So I back out of my driveway and head to WalMart on a mission to buy milk, bananas and (if a miracle occurs and they have any) toilet paper. I also need Sudafed because I love spring, but I’m allergic to it. However, on the way, I’m thinking about – what else? – Covid 19 and how tremendously it has complicated my life.
I direct a week-long Music, Arts and Drama Camp each summer. Are kids even going to be able to come? Will we all have to wear masks? Will potential counselors tell me they need to make up for the work they missed “sheltering at home” and can’t help this year? …Plus, there are people I love very much who are petrified by this thing; others have had to cancel wedding plans, or arrange a funeral service attended by three family members and a mortician when 200 people would have been there.
I miss traffic jams …well, not all that much. But I DO miss seeing my congregational family. And hugs: I really miss hugs!
I’m thinking about all this when suddenly I stop feeling sorry for myself long to realize I’m pulling into the church parking lot. If you’ll remember: I was supposed to be going to WalMart. Has that ever happened to you? You think you’re going one place, but end up someplace else?
I ask because I have a feeling that’s what happened to the two followers of Jesus who were walking to Emmaus on that first Easter Sunday afternoon. In fact, it’s probably the second time such a thing happened to them in the last few days.
The first was when they were absolutely sure they had hitched their wagon to the Messiah who would lead Israel in throwing out the Romans. It was a wrenching wake-up call when they heard he’d been crucified.
A few days later, they were saying goodbye to the eleven remaining disciples when some women reported they’d gone to the tomb and found it empty – empty they said except for an angel who told them Jesus was alive! …Now, truth to tell, before they met Jesus they would have simply dismissed this and said, “Puh, women!” But Jesus had opened their eyes to see women as equals, fellow followers, leaders even!
Still, who could believe such a weird story?
So, they stumble back to Emmaus, back to life as it had always been, back to wondering if God is even real, much less if God cares enough to show up.
And then came a stranger. …You and I know a lot about that stranger.
We know much less about the two followers. Luke tells us that one of them was Cleopas, but his name is the only thing the Bible gives us. About the other guy, we don’t have a clue; we don’t even know for sure he was a guy! In contrast to every other leader and rabbi in the first century, Jesus DID value women and recognized their gifts. And some commentators think the companion of Cleopas could have been a woman, might even have been his wife. If you look closely at this picture you’ll see the person on the left does not have a beard, so it could be a woman. Most likely, though, the artist, Robert Zund, meant it to be a man. Certainly most other artists who envisioned this scene loaded it with facial hair and testosterone. We don’t know, though. More importantly, we don’t know what passages from their Bible (our Old Testament) Jesus shared with the travelers. We can only guess.
That’s what I’ve done in the monologue Mike DeGan is going to share with you. In my imagination, Cleopas’s companion was indeed male. He’s this man, and I’ve named him Moshe.
Moshe: “Moshe” – sometimes translated “Moses”; either way, it’s quite a name to live up to. The original Moshe was used by God to rescue our people from slavery. My accomplishments have not been so notable.
All my life, I’ve had four good friends: my cousin, Cleopas; Benjamin; Eli; and Uri. Uri was the best of the 25 boys in our synagogue class. When we graduated at age 13, he was fluent in Hebrew and Greek, and no one could touch his knowledge of the Torah. I was jealous and thought surely he’d enter the priesthood. Instead, he followed the usual route: becoming an apprentice to his father, as I did to mine.
Three years ago, I turned 18, the tallest and strongest of my friends, sure of myself, and not nearly as smart as I thought I was. Many say calling an 18 year old boy “arrogant” is redundant. It may not be true for most, but it was for me. And I wasn’t just stupid, I now realize I was a bully.
We lived in Capernaum. One day I decided to go swimming in the nearby Sea of Galilee and browbeat the others into coming along. I found a large rock to jump off, and dared them to follow – it was about a 15 foot drop. Eli, Cleopas, and Benjamin did it easily. But Uri – for all his brains – was spindly and awkward. He didn’t want to jump. I said, “Come on, don’t be a mouse!” He got a running start and leapt as far as he could; even went in head first! …But he floated to the surface upside down. I swam to him, and my hand hit the slightly submerged rock that had paralyzed him.
We turned Uri over; he was still breathing, but could not move his arms and legs. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t my fault, but it was.
We made a crude pallet to carry him back to Capernaum, and ran into a huge crowd surrounding a one-story house on the edge of town. A man told us Jesus of Nazareth was inside. I’d heard of Jesus. We all had. He was a teacher and healer who had shot to fame in the last year. We immediately decided to take Uri to him, and got as far as the house’s back wall, but the throng of people was too great for us to get near the door. Propelled by my guilt, I lifted Cleopas and Benjamin to the roof. Then Eli and I pushed Uri’s pallet up to them and climbed up ourselves. The roof was flat and by some miracle there were ropes in one corner.
We tore off a few tiles and looked down to see Jesus talking with wall-to-wall people. Using the ropes, we lowered Uri to him, and he immediately understood the situation. Jesus put his hand on Uri’s forehead and said, “Son, your sins are…” (he paused a moment to look up at my tear-stained face) “…are forgiven.” …My least favorite person in the world, a local Pharisee named Tychus, instantly yelled, “Blasphemy! Only God can forgive sin!” Jesus answered, “Healing a paralytic is far easier than forgiving sin, but to let you know I do both by God’s will….” He again turned to Uri and said, “Rise, walk, and go home.”
The other three followed, but I just lay on the roof, stunned; and suddenly I was sure this Jesus was the Messiah who would liberate Israel! I had not gotten a good look at him through my tears. I still didn’t in the days and years to come, though I went to hear him as often as I could. I always stood on the outskirts of the crowd (timid for the first time in my life). I was one of the five thousand he fed with just two fish and five loaves of bread. And I was with those who heard him say we had to carry our own cross, and value discipleship more than our own families if we really wanted to follow him.
This last week, Cleopas and I have been staying in Emmaus with relatives and walking the 7-and-1/2 miles to Jerusalem each day for the festival. We cheered when Jesus entered the Holy City. We watched from a balcony as he chased the money changers out of the temple, and stood up to the priests and Pharisees whose self-righteousness makes a mockery of our religion. We still hadn’t seen him up close, but I was more certain than ever that this was the Messiah who would lead Israel in overthrowing Rome.
I was almost ready to go up to him, tell him my story, and join his followers. Cleopas said he felt the same, …but then we heard that – in the night – Jesus had been arrested, tried and convicted. The next time we saw him, he was nailed to a cross, his face covered in blood.
The following day was Sabbath, we were numb during the temple services and spent the night getting drunk with other part-time followers.
This morning, we were stumbling back to Emmaus when a stranger joined us and asked why we looked so downhearted. We shouldn’t have been surprised. Half of Israel is in Jerusalem for Passover, about 500,000 people. Most have barely heard of Jesus, and Rome’s crucifixion of yet another Jew accused of rabble-rousing is certainly not news. Still, we were incredulous that he didn’t know about Jesus, and how many of us believed he was God’s choice to lead the fight to free our nation.
He said, “OUR nation? Don’t you know the story of Jonah? God cares for all nations. Israel is meant to be their light, not their conqueror.”
We grudgingly said, “Well, maybe, but Jesus was a great man of God. It’s impossible to think God would allow our chief priests and rulers to hand him over to Pilate, much less that the Messiah would let himself be sentenced to death.”
He quoted Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet said nothing. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, and like a sheep silent before His shearers, He did not open His mouth.”
We protested, “You don’t understand! It wasn’t just Rome that slaughtered him, our own people were complicit! It’s unthinkable and unforgivable!”
He quoted Zechariah 12:10, “I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the house of David and the residents of Jerusalem, and they will look at me whom they pierced. They will mourn as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly as one weeps for a firstborn.”
We told him about the women who reported his tomb was empty, and how no one believed their claim of seeing Jesus alive. But even as we said it, I remembered Jesus saying, “If people don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded even should someone rise from the dead.” I shook myself out of my reverie and realized dusk was falling, Sunday was almost over.
We’d arrived at Emmaus; the stranger was intent on going on, but we begged him to join us for dinner. As we started the meal, he broke the bread and poured the wine, and that’s when I flashed to the hillside where Jesus fed 5,000. Cleopas came to the same conclusion, and we both stared in frozen amazement as he gestured a benediction and left.
We ran back to tell you: the man who helped a stupid 18-year-old recover from almost killing his friend, the lamb who bled for OUR sins…: Jesus …is ….alive!
As a preacher, I’m very drawn to the fact that it was Jesus’ explanation of Scripture which lit a fire in the hearts of the two Emmaus road travelers. I don’t manage it very often, but that is the goal. Protestants have always emphasized preaching and Bible study, and that may be why most pictures of the ROAD to Emmaus have been painted by Protestants. Like Robert Zund, they’re not very realistic about what the road looked like. (This is the actual road between Jerusalem and Emmaus – not a towering oak tree in sight.) But they all emphasize the intellectual teaching moment, the two travelers are excited as they recognize the truth of what he’s saying.
Our Catholic brothers and sisters appreciate that as well, but the favorite picture of today’s Bible story in most Catholic Churches is this one by the passionate Italian Catholic, Caravaggio. It’s the communion moment. Jesus has just broken the bread, and that’s when they recognize, not just truth, but Jesus himself. The two travelers would not have been in the upper room when Jesus shared the Passover meal and instituted communion with his inner circle, but those disciples surely told them about it, and – as my fictional Moshe mentioned – they may also have been among the 5000 he fed.
And I have to admit, for me – for all my love of words and Scripture and discussion and learning – it is in the simple symbols of bread and chalice that Jesus and his love (God’s love) become most real: his body was broken out of love for me, his blood was shed for the forgiveness of my sin.
I don’t understand it, I simply accept it. …It is amazing grace and it reduces me to the simplest of prayers: thank you. Thank you, God. Amen.