After the resurrection, Jesus appears to two followers. They are returning home after celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem and witnessing the brutal crucifixion. These two are among the followers of Jesus, not part of the inner circle. They live about a half day’s walk from the city, about seven miles, in a village named Emmaus. As Jesus joins them on their walk home, they do not recognize who Jesus is. Only later in the fellowship of a shared meal, do they see who their traveling companion has been. They discover it was God walking with them along the path home.
Discernment of God is the theme in Luke today. And it is one of the religious themes of our times. Sometimes we wonder if God is really there. Sometimes we feel that God is not walking with us, but is absent. Sometimes life seems so complicated that it is hard to tell what God would want. Sometimes it feels like evil is winning. Sometimes we seem to be the only ones left thinking about God in a world that is taking a walk in the other direction. How do we discover the presence and the will of God in our lives? For contemporary Christians, discernment of the presence and will of God is important.
This story is constructed in such a way that it gives us clues to how discernment happens, how God is revealed as we walk along life’s path. Discernment here (1) takes place at the end of the day after things have passed. (2) Jesus first appears as a stranger or fellow traveler. (3)They wonder about the strange tales of women. (4)They seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight. (5)They invite Jesus to dinner. (6) They break the bread of communion.
The end of the day: Sometimes it is in the close of a session, after things are over, in the debriefing, that what has happened and who all was really involved come to the surface. We might not discern God at work until after we’ve had a chance to process what has been going on, at the close of a great event.
The stranger and the other: We sometimes discern Jesus, the presence and will of God, in the face of those in need, the stranger, the one who is different. God’s will is revealed as we walk with the poor, or as we are joined by others who at first seem strange along life’s journey.
The tales of women: In this story, God is not discerned during the great events of the day or age, not even in the discourse of men, but in the tales of women. The resurrection in all of the gospels begins with the experience of women. That is a reminder that we discern God when we listen to the intuitive voices of women around us. It is also a reminder of how important women were in the formation of the early church. We sometimes find the will of God by asking what is right for women or children.
These followers seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight: We sense that the two followers were part of the Jesus movement because he may have been the Messiah, the one who would liberate them from Roman rule. They now have decided they were wrong, because of the crucifixion. Rome has won. But in dialog Jesus disagrees. Messiah-ship is not about winning a military victory, he argues. It is about the power of love and compassion to overcome all evil. Sometimes we discern God as we follow our thoughts more deeply, refining our opinion along the way, and as we focus not on victory but on compassion.
The invitation to fellowship: They invite Jesus to stay with them, to tarry, to have something to eat and to rest. Sometimes we discern God’s will as we extend an invitation to someone, or when we are willing to entertain a new idea, or when we practice hospitality. Sometimes we discern the will of God when we decide to ask God to spend time with us in prayer, to tarry with us.
The Eucharist: They suddenly see Jesus when he uses words of thanksgiving with the breaking of the bread in their fellowship meal. Luke here refers to Holy Communion, the Christian way we sense God present with us: in, with, and under the bread and wine, in the gathered fellowship of the people.
Discernment in the story takes place at the end of the day after things have passed. Jesus first appears as a stranger or fellow traveler. They wonder about the tales of the women. They seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight. They invite Jesus to dinner. They break the bread of communion. The details of the story indicate how we still discern the presence of God. But if we stay in the details of the story, we may be missing the point of God’s revelation. In this story, we may miss the forest when we concentrate so much on the trees.
For the details of discernment shape the story. But the story is a story of human disaster. This is a story about people who have survived something awful and are now returning home to regroup. This is not the story about people meeting in church in small groups discussing their prayer life, and how they can pray better, and feel closer to God. That’s a good thing. But that’s not this story.
This is a story about people whose lives have fallen apart, whose hopes are dashed by a public execution, and who are potential victims of a growing and pervasive evil. This is a story about humans trying to pull things together again after the disaster of the crucifixion. This is a story about how God becomes real when we are overwhelmed as our hopes are dashed by the destruction of what we hold dear. The road to Emmaus is not some abstract theological conversation. Nor is it really the foundation for some sort of group process or the seven steps to knowing more about God. It is the road of despair for followers of a cause that has been destroyed. It is the road that leads to giving up and going home. It is about the loss of what we dreamed of.
So the story reminds us that God is revealed, God becomes real in such times, walking with us on such roads. And God will become real to you and to me, in the details. But the reality of God is especially deep when we have been overwhelmed with disaster, and everything seems broken, and our hopes are demolished. There are a few of those times in each of our lives: when health or fortune or family or friends or vocation are lost. And we are on this road wondering about what we believed and held dear, wondering where God is, wondering what we should do now.
Sometimes these are personal disasters. Often this road speaks to the destruction of justice or fairness or honesty or the capacity of us all to dream as we become mired down in a society that has lost all of those things, as less and less attention is paid to the common good. And in that despair for the common good, we also encounter a risen Jesus. Communities also walk this road as they find again the commonweal, discern the presence of God in their neighborhoods, cities, and world. At the close of the old day, a new day dawns. Strangers come together to talk and to act. The stories of women and children and those on the margin become more important in the reconstruction of common hope. Preconceived ways of thinking are revised. People invite new ideas and new people into their lives. And Holy Communion becomes not only the meal of a church, but also the festival of a community on its way to a new future. And in all of that, in the face of deep darkness, both personal and societal, God becomes deep and real, and we discern God active in this world again. For we, who have lost our dreams, now sense in, with, and under the details of this story that something new is possible.