Living Easter Faith: a reflection on Luke 24.13–35

Easter is always a surprise. Whether Easter meets us in the bustle of busy-ness, or in the deep surges of grace overturning tragedy in our lives, or in the celebration of the eucharist, or in the world with its tsunamis, earthquakes, assassinations, tornadoes, and wars, Easter is always a surprise. And it’s the kind of surprise – thank God – that invites, even shocks, us into waking up, to having our eyes pried open, to recognising that the world in which we fell asleep no longer exists.[1]

And our waking up births new questions: How will we learn to walk in the new reality that Easter’s dawn has opened up? And how shall we proclaim the reality that in the raising of the dead Jesus God is inaugurating the re-creation of all things, and that a new politic is at work in the world? And how shall we avoid being stuck at Good Friday as custodians of the crucifixion, or on Holy Saturday with decimated hopes sealed in a sarcophagus?[2] And what does it mean for us to join Cleopas and his unnamed partner on the road of broken dreams when the very embodiment of our expectations for liberation is walking right beside us … and when – in spite of his imminence – our eyes are kept from recognising the incognito God?[3] In other words, how might we live with both familiarity and mystery, with recognition and doubt? And what might it mean that in the absence of Jesus, it is the presence of the Spirit who makes life meaningful?

Luke tells the story of those who have bet their lives on the wrong messiah. And so, confused as much as anything about the recent events birthed in Jerusalem’s corridors of power but played out on a cross outside of Jerusalem’s walls and around Joseph of Arimathea’s ‘rock-hewn tomb’ (Luke 23.53), these two hit one of the ancient city’s outbound roads and head to Emmaus, a village about 11 kilometers from Jerusalem. Like the others, these two sorry disciples are heading back to fishing nets, back to tax offices, back to missed appointments, back to familiar territory, back to how things were before Jesus interrupted their lives. Carrying their bag of unanswered questions with them, they are on the road that will return them to what T.S. Eliot called ‘the human condition’, a condition marked by the maintenance of a ‘common routine’ and an avoidance of ‘excessive expectation’.[4]

They confess in v. 21: ‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’. That hope is now gone. It is hope in the past tense. This story is about those who have held on to Jesus’ message, but whose lives are now in limbo because God’s plan seems to have run out of steam. It’s about those of us who can’t quite get our minds around Easter. And it’s about those who mourn in post-Christendom bewilderment, wondering how God’s promises relate to the relentlessness of institutional decline.

And as we read this text together, we’re tempted to keep our eyes on the two disciples, tracing their movement towards hope and faith. But Luke turns the spotlight onto Jesus. It is Jesus’ actions which provide the impetus for the narrative. And Jesus’ first action is simple but profound. We read in v. 15 that Jesus simply ‘came near and went with them’. It’s an unremarkable sentence, until we remember that this is just 10 verses after the resurrection. Here is Jesus, fresh from the domain of death, out on a dusty road, still seeking and saving the lost. Frederick Buechner says of this text:

You’d have expected a little more post-resurrection fanfare – an angel choir filling the sky with a Hallelujah chorus perhaps. But instead, Jesus is pursuing two sad pilgrims on a dusty road to a little village out back of beyond. He comes in the middle of all their questions. It’s the sheer ordinariness of it all that is so striking.

What a stunning reminder that God is both closer and stranger than we think. As Buechner put it,

Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but … at supper time, or walking along a road. This is the element that all the stories about Christ’s return to life have in common: Mary waiting at the empty tomb and suddenly turning around to see somebody standing there – someone she thought at first was the gardener; all the disciples except Thomas hiding out in a locked house, and then his coming and standing in the midst; and later, when Thomas was there, his coming again and standing in the midst; Peter taking his boat back after a night at sea, and there on the shore, near a little fire of coals, a familiar figure asking, “Children, have you any fish?”; the two [people] at Emmaus who knew him in the breaking of the bread. He never approached from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of people, in the midst of real life and the questions that real life asks.[5]

Luke places Jesus with us on the road of our confusion, and tiredness, and frustration, and discouragement, and cynicism – when every ounce of hope has been wrung out of us, and his presence alone is all we have left. And even though we don’t really know who he is, we let him talk, and his words begin to peel away the calluses on our unbelieving hearts.

‘Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’, Jesus said. ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ In other words: ‘Where have you been all your life? You go to synagogue every week. What Bible have you been reading? Don’t you know your own story? Don’t you remember how, in the economy of God, that even death is no obstacle to God’s determination to bring life to every citadel where death reigns? Maybe those women spouting stories about an empty tomb aren’t so crazy after all’.[6]

But the rebuke is only the beginning! Jesus then walks these pilgrims through Moses and all the prophets. Just as he had done in his hometown synagogue, and just as Philip would do a few years later with an Ethiopian seeker, Jesus directs them to the Scriptures. Why? Because Scripture is the cradle in which we hear the living voice of God.[7] And to hear that voice is to know something of what the two Emmaus pilgrims experienced – our hearts burning within with the very life of God.

And their response? From v. 28:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. (vv. 28–31).

The disciples on the road fail to recognise him, even in the Bible study. And when they do finally recognise him at the cracking of bread crust, Luke tells us that he ‘vanished from their sight’.[8] It’s easy to miss these few words. The moment of recognition lasts just long enough to surprise, to remind, to reassure, and to release vision and energy enough for a lifetime. Like those first disciples, we too wish he would stay longer, we long for more permanence. Yet, whatever else faith is, it cannot be chronic certainty.[9] Jesus refuses to be contained by us. Even when he makes himself known, he remains strangely elusive, free of our attempts to constrain him, to shape him into our image, to enlist his support for our own cultural, theological and political agendas. And he rejects all our attempts to create an image of an unbroken, impartial and unambiguous God. Jesus will not have us live by sight. The constituents of Easter faith are wonder and surprise, risk and trust, voluntary vulnerability, and contentment with hints of truth and glimpses of glory. That walk to Emmaus could have left the disciples where they were – bewildered, resentful, and at a loose end. But a stranger drew near, and he walked with them, and won confidence enough to not only speak, but to be listened to, and on being asked to stay longer he welcomed their welcome, and shared their meal.[10]

And this brings us to another thing to notice: Recall the first meal in the Bible.[11] ‘The woman took some of the fruit, and ate it; she gave it to her husband, and he ate it; then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ (Gen 3.6–7). And now Luke is describing the first meal of the new creation: ‘When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight’. The resemblances here are startling. But what is more astonishing is that the couple at Emmaus discover – through the breaking open of Scripture and in the breaking open of bread[12] – that in Jesus the Christ, the long curse has been broken, that God’s new creation, brimming with life and joy and unforeseen possibility, has burst in upon the world of decay and death and sorrow.

But this table fellowship does not erase the memory of the past, so much as recall the way that in Jesus Christ the entirety of our history – with its shame, betrayal and failure – is gathered up in the reconciling love of God made concrete in Jesus Christ. So Rowan Williams notes how, for both St John and St Luke, the resurrection meals

echo specific occasions of crisis, misunderstanding, illusion and disaster. They “recover” not only the memory of table-fellowship, but the memory of false hope, betrayal and desertion, of a past in which ignorance and pride and the rejection of Jesus’ account of his destiny in favour of power-fantasies of their own led the disciples into their most tragic failure, their indirect but real share in the ruin of their Lord. Yet Jesus, even as he sees their rejection taking shape, nonetheless gives himself to his betrayers in the breaking of bread. The resurrection meals restore precisely that poignant juxtaposition of his unfailing grace and their rejection, distortion and betrayal of it.[13]

Here, Word and Sacrament redefine life for us, challenging our assumptions about Jesus, and about his message of radical love rather than revenge for our enemies, because it is only as we love that we see the nature of the God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6.35).[14] ‘Oh, how foolish … and how slow of heart’ the world has been this week to hear this message. To claim Easter faith is to claim the great alternative to the way of death. Easter faith recognises God’s passion for the life of every person threatened by death. And Easter faith participates in love’s process by getting up out of the apathy of misery and out of the cynicism of prosperity, and fighting against death’s accomplices – the economic death of the person we allow to starve; the political death of those who are oppressed; the social death of the handicapped and the refugee; the noisy death that strikes through tomahawk missiles and torture chambers; and the soundless death of the apathetic soul. This is the protest for life that the Word and Table call us to, and equip us for, and keep us from turning to death’s tools to accomplish, and from losing heart.[15]

The promise of this text in Luke is that Jesus will meet his beloved through the opening up of Scripture and ‘in the breaking of the bread’. There is no hocus pocus here, as if Scripture and Holy Communion are some magical elements by which we can manipulate God. Rather, there is only the promise of the God who in the freedom of love confronts us again and again and again in Jesus Christ, leading us into God’s future, and joining us wherever we read the Bible and share bread and wine together.

I finish with a poem:

We walked into the sunset
brooding our deep loss,
sure that the best days of our lives
lay dead behind us.

We talked around the rumours
spread by our small group,
but feared to embrace the good news
lest it be false hope.

A stranger then overtook us,
travelling our road,
he unfolded the truths and loves
our grief had betrayed.

Our hearts trembled within us
for the faith we’d lost,
we reached an inn at sundown
wanting to break fast.

We sat at table together
to share cheese and bread,
he took up the loaf and broke it
and out danced the dead![16]


[1] The eruption of newness in which we find ourselves is itself birthed by an event entirely original and unpredictable and even inconceivable. The resurrection of the dead Jesus is an event which so shatters all of our explanatory categories that no one story, no one account, can adequately capture what it means. Whether we think of the story in John’s gospel about the resurrected Jesus penetrating locked doors, or of Matthew’s description of earthquakes and of frightened soldiers, of resurrected bodies coming out of the tombs and entering Jerusalem en masse, or this account in Luke’s Gospel. In contrast to Matthew and John, Luke has no resurrection appearance at the sight of the tomb. See Christopher F. Evans, Saint Luke (London: SCM Press, 2008), 901–4. The NT communities are straining to find words to adequately bear witness to an event about which words betray their limit. So Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978), 107: ‘There is not any way to explain the resurrection out of the previously existing reality. The resurrection can only be received and affirmed and celebrated as the new action of God whose province it is to create new futures for people and to let them be amazed in the midst of despair’. But of the fact that the early disciples are amazed and eager to bear witness to the things that they had seen and heard concerning Jesus there can be no question. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the themes of perception and response play such a central role throughout Luke’s Gospel. And even in this chapter, we see that despite the clarity of Jesus’ prophecies, the empty tomb leads to mixed evaluations. It seems that it is only with the direct intervention of Jesus in the Emmaus scene that the possibility of truly seeing who Jesus is is strengthened. See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, et al.; The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 841.

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 418. The French philosopher Simone Weil once said that ‘if the gospel omitted all mention of Christ’s resurrection, faith would be easier for me’. I think that Weil was challenging the common but shallow assumption that the resurrection makes life easier for those who believe. It doesn’t. For one of the realties that the NT paints is that the reaction to the news that ‘Christ is risen!’ suggests not confirmation and relief but disturbance and disorientation. Those first disciples were like the walking wounded after an explosion, and their subsequent witness was as overwhelmed as it was overwhelming. That’s why those courtroom-inspired ‘proofs’ of the resurrection are so misconceived and insipid. They not only fail to resolve the insurmountable literary and historical problems of the Gospel texts, but they turn the irreducibly mysterious into the demonstrable and manageable, as if the resurrection were under our control and for our consolation. See Marva J. Dawn, ‘”Behold! It Came to Pass,” Luke 24:13–35 – The Third Sunday of Easter’, Journal for Preachers 28, no. 3 (2005).

[3] On the journey metaphor in Luke see James L. Resseguie, Spiritual Landscape: Images of the Spiritual Life in the Gospel of Luke (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004).

[4] T.S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950), 139: ‘The condition to which some who have gone as far as you/Have succeeded in returning. They may remember/The vision they have had, but they cease to regret it,/Maintain themselves by the common routine,/Learn to avoid excessive expectation’.

[5] Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 77; cf. Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 86–7: ‘There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not recognize him … See [your life] for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, and smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace’.

[6] Corbin Eddy, Who Knows the Reach of God?: Homilies and Reflections for Year A (Toronto: Novalis, 2001), 142. Modified.

[7] To be sure, Scripture, like every gift of God, can be misused – whether to claim the superiority of one race or ethnic group over another, or to propagate anti-Semitism, or to sanction horrendous acts of violence and ethnic cleansing, or to justify the subordination of women to men and related acts of domestic violence. But received rightly, it is in Scripture that we hear the very voice of love. See René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 278: ‘Western culture as a whole, whether Christian or post-Christian, … is moving further and further away from Christ … It is struggling to rid itself of Christ for good. But at the very point when it is under the impression of moving in quite a different direction, Christ is to be found beside it, as he has been for a long time, “opening the Scriptures”’.

[8] See Buechner, A Room Called Remember 7–8: ‘[Christ] is our shepherd, but the chances are we will never feel his touch except as we are touched by the joy and pain and holiness of our own life and each other’s lives. He is our pilot, our guide, our true, fast, final friend and judge, but often when we need him most, he seems farthest away because he will always have gone on ahead, leaving only the faint print of his feet on the path to follow. And the world blows leaves across the path. And branches fall. And darkness falls. We are, all of us, Mary Magdalene, who reached out to him at the end only to embrace the empty air. We are the ones who stopped for a bite to eat that evening at Emmaus and, as soon as they saw who it was that was sitting there at the table with them, found him vanished from their sight’.

[10] That Jesus longs to share his hospitality – the hospitality of the Triune God – with us there can be no doubt. That he does so through Scripture and Holy Communion is the testimony of a Church two millennia old. That the hospitality of God might be the hospitality of travelling strangers becomes the doorway to grace. And here in Luke’s telling, the willingness of this stranger on the road to enter the space of another – our space, our history, our limitation – recalls a level of trust and hope almost entirely foreign to us. That Cleopas and his companion welcome this stranger into their home expresses a deep vulnerability. And yet it is precisely in this moment of encounter, this moment of tangible love that embraces the brokenness of betrayal and the fragility of human hope, that the rays of Easter sunlight come burning away the frost that has rotted the human mind and made cold the human heart. And weary travellers are revived, and their hearts renewed.

[11] See N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 296–8.

[12] A key word here is ‘revelation’. ‘Revelation is’, as one writer put it, ‘the clue that enables one to put together the disparate experiences of life into a meaningful, coherent whole, to see a pattern and purpose in human history, to overcome the incongruities between what life is and what life ought to be’. John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 30.

[13] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 39–40.

[14] This point is well made in John Howard Yoder, Nonviolence: A Brief History. The Warsaw Lectures (ed. Paul Martens, et al.; Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010), 89.

[15] Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless: The Word of Liberation for Today (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 123–6. For all kinds of reasons Luke’s Emmaus narrative of that troubled journey and its resolution, touches into those deep places of our human experience, those parts of our journey that are also troubled, from which we don’t emerge unscathed or unchanged. But in the breaking of bread, the Guest becomes the Host, our eyes see, and our souls are fed – and life is nourished again towards wholeness. So Walter Brueggemann, Living the Word: How Do We Practice an Easter Life? [nd (cited 30 April 2011)]; Online: http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj1105&article=how-do-we-practice-an-easter-life: ‘The walk with the risen Christ is an ongoing process of having our anxiety transformed in faith, and our despair transformed in hope. While our anxious, despairing world is inevitably self-destructive, the church alternatively lives in buoyant faith and daring hope that issues forth in an emancipated life in the world’.

[16] Bruce Prewer, ‘Emmaus’ in Beyond Words: Reflections on the Gospel of Luke (Melbourne: The Joint Board of Christian Education, 1995), 62.

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