WE HAD HOPED
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him…. 28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They 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 24:13-16, 28-32, NRSV)
Growing up in an Evangelical church, I had never heard of Advent and had no clue about Lent. I knew that Holy Week started on Palm Sunday and ended on Easter, but I had never heard of Maundy Thursday. I had heard of Good Friday, but was told it was only a Roman Catholic thing. It wasn’t until I ended up at a then liberal Baptist seminary (not an oxymoron at the time) that I learned about any of these things. It wasn’t until I came to this church that I learned there was something beyond the 40 days of Lent, that being the 50 days of Easter, also known as Eastertide. It was Rev. Tom Lamont who told me about the “Great 50 Days.”
For those who did not know him, Tom was born in Northern Ireland near Belfast in 1908. To make a very long story short, Tom pastored the Reformed Church on Plandome Rd. in Manhasset until he retired in 1977. He then worked as a part-time Associate Minister here for the next 24 years. He had a beautiful accent, frequently quoted George Bernard Shaw, read the New York Times cover to cover every day, and gave his sermons from memory. I remember Tom telling me that the Sunday after Easter is called “Low Sunday,” in contrast to the high holy celebrations of Easter Sunday. He then joked that it was really called Low Sunday because attendance was very low in comparison to Easter Sunday. Tom also explained to me about the “Great 50 Days” between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. I remember Tom saying he thought that the Sundays following Easter should be more celebratory and festive.
I recently read a piece by Dr. Allan Bevere, a United Methodist pastor in Ohio, who agrees with Tom’s assessment. Bevere writes, “One thing I have noticed as a Protestant whose tradition observes the forty days of Lent. We don’t seem to be very good at observing the fifty days of the Easter season. Yes, we pull out all the stops in worship on Easter Sunday, but then we seem to immediately go back to business as usual. While we have special times and services during Lent, we fail to place such emphasis on the season of resurrection between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. And yet, Easter is the most significant holiday of the Christian year. Though we celebrate Christmas as the central holiday as far as emphasis, it [should not be]. Without Christ’s resurrection there is no Christian faith. If Jesus has not been raised, there are no Christmas celebrations to be had….So the question is why many Protestants who observe Lent, do not observe, in similar fashion…the full fifty days of the Easter season” (http://www. allanbevere.com/).
N. T. Wright, a British New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop, takes up the same topic in his book, Surprised by Hope, writing, “So how can we learn to live as wide-awake people, as Easter people?...Easter is about the wild delight of God’s creative power—…we ought to shout Alleluias instead of murmuring them; we should light every candle in the building instead of some . . .But my biggest problem starts on Easter Monday. I regard it as absurd and unjustifiable that we should spend forty days keeping Lent, pondering what it means, preaching about self-denial, being at least a little gloomy, and then bringing it all to a peak with Holy Week, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday…and then…we have a single day of celebration…Easter week itself ought not to be the time when all the clergy sigh with relief and go on holiday. It ought to be an eight-day festival, with champagne served after morning prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias and extra hymns and spectacular anthems…Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom?” (Ibid.).
Today’s scripture lesson from the Gospel of Luke is set late in the day on Easter Sunday. I love the contrast between the grief and sadness as the story begins, and the exuberant celebration at the end. It presents the despair of Good Friday and the glee of Easter Sunday all in one story about two people who were disciples of Christ, but not part of the 12. The joy these two experience at the end of the story is surely enough to carry them through the 50 days of Easter and beyond.
Eugene Peterson tells it this way in The Message.
13-16 That same day two of them were walking to the village Emmaus, about seven miles out of Jerusalem. They were deep in conversation, going over all these things that had happened. In the middle of their talk and questions, Jesus came up and walked along with them. But they were not able to recognize who he was. 17-18 He asked, “What’s this you’re discussing so intently as you walk along?” They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend. Then one of them, his name was Cleopas, said, “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened during the last few days?” 19-24 He said, “What has happened?” They said, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene. He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him. And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel. And it is now the third day since it happened. But now some of our women have completely confused us. Early this morning they were at the tomb and couldn’t find his body. They came back with the story that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. Some of our friends went off to the tomb to check and found it empty just as the women said, but they didn’t see Jesus.” 25-27 Then he said to them…“Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don’t you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?” Then he started at the beginning, with the Books of Moses, and went on through all the Prophets, pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to him. 28-31 They came to the edge of the village where they were headed. He acted as if he were going on but they pressed him: “Stay and have supper with us. It’s nearly evening; the day is done.” So he went in with them. And here is what happened: He sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him. And then he disappeared. 32 Back and forth they talked. “Didn’t we feel on fire as he conversed with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us?” 33-34 They didn’t waste a minute. They were up and on their way back to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and their friends gathered together, talking away: “It’s really happened! The Master has been raised up—Simon saw him!” 35 Then the two went over everything that happened on the road and how they recognized him when he broke the bread (Luke 24:13-35, MSG).
In other translations it says that the two disciples ran the 7 miles back to Jerusalem in their excitement to tell the 11 disciples that they had seen the risen Christ. I particularly like the RSV translation of the two excited disciples’ conversation (24:32) the moment they recognize Jesus who immediately disappeared. “32 They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?’” Another translation says that their hearts were “strangely warmed.” Some New Testament scholars sum up the entire story saying that the two companions went “from broken hearts to burning hearts.” What does it mean that their hearts burned or were warmed when Jesus talked to them on the road? I think it refers to hope. Jesus explained the scriptures and deepened their understanding of the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Surely this made them feel better and brought at least a little hope to their hearts.
And God knows they needed hope. In the RSV, after Jesus pretends not to know the recent tumultuous events of the weekend, the two disciples tell him all that had happened, concluding with the words, 21 “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Those are powerful words of crushed dreams and dashed hopes, “But we had hoped…” These four words refer to a time of hope when they expected something good to happen, but that time is now past, dead and gone. They’ve moved from hope to hopeless echoed in the words, “But we had hoped.” And then the thick irony, the very miracle that they had hoped for was standing right in front of them, which happens to us sometimes. Sometimes the needle in the haystack is staring us in the face, if we only have eyes to see. Sometimes the answer we’ve been looking for is right in front of us, if we will only take notice.
With any luck, our eyes will be opened to see the miracle, just an arm’s length away. In the passage it happens like this, “30 When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” If those words remind you of Communion, they should. The words are reminder that Christ is present with us in the taking and blessing and breaking of bread. The story reminds us that God is always with us whether we are walking downcast on the road to Emmaus or running as fast as we can back to Jerusalem to share the shining hope we have found, or did maybe the hope find us?
After Jesus broke the bread, the next verse says, “31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.” Our experiences of heartfelt communion with God are often as fleeting as the disappearing Christ in Emmaus. The presence of God is always elusive, there but not there, just beyond our grasp, a presence felt in the warming of our hearts, but often only for a moment or two.
Nobel Peace laureate and second Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, said it beautifully, “You wake from dreams of doom and--for a moment--you know: beyond all the noise and the gestures, the only real thing, love’s calm unwavering flame in the half-light of an early dawn.” We had hoped, and thanks be to God, we now hope once again. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
May 7, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Wondrous God, present with us when we do not know it, valuing us when we do not care about ourselves, planting in us the seed of your Word even when the soil of our hearts is hard, open our eyes to recognize you here. May we sense your nearness. May we hear your still, small voice. May we know your healing touch. May we see you in one another and in the beauty all around us. May your reality emerge deep inside each life, transforming our thoughts and deeds and relationships with one another.
We pray through Jesus our Brother and Friend. AMEN.
(The majority of this prayer was adapted from Taught By Love, Lavon Bayler, Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1998, p. 90).