A seven-year-old asks his father, "Dad can you do my homework for me so I can play more video games?" Dad replies, "No son, it wouldn't be right." The son says, "That's probably true, but just do the best you can."
What’s that got to do with the Emmaus story? Well, one thing is that nobody else can do for us what we must do for ourselves. Some experiences in life we just have to go through, we have to see for ourselves, learn for ourselves – whether it’s homework from school, or how to live and love in a relationship, or coming to faith in a turbulent world of evil and doubt.
Today, Cleopas and another disciple – I’ve always assumed it was his wife, whom I think of as “Anna” – are walking home on Easter afternoon, dejected after the cross, the death of their beloved teacher. They had heard that Jesus was seen again – alive – but they just couldn’t believe it. Maybe you feel that way too – at least sometimes. (It’s funny that we talk about “doubting Thomas” but not “doubting Cleopas.”)
Nobody goes looking for a leader who gets killed. Think of how our country felt when Jack Kennedy was murdered, or Martin Luther King.
We were bereft, numb, wondering how we could go on. Cleopas and Anna felt that in an intimate way – they had known and loved Jesus dearly.
So they put one foot in front of the other, and trudged the few miles back to their home village of Emmaus, thinking their great adventure with this wonderful man was just a brief flash of joy. Back now to the plodding drudgery of peasant life in Judea.
But you heard the story: a stranger approached and began to walk with them on that dusty road. He asked about their experience in Jerusalem. Then he began to talk about the Hebrew scriptures, how the messiah, the Christ, of God would be a suffering servant, one who would go through the pain of life with us, and die as we die, and be raised to new life.
Spiritual writer Richard Rohr says:
To understand Jesus in a whole new way, you must first know that Christ is not his last name, but his eternal identity both before and after the Resurrection. The raising up of Jesus is not a one-time miracle that we must believe, but a revelation of the constant and only pattern.
Life – death – new life. That is the pattern laid out by Jesus. On Easter I spoke of that pattern laid out so clearly in nature – the yearly changing of the seasons, the deadness of winter followed by the explosion of spring – something we enjoy so vividly here in Washington. It’s easy to see this pattern in nature.
I also see that pattern in the generations of human beings. Leslie’s and my kids are in their mid-twenties now, pursuing their educations to prepare them for their chosen vocations. And I see in them, and other young people, an energy, drive, and creativity that bodes well for the world. They are so full of life, and dreams, and ideas! They are passionate about life, about making a contribution to the community, about saving the planet. And I believe they’ll find solutions to problems that my own generation has failed to find. It will require our generation to let go, to release the reins of power in various ways, to die, even, in order to allow new life to spring forth. It’s all part of the pattern.
And as I get older, this seems very right…in fact, necessary. Again, Richard Rohr says:
I think this is Jesus’ major message: there is something essential that you only know by dying. You really don’t know what life is until you know what death is. Death, which seems like our ultimate enemy, is actually the doorway. This is how Jesus “overcame” and even “destroyed” death.
Now this is not to romanticize death, whether it’s physical death, or a death experience that we live through - the loss, conflict, or despair that can mark our lives. Death is rarely easy; it’s usually painful. But seeing our experiences as part of a larger pattern set forth by Jesus can help us make sense of our suffering. We do learn through our death experiences, and we can face them with equanimity – and even joy – when we know that they make way for new life.
So, what is it that God wants to show you – to teach you – through this pattern of life and death and new life? What is the “road to Emmaus” you are called to walk? Will you meet a stranger along the way? Cleopas and Anna expected nothing that weary day, and yet the stranger walked the trail with them, talked with them, made their hearts burn within them. But still they did not recognize him. That didn’t come until they sat down to eat, and he took bread, and blessed it, and broke the bread. Finally! They knew it was the Lord! And everything was changed. Death was swallowed up by life. The pattern was clear. May it be so for us, too.
“Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.” AMEN.