropolis). The oldest tradition is Emmaus Nicopolis, and I think that’s where we went, but the claim is by no means certain.
I looked a little bit further into it, and discovered not only is there confusion over where the location is, but the very name of Emmaus itself causes yet more confusion. One of the oldest extant versions of the Gospel of Luke, preserved in an ancient text called the Codex Bezae, does not name the place as Emmaus, but “Oulammaus”. In the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, this strange word Oulammaus occurs somewhere else, and that was the place where Jacob was visited by God in his dream, while sleeping on a rock, which we heard in our other reading from Genesis. However, Oulammaus was not a real place name at all, but was created only by an unfortunate translation mistake. The original name of that place in Hebrew was “Luz”, which we heard today. This mistake in the story of Jacob has, of course, long been corrected, but it was still there at the time when Luke’s Gospel was written around AD100.
So, given there is immense confusion about both the location of Emmaus and the name itself, which bears a striking coincidence to a place name in the Hebrew Scriptures being where Jacob encountered God, I wonder if Luke gave us this story in order to draw a parallel between Abraham and Sarah being visited by God, Jacob being visited by God, and the disciples being visited by the risen Christ.
Now, I don’t want you to go home and say that Michael said the story of the road to Emmaus never happened and it’s all made up. I’m saying no such thing. It might very well have happened. What I am saying is that it is much more important to consider not, is this story true, but what truth does it tell us? We have a story to remind us that the risen Christ is with us, just as God was with Abraham and Sarah, and with Jacob. The important message of the story of the road to Emmaus, then, is that the risen Christ is with his people today, as he was with Abraham and Sarah, with Jacob, with Cleopas and the disciples, so he is also with us today.
This, then, is not something that happened once in history, to Abraham and Sarah, to Jacob, to Cleopas, but something that happens always and everywhere. This story of the journey to Emmaus, and its antecedents, is not a story of something that happened, but a pointer and a reminder of something that is happening now. Just as God came to Abraham and Sarah, just as God came to Jacob, just as the risen Christ came to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, God is coming to us today, in this place, in this community, in this week. Will we recognise him? Will we point him out to others?
We must not allow the story of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus to become history, to be imprisoned in the past. The early Church took the stories of Abraham and Sarah, and of Jacob, and re-worked them with their unshakable belief in the risen Christ, and we too must take the story and apply it afresh. Nothing is impossible for God: God is able to bring light to our darkness and life out of death, if we recognise it.
So, what we are about today is having our eyesight adjusted, so that we can see the risen Christ, having our hearts prepared to believe in the risen Christ, when we read the Bible, and when we gather with others that believe.
Do we sometimes find our hearts mixed up? Do we sometimes find our hearts slow to believe? Do we sometimes find it hard to recognise the risen Christ in our everyday life?
Imagine that one day you meet the risen Christ. When you are with him everything becomes clear. You find that you have no trouble believing when he is there. In fact, you get real excited when you are with him. Then you realise that he can make it so that you can feel like this all the time.
So, as we move into our time of silence for reflection, ask the risen Christ to let you see clearly. Tell him that you want a heart that is quick to believe, and imagine how he responds to you.