They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”Luke 24:32
I have always loved this story, of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It’s one of my favorites, for lots of reasons. I think that one of the main reasons is that this story seems to perfectly describe what our life is faith is all about. We are all on this journey through life. And Jesus is right there with us. But we don’t always realize it. And waking up to this, having our eyes opened to this, our hearts opened to it, is what it means to be a Christian.
This is an incredible story to hear and to ponder anytime, but it seems to me that it is more fitting than ever right now, in the midst of this pandemic, for us to hear this particular story again. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if I could choose just one story from scripture to take with me through this pandemic, it would be this one.
So let’s just walk through this story again, bit by bit, and listen for what it is saying to us as we live through these unprecedented times.
Opening Our Hearts
The story begins on that very first Easter evening. Two disciples are walking back home to Emmaus from Jerusalem, about a seven-mile journey. They are sad and confused. Sad because their hope died on a cross, and was buried in a tomb. Confused, though, because they have heard reports that the tomb was found empty by the women who went there, and that there were angels telling them that Jesus was alive. Although no one had yet seen him. So, you can imagine their conversation as they walked back home to Emmaus.
And while they were talking about all these things, Jesus himself joined them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And what did Jesus do when he joined them on their journey? He listened to them. He asked them a simple, open-ended question, and he listened to their answer. “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?,” he asked. And of course, Jesus knew what they were discussing. But he still wanted to listen to them. He wanted to know what is happening with them, from their perspective. And I think that this beginning piece of this story is a great metaphor for one particular aspect of the Christian life: that of prayer.
We can think of prayer in this same way. Jesus joins you on your journey and asks you what is happening in your life. He already knows, or course, but he wants you to share it with him. He wants to hear from you. And there is something healing about opening our hearts to Jesus in prayer, and simply sharing whatever is happening in our life.
Even if it causes us to stand still, and look sad, as it did for those two disciples. And as it might for us now, in the midst of this pandemic. But whatever it is that we are experiencing today, Jesus wants to hear about it. Whether it is sadness, or frustration, or anxiety, or guilt, or joy, or gratitude, or relief. Whatever it is, Jesus joins us on our journey through life to hear from us. And when we share it with him in prayer, we open ourselves to his healing mercies. Opening our hearts to God opens us both to sadness and to joy, to our struggles, but it also opens our hearts to hope. It opens our hearts to the cross and to the tomb, but also to the joy of the resurrection, and to Jesus’ promise to be with us always. And how can we not be filled with hope, when we remember that Jesus is walking this road with us?
Opening God’s Word
Cleopas and his friend opened their hearts to Jesus on the walk to Emmaus; and then Jesus opened something wonderful to them in return: He opened the Scriptures to them. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in the scriptures. And their hearts burned with a fierce joy as he did this. Because he helped them to see their story wrapped up in God’s story. And he helped them to understand that the cross was necessary: That everything Jesus did in his life and in his suffering, was done out of love for us. And that it was all necessary to bring forgiveness, healing and hope, to our sad, broken and sin-filled world.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime Bible study, with the author himself. What an amazing thing they experienced! And it teaches us that when we open our hearts to God in prayer, it is always good to have a Bible nearby. It is simply amazing how often God’s Word will be the answer to our prayer. God’s Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit, often acts just like Jesus on this walk to Emmaus. It helps us to see our story wrapped up in God’s story. It helps us to understand how God is working in our life. It opens our eyes. It warms our hearts. It encourages. It consoles.
And, sometimes, God’s Word challenges and even rebukes. And that is important, too. After all, if we are wandering off the Christian path, it is important to find out as soon as possible. And opening our hearts to God, and opening the scriptures with an open mind, can help us to do that. Did you notice what Jesus said to those disciples after they shared what was on their minds? He said: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter his glory?”
You see? Sometimes, that is just we need to hear from our Lord: How foolish I am, and how slow of heart to believe. In other words, when we share what is happening with God – when we pray – we should not always expect a soft pat on the back and a tender, “it is going to be okay.” Sometimes, Jesus might just say, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe!” Jesus always meets us where we are, but he never leaves us there! And like a good shepherd, he will guide us back to right pathways when we have strayed from that path.
Opening Our Homes
Ok. So, looking at this story as a metaphor for the Christian life, we have seen how Jesus joins us on our journey, and invites us to open our hearts to him. We have seen how this can open us to sadness, but that sadness in God’s presence is always mingled with joy. We have seen how God’s word can help us to better understand how God is at work in our life. Sometimes it will comfort us, and sometimes it will challenge us.
So, what is next? Well, Cleopas and the other disciple are nearing their home in Emmaus. Jesus walks on ahead, we read in the story, as if he were going on. This is a key moment in this story. They could let this stranger walk on past their home, and never discover that it was Jesus all along. The end of this story depends on what they decide to do. Because Jesus is not going to invite himself in to their home. He will only enter if invited.
And isn’t it the same with us? He joins us on the journey without our asking, that’s true. But at some point, and maybe at a lot of points, he waits to be invited in. An obvious time when this happens for us Lutherans is with baptism and confirmation. When we are baptized, Jesus joins us on our journey, even before many of could ask for that. But when we are confirmed, it is an opportunity for us to invite Jesus in. But I believe that there are many times in our life when we have this opportunity. Many times when we have a chance to invite Jesus in. Maybe even right now.
Maybe this pandemic is one of those times. A moment in our lives when we are being offered a very unique opportunity to deepen our relationship with Jesus, to invite him into our homes, into our hearts, and into our lives.
I love this line in a poem that I shared earlier this week, called “The Road to Emmaus”:
Now it is our turn, the time to beg him to linger, / A request he can never refuse, for his very presence / Is sacred space, every home he visits his sanctuary.J. Michael Sparough
Jesus never refuses our request to linger – to enter into our homes – and whenever he does, he makes our home a sanctuary. We are learning in this pandemic how important it can be for our homes, along with our churches, to be sanctuaries: to be places of prayer, places where Jesus is welcome. And how good it is to remember that Jesus welcomes all requests.
“Listen, I stand at the door, knocking,” Jesus says in Revelation. “If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20) Jesus comes to the doors of our hearts knocking, but he waits to be let in. He never forces his way in. And this, too, is a powerful image for the Christian life.
If this were any other year, I might look at the remainder of this story in a little more detail. The meal that turns out to be holy communion. And the trip back to Jerusalem that teaches us about our mission and calling as Christians. But this year, I think I will end it here. With Jesus at our doors. And with this beautiful reminder to us, that every space is sacred, and every home a sanctuary, when Jesus is invited in. Let’s invite Jesus into our homes and into our hearts, and have our journeys be filled with joy. Amen