+May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in You sight, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I wonder what Cleopas and the other disciple carried with them on that seven mile walk to Emmaus, what supplies they carried on their backs as they walked the dusty road from the Passover festival to home. I imagine their brows were sweaty and their backs were sore from the burden.
We also know that Cleopas and the unnamed disciple carried heavy burdens, but not just on their backs. We can clearly see from the Scripture that they had very heavy hearts. They were also carrying the weight of disappointment about the death of Jesus. They were carrying the weight of grief. They were carrying the weight of pain, the weight of anger. They could only see the juxtaposition between the ambitious Jesus and the dead Jesus. They could only see the gap between what could be and what was. And they carried such weighty matters with tight fists.
Cleopas and the unnamed disciple had heavy hearts because they felt they had bet their lives on the wrong savior, only to be sorely disappointed when Jesus was crucified and buried. Their heavy hearts were so heavy that when the women came to tell them about the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, they didn’t believe it. Their grief was too heavy to allow them to get up and see the Risen Jesus for themselves. Instead, they carried their disappointment, no longer daring to dream. Instead of finding an unbelievable Easter, they packed up and went home. And this is where our story picks up today.
Maybe their disappointment and grief isn’t too different than what many of us are feeling right now. I know that my Easter didn’t have the same joy and excitement as it normally does. I sympathize with Cleopas’ pain right now. It was hard to celebrate Easter in an empty church, knowing that so many people were suffering in the world with sickness, exhaustion, loneliness and financial woes. My heart was and is still heavy.
So I understand why Cleopas and the other disciple would walk home, reliving what horrors happened on Good Friday, when all their hopes were dashed at Jesus’ Crucifixion. They were stuck carrying the burdens of the day of death. They wondered what to make of the horrors they’d seen. The images of destruction were probably heavy on their minds, so heavy they didn’t notice when a friendly stranger started keeping step next to them on the road. They were so busy carrying their burdens, they didn’t see Jesus right next to them.
When incognito Jesus asks about their heavy-hearted discussion, Cleopas snaps at him. Like someone with grief-ridden irritation, Cleopas asks, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” It’s like he said, “Is your head in the sand? How are you so thick?’, not a polite reply to an innocent question. But incognito Jesus sweetly persists anyway, and asks, “What things?”
And you can see the heavy hearted answer, accented by the past tense. Cleopas rolls his eyes and says, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” Everything they “had hoped” was in the past. And they carried only their grief in their present moment.
And while they were carrying their grief, incognito Jesus tried to take their grief and open their eyes to the resurrection joy. He tries to explain how it was “necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory”, from Moses to today. He tried to show them that the crucifixion was always a part of God’s plan. God’s plan did not end in grief.
Jesus tried lifting their burdens but they stubbornly held onto them. And I think that’s human. And it’s natural for those who’ve undergone trauma.
I think it’s hard for us to lay down our burdens. I think that’s why people carry tension in their shoulders but love to recite the quote from Jesus, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” We spend so much time trying to unburden ourselves, whether through therapy, medication, hobbies or whatever. And still, with all that, it’s still hard to stop carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Jesus really tries to give them rest. But they refuse. Instead, they extend him polite hospitality for the evening. Later, “when [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” When he broke the bread, their eyes were opened again. They remembered. They remembered more than their grief. They remembered all the good times, when Jesus blessed and broke bread, the feeding of the 5000, the Last Supper. They remembered that Jesus said, “Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” They remembered that Jesus spoke of a new kingdom, a new day, a new life with God. They carried the burdens of the here and now instead of looking for the fulfillment of divine promises. They were so focused on what they had lost, they didn’t see what gifts they had gained.
They instantly realize their mistake. “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?’ That same hour they got up and [in their joy, ran the seven miles back] to Jerusalem...Then they told what had happened on the road, and how [Jesus] had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Jesus promised to be with them in the breaking of the bread. Jesus also promised, “I will be with you always, until the end of the age.” Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, the advocate to guide them. Jesus didn’t promise a life without sickness, grief, pain or death. But Jesus does promise a new life through and after such difficult things. Jesus promised a hopeful Spirit to comfort us in our grief, and to guide us into rest with God, no matter what comes.
Cleopas and the unnamed disciple learn this, on that Emmaus road. They learned to pay attention to their “hearts burning” within them. Jesus doesn’t show up the way they expect, and yet he’s there anyway. I bet they learned to trust their gut and keep their eyes peeled for God’s surprises after that!
And I want us to do the same.
I want us to meditate on this story of Cleopas and pretend we’re the unnamed, other disciple.
Like Cleopas, we’ve probably felt grief these last few weeks, with roller coaster emotions. Easter didn’t feel like Easter to Cleopas and it might not have felt like real Easter for us, either. And that’s okay. The trouble comes when we hold so tightly to what we’ve lost, we don’t see what gifts we’ve gained. When we’re caught up carrying our burdens, we lose sight of Jesus surprising us along the road. God gives us gifts every day, whether it’s the sunlight or a singing bird or a friendly call on the phone or a good book or a warm blanket or a funny joke or breaking bread. God’s grace is abundant and it’s everywhere, even on those long, dusty, difficult roads.
So, my question for you, church is this: What burdens do you need to lay down right now? What gifts have you gained from God recently?
I want us to take 2 minutes to write down on a piece of paper the answer to these two questions: On this side of Easter 2020, with all that’s happened in this pandemic, what burden do you need to lay down? What surprising gift have you gained?
Take 2 min, now, to write it down. [Wait two minutes. Share mine.]
I’ve got to lay down my sense of worry about the future, because I can’t control it.
I’ve gained the gift of relationship with the 35 or so people I see on Zoom weekly for Bible Study or Evening Prayer. I’ve gained the time to catch up with these people the half hour or so before or after these church events, so I actually feel closer to some people in our church as a result.
I want you to share your answer, whatever you want, in our virtual coffee hour after the service. What do you want to lay down? What gifts from God have you gotten recently?
I think we’ll find that we’ve gained much more than we could’ve asked or imagined during this difficult time. And if you can’t think of any of God’s gifts right now, I pray that God gives you the grace to see them.
May God bless you, keep you and make his face to shine upon you and give you peace. Amen.