Emmaus today

Psalm 116
Acts 2:37-41
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24: 13 – 35

In his poem, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, W.B. Yeats pictures a man so consumed with longing for home that even in the middle of a busy street, all he hears is the sound of the lake, more real than the shadowy place where he is actually standing. What he longs for is the home of his imagination, on the Isle of Innisfree, where he will live in simplicity and peace. The slow beat of the poem’s last line lets us see the man, standing stock still as the traffic flows around him, hearing the sound of the water of his dreams: I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Yeats did not, of course, abandon his literary life to live as a peasant by the lake at Innisfree, but the yearning that he expressed for a true home, for his ‘deep heart’s core’, is one that the readers of the first letter of Peter could easily understand. The letter was written to some early Christians who were struggling under persecution for their faith. Like Yeats they’re standing in an alien land, longing for home. But if they don’t yet sit beside the lake, they are at least surrounded by their new family. Peter’s first letter reminds them that although they are living in exile, they know whose children they are, and so they know what’s required of them. They can call God ‘Father’, with unimaginable intimacy, and although they come from many backgrounds and have had to be rescued from ‘futile ways’, they now know where they are going. For some unfathomable and utterly humbling reason, God’s great plan for the salvation of the world waited for them, the ragbag of scraps from goodness knows how many cultures, to be ready, so that they could come home. They’re bound together by that disproportionate gift that has made them a family, where before they were strangers, and set them on their path home, together.

Exactly the same thing is happening to the people who respond to Peter’s speech in the Acts of the Apostles. Again, these are new Christians who are finding their way, learning what it means to be a Christian, and to do so as a minority in a prevailing climate which is against them. They’re being made into a new family, with their loyalties changed, and their faces set in a new direction. Like the readers of Peter’s first letter, they know what it has cost to bring them here. In fact, their sense of the price paid for them is even stronger, because they recognize their own complicity in the death of Jesus. But that recognition is the start of the new life, and God’s response to their contrition is overwhelming. They are to receive a share in his life, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. All around them, near and far, stretching away on every side, streaming into the future come the crowds of those who will now be their family.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus are part of a family too, but I want to tease out what that stories all about before we look at what it might mean. 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 (c. 160 stadia from Jerusalem); another is Kiryat Anavim (66 stadia from Jerusalem on the carriage road to Jaffa); another is Coloniya (36 stadia on the carriage road to Jaffa); another is el-Kubeibeh (63 stadia, on the Roman road to Lydda); yet another is Artas (60 stadia from Jerusalem); and the final claimant is Khurbet al-Khamasa (86 stadia 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, 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 from Genesis on Palm Sunday. However, Oulammaus was not a real place name at all, but was created only by an unfortunate translation mistake. This mistake is the story of Jacob has, of course, long been corrected, but it was still there at the time when Luke’s Gospel was written.

So, given there is immense confusion about both the location of Emmaus and the name, 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 to draw a parallel between Jacob being visited by God and the disciples being visited by the risen Christ. So, the importance message of Emmaus is people encountering God.

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 much more important than whether it happened is what we can learn from it. We have a story to remind us that the risen Christ is with us, just as God was with Jacob, and with Cleopas and the disciples.

What is means is that Emmaus was not something that happened once in history, 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 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.

So, 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 story of Jacob, and re-worked it with their unshakable belief in the risen Christ, and we too must take the story of Emmaus and apply it afresh.

Like the new Christians hearing encouragement from Peter’s letter, like the new Christians hearing encouragement in the Acts, the followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus found encouragement in their encounter with the risen Jesus, just as we can. Imagine what it’s like for them on that journey, they’re tired, emotional. Perhaps they’re escaping from the strange events in Jerusalem? Perhaps they’re afraid? Perhaps they need to get away to talk? They turn to the stranger, and talk to him. What is going on? What can it mean? They’ve asked themselves over and over again. All their hopes of Jesus confounded, and with them, all they had come to believe about God and his purposes. And then these strange rumours about the body being missing, about angels, about life. Oh, what can it mean? They turn to the stranger, too perplexed to realize how silly this ought to have been. How could he possibly answer? Into their turmoil the stranger, who is no stranger, speaks his words of rough and humorous revelation. And suddenly, the road to Emmaus, wherever it is, is the road home, the way to the heart’s deep core. May it be so for us, in this time and this place.

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