The final chapter of Luke narrates two back-to-back appearances of the risen Lord to disciples, and both feature Luke’s characteristic “journey” theme.
The first appearance takes place in transit, as two dejected disciples on a dusty road en route to Emmaus encounter a stranger they do not recognize at first — who turns out to be the risen Christ. Their journey takes an abrupt change in direction as they rush back to Jerusalem to share this news with the 11, to whom Jesus makes his second appearance. Neither do they recognize Jesus when he appears, taking him to be a ghost. At the conclusion of the second appearance, the risen Lord forecasts a journey on the horizon for the church. Indeed, Luke 24:47-48 summarizes the plotline for the sequel to the Gospel that follows in the book of Acts: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
These appearances provide an appropriate conclusion to the Gospel of Luke, which turns the story of Jesus’ life and ministry largely into a story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:27), and offers an appropriate preview to Acts, which presents the church as the continuation of everything that Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1:1). Thus discipleship, for Luke, takes the form of “following Jesus,” of aligning ourselves with his way of life and destiny. As the journey continues in Acts, the church is described in distinctive fashion as “The Way” (9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4, 22), capturing Luke’s understanding of the corporate sense of following Jesus. So, Luke 24 invites reflection on the significance of the presence of the risen Lord in our own journeys of faith, both individual and collective, which have many twists and turns, a few detours, and perhaps occasional dead ends. It would appear that we are not all traveling the same road. Some are on superhighways at high speeds, while others are bumping along the back roads. Some of us have a perpetual left turn signal on, and we just keep on turning left. Others of us have the right turn signal on, and we just keep on turning right. Some of us have taken the main road, others have taken the road less traveled and a lot of us have gotten stuck in traffic. But whatever our circumstances, questions for all of us to ponder on the third Sunday of Easter include these: What difference does the presence of a risen Lord make in our respective journeys? How will we recognize him when he appears?
Interestingly, Luke doesn’t tell us much about the town of Emmaus or why two dejected disciples were headed there. So think of it not so much as a geographical locale, but as a symbolic destination: that place all of us head after Easter — be it a state of mind, a disposition of the heart or a set of activities. Wherever it finds us, we too have cause for dejection at present, as in the first appearance story. And the risen Lord could well ask of us, as he asks of the 11 in the second appearance story, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” For the landscape of our own post-Easter reality through which we currently make our way is a profoundly unsettling one — given ongoing pandemic challenges, racial strains and reckoning, never-ending gun violence, political polarization and endless posturing and ever widening economic disparities. Emmaus 2021 hardly finds us back to business as usual.
So it is worth noting that Luke’s story, too, takes place in a tumultuous context. The traumatized disciples on the road to Emmaus explicitly state that their hopes have been dashed by the horrific events of Good Friday as they recount to a stranger their experience of the shocking death of Jesus and puzzle over unbelievable news about an empty tomb. In the second appearance story, the 11 are variously described as startled, terrified, frightened and doubting — and then as both joyful and disbelieving when they find themselves in the presence of a resurrected one who bears the wounds of crucifixion. In both stories, Luke presents disciples grappling with primary questions on the mind of the early church: How are they (and we) to interpret God in light of Christ crucified and risen? How and where are they (and we) likely to experience the risen Christ? Such questions can only be answered on the road as we make our way toward post-Easter destinations. And both appearance stories suggest that hindsight and hospitality provide important clues.
First, hindsight is essential for our understanding of God in light of Christ crucified and risen, and for this we are beholden to Scripture. In fact, it is striking that both resurrection stories feature extensive seminars in biblical interpretation. En route to Emmaus, the risen Lord chides his travel companions: “ ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” In retrospect, the disciples recognize that their “hearts” were “burning within” them as he opened the scriptures to them. The second appearance story features another exegetical seminar, as the Lord reminds the 11 of his teaching “ ‘that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” In both cases, Moses and the prophets are central in this recollective instruction — evoking the Exodus story of a God who sees, knows and experiences the suffering of oppression and summons Moses to liberate an enslaved people. The poetry of Isaiah no doubt also figured prominently in this review of things they should already know — poetry about a servant who suffers unjustly, but whose suffering awakens others, empowering them to embody justice before God and one another. Indeed, throughout Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has interpreted his own story in light of this suffering God who enters into the enslavements of the world in order to bring liberation and awaken people to the divine will for justice in our common life.
Second, hospitality also provides an important clue as we anticipate where we might meet the risen one in the course of our own journeys. In the first appearance narrative, one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible, Luke tells us that as they reached Emmaus, the two disciples invite the stranger with them to share a meal. And “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, to be sure (and as usually noted), a story about the presence of the risen Lord to us in word and sacrament, but it is also a story about the presence of the risen Lord in acts of hospitality that we extend to strangers — acts that give expression to his generous welcome of others, especially marginalized others, throughout his ministry, right up to his dying moment when he extended a welcome into paradise to a penitent thief hanging next to him on a cross. The manner of his living and dying prompts us to discern places in our own landscape where marginalized and traumatized people are still subject to crucifying realities. As we extend friendship, solidarity and welcome to them, our eyes, too, will be opened and we will recognize the risen Lord in our midst. Extension of hospitality surfaces in the second appearance story as well — both Jesus’ gift of peace to terrified disciples and their provision of broiled fish for him, which he ate in their presence. Both appearance stories reflect one of Luke’s most important answers to the question of where we might anticipate an encounter with a risen Lord. The risen Christ journeys with us whenever the kind of hospitality he embodied in his life, ministry and death is extended and received — especially at sites of crucifixion as we participate in God’s own liberating work that brings healing, wholeness and resurrection life.
So keep your feet moving as you anticipate encounter with the risen Christ on the other side of Easter, for the church is still on the journey that is the continuation of everything Jesus began to do and teach, with an essential role to play in God’s cosmic salvific project, still unfolding. Indeed, as Frederick Buechner in “Wishful Thinking” has wisely observed, “Generally speaking, if you want to know who you really are as distinct from who you like to think you are, keep an eye on where your feet take you.” May the Spirit of the risen Christ continue to empower us to discern and embody “the Way.”
- Luke describes the Christian life as a journey. How would you describe your post-Easter journey?
- What difference does the presence of a risen Christ make in your journey? And how will we recognize him when he appears?
- If Emmaus is a symbolic destination, where or what is Emmaus for you — especially amid our tumultuous times?
- In both resurrection scenes, Jesus opens up the Scriptures for the disciples — in particular, Moses and the prophets. How would you describe the life, death and resurrection in light of Moses and the prophets?
- How have you experienced the risen Christ by extending or receiving hospitality?
- How do you anticipate encountering the risen Christ in the ministries of the church?
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