Below is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 30. It is focused on the Gospel passage for the day, the Road to Emmaus. This is definitely one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and it is tempting for me to go on for hours about it. To save everyone from that, I focused on one particular line: “But we had hoped.”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
For my internship when I was in seminary, I was matched with a Lutheran church in downtown Easton, PA. It was a great historic church, founded in 1740. I really enjoyed my year there, especially getting to know a lot of the young people well—I taught the first through third grade Sunday School class for most of the year.
And one of the most fun things was always the kids’ confusion about biblical place names. Growing up in the Lehigh Valley, with towns named mostly by Moravians, reading Bible stories could have some comic results. For instance, when we were rehearsing our Christmas pageant, the young man playing Joseph just couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal to have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. He’d been to both of those places loads of times.
And when we read our gospel story from this morning together, usually called the Road to Emmaus, a little girl in my class proclaimed, “I’ve been on that road, it’s the road my mom takes to get to work!” Of course, the road to Emmaus I was talking about was nowhere near Easton, Pennsylvania.
It was the road to the ancient city of Emmaus, from the equally ancient Jerusalem. It’s about a seven mile stretch of road. It’s an interesting scene. This story takes us back once again to Easter day, the day of the resurrection. The news hasn’t spread yet and these two dejected disciples, still living in a Good Friday world, are leaving Jerusalem, and beginning that seven mile walk towards Emmaus.
We don’t know if Emmaus was their final destination. We don’t really know who these disciples are, except that one is called Cleopas. But we do know that they have had enough of Jerusalem and all its empty promises, and so they are making that seven mile walk away.
If we’re honest, though, the real path they were walking was vastly longer and more difficult than seven miles. They were walking through the valley of disillusionment, a walk taken with hopes in shambles.
It’s always been one of the gloomiest verses in scripture to me, when these unknown disciples talk to the unrecognized Jesus on the road, and confess these words: But we had hoped. We had hoped. The past tense of the word hope has to be one of the saddest words there is.
The disciples on the road had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel—that he would bring salvation and redemption and freedom to the land and its people. To them. But we had hoped.
What are our hopes? What are our past-tense hopes? We had hoped…that our loved one would recover. We had hoped…the relationship would get better. We had hopped…the cancer would be in remission, this job would last, this school year would be different than the last, this ministry would grow. We had hoped our children would not have to live in a world still marred by war, racism, and prejudice. But we had hoped.
We like to live our lives in the future tense—things will get better, the sun will always come up tomorrow, keep on keeping on. But this unguarded moment on the road reveals a deep truth about life: it’s often imperfect. Imperfect in tense, and imperfect in reality.
And into that imperfection, right into the middle of those dashed and defeated hopes, comes Jesus. To share in that disappointment and grief. He could have revealed himself right away. That’s always been a question of mine, experiencing this story: how could the disciples not recognize him? Why didn’t he tell them who he was immediately? He could have. He could have moved directly to the moment of resurrection, but he didn’t.
Resurrection and the new life it brings is wonderful, and it is certainly the future that God promises each of us. It is the future that God has in store for each of us. But we can’t avoid acknowledging that for resurrection to be necessary, there is already a deep pain and loss. And the road from pain and loss to resurrection can be a tough one to walk.
Most of us are on that road sometimes: the road between distress and belief, between dashed hopes and promises fulfilled. We’ve been there. And we know that it can feel a lot further than seven miles.
But the thing I love most about this passage, is that God is not just waiting at the end of the road. God is not only there for the moment of resurrection, the moment of revelation, God is there for the whole journey: consoling, comforting, and yes, promising a new future.
The disciples do come to that moment of resurrection; they do come to recognize who their companion has been. When they reach Emmaus, they implore him to stay with them, for the day is almost over. And they realize who their companion has been all along, in the breaking of the bread.
Their eyes are opened. It makes sense, because did you know the word companion literally means, one whom you share bread with? And this is the way, this sharing of bread and of meals, is how Jesus had made himself known throughout his ministry—breaking bread with those who had no hope: the hungry, the poor, the outcast, and the sinner.
And so when Jesus sits at table with them, and breaks the bread, their eyes are opened. They are able to see who has been with them all along. Through this act of companionship, this act of brokenness, they find their hope restored again.
And they set off running, back down that same road. Those seven miles that felt so long, so impossible, only hours before, go by in a blur. Because they know that their hope is not past-tense, but rather a very real, present, living thing.
It can be a long road that we travel sometimes, this road from despair to hope, from the past tense to the future. In one sense, my Sunday School student’s declaration that she knows the road to Emmaus was spot on! We all know the road to Emmaus, because at one point or another we have all walked it. It can feel long and despairing, but it is truly a holy road.
And it is a road we never, ever, walk alone. Whether we recognize him or not, whether he appears as himself or merely a friendly companion, Jesus is there, walking the road with us. Telling us the story and breaking our bread, that our hope may once again be a present reality. Amen.