They were on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus, Cleopas (who hasn’t been mentioned before now) and his unnamed companion. These folks are not part of the twelve. Where did they come from? Just part of the crowd that followed Jesus and too insignificant to even tell us about…I guess. Two obscure followers of Jesus heading to Emmaus because their teacher is dead. Two people walking away from the place of their greatest disappointment.
And that is when Jesus joins them on their journey. Isn’t it amazing who Jesus visits? The women, the unnamed, those in hiding. Jesus asks them why they are so glum and they say, “We had hoped he was the one.” I think that this the saddest sentence in all of scripture. “We had hoped he was the one.” So raw, so vulnerable, so honest. They felt deceived, duped, afraid. Betrayed by their own beliefs. Mocked by their own faith. They are walking away. Leaving it all behind. We have all felt that way sometime in our journey of faith. Perhaps you are feeling it right now. But that is exactly when Jesus shows up…on the 20 mile journey of walking away from their greatest disappointment.
Only they don’t recognize Jesus. He is the last person they expect to see. Ever had that happen to you. Perhaps you are walking down Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee and someone calls your name. You look at them but you can’t make sense of who they are. Turns out it was one of your best friends from high school. For these two obscure disciples, on the most discouraging journey of their lives it would be like running into someone they last saw in a casket standing in line ahead of them at the bank. It just doesn’t compute.
And so Jesus walks with them on this journey of the dark night of the soul. They talk scripture and he interprets for them. And still they do not recognize him. When they arrive in Emmaus it appears that Jesus will keep on walking so they beg him to come and eat with them.
They sit down at the table. It is the first time they have really looked each other in the eyes. The stranger they have been walking with who is now sitting with them, picks up the bread, blesses it and breaks it and then shares it with them……just like they have seen Jesus do a hundred times. It wasn’t until they sat down with him at the table that they recognized it was Jesus. The women who had been to the tomb told them Jesus was alive and looking for them but that didn’t do it. It was something about the table.
My youngest son Brett is a pastry chef. He has one topic of conversation he enjoys….. food. Some days when he calls me on the phone I never speak. The moment I pick up the phone he begins educating me. I learn about why he thinks his yeast starter is doing so well even in a desert environment; why a quartz countertop is better in your kitchen than granite; how to grow tomatoes without watering them; why I shouldn’t buy the peanut butter I like best.
When I visit him in his home he takes my hand and walks me over to the refrigerator where he pulls out the produce he bought at the local farmer’s market. He holds up a radish and says lovingly, “Isn’t it beautiful?” When he cooks he wants me to sit on the stool at the island so we can be together while he makes my food. If I get out my phone or if my eyes ever stray from what he is doing, he gets frustrated. “Mom, I just want you to pay attention to this wonderful process.”
When we are together our time revolves around food. If we decide we are going to go out for dinner we first spend at least a half hour debating which restaurant and looking over the online menus. He is the pickiest person I know when it comes to choosing a restaurant and I know some picky people. When we finally sit down to eat, he does all the ordering. He orders several dishes, which we will share because he wants to try everything.
I have eaten meals with other people who appreciate food. When the food arrives at the table they take a moment to take it in. Sometimes they make a movement with their hands to bring the aromas closer to the nose so they can savor the experience.
My son, for whom food is the main topic, eats his food like he just got off a deserted island and he hasn’t had real food in years. This person who has lovingly picked just the right radish, used just the right knife, on just the right cutting board in a laborious process of food preparation eats his food with a ravenous zest. His hunger and his delight are obvious. He takes his fork and starts eating right off the common plate. Juice runs down his chin as his smile of appreciation forces his lips apart. He doesn’t neatly cut everything into equal shares. No. Like him, he wants you to grab your fork and jump in to this act of communion.
I believe that when I get dementia or if my son was ever in a bad accident and had to have his whole face reconstructed I would still recognize him in the sharing of a meal. The way he eats, the sounds he makes, the conversation he wants to have are all so identifiable.
Because meals are intimate things. Things that aren’t so obvious in other social settings are obvious when you eat together. Cleopas and his companion were preoccupied with their own losses and so they didn’t realize they didn’t have to be until they sat down to eat with this stranger they met on the road. The New Testament is rife with stories of Jesus eating with people….with Pharisees, with tax collectors, with women, with his disciples, with multitudes. Eating together mattered to Jesus. The values of how you eat together mattered. Sharing mattered to Jesus. Everyone at the table together communing with each other mattered to Jesus.
Meals, at the time of Jesus and now, are places of social inclusion and social exclusion. Jesus widened the table. He told people over and over again that the rule of table fellowship should be one of inclusion and never exclusion. He spread a tablecloth on a hillside; encouraged people to take the seat of least importance; ate a meal with his betrayer; was hosted by a tax collector; told a parable about inviting the lost, the last and the least to the king’s banquet. I image that one thing these meals all had in common was that they began with Jesus taking the bread and giving thanks, and then breaking it and giving it to them. It was his tell.
So as he sat down to eat with Cleopas and his unnamed partner Jesus did just that. He picked up the bread, looked them in the eye, blessed the bread, broke it and handed it to them and they remembered what it is they had learned from Jesus. They remembered the wide table, the sharing, the humility, the sacrifice, and the love. They saw Jesus and all that he had taught them in that moment and with new eyes.
The hunger they felt only moments ago was gone and these two downtrodden, disappointed and honest disciples were overjoyed. They couldn’t stop babbling on about what they had just experienced in the symbols of bread and wine…in the recognition of Jesus in the breaking of the bread….in this exact moment of communing at the table.
They were so moved they jumped up from the table and went right back to Jersualem….in the dark. They couldn’t wait another second. They had to tell everyone what they had just seen and experienced. They returned to the place of their greatest disappointment but they went back renewed, restored, feisty and committed…. ready to encounter the living God around every corner. Amen.