The Easter season is all about coming to faith and belief, of having the testimonies of one another be heard and trusted, of receiving personal confirmation via experience, and of being reminded that sometimes we ask for more proof than we actually need. Throughout, we see how it takes people different kinds of experiences and different amounts of intel to believe, and how it often requires some sort of encounter directly with the presence of God, where God makes us understand who we are encountering.
In other words, we can be helped along the way by our community of faith, but no one except for God and ourselves can actually make us believe. And yet, the community of faith plays a significant role in God’s revelation work, and we should not be naïve to assume that we are meant to make a go of it alone.
The importance of the community is all over this passage. It’s Sunday (Easter) and these two disciples are journeying together. As they walk they are trying to make sense, together, of all that has happened. Perhaps they were so engrossed in that conversation that they didn’t think at all about the fact that this third person has seemingly caught up to them, unannounced. The gospel writer purposefully emphasises that it was “Jesus himself” that “came near and went with them” (v 15). Though they are kept from recognizing that it is Jesus (of whom they are disciples!)—is it their grief that keeps them from recognizing, is it God (an example of the divine passive)—the disciples stop in their tracks when this man asks them what they are talking about.
They are not only sad for themselves, they are sad for everyone. I think that this is part of the reason why they are so shocked that this man, who also seems to have come from Jerusalem, can be so ignorant of what has transpired. The crucifixion happened in a community, by a community: they tell the truth in verses 19-20, describing Jesus as a prophet “before God and all the people,” but that “our chief priests and leaders handed him over… to death.”
Plus, these two disciples share with this stranger on the road that they had hoped Jesus would have made life different for their community. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (v 21) Like we know is ultimately true, the crucifixion did happen for a community, just one much bigger than the people of Israel.
Their account continues to underscore the communal nature of all that has transpired. A group of women from within their group of disciples told them about the resurrection scene, and a group of men (based on what we know from the other gospels) went and looked for themselves and found things to be as the women had said. The implication, of course, is that these two on the road were confused and had not yet come to believe the women and their message from the angels.
It is at this point, a bit like Jesus does with Thomas in last week’s lectionary text, that Jesus names the challenge. These two on the road, like the rest of the disciples, cannot see how what they have heard from the women matches what the Scriptures describe. It’s a combination of not trusting the women and being blinded by their own expectations and definitions and demands for certainty. Jesus describes this as being foolish (dull-witted) and slow of heart (dull-hearted). Is this double-dullness what has kept them from seeing that it is Jesus, their prophet, speaking to them? Though they have been trying to make sense of all that has occurred together, they seem to have done so without curiosity and a willingness to acknowledge that what they have been believing is wrong, and that they might need to start over.
Starting over with the Scripture is exactly what Jesus does with them in order to help them understand. What a gift they are given in this encounter as Jesus himself “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (v 27) People talk about Peter’s sermon being the best ever preached because of how many came to faith, but I’ve got to believe that this private exposition between Jesus and the pair on the Emmaus road was even better.
Then, as Jesus seems about to leave, the disciples ask Jesus to stay with them, in community. And as they shared a communal meal of welcome and belonging, these two disciples finally are made to recognize that it is their Lord who has been with them, all along. And with that realization, poof, Jesus is gone.
It sounds like that line from a song, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.” But, with God, it’s never that way because of the promised Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit has been present too, all this time: the disciples say to one another, “were not our hearts burning?” Their hearts might have been dull, but the Spirit was already there, working to make God known through the revelation of Jesus Christ on the road.
They are compelled to return to their community of disciples, to pile on to the witness of the women, and when they arrive, they find out that Peter has had an encounter as well (which, by the way, isn’t given to us in any of the Gospel narratives). And together, instead of trying to make sense of all that is happening based on what they were expecting, they share with one another what they have experienced—what God has done.
In the third volume on Luke in the Word Biblical Commentary Series, John Nolland makes the point that verse 23 is the center of this story, specifically the line where the women “came back and told us… that he was alive.” Jesus is alive at the heart and middle, in the midst of this story, but hidden in the midst of the story… just like the actual, alive Jesus walking with them on the road.
The burning heart is symbolic in more ways than one in the Christian tradition. One of the most common uses of the burning heart is the traditional Roman Catholic Sacred Heart of Christ, made up a of burning heart with a cross coming out of the heart and a crown of thorns surrounding the heart. It is meant to encapsulate Jesus Christ’s love which led him to sacrifice. In a sense, the Sacred Heart captures the essence of the revelation that Jesus gifts to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus— that all of this is what had to be as fulfillment of the Scriptures. It is this same knowledge of the Sacred Heart that is part of the revelatory experience that makes their hearts burn and leads them to turn around and head back to Jerusalem to share the news with the others. Similarly, in the historical Catholic tradition, servants of the Lord are often depicted with the Sacred Heart, modelling their devotion to the good news of Christ. Here is an example from Francis Xavier (1506-1552), a missionary to Asia in the sixteenth century. This particular image does not include the crown of thorns, which makes me wonder if we might also think of the heart as Xavier’s own heart, burning with knowledge of Christ, as the two on the road to Emmaus experienced. (There’s more that could be said about Xavier and how he transformed the face of missions to be culturally-sensitive and indigenous-led… but for now, I’ll leave you with the image.)
(image is a 17th century Japanese painting by unknown artist; Public Domain)
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 23, 2023
Luke 24:13-35 Commentary