Don't you cry no more

Is it comedy or scripture? Two men encounter Jesus on the road...but they don't know it's him! Grief is funny like that.

Don't you cry no more
Photo by Peter Chirkov / Unsplash
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This post was originally presented as a sermon to the congregation of East End United Regional Ministry on Sunday, April 14, 2024. The focus text is Luke 24:13-35. Like all sermons, these words were intended to be spoken — an audio first experience.

Oh my goodness, I love this passage. The Road to Emmaus. If I wasn’t already familiar with this story and just found a book titled “The Road to Emmaus” at the Toronto Public Library, I think I would expect it to be some sort of hero’s journey or fantasy quest. Like, with noble horses and swords whose purpose goes beyond the utilitarian and are imbued with some sort of magic that exposes the Truth. That warn against enemies. There would be epic battles to reclaim the souls of the brokenhearted for Good. There would be a soundtrack, and that soundtrack would have memorable leitmotifs associated with the main characters. Perhaps, there would be an epic montage set against a driving guitar riff…

Words. Names. They make you feel or sense something just from the sound of them. My younger son, Simon, has an interesting habit of naming things…usually things that already have well established names.  Do you like Yorkshire pudding?  Well, in our house, they are known as Puff Muffins.  Recently, while reading Lord of the Rings, Simon declared that Shadowfax, Gandalf’s loyal equine companion, is really named…Jeff. I tried to explain to him that there is no way such a noble, brave and majestic horse could possibly be named Jeff.  And yet, he insisted.

So, The Road to Emmaus sounds to me like it should be a grand journey. Something big.  But, the road to Emmaus really kind of just a dirt path on the way to a suburb about seven miles outside of Jerusalem. It’s not the kind of place that sets one up for an adventure. It would be a little bit like writing a story called The Road to Brampton.

In fact, I find the Road to Emmaus comical.  I know this story holds a special and delicate place for many, many people. But the whole exchange — Jesus walking side by side with two people, interpreting his own death as they open up about their grief, calling them slow and foolish — it almost feels like a Monty Python sketch.  I could totally see John Cleese turn to Eric Idle and proclaim, “This is the silliest sketch I’ve ever been in!

It is, of course, a serious story.  Luke wouldn’t end his whole book on a joke.   Each of the Gospels gives a different account of how the disciples fare in the post-ressurection space. 

In John, we heard about poor Thomas, who does not at first believe until he sees. I think centuries of Biblical storytelling have done Thomas dirty, but that is a different sermon for another year.

In Mark the women were instructed to share the news of the resurrection, but they said nothing to anybody because they were afraid (not a good look). 

Matthew talks about  how the women arrive to find the stone rolled away and an angel speaks to them.  The women tell the disciples and Jesus shows up for the party.  

But in Luke, just before we get to this story, the women arrive at the tomb to find two strange men in dazzling clothes exactly where they believe Jesus ought to be. The women go and tell the disciples...who do not believe a word of it. At least, not until Peter goes and checks it out for himself. Turns out, the women were telling the truth after all. Luke conveniently leaves out the scene where the women say, “We told you so."

These are the stories of lovers and dreamers — followers who’d been flying high with the prospect of change and a New Way of life. Friends who had bravely hoped so hard for the world Jesus had taught could be possible.  

We just happen to be encountering them within the midst of grief.

And that is how we end up here, on this Road to Emmaus, in all of its absurd comedy. 

Jesus is there.  He’s right there.  And the reader knows he’s there.  But these men don’t see it.  And they’re going on and on, telling Jesus about his own crucifixion — as if it hadn’t happened to him — exactly like a Monty Python sketch.  “He’s passed on! Deceased! This Jesus is no more! He has ceased to be!” 

But comedians often use their humour to point out hard truths and shine a light on difficult situations. Humour is a tool used to break through grief, to peel back the layers we have trouble accessing.

These men walking down the road together are deep within the depths of despair. They are about as deep into grief as you can get.  We have just celebrated Easter.  We’ve had the trumpets and and the hallelujahs.   But these guys are still stuck in Good Friday.  They’ve just lost their leader and their friend.  There is no joy for them right now and they are blind to Jesus’ presence by their grief.  “We had hoped he was the one…”

We had hoped. 

Hope in the past tense. 

Is there anything more sad?

What are the things you have hoped for but that never came to be? 
Are there things you have hoped wouldn’t happen, but ultimately did? 
And how did you find the strength to carry on?  How did you know what to do?

We don’t really talk about it much, but hope is a costly thing.  Any hope that is worth anything costs something.  Our friends here, Cleopas and the other guy — I suppose we could call him Jeff — their walk along the road is pretty bleak.  Jesus’ execution was a scandal, much like the rest of his life.  His death was extremely political and this is not the way his followers expected the story to unfold. In the days after Jesus’ execution, it would be reasonable for them to be fearful for their own safety. The safety of their families.  What is coming next?  Where do we go from here?  

Grief is hard.  It’s like lead weighing us down, making it difficult to even breathe.  It’s hard to think.  It’s hard to plan.  To strategize.  

But then Jesus shows up, and perhaps Cleopas and Jeff’s grief prevents them from recognizing who is right in front of them.  

And yet…

Despite their sadness, sorrow, and uncertainty about what is in store for them now that their leader has been executed, these two men traveling with an unrecognized Jesus along a seven-mile stretch are doing exactly what he asked them to do – go out into the world and tell their people about the Son of God and what they had witnessed in their time with him.  For seven miles (that’s two and a half hours of walking) the three men talk together about the meaning of Jesus’ life and death as tied to their holy scriptures.  I like to think that Jesus isn’t being cruel when he calls the men “foolish” — “slow of mind” is another translation. Rather, I think Jesus is attempting to tease them in jest, just as friends do with one another. I wonder if Cleopas and Jeff ever thought, “You know, there’s something familiar about this guy…”

The men arrive at Emmaus, and Jesus pretends like he’s set to keep going. The two implore him to stay: “Wait! It’s late! It’s dangerous! You must be hungry! We have food! Bread! Wine! Please stay with us! Have some dinner!” 

person holding bread on bowl at daytime
Photo by Subhayan Das / Unsplash

They extend to him a most sincere offer of hospitality.  Hospitality to a stranger.  Because remember the comedy: they still don’t know it’s Jesus.  It is only with this offer of hospitality, and his subsequent blessing and breaking of the bread, that Jesus chooses to reveal himself to his followers.  “Their eyes were opened” says Luke. They recognize Jesus in companionship and through the ritual he had so often shared with them during the time of his ministry.  They recognized Jesus as their friend. Hope shifts from the past tense into something very real and present. Because, if this is true, if Jesus has returned just as he said, then maybe all that other stuff he said can be true as well. Maybe all that talk of "blessed are the poor", "blessed are the meek", and loving enemies and how nothing is impossible with God, about those the world names as least holding God’s favour, maybe all that stuff isn’t just pretty words to be written down decades after Jesus’ death.  Maybe, just maybe it is Truth.  Truth with a capital 'T'.

It is significant, to me at least, that Jesus is not revealed within the talking, but within the sharing. Certainly the talking was inspiring; they felt their hearts burning as Jesus spoke with them about the scriptures. They were excited. But it was not until they shared in the breaking of bread — in a meal together — that they recognized Jesus in their midst.  I gotta say, this is certainly my experience of how and where I am able to recognize Christ: in the living and sharing of life with one another.  

Don’t get me wrong, I love leading worship. I love reflecting on scriptures and sharing my thoughts in sermons just like this.  But if we’re not actively engaging these stories within our lives, then what’s the point?  I encounter Christ in the sharing of bread at our Spark services on Thursday nights.  When I sit down and share a meal together with our friends at Out of the Cold. When we are able to use our buildings' resources to host asylum seekers who’ve been left in the cold. In the long hours the Nourish Staff and volunteers put in to make sure households have enough to eat. When I hear about how so many make sure to call and check up on the people in our community who are ill and struggling.  We are not so much being Christ, we are serving Christ. It is in that hospitality that Christ is revealed.

I wonder if before he vanished, Jesus gave Cleopas and Jeff a wink and told them to carry on and that things were going to be okay.

Certainly not every wish of Jesus’ followers was answered. At least, not in the way they expected. But in the moments that Jesus is revealed — when he is made known to his friends in the breaking of bread — they recognize that the story is not over and that the hope that had cost them so much was worth it. That joy had returned. tThat there is a point to carrying on and continuing to share Christ’s message.…because there is so much Jesus work left to do in this beautiful, aching and blessed world.  

We know this. I hope we might carry on, too.

Amen.

Rev. Bri-anne Swan is lead minister to East End United Regional Ministry in Toronto, Canada.