When I composed this vision statement, out of our Core Values, I wasn’t even thinking about today’s gospel reading, and yet, it fits like a glove! The urban green space is Jerusalem, and the garden where Jesus was raised from the dead, the city which Cleopas and the un-named disciple, return to, after they finally have seen the Lord. There they are welcomed by the eleven and their companions gathered together saying, “The Lord has risen indeed!” And the biggest part of the gospel is a holy encounter, the journey with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and at table with them in their house. They travel much farther than seven miles! They go from their certainty that Jesus is a stranger and, “the only one who doesn’t know what things have taken place in Jerusalem in these days,” to having “their eyes opened, their hearts burning,” and their minds “believing” that Jesus is the risen “Lord.” The word of scripture that Jesus opened to them, combined with the meal, and his “breaking of the bread,” changed them forever. They have been fed by Jesus, literally, and now go and begin to feed others.
The gospel story also recognizes something else about our “holy encounters.” There is a soul searching and grieving, a desolation sometimes, that happens to most of us on our travels, our Road to Emmaus. It’s interesting that today, no one knows where this village of Emmaus was. There is no record of a town called Emmaus, and archeologists have failed to uncover any artifacts of such a lost city. It might yet be found, or just as likely, it could be a literary device of Luke’s, for Emmaus represents something for all believers, as it does for the two who were giving up on their hopes and dreams for Jesus, who were leaving Jerusalem to go home to their old lives, walking away in disappointment and despair that “he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Most of us, at one time or another, could put ourselves in the shoes of that un-named disciple walking with Cleopas. We all have expectations that are dashed, and have not been fulfilled. Perhaps it’s a disappointment in ourselves. A project at home or at work that we thought we would complete but could not. Maybe even a reverting back to old bad habits, a self-destructive impulse, or addiction. A letting go of a friend, or a loss that derails us from where we used to walk in more confidant or healthy ways. Perhaps even running away as fast as you can. What is your road to Emmaus like?
I heard a news interview this weekend with the actor Rob Lowe, and was reminded of his story of descent, and his road to Emmaus. How his rapid rise to stardom was cut off at the knees when, a tryst with an under age woman during his years of drinking, came to light. Now, he has been sober 21 years, is happily married with two children, and continuing to do new film and TV projects. The occasion for the interview was the release of his memoir called, “Stories I Only Tell my Friends.” Lowe recalls in it, when he starred in the West Wing, and how he became fast friends with Martin Sheen, and had already been friends with his son, Charlie, since they were teens. The interviewer asked Rob about the younger Sheen’s current troubles. "It's tough, since I've known him since he was 13,” said Lowe. “And I love him, I love Martin and the whole family. [And being] sober, [I] have a perspective that's probably unique to his experience. …You need to literally be done," Lowe explained. For me, "I wanted to change, I wanted a new life. Different people take different events to get them to that place. Some people have to go way, way down and other people don't."
Lowe believes that, like most of the people drawn to Hollywood, he too was “looking to fill something missing in[side of him], and performing does that. But when you reach the mountaintop, you realize you’re still the same – it didn’t fill you up.”
The holy encounter for Cleopas and the other disciple on the way to Emmaus included not only the joy of the resurrected Jesus, but possibly their worst day ever. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” As that dream was crashing and burning before their eyes, all they could do was remember their story and share it with the interested stranger. Jesus, “whom their eyes were kept from recognizing,” engaged them in their grief, as we see them hit their bottom. They were as low as they could go and they were ready for change, and wanted a new life.
When “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” it wasn’t that Jesus was manipulating his appearance, but there was something about them that kept them from understanding “all these things.” We know that the same thing happened to them before his death, when they were on another road, the road to Jerusalem, and how Jesus predicted three times how he would suffer, die and on the 3rd day be raised again, and they failed to recognize his meaning, or believe it.
But here, on the road to Emmaus, at their lowest low, Jesus tells them about Moses, who was also a rejected leader of the chosen people. And that though he was rejected, God raised him up as a prophet, the one who redeemed them at the Red Sea, and delivered them into the Promised Land. And so of course their hearts were burning within them when Jesus concluded: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things [on the cross] and then enter into his glory?”
Combine this word of God, with the meal of salvation, and we have a sacramental event, a holy encounter we can recognize. This is the moment when the disciples eyes are opened! Here at the table, Jesus feeds us, that we may go out and feed others, share the good news, and offer that which can truly, “fill us up.”
It seemed to take the two disciples forever to get to Emmaus. But now, filled with the bread of life, their eyes opened, and their hearts changed, they flew back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven disciples, “how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Let us come to the table, confident that “we are an urban green space, welcoming everyone into a holy encounter, where we are changed, that all may be fed as Jesus feeds us.”