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The Prayers of Jesus: In Emmaus

April 12, 2009
Sermon:  April 12, 2009 
Text:  Luke 24:13-35

For these forty days of Lent, we have been considering the prayers of Jesus.  We have been with Jesus in the wilderness where he faced the harsh temptations of the evil one.  We have gone with Jesus to the synagogue in Nazareth where he declared his mission, to be that of the “suffering servant.”  We have been with Jesus on the solitary hillsides of Galilee where he withdrew to pray and with him on the sea itself where he taught his disciples.  We have been with Jesus to the high mountain, Mount Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration, and gone with him as he set his face toward Jerusalem, entering on Palm Sunday through the Gate Beautiful.  On Thursday night, we were again with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives as he agonized in prayer.  Then on Friday, we climbed the hill named Golgotha with our Lord and heard even there from the cross three prayers.  Today on this Easter morning, we come to the time of Christ’s resurrection. 

We might well ask, What can Jesus teach us about prayer after his agonizing death, prayer now that he is the risen Lord?  The bloody scene of the crucifixion, with its old rugged cross, thorns, and nails is so vivid in our minds.  Maybe the scene is best captured in Michelangelo’s beautiful sculpture called the Pieta, which depicts Mary cradling the body of her adult son once removed from the cross.  The crucifixion is a touching scene, to be sure. 

The death of Jesus is very real, but his resurrection is obscure.  In fact, the Scriptures sometimes treat the seven resurrection appearances mentioned in the Gospels almost as if they were rumor. 

Early on that first Easter Sunday morning following the crucifixion, women visited the tomb of Jesus, only to find it empty.  It is a case of the missing body.  There is no writ of habeas corpus.  No body is to be found.  Depending on the Gospel account you read, angels of varying numbers are present.  They declare, “He is not here.  He has risen.”  When two of his disciples, Peter and John, hear the report of the women who first discover the tomb empty, they were somewhat skeptical, thinking these women might have embellished the facts.  Anxious to discover if, indeed, their Lord is gone, they run a kind of foot race to the tomb.  John outruns Peter, but Peter is the first to enter the tomb.  He confirms what the women have professed.  I have been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Holy Land, the place purported to be the tomb of Jesus.  I believe that is the correct location.  I can tell you that the tomb is still empty.  The empty tomb itself, however, is not evidence of the resurrection. 

It is not until Jesus himself started appearing that we really see that he had conquered death.  Mary Magdalene, the first person to see the risen Savior, thought Jesus was a gardener until he spoke her name.  Only then did she recognize him as her teacher.  Another resurrection appearance occurred when Jesus came to meet with the disciples.  He actually passed through a closed door to be with them.  His followers were astounded to see their Lord again.  Because Thomas had not been with the other disciples at that time, Jesus appeared to him one week later.  I like to say Thomas was from Missouri.  After this sixth appearance, he, too, is convinced of Jesus’ resurrection.  The last of the resurrection stories found in the Gospel of John records Jesus’ appearing to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee. 

Paul states that other resurrection sightings occurred, but those are not recorded in the Gospel accounts.  Paul writes in a brief account in I Corinthians 15:6-8 that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at one time.  He also reports that Jesus appeared to the apostle James.  Paul adds that Jesus appeared to him “as to one untimely born.”  He is speaking, of course, about his experience on the road to Damascus.

For us, Easter Sunday is a time of great joy, a time of great celebration.  We must recognize though that the resurrection appearances of Jesus had a different effect on those earliest disciples.  Their reactions sound more like something from the pen of Stephen King than from the Gospel accounts.  Once they discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, they believed that it had been stolen.  They were horrified, terrified.  They were filled with doubt, confusion, and disbelief.  The stories actually take on almost a ghostly tone when he started appearing.  In an attempt to calm their fears, Jesus even told his followers, “I am not a ghost” (Luke 24:38-39). 

These accounts remind us that Christ’s astounding defeat of death itself was not new.  Certainly, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead.  He had also raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus, the son of a Syrophonecian woman.  When Jesus himself conquered death, however, all time and eternity were changed. 

Our focus for today is a resurrection appearance that occurred on the road between Jerusalem and Emmaus.  We might expect that Jesus, in his resurrected form, would appear to the apostles James and John.  We might expect that Jesus would appear to doubting Thomas.  We might also expect that he would appear to Peter, Paul, and Mary, his closest disciples.  Who has ever heard of Cleopas though?  Who in the world is that person?  Who is the companion of Cleopas?  Both individuals are unknown.  We are simply told they were followers of Jesus, among those who believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  As Luke unfolds this story, we are not sure whether this unnamed companion was male or female.  In our dramatic reading this morning, the companion is depicted as a male; but the companion might have been female, perhaps even the wife of Cleopas. 

This story about Jesus’ appearances on the road to Emmaus has five distinct scenes.  The first scene contains only two people, Cleopas and his companion, walking along the road.   They have suffered loss, and they are grieving.  Anybody who has ever had a loss, anybody who has ever been discouraged or disheartened, anybody who has ever known the heartbreak of a sudden death, anybody who has lost a job or a marriage, and anyone who has lost their dignity, can identify with these two people.  We find ourselves right there with these two individuals. 

In the second scene, Scripture says a stranger joined these two travelers whose faces were downcast.  We know in retrospect that the stranger was Jesus.  You can almost hear the snide comments from Cleopas when this stranger began asking odd questions like, “What are you discussing as you walk along this road?”  They responded by raising their own questions: “Where in the world have you been?  Don’t you know about the events that have happened in Jerusalem?  Have you been hiding under a rock?  Have you had your head in the sand?  Have you been sleeping in a closet?  Where have you been not to know what has happened?”  They told the story of Jesus, recounting the crucifixion and sharing with this stranger of their hope that Jesus would be the Messiah, that he would become the new king.  Now, to them all seemed lost because the one they had followed had been crucified.  Worse still, the body was missing.

In the third scene, the stranger began to interpret Scripture, starting with Moses and continuing through the prophets.  He explained that all of the recent events in Jerusalem had happened just the way they should have.  Remember that they still did not know that this man was Jesus.  As they listened to his interpretation of Scripture, we read that their hearts were warmed.  Their hearts were “burning,” Luke 24:32 says.

When the three arrived in Emmaus, it was almost evening and the sun was setting.  The stranger intended to continue his travels; but Cleopas and his companion prevailed upon him, convincing him to stay.  It had been a very long day, and a nearly-full moon illuminated the night sky.  Jesus agreed, and they went into a modest home in the village for a simple meal, that would, of course, be in keeping with Passover:  unleavened bread with perhaps a little wine.  In an unusual reversal, this stranger who was a guest now became the host.  He took the bread, giving thanks before breaking it.  It is at this point that Cleopas and his companion see for the first time that this unfamiliar person was Jesus.  The very moment they recognized him, Jesus disappeared from their sight.

The final resurrection scene in our text for today is that of Cleopas and his companion, making the seven-mile return trip to Jerusalem, about a two-hour walk.  Now reassured, they wanted to return to the capital city that same evening so that they could find the company of believers and tell them what had happened. 

What does the risen Christ have to teach us about prayer on this journey?  First, Jesus teaches us that where two or three are gathered together in his name, he will be there.  That is the real meaning of fellowship.  Fellowship does not mean eating good food like fried chicken, potato salad, and apple pie.  It means that we are in the company of fellow believers.  The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia.  The nourishment we receive through fellowship is not so much the physical nourishment from a covered dish dinner.  We receive spiritual nourishment from the encouragement and support we find in each other’s company.

Second, we learn the importance of welcoming strangers.  We know the passage from Hebrews 13:2 that says that whenever we welcome a stranger, we are likely to welcome an angel without knowing it.  How much more significant is it to welcome the Lord Jesus without knowing it?  That is exactly what happened to Cleopas and his companion when they welcomed this stranger along the road to Emmaus.  Do you remember Jesus’ parable about the last judgment?  He gave a list of those who were down-and-out:  the prisoners, the hungry, the thirsty, those without clothing or shelter.  He said, “Inasmuch as you do good things to one of the least of these, it is as if you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).  When we show kindness toward any person in need, we have the opportunity to meet the risen Christ, face-to-face.

Third, we learn that we experience the presence of Christ through these Scriptures.  You will notice that Jesus opened the Word of God to these two travelers.  I do not know that he actually had a text with him, but he interpreted God’s Word from Moses to the prophets.  As he did, their comment was, “Did not our hearts burn within us?”  A warmth was created in their hearts. 

I am reminded of John Wesley’s experience when he went to a Moravian church at Aldersgate.  He, too, commented that his heart was strangely warmed.  Worship makes our hearts warm, as does the experience of reading the Bible.  Those passages of Scripture will also stir deep within us. 

Fourth, we encounter Christ observing the Lord’s Supper, as we did here Thursday night.  Some call that experience Holy Communion, while others call it the Eucharist.  As we take the elements of the Lord’s Supper, it is certainly an experience in which we encounter Christ.  It is the great thanksgiving.

The fifth point we learn about prayer is from the breaking of that bread.  Remember that Jesus, when he broke the bread at that Passover meal, said, “This is my body, broken for you” (Luke 22:19).  The broken bread, symbolizing the brokenness of Christ, reminds us of the cross.  We can encounter Christ in our own brokenness.  The broken bread also symbolizes our brokenness, our sense of defeat, our sense of discouragement.  When we are broken, then we can be healed.  I love Henri Nouwen’s description:  we become healers because we have all been wounded.  We become wounded healers.  Jesus promises, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you” regardless of the circumstance or difficulty we find ourselves.

Sixth, we learn about the life of prayer from the experience of prayer itself.  Cleopas and his companion had a prayer with Jesus, however brief.  Jesus prayed a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving for the food.  They probably prayed right along with him, just as we do when we pray at a meal.  It was in that actual practice of prayer, in that offering of thanks, that the scales dropped from their eyes.  Only then were the two travelers able to experience the presence of Christ. 

How often that happens in the life of prayer!  We may experience a time in which our prayers may seem very empty.  We feel as if we are just saying words.  Then at some other point in the life of prayer, we have an experience in which we feel another presence, a presence that we know as Jesus.  I love the way the hymn puts it, “Open my eyes, that I may see…Open my ears, that I may hear…Open my heart…”  When Jesus healed the blind man and the deaf man, according to the Gospel of Mark, he spoke an Aramaic word, Ephrata, which means “be open.”  Once Cleopas and his companion experienced this part of the life of prayer, their eyes were opened.  They were able to see Jesus.

When we have this kind of experience with the risen Christ, we cannot keep it to ourselves.  Point seven is that we must share this good news.  Though tired after a very long exhausting day, a day in which they wondered what had happened to Jesus, these two now have a renewed energy.  They turned around and made the long trek in the moonlight back to Jerusalem so that they could share this good news. 

Forty days ago, we started this journey to discern more about the life of prayer from the prayers of our Lord.  This journey between Jerusalem and Emmaus and back again becomes a kind of model for us.  Our journey, however, is not just seven miles long.  It is a journey of a lifetime.

I said at the very beginning of this sermon series that prayer is a relationship.  It is not simply asking, not simply begging.  It is certainly not just heaping empty words together.  Prayer is a bond in which we come into a relationship with our heavenly Father, who loves us very much.  When we have that kind of connection, we know that we do not make the journey alone.   We travel with a constant companion.  An early church father, in a sermon I read, interprets the companion of Cleopas as the Holy Spirit.  That companion is the presence of God.  We are all beginners in this ongoing process, in this lifelong pilgrimage.  Every step of the way as we walk down this long road, we learn more about our Lord and more about the life of prayer.

The Chinese have a proverb:  The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  Could I invite you to take the first step?  Acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Lord of your life and that our risen Savior alone can deliver you from your sins.  Would you invite him to be your constant companion on a journey of faith and recognize him as your Savior?  Invite him into your heart.

We sometimes sing a wonderful hymn at Easter:  “I serve a risen Savior, He’s in the world today; I know that He is living, whatever men may say.”  The chorus to that song says, “You ask me how I know He lives:  He lives within my heart.”  My hope and prayer would be that every person here today acknowledges that Jesus Christ lives within their heart.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2009
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