When the stranger becomes the host – On the road to Emmaus

Christ at Emmaus by Rembrandt (1629)

THE COMMUNITY in which I joined the Methodist Church last year hosts a short telephone service on Sunday afternoons – like a Christian conference call! Today I was invited to offer a five-minute reflection on the Gospel reading of the day [Luke 24.13–35 – The road to Emmaus].

My reflection was inspired by Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the unheard voice by gay Catholic theologian James Alison. The jigsaw puzzle image is my own:

It’s resurrection day. Where are Jesus’ followers? The ‘first eleven’, the apostles minus Judas, the ‘A’ team, are fearful in a locked room in Jerusalem. The ‘reserves’, the others who followed, the ‘B’ team, are scattering. Two are walking to Emmaus. The description is vague – at least four places in the Holy Land claim to be where this happens! Emmaus could be anywhere. Perhaps this is an encounter that could happen everywhere.

We know one traveller, Cleopas, is one of the ‘B’ team, a genuine eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. We don’t know the other’s name. As ‘Emmaus’ is vague, making this event possible anywhere, so perhaps this unnamed person could be anyone – even you, or me.

The two debate everything that happened, in light of what was written about the Messiah, and all they had seen and heard about Jesus. The two can’t make sense of what’s happened. It’s like they’re trying to complete a jigsaw with pieces missing, and no picture on the box.

Jesus comes alongside them, but they don’t recognise him. He asks what they are discussing.

Cleopas’ question, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem’ implies that ‘If we, as insiders, don’t get it, how can an outsider like you get it!’

When Jesus says ‘What things?’, he seems aware that they will only understand by trying to tell his story, like piecing together the jigsaw.

They talk of Jesus as a prophet, whom the religious and political establishment condemned to death because he didn’t match their interpretation of what he was about. They hoped he would redeem Israel, but it didn’t seem to have happened. They say it’s the third day since it all happened, which resonates with reference elsewhere in scripture they haven’t yet understood. They note what ‘some women’ saw – women were unreliable witnesses in Jewish law, so men had to verify their claims.

This picture is incomplete.

So Jesus gives them an interpretation that makes sense, like the complete picture on the jigsaw box – that the Messiah must suffer to enter into glory. Jesus might have said, ‘All the things you have described and don’t know how to put together, they all make sense as part of God’s plan.’ Jesus shows them how he is the living picture on the box of the jigsaw they could not assemble without his help. He is the image through which we are called to interpret any pieces of scripture, tradition, and experience.

He tells them their story from a new angle, that makes new sense to them, and ignites new passion in them. They say: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us…?’ They know they are hearing truth that turns upside-down who they are, and how they belong.

Jesus talks about himself in the third person, as the Messiah, not yet revealing his identity in the first person: ‘I AM’.  ‘I AM’ is the name of God, revealed to Moses at the burning bush. In the book of Exodus, God passes by Moses, who could only see God’s back. So Jesus walking ahead ‘as if he were going on’ may hint that he is about to reveal he is God.

Jesus turns their story around and shows them it is about him, not them. They invite Jesus to be their guest, but he takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them. Suddenly, they are the guests and he is the host, performing signs that Cleopas associates with Jesus. They recognise him ‘in the breaking of bread’, and he is gone. This is a visible manifestation of God – only as it passes by do they realise what they have experienced.

The unrecognised Jesus reveals ‘I AM’, no longer a remote God outside themselves, but the very source within them of who they are and what they are called to be. They have a story of what happened, that writes them into being in it, in an entirely new way, with a truth not from their limited understanding alone. They return to the ‘A’ team in Jerusalem, those in authority, to confirm their experience, but they already know in their hearts what’s really happened.

In the Emmaus experience, Luke the gospel writer gives us a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian, and to have your story, your very self, reinterpreted for you by the crucified and risen Jesus.

Permanent link to this article: https://abravefaith.com/2023/04/23/when-the-stranger-becomes-the-host-on-the-road-to-emmaus/

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