The Road to Emmaus

The image of Jesus being on a journey is for Luke a major motif throughout his Gospel. So it’s not surprising to find the first post resurrection appearance of Jesus takes place while two of his followers, one Cleopas and one Simon who were journeying back home to Emmaus – a village outside of Jerusalem.

The image of Jesus being on a journey is for Luke a major motif throughout his Gospel. So it’s not surprising to find the first post resurrection appearance of Jesus takes place while two of his followers, one Cleopas and one Simon who were journeying back home to Emmaus – a village outside of Jerusalem.

It has been a long and bewildering day. The loss of Jesus’ body only adds to, and compounds their grief and sense of utter loss following the events of Good Friday.

For Luke the journey to Emmaus represents not simply an external physical journey but also an inner journey of spiritual awakening. The inner sense of the Journey on the road to Emmaus continues to inspire many. I don’t know about in the US but in England  the fact that a good many retreat centers bear the name Emmaus is testament to the enduring evocation that today’s gospel story has with our human spiritual journeying.

For me the significant element in this story lies in the fact that the disciples do not recognize the man who walks alongside them as Jesus. This experience is echoed also in John’s account of Mary Magdalene mistaking the risen Lord for the gardener. Did Jesus look significantly different in his resurrected body? In the next section of Luke has Jesus come and stand in the room where the disciples are meeting. It is clear that this is not the explanation. Jesus looks still the same complete with the marks of his crucifixion.

I find the most likely explanation for the failure of the disciples to recognize Jesus is that they were not expecting to see him. Distracted by loss, grief and a huge anxiety following the seeming failure of Jesus’ promises the disciples had become emotionally shielded by disappointment. This happens to human beings all the time. By limiting our expectations we shield ourselves from disappointment. Who among us was not raised with the advice ‘don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed’?

There is a fundamental rule of psychological life. The mind recognizes only what it already knows. The brain is a pattern mapping machine. It stores and catalogues experience. All new experiences are pattern matched against previously stored templates or what we usually refer to as memories. New experience is matched to existing memory. And this leads to an experience which Freud named as transference. Older feelings from earlier experiences are inappropriately transferred onto new experiences. Therefore, we are caught in the dilemma of choosing only what is familiar to us. This leads us to the cruelest disappointment of all is to endlessly make the same choices yet longing for different results. That’s why the disciples on the Road to Emmaus only recognize Jesus when he breaks the bread. Suddenly, Jesus initiate an experience that triggers a memory response. The present experience – breaking the bread become matched to memories of Jesus and so their eyes are opened.

We think of choice operating only at conscious levels of awareness. But our choices are more often dictated by our unconscious resonances of the familiar –i.e. unconscious memory.  Once the disciples recognize Jesus they become aware that all the time this stranger has been journeying with them they have been dimly aware of something nagging at the fringes of their awareness – something unconsciously familiar.  Once it becomes clear that it is Jesus standing in front of them they exclaim:

were not our hearts burning  within us  as he walked with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us?

Our personal stories are the source of our identity – (refer back to the sermon for the Easter Vigil ) and our stories limit our expectations.

The Disciples on the R-t E had a story to tell. Cleopas with incredulity addresses the stranger’s question to them when he asks what are you talking about? With:

are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?

The Road to Emmaus was a story of dashed hopes ringed by fear. They had already begun to withdraw into their disappointment and adjust to the new situation. Each of us has such a story. It’s a story we tell ourselves about ourselves and how we have made the most of the hand we were dealt and got on with living our lives as best we could. In these stories there are elements of courage and fortitude.  These are our personal stories of self-reliance and self-determination in the face of life’s disappointments. These are our stories of expectations of God tailored to disappointments.

For do we expect the risen Christ to stroll up and walk beside us? Maybe in some notional way but is this part of our everyday hope and expectation – a hope and expectation of actually being met by God? And the problem for us is the problem for Jesus’ first  disciples. When God strolls up along side and falls into step with us, maybe our hearts do burn within us but we are blind to his more obvious presence because like them we have no expectation of this happening.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves stories largely reflected back to us unchallenged by social values of autonomy and personal responsibility close us off from the divine reality of a world infused with the presence of God all around us. A world each day made new by the promise of new life. This is a promise that takes the form of invitation. Invitation to participation in the process of resurrection which God sets in motion by becoming one with us – inviting us into a dying and rising with Jesus.

The resurrection is about a dying to older and less complete versions of our story. When we open to new life then we begin to see that the stories we tell are not the only versions of the story we might tell about ourselves. Stories of self-protection through low expectation can give way to more courageous stories that embrace the risks of hopeful connection to A God who is infused into the world all around us.

We open to Grace and Grace breaks the endless repetition of the familiar. We become liberated from the confines of what we can imagine to lives filled with the surprise of things unimaginable to us. Bit by bit or maybe all of a sudden new choices emerge into consciousness. What we can’t do by ourselves Grace facilitates. Then we notice decrease of fear and increase of gratitude for do not our hearts burn within us a-lot-of the time?

Being open to Grace is fostered by our taking seriously a rule of life. This involves a regular presence in community worship where Christ makes himself known to us as a community in the breaking of the bread, our daily commitment to common prayer where we encounter Christ unfolding the message of the scriptures, and the making of time and space to deepen our awareness of the deep penetration of God into all things within and around us. Through prayer, worship, reflection and service we become open to new elements in our stories that shift our direction.

The Road to Emmaus is a journey we take everyday of our lives.  It’s the journey that begins with our stories of disappointment. These stories that protect us by not expecting to see God. The Road to Emmaus is a journey of transformation as we learn to recognize and leave behind the self protections that our stories afford us. When this happens we risk opening to versions of ourselves that are more than we can imagine because they are fashioned by the Grace of God’s invitation to new life.

This is what it means to participate in the dying and rising to the new life of Easter.

About relationalrealities

Episcopal Priest currently Rector of St Martin's Providence, RI
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