As someone who enjoys long walks, I’ve often thought of Luke’s story about the road to Emmaus as a kind of spiritual pilgrimage.
The two disciples walking that day clearly were sorting out their grief on the road, trying to move from the shadows of sorrow into the light of a new day. I’ve done that myself; walking can help us work out interior struggles and find a way forward. Many of us are learning during this time of isolation that taking a quiet walk gives our bodies exercise, it also gives our spirits a chance at renewal.
Luke says Emmaus was a little over seven miles from Jerusalem, although other ancient sources say it was further away. We don’t really know where it was; today various sites lay claim to being the ancient biblical village. Since Jesus had said he would appear after death in Galilee, we might conclude that Emmaus was located to the north of Jerusalem, in the direction of the hilly Galilean land where Jesus grew up and undertook his ministry.
His resurrection would take him home. Maybe he was on his way there when he bumped into them on the road.
The two disciples leave Jerusalem for Emmaus late in the morning, after the women return from the tomb with strange news of an empty grave and a vision of angels saying Jesus was no longer dead. No doubt there was quite a bit of confusion and discussion among the followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem. The two disciples probably participated in that of reaction to the news, before they left the city.
On our summer pilgrimage treks, seven-plus miles would be about a four-hour walk, depending on the terrain and the weather, how much we’re carrying and how often we stop to rest. The two disciples seem to have taken that about long, arriving in Emmaus close to dinner time.
Most appearances of the risen Jesus are momentary flashes of Easter; he’s there one moment and gone the next. In contrast, Jesus is probably with the two disciples a good part of the day on the road to Emmaus, making it the longest sustained resurrection experience in the gospels.
It might come as a surprise to Easter preachers – and I’m one of them – that Jesus does not use his extended time on the road with the two disciples to expound on the glorious dawn of the resurrection. He doesn’t talk about the empty grave or defeating death or opening the way to eternal life. There’s no grand theology of the cross here. No homily on the power of God’s Easter love to bring us from this life to the life to come.
No. Instead, on the road to Emmaus Jesus talks about the past, specifically, the biblical narrative of God’s people. Jesus goes all the way back to the first books of the Bible, called Torah by Jews, and he starts there. “Beginning with Moses,” Luke says, Jesus “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Luke 24:27)
As many times as I’ve heard the Easter story, I’ve never noticed before the role that memory plays in the gospel accounts. And it’s not only on the road to Emmaus that afternoon. It happens that morning at the empty grave when the two dazzling men they encounter inside the tomb say to the terrified women:
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you…” (Luke 24:5-6)
We find it in Matthew and Mark, as well, where other angelic figures tell the startled women that Jesus is not there but has gone on to Galilee, as he had told them would happen. It’s almost as if in each resurrection scene, someone says, “Have you forgotten already?”
There’s an Easter imperative hidden in these resurrection stories: remember.
Memory has always been at the heart of Judaism. “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart,” God says through Moses in Deuteronomy.
“Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)
In other words: remember who God is. Remember what God expects of us. Jewish rituals and stories and prayers, practiced for generations, passed along over the ages, are designed to keep the memory fresh. Jesus is speaking out of that tradition here.
But the followers of Jesus back then – those two perplexed disciples –have a memory problem, and so do we in our time. They miss the point of Easter because they forget the story of their faith. Maybe that’s why Luke tells us they have heartburn when they hear Jesus explain the story of their people as recounted in scripture. They’ve been utterly absorbed in something else, in their own concerns, as have we.
So much of what we bring to our religion reflects our own needs. Like those two disciples who could not get beyond themselves and their own bewilderment, we, too, have trouble taking our religion beyond our desire for self-fulfillment and individual attention. We treat Christianity as if I were the center of God’s focus and my faith in Jesus an exercise in self-help.
But Christianity was never meant to be a privatized spiritual experience. That’s what Jesus is talking about on his long walk that fine Easter day. Yes, we each have our own ways of encountering God, our own understanding of who Jesus is, our own approach to prayer and worship and other practices of our faith. But none of that is meant solely to be a source of personal religious gratification or self-actualization. Jesus is not merely our personal Lord and Savior; Jesus is the Savior of the world, the Bread of Life, the Light of the world.
For Jesus the emphasis at Easter was on the long, biblical narrative of which his life was the latest manifestation. Beginning with Moses, meant that Jesus had a lot to say to those two disciples – reaching far back into the memory of the Hebrew people. His walking companions had forgotten the biblical trajectory of God’s relationship with humankind and, instead, had begun to privatize and nationalize it. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the disciples say, missing the point that he was that one, only not in the way they had hoped.
The disciples’ attitude reveals a kind of truncated, narrow faith. They thought God would serve their needs over others, satisfy their ambitions, confirm their assumptions. We see that today in the coupling of Christianity to particular political ideologies.
But God has something else altogether in mind.
Beginning with Moses, Jesus retells the story of God’s promise to humankind, what scripture calls God’s covenant: I will be your God and you will be my people. Together we will move through history, making real the justice and love I desire for the human community and all creation. The story really begins in the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt long ago. It begins in the suffering of a people. It begins where hope has died. It begins in the covenantal promise of the fulness of life in community.
If the Covid crisis so far has taught us nothing else, at least we should have learned that what happens to my neighbor happens to me. My world is shared by those around me, both near and far. Covid is no respecter of persons, even though it’s having a more devastating impact on those who are older and poor, those who are black, Hispanic, and Native, those locked in prisons and laboring in factories.
The pain of our neighbors, though, could easily become ours – which means when they suffer we suffer. When we say, “We’re all in this together,” we’re using the language of covenant, God’s promise of one human family.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the people of Ireland and Native Americans during the time of Covid. When the Irish suffered from terrible famine 173 years ago, the Choctaw Nation sent relief aid to them from Oklahoma. Native tribes back then had recently been forced to walk the Trail of Tears to remote reservations and were living in impoverished misery. But still, in the spirit of ima, a Choctaw word meaning “to give,” they felt compelled to support people they had never met who were also suffering. Somehow, they managed to send a financial gift to send to Ireland.
Today the Navajo have among the highest per capita rates of Covid-19, and the Irish remember. They have not forgotten the help they received in 1847 from indigenous people in the U.S. More than 20,000 Irish have now donated nearly $2 million to the Hopi and Navajo.
“Through pain and agony you develop a unique bond,” Choctaw Chief Gary Batton said this week, “And we have that unique bond. They are displaying that to our brothers and sisters.”
Ironically, we had to go into isolation to re-discover that human life is a collective experience, that we do not exist apart from our neighbors both near and far, known and unknown. The virus has exposed the delusion that human life and the economic systems we create and the political activity in which we engage are fundamentally about satisfying me and protecting my independence, and keeping my people at the center, even at the expense of others.
Our religion should have taught us long ago that when we live like that, injustice takes root and we ignore God. Our religion should have taught us that long ago.
But we forget.
Americans have national amnesia. We forget about cruel economic and educational disparities until a pandemic exposes them. We forget that more than 35,000 people die of gun violence in the US every year, until there’s another mass shooting. We’re appalled at the killing of an unarmed black man out jogging by two armed white men, but we forget that black men have always been targeted by white brutality in this land.
We forget what God intends for the human family.
The purpose of resurrection, according to Jesus – who was raised on Easter to tell us this on the road to Emmaus – is to remember.
Beginning with Moses and all the prophets… Jesus reminds the two disciples, and those of us listening in, of the story of God’s people:
Do not forget that when you were oppressed and enslaved I came to free you.
Do not forget that I fed you in the desert.
Do not forget that I taught you to treat others as you would want to be treated.
Do not forget that my love is not meant to be hoarded, but shared.
Do not forget that the barren land will break forth in new life, springs will rise in the desert, crooked ways will be made straight and rough places plain.
Do not forget that those who are poor will be lifted up,
those who are hungry will be fed,
the ruined places will be restored,
those without homes will find a place to live,
those unjustly imprisoned will be set free –
and all flesh shall see it together.
Don’t you remember?
The meek will inherit the earth,
those left out will be invited in,
those who mourn will be comforted,
those who make peace will be called the children of God.
Love will vanquish hate and win, even over death, in the end.
The resurrection is not only about the life to come. It wants to transform the life we now live.
Do not forget what God is up to in the world – and then do all you can to be part of it.
That’s the Easter imperative Jesus gives us on that long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, so many years ago And still it should be fresh in our memory.
Thanks be to God.