I have not owned my own car for 23 years. We have been fortunate to live in places where you don’t need one. So I have done a lot of walking in my life. I like to walk.
But I have done a lot of walking these past few weeks—more even than I normally would. It gives you time to think, that’s for sure.
The best walks I find are with good friends, and I have fond memories of walking in company, but nowadays I walk alone.
Just yesterday I was approaching two people headed toward me who were walking at the edges of the sidewalk, as far apart as they could be, and I wondered why they were doing so until of course it occurred to me that they were deliberately staying as far apart from each other as they could.
So what was I supposed to do? Walk between them? Surely not. Too close.
It’s a sign of the extent to which we are now plunged into mutual hostility and suspicion that we cannot even walk together without being nagged by the thought that we should not do so too close to one another. What could be more natural, after all, than walking together with a friend or companion? And what better way to spend some time walking with a loved one than to converse about subjects that matter to the both of you?
Luke tells us about two followers of Jesus who are in just such a relaxed natural state, walking together, talking together, about everything they had experienced as they go together from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
Now we have never been able to establish where Emmaus might have been. It’s a matter of debate. No one knows. And there is something poetically satisfying about this ambiguity in my opinion.
Jesus has been executed by the Romans. Those who hoped in him are now desolate, scattered, alone. These two are together. On the road. They are moving from Jerusalem to somewhere, we know not where. They are in a between space, journeying, through uncertainty, from a place they know well to a place that no one knows.
And as they go, they are talking. Talking about what they have seen and experienced. Talking about their hopes most likely, how they have been dashed, and what they might do next.
And into this in between space, this journey from the known to the unknown, Jesus arrives. Or rather he does not just arrive, Luke says he “drew near and went with them.” He came close to them and resolved to journey with them, in a gesture so intimate that it would probably horrify anyone on the street in Boston today.
But he does something totally natural. He asks what they are talking about as they walk together.
And their response too is totally natural. They stop. And they look sad. They look sad because they are sad. And they wonder aloud how can you not know? How can you not know what is bothering the two of us? What is bothering all of us?
We are talking about “Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.”
That much everyone knows, or should know. That much is public gossip and scandal.
But there’s more to tell. And this part is a bit more exclusive. “Some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.”
It is of course Jesus who is hearing all this, though these two disciples do not recognize—perhaps cannot recognize—him for who he is.
Jesus has drawn near to them, and talked with them, as they go along the road. A road of trauma and despair and confusion. And having heard their strange report, he upbraids them for their lack of understanding and belief. This part is stunning, because the conversation is no ordinary one from here on out but an absolutely amazing one: “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”
Now this is incredible because Luke tells us that to these two disciples Jesus explained everything there is to know about himself from the scriptures from Moses—from Moses!—through the prophets, everything there is to know about himself.
Wouldn’t you like to have been part of that conversation on the road? What could be more satisfying, informative, important to hear, than what Jesus himself has to say about himself from the Scriptures?
These two disciples, having heard this undoubtedly amazing discourse from Jesus about himself, urge him to stay with them on the road, and he consents.
But at dinner he blesses and breaks the bread and gives it to them, and at that moment, they recognize him for who he is, only to have him vanish from their sight.
What does this mean?
We are not told what Jesus says about himself to establish his identity from the scriptures, as interesting and important as that might be.
The reason this happens is because this task of interpreting who Jesus is from scripture, as meaningful and essential as that is, is in an even more meaningful and essential way caught up into a very different project, that of the Eucharist.
Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the last supper he shared with his disciples prior to his death. But the case could be made that the first actual Eucharist he celebrated was right here, on the road to Emmaus.
We do not need to hear what Jesus says about himself from the scripture because he will make that fully known to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Once the bread is blessed and broken and given, then the time for talking about who Jesus is, even Jesus’s own talking about himself, has come to an end.
We commemorate this ourselves in an ancient prayer that the priest often says before or during the crucial moments of the mass: “Be present, be present, Lord Jesus, as thou wast present to thy disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread.”
But we can I think guess at what Jesus might have said about himself from scripture, by paying attention to early apostolic preaching, the like of which we heard in the reading from Acts. Notice that Peter’s sermon makes no mention at all of what Jesus taught, only the death he endured and the resurrection he won by the grace of his father.
So here we find two of the great ministerial activities of the church.
Preaching is the act of expositing the word of God in such a way as to cause the hearts of our hearers to burn within themselves: to be inflamed with insight and inspiration.
As Jesus talks about himself from the scriptures, he sustains these two disciples with a very different kind of conversation. No longer do they speak out of confusion and disbelief, but instead they have the meaning of scripture revealed to them by the risen Christ who is the secret subject of all scripture.
By interpreting his own person and work, Jesus models the church’s work of proclaiming the scriptures and their witness to Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection and what it all means.
The two disciples though only realize this retrospectively. “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” They realize what it meant to be on the road with the Lord only after Jesus broke bread with them.
And that’s the second great ministerial activity of the church begun here—on the road. It is the administration of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion. All preaching, all interpretation of who Jesus is and what he has done, all talk about the scriptures, is a necessary companion to the Eucharist, which consummates all such talk and gathers it up within itself so to speak.
In the Eucharist we do not recite the truth of scripture; we enact it. The Eucharist dramatizes the truth of scripture, and once again it our Lord who is the instigator and presider over this activity as well. Having explained the truth of who he is, he now performs the truth of who he is.
And this is how the presence of Christ remains with us, every step of the way on the road. Until we reach the end of the road. He draws near to us even when we do not recognize him. He speaks the truth of who he is to us in the preaching of his church. He makes himself present to us in the breaking of the bread as he was present to his disciples.
We are still on a strange and winding road. But the church—your church and mine—goes on this same road. We are still preaching God’s word and celebrating the Eucharist each day. And that’s how we know that Christ is near to each and every one of us, every step of the way. Amen.