The story of what happened on the road to Emmaus is one that has much to tell us, at many levels.
At its most straightforward, it is an account of what happened to two of the disciples of Jesus and how they came to understand that he had, in fact, risen from the dead. Their lack of faith is transformed by their meeting the risen Jesus, and that transforms their lives, transforming them in to evangelisers – the bearers of the message.
At another level, it is the story of each of the disciples in that post-Easter period, when they were finding it very difficult to get their heads around the whole idea of resurrection. The journey from unbelief to faith that each one of them had to undertake is one that is only possible when they have a personal encounter with Jesus which opens their eyes, allowing them to be able to believe.
This is also a story which makes it clear that the Eucharist is at the centre of the life of faith of every believer; that tells us that to understand Jesus we need to look at the scriptures; and that the message that Jesus is alive is one that is to be celebrated not just by each one of us, but together, as a community of faith.
And, of course, this is also the story of every believer, of every age, including us, in our time.
When you see that there is so much going on here, it is not difficult to see why this particular passage of the gospels has always been so important, and given such prominence, in the Christian community – because it describes the journey of discipleship that every disciple, every one who would follow the Lord, must undertake.
We are told that this episode takes place after the death and resurrection of Jesus – very soon after these shocking events had taken place. This was a time of confusion, fear, and doubt. The apostles were all gathered in a room with the door locked, for fear of the Jews. The promises of Jesus seemed to have been dashed; and the path that they had followed over the previous three years now seemed to have been in vain. And, in that atmosphere, Luke focuses on two of the disciples of Jesus.
The first thing to notice is that we are never told their names. Despite the fact that their experience is so important, they are never identified. This is significant because it helps us to notice that this experience is not just a personal experience of two people – in fact, this is the experience of all believers. We are the two disciples on that road to Emmaus. Their experience is our experience, as we struggle to journey from unbelief to faith.
We are told that they were on their way to a village called Emmaus. This word “way” is an important word in the New Testament: it is one of the key words that it is good to look out for. It doesn’t just refer to the road or the path; it refers to the one who is the road, the one who is the way, Jesus.
Jesus is the way. To be a disciple is to follow Jesus, to be, if you like, on his way. And yet we are told that these two disciples were on “their” way. What Luke is telling us is that even though these two were disciples, in other words, even though they were believers, they were no longer actively following Jesus. They had, quite literally lost their way. They were no longer following the way who is Jesus, but were now following their own way.
They are not only finding it difficult to hang on to their faith, they are also beginning to leave it definitively behind – they head to Emmaus, which is 7 miles from Jerusalem. That number 7, highly symbolic in the Bible, indicating totality. They were not just going on a trip – they were definitively abandoning Jerusalem, and all that went with it: their commitment to Jesus, their sharing in the community of Christians, and their calling to be the bearers of the good news.
And, we are given the clue: the reason for all of this is their experience of all that had happened during the recent days. Events had shaken them so much that they were now making a 180 degree turn, and heading away from where they had been called to by Jesus.
In the middle of their flight, Jesus comes up to them and walks with them. The word that is used in Greek to describe this means that Jesus didn’t just come up beside them – it actually means that he overtakes them. In other words, Jesus didn’t just come up and join them in their despair. He overtakes them – he is, physically, in front of them: in other words, when Jesus joins them, they already begin to follow him.
This is important, even though it’s lost in the translation, but it really does mean a lot for trying to understand what is to come.
Even though they were scared enough to run away; even though they had lost their way; even though they couldn’t cope with what had happened – these two, as we are told by Luke at the beginning of the passage, continue to be disciples. They are still followers of Jesus – they are just finding it so difficult at that time.
Now, Jesus is in front of them and they are actively following him again – and what happens? Their eyes are gradually opened to understand all that had happened. Jesus leads them through a reflection on the word of God, and that reflection leads them to the celebration of the Eucharist, when Jesus is revealed in the breaking of the bread.
The experience of these two disciples mirrors in many ways the experience of each one of us as we try to follow the Lord. There are times when events can overwhelm us and when we can lose our way – while it had been easy to feel we were following Jesus in the past, for whatever reason, we can often feel more unsure of where we are going in life. Even without realising it we can begin to follow our own way instead of following the way of the Master.
And it can be hard to find our way back.
The story of what happened on the road to Emmaus is not just an invitation to us to return to the Lord – it actually tries to show us how to do that: by coming to understand the scriptures and through the breaking of the bread, the Eucharist.
If we find it difficult to experience Jesus in our lives, these are two places where we can begin to look so that, like the disciples on the road, we can learn once again to find him, by following him.