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Sad Faces, Burning Hearts, Renewed Faith Luke 24:13-35

The TV programme, Secret Millionaire, features a rich person in each episode who goes incognito and encounters people and organizations who are struggling with difficulties or running a charity that does good work in a local community. It may not be your cup of tea, but the formula is repeated each time and seems to work. The viewers know that the visitor is really well off, but they set up a relationship as a visitor and get to know the people and situations for what they are. It is only at the end of the visit that the millionaire reveals that they are very well off and that they would like to give a substantial amount of money to the good cause or deserving person. There is incredulity written across the faces of those who receive the large cheque along with the news that they have been taken in, even if for good reasons. Usually tears of joy are shed and the generous millionaire is hugged. What we viewers enjoy is the sense of conspiracy for a good surprise. We know the full truth and watch the truth dawn on those who didn’t realize.

Emmaus Road
With a comparable feeling, we hear the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus and the “stranger” who draws close to them. I find it one of the most delicious of the resurrection stories. Late on the same day as that first Easter morning, Luke tells us, two of the disciples, one of whom was called Cleopas, were making their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus on foot. They probably set out in the late afternoon once the fierce heat of the day was waning, aiming to get to their destination just before it got dark at say 6pm. It was perhaps a walk of 2 hours or so, depending on their fitness and the terrain. We don’t know why they were taking this short journey, but perhaps they lived in Emmaus and felt they no longer needed to be with the other disciples in Jerusalem. Luke doesn’t mention that they were hiding – that’s what John says. But, given the circumstances of Jesus’ execution, it is a reasonable assumption that his followers were keeping a low profile. Perhaps Cleopas and his companion felt there was little point in hanging around.
Sad Faces
On pilgrimage to Santiago from time to time either someone catches up with you, or you draw close to another pilgrim ahead. The pilgrims keep company for a little while, possibly having met at a hostel the previous night, or meet up again at the end of their day’s walking. Strangers meet and become companions all heading in the same direction, even if they might be doing so for a variety of reasons. I wonder what the two disciples thought and felt as they became aware of footsteps drawing closer to them as they walked along. Were they frightened, thinking it might be someone who would betray them to the authorities as belonging to Jesus who had just been executed as a criminal? Luke says they were talking and discussing, so perhaps they were so engrossed in their conversation that they didn’t notice someone coming up behind them. Perhaps they realized too late that they had been caught red handed, as it were. Whichever way, the stranger asked them what they had been talking about. At this point there is a dramatic pause. We know who the stranger is. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. They stop in their tracks – taken aback. Their faces are sad, perhaps they are weary, perhaps they are not quite sure how to respond to this stranger. Cleopas breaks the silence. We don’t know why he was named but his response is strong. Maybe it was a mixture of anger and disbelief. Why, there’s only one thing that everybody is talking about! How can you be so ignorant! Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know what’s been happening?! The two disciples had sad faces. Part of the experience of grief is the need to talk over and over what has happened: how the death occurred, playing and replaying in the mind. Another part of grief is anger: anger at the loss, which often comes out in ways that are not entirely appropriate. Any target will do because death itself is a robbery; death leaves the bereaved feeling helpless. Whether stranger or native, all are talking about the things that have been happening in Jerusalem! How pig-ignorant can you be! But the stranger persists: What things? It is an apparently innocent question. But it reveals to us, as the observers, what was going on in the minds of Cleopas and his companion. All they were talking about could be summed up in the sad comment: we had hoped…. They had such high hopes in him. The end to another Messiah; the end to hopes for freedom for their people; the sheer disillusionment and despondency. They stood still, looking sad: we had hoped…. And then another irony placed on top of the pile of ironies beginning to build up: all this happened three days ago. Those resonant words, that must have rung through the worship of the early believers: the third day.

Burning Hearts
It’s a bit dated now, but in 1945 Leslie Church wrote a biography of John Wesley entitled Knight of the Burning Heart. Wesley’s faith came alive when he had an experience he described as having his heart strangely warmed by the Holy Spirit. He rode about the kingdom preaching, teaching and ministering to ordinary people. The two disciples, listening to the stranger explaining things from the scriptures, commented afterwards that their hearts burned within them. How foolish you are and slow of heart to believe what your own prophets tell you exclaimed the stranger! They did not recognize the significance of the third day; they did not see what the women folk were pointing to; and now their eyes were kept from recognizing who this stranger really was. But he talked in the same way as their hoped for Messiah had: he began with Moses and all the prophets, as he had always, patiently begun over again to explain what must take place, what would happen with the Messiah. Secretly, neither one letting on to the other, their hearts began to burn within them. Their minds and eyes still did not cotton on, but their hearts, their guts were beginning to indicate who they were with. It can sometimes be that way with us, can’t it? Our feelings tell us something long before we work it out with our brains. It is night always right to go along with your feelings, we need both, but often our feelings can give us an indication long before our minds have worked it out: what should we do? Can we trust this person? Shall we buy this house, start this job, marry this lover? Some are better at intuition than others, but a burning heart is something to take note of. Were not our hearts burning within us …while he was opening the scriptures to us?

Recognition and Joy
By the time Luke and the other gospel writers came to compile their accounts of Jesus, these stories had begun to form the community of Christians. These stories of life, teaching, death and resurrection drew a community of believers together. As they listened, pondered, read their own Hebrew scriptures and shared in the meal of remembrance as Jesus had commanded them, they began to realize the significance of what bound them together. From its earliest days the Church celebrated the festival of Christ’s resurrection. Their Jewish heritage and the synagogue experience of many meant that they met regularly around the scriptures and added the memorial meal to their gatherings. The story of the Emmaus road and how the two disciples didn’t fully recognize Jesus until he broke the bread grew in its significance as the Lord’s Supper developed into the Eucharist.

Two key ingredients to the life of the Church are word and sacrament: the breaking open of the scriptures for our understanding and the breaking of the bread for our nourishment in the faith. It is in the Bible and the Eucharist that we recognize the risen Lord Jesus. As the scriptures are studied and explained our hearts burn within us; as the bread and wine are shared among us, our outer senses register the Easter truth: the Lord is risen and has appeared to his followers.

The secret millionaire has come among us. We have been struggling on in our own strength and a stranger has taken interest in us. He reveals who he really is and gives us the gift beyond words, the gift of eternal life. So our lives are forever changed! We may not always have clear sight of Jesus; we may still struggle with our faith and with what life throws across our path, but we live now in the light of Easter. No longer are we walking home in the dusk, with nothing but dashed hopes and darkness ahead of us. Now our walk in the dusk turns to facing the dawn of a new day. Now we find the energy to run all the way we’ve walked back over again and join the celebration and joy of others to whom the Lord has appeared. Let this truth be rekindled and burn in our hearts: the Lord is risen, and so shall we!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith