"Encounters Along the Way"

April 18, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Luke 24:13-35

(audio (mp3) of this message preached at a later date - with order of worship)

I flew to Chicago and back this past week to attend a seminar. On the way out I was hoping for quiet time to get some of the work I brought along done, while cruising through the clouds at several hundred miles an hour. Amazingly, there was but one empty seat on the plane - the one right next to me. So far, so good. The fellow on the aisle seat was engrossed in his own papers, running through tally sheets from his business. His laptop computer was out, all ready to be turned on once the plane was in the air and the captain gave the all-clear. It looked like we both had the same thing in mind: making the most of this time.

Before pulling out my other work, I picked up my Bible and the little devotional guide I use, and settled in for a productive two-hour flight. Things went well for the first ten minutes - just cruising along. And then that fellow two seats away, the one who seemed to have a lot to do himself, he asked about the book I was reading. Oh well, so much for getting ahead. I laid aside my work and settled in for a conversation that ended up lasting the whole trip...

Cleopas and his friend were on their own trip a couple thousand years ago, or so the Bible says. Oh, they werenít flying US Airways, but they had plenty on their minds as they traveled. There was much to work through. The events of the past few weeks were puzzling at best, discouraging at worst. These two men were trying to make sense of it all as they walked. Or at least we assume they were men. Since one is unnamed, the possibility exists that "he" was a "she" - but we really have no way of knowing this. To be honest, this is the only place in the gospel story that we meet these two characters - as far as we know, that is. Furthermore, their destination is a bit unknown as well. Bible scholars havenít a clue where Emmaus was, except that Luke says it was about 7Ĺ miles from Jerusalem. In a way, these two persons could be just about anyone, heading just about anywhere. In other words, this story invites us to step in their sandals, because their journey could well be ours.

As I said, they werenít flying to Chicago. Cleopas and his friend had been disciples of Jesus. Not part of the inner circle, mind you. There were plenty of followers around this teacher from Nazareth, who accompanied him along the way, absorbing his words, witnessing his actions. That particular Passover celebration in Jerusalem held great promise for those who considered themselves Jesusí disciples. After a few years of hemming and hawing around the countryside, he finally headed to the center of the Hebrew universe, as if all was now ready for something spectacular to happen.

As we know, something big did happen, but it was not at all what these followers expected. What did they think would happen? Perhaps they envisioned some kind of holy war erupting, with Jesus at the lead, sort of like what the zealots had in mind - kicking the Roman dogs out, reestablishing Israel as a nation in its own right and not some puppet of Caesarís empire. Or, it could be they hoped a great debate would ensue between their rabbi and the big religious thinkers of the day, with Jesus winning hands down and all the others admitting his clear superiority and bowing down before him. Possibly they werenít all that clear on what they expected, only that it would be something better than the present situation.

Whatever their expectations, the events didnít line upon in the "plus" column - at least from Cleopas and his friendís perspective. The bottom line was in the "red." Jesus had been killed. Flat out. Dead and buried. Kaput. End of story... Go back and tell Momma she was right. Only fools chase rainbows. Stop wasting time and get back to work. Make your daily bread instead of looking for loaves and fishes. Time and money are scarce as it is. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Quit complaining and get your piece of the pie while you still can, before itís gone.

Literally, the word "Emmaus" means "warm well." As I see it, a warm well runs closer to the surface. The deeper the well, the colder the water - perhaps, even, the more abundance of it. Shallower wells might run dry, depending on their source. It could be those two disciples were headed to a place where the water was warm, but maybe didnít really quench the thirst, where you always had to worry if there would be enough of it to go around.What a disappointment, then, to be headed there after having drunk from the deep, refreshing wells from which Jesus drew. The phrase "oh, well" fits.

Thatís kind of where Cleopas and his friend were as they walked along. "Oh, well!" Of course, things werenít all nailed down and finalized. There were the rumors, the wivesí tales about the tomb being empty, but thatís all it was - plain old gossip. Just a nagging suspicion. Foul play at work, perhaps. Certainly not anything worth staying in Jerusalem to check out.

And so those two disciples were headed to Emmaus. Along the way a stranger joined them, someone who seemed unfamiliar with all the goings on in Jerusalem. Of course, as Luke tells the story, weíre privy to a bit of information those two disciples were not. As we listen, we hear that this stranger was none other than the risen Christ. It does seem rather peculiar to us that they have no clue as to whom this stranger was. Didnít they recognize his face, or his voice? Now, it doesnít say that Jesus somehow arranged for them not to recognize him, to purposely blind them to his identity. It says that they were "kept" from knowing who this stranger was, but exactly how that happened and who did it, isnít clear. Often, blindness comes from within.

Iím reminded of a story of a man whose family planned a surprise birthday party for their elderly mother. On the surface it was a celebration for another relative to which she was invited. The plan was that all the guests who had flown or driven in from far away were to hide in one room of the large house in which it was held, and then one by one emerge and blend into the party. This man told of his quietly, unobtrusively coming into the room full of people, and then, as his mother was talking to another person, putting his arm around her. She didnít realize he was there for the longest time. Why? She hadnít expected him to be there. His presence at that gathering was out of context. Suddenly, after a good long time, she realized that her son was there with her. And gradually, she recognized her other children who had come hundreds of miles to be with her.

Cleopas and his friend did not recognize Jesus, even as he spoke to them, and started helping them make sense out of the confusing events in Jerusalem - events that were not an ending, but rather a new beginning. Granted, they later recalled how their hearts had burned as this stranger spoke. It wasnít until they reached Emmaus and sat down to a meal and Jesus broke bread with them, however, that their eyes were opened, and they recognized him for whom he was.

Now, much hay has been made of this meal over the years, that here was a reenactment of the last supper, and that it was the remembrance of that Maundy Thursday meal that opened the eyes of those two. As nice and neat as that interpretation is, I have my doubts - though it provides a wonderful entryway into communion. However, it needs again to be recalled that Cleopas and his friend were not part of the inner circle of disciples, and thus would not have been there at the last supper. Thereís a good chance, though, that they were a part of the crowd when the loaves and fishes multiplied to feed 5,000. What a day that was! And what a meal this was in Emmaus, when despair was transformed to hope; when an ending became a beginning; when a shallow, warm well produced cold, clear water; when something thought to be scarce, if not dead and gone, was revealed to be alive and abundant - all in the breaking of bread by newfound friends around a table. Amazing, when you think about it. And also how we so often experience Christ in our lives two thousand years later.

Back to that plane trip to Chicago. His name was Mike, the fellow two seats away from me who interrupted my "productive time." Why he asked about my devotional was that he had used it himself. Here we were, two disciples of Jesus on our way to Chicago. Of course, we werenít walking there, and a third person didnít physically join us, someone we didnít recognize. However, that empty seat between us wasnít empty, was it? As Mike and I spoke, sharing our loaves and fishes stories, about trying to be a Christian in the workplace, about raising teenagers, about our common interest in writing music, about our joys and frustrations with ourselves and the church, Jesus was there. And didnít our hearts burn? Not with indigestion, but with Godís abundance that interrupted what I thought was to be "productive time." Little did I know.

Let me close with another airplane story. It was told by the person that led the seminar I traveled to Chicago to attend. Parker Palmer was coming home from another retreat in Toronto, and booked a flight that stopped over briefly in Indianapolis. There was a long wait at this second airport. Apparently, as the captain announced, the truck that was supposed to deliver the refreshments for the second leg of the journey broke down. He told the passengers that he figured they would appreciate getting to their destination sooner more than waiting for the snack to finally arrive. And so he took off.

It seems he figured wrong. A Parker related, it was an "ugly" bunch of businessmen on board who immediately started grumbling. "A ticket is a contract, and snacks are part of the contract they agreed upon," one spoke out loud. "I ought to sue," another muttered so all could hear. A man stood up and said to everyone, "Iím a lawyer. How many are willing to join in a class action suit?" It wasnít pretty.

Once in the air, a stewardess grabbed the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned off the seatbelt lights. We have now attained a cruising altitude of 30 feet." With that, she had the attention of everyone, so she went on. "Having served many of you on the first leg of this flight, I know some of you still have your bags of peanuts, which you stuffed in your pocket. How many do we have? Five? Please open them and share them with the people around you. Iím sure some of you have mints. Would you pass these around, also? Those of you with newspapers, you can only read one section at a time. Spread the other sections around for others to read. Some of you are parents or grandparents. Take out the pictures of your children or grandchildren and show them to others."

Through her boldness, she completely changed the tenor of that flight. It became the most enjoyable flight that Parker ever had. Later, when this stewardess was walking down the aisle, he motioned for her and asked, "What is your name, and the name of your supervisor that I might write a letter of commendation? That was the best example of group leadership Iíve ever seen." To which, she replied (no lie!): "the loaves and fishes still work."

...Cleopas and his friend got up and returned to Jerusalem and found the eleven disciples, who themselves were saying "the Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon Peter." Then these two followers told what happened on the road to Emmaus, and how Christ had been made know to them in the breaking of the bread...

©1999Peter L. Haynes

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