It’s easy to forget that for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, this was still only three days after Jesus had been crucified. They were still blinded by their grief; they had heard rumours of some kind of resurrection but didn’t know what it meant or what it looked like. They weren’t in a place where they could hear the Good News Jesus was trying to tell them, even though they desperately needed to hear it. We might think, “Oh, those foolish disciples, never understanding anything,” but who hasn’t been in a position like theirs? Our psalm for today echoes their need, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” Who hasn’t been in a place of needing to hear the Good News, but not being able to hear it, or trust it? As good as resurrection sounds, it is too crazy to believe in, it makes no sense to our logical minds, and so it becomes harder to see and to experience.
Yet the story of Emmaus attracts us not because the disciples couldn’t see the resurrection, but because, in the end, they could. They did actually see the risen Christ, despite their doubt of the women’s story. So what changed? How did they move from blinding doubt to seeing and being moved by resurrection?
Well, the traditional interpretation of this story says that they recognized Jesus because he shared communion with them. That’s what it means when the Gospel says, “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.” This is a reference to Holy Communion, and it is meant to reassure Christians who came after the disciples that we see Christ in Holy Communion, and that we experience resurrection and new life every time we receive his body and blood in the bread and wine.
And we do experience this. There is something about Holy Communion that touches us deeply, in ways that we can’t explain logically or rationally. It gives us a strength and a comfort and a renewal of spirit that makes no sense to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Talking about the experience of taking Communion with someone who has never done it is like the women telling the rest of the disciples that they have seen the risen Christ. The explanation of new life is never as compelling as the experience of it. And yet it is there for us, in the bread, broken and blessed and shared.
Today, though, I want to draw our attention to something that happens before Jesus breaks bread with the disciples. And that is the verse that says that as Jesus was going to walk on ahead of them after they reached Emmaus, the disciples “urged him strongly” to stay with them. As they recollected later on, their hearts were burning within them, and so they were moved to invite him to stay. Something in their experience of being with this person was so deeply affecting that they invited him, strongly, to be with them so that they could continue this experience.
Now, we could say that they were extending the famous Middle-East hospitality, but the writer of the Gospel is very clear in saying that this feeling that they had was more compelling than the usual custom. They felt “strongly,” with the hearts “burning” within them, and so they invited Jesus in. There is no rational or logical explanation for what they did, they didn’t even have any reasonable explanations for each other afterwards. And yet it is specifically mentioned in this particular story. So what is going on here, and why does the writer of Luke bring it up?
Well, what I want to suggest this morning is that the disciples on the road to Emmaus were moved by compassion for this stranger and that their decision to allow themselves to act on that compassion was one of the reasons they eventually recognized and experienced the resurrected Christ.
You see, it is not logic or good arguments, or even Jesus’ explanation of God’s shaping of the history of Israel that opened their eyes to seeing the resurrection. Rather, it was compassion. Their compassion for the stranger in inviting him in and sharing what they had with them and then Jesus’ compassion for them in sharing himself with them. The disciples’ compassion, not their reasoning or their logic, is what opened to them the opportunity for Christ to reveal himself to them and moved them from the distress and anguish of Good Friday to the hope and goodness of resurrection.
There is a famous story about Mr. Rogers, of the children’s TV show, and his response to seeing disaster. Mr. Rogers actually was a Presbyterian minister and he was friends with Mr. Dress-up. Anyway, Mr. Rogers shared that when he was a child, he would see scary things on the news, and his mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” His mother helped him to see the Good News in the world, to see the power of life instead of death, by pointing him towards those who were moved by compassion to help the stranger.
But I think that what the story of Emmaus is telling us today is not just to look for those helpers, but to be those helpers. To be the ones moved by compassion, to be the ones whose hearts are burning within us, so that we might be the hands of Christ’s resurrection in this world, and so that our presence might help others to experience Christ. When someone on the street asks you for change, and that little voice in your head says, “Oh, they’re just going to waste it on alcohol or drugs,” or “If I give them money I’m just going to encourage that kind of behaviour,” listen to your heart instead. What does your heart say before the rational logic of your brain silences it? Allow yourself to be moved by compassion, just as the disciples were.
Because it is in compassion and giving of our time and all that we have, as the disciples did, that Christ reveals himself to us. The disciples could have reasonably reacted to the person walking with them by letting him go on his way, down the road, where he would surely have found somewhere to stay. Nobody would have blamed them. And I am sure that Christ would not have insisted on coming in. But they allowed their hearts to move them, and as a result, their eyes were opened and they recognized the resurrected Christ. They experienced the fullness of Easter Sunday. They saw and felt the Good News. The same experience is available to us. Jesus said, in the Gospel of Matthew, that when we feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and visit the sick - basically, when we have compassion for those who are in need - that we are doing it for Jesus himself. When we give new life to those around us, we are giving new life to Jesus, who in turns gives back to us the Good News of resurrection and new life of our own. Who shares himself with us.
Now all of this defies logical explanation. There is no reason it should be that way, nor even any measurable scientific proof that it happens. But when it does, and it does, our hearts burn within us, and we are moved, because we experience the new life that Christ shares with us so abundantly. We find ourselves, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, blessed with the presence of the risen Christ, lifted from death to Easter life. Thanks be to God. Amen.