I get that. Indeed, as I was thinking through this story again in these last days I was taken back to a journey I took a long time ago. One that held some things in common with the walk these disciples found themselves on.
I was twenty-two years old — a senior in college. It was early May and I was wrapping up my time in that place which had been gift and delight to me for four years. The call came that our beloved cousin, Susan, had died after a courageous battle with cancer. She was just shy of thirty years old. And so early in the morning in the middle of the week my sister and I drove from Iowa to Wisconsin for her funeral. We turned around and drove back that night so as to only miss one day of class.
Only my heart wasn’t there on that college campus which had been my home for four years. And so on Friday afternoon, we packed up our things again and we drove home to Illinois for the week-end. Home were we had grown up. Home where my folks still lived. Home to the safest place in all the world. For you see, there was simply nowhere else I wanted to be, no place else I needed to be then..
Looking back I know that was because with that death, the world no longer looked the same to me. Oh, I had experienced losses before, but none like this. None that so clearly and painfully brought home the reality that sometimes terrible things happen to those who seem to deserve them least. That not all deaths are good ones. And that sometimes, some regrets never really go away. For time, at least here among us, can run out. Which it had for me. For it is so that, in my busyness that year, through the worst of her illness, I never went to see her.
So yes, I have a window into the walk that Cleopas and his traveling companion shared that first Easter day. Their world had also been turned upside down. And not only once of course for nothing was ever to be the same again when they left their lives behind to follow Jesus in the first place. And now it’s turned over again. Having followed him all the way to Jerusalem, they’ve seen it all come to a horrific end. Indeed, we can be certain that their walk home was marked by grief and confusion. And yes, I do expect that they, like the other disciples, were now also living with a sense of regret for all they did not do that they could have, should have done. As they make their way towards home they are left only with their memory and every trudging step this must have caused them pain. Even though they, too had heard the outrageous rumor that Jesus was not dead after all, they were still going home. Back to the familiar, the safe, the comfortable. Back to people who knew and loved them before their worlds had turned upside down.
Of course, before the night was done, they would know exactly who it was who walked them home. And before that night was past, they will have retraced their steps all the way back to Jerusalem. Only this time they run — eager as they are to share what they have seen and heard!
A long time ago I took the sort of journey those disciples did as they walked to Emmaus. I know what it is to only want to be home. To gather with others who knew the loss I had known and to find the start of healing among them in that safe and familiar place. I expect that as they made their way, Cleopas and his companion expected the same. Only it was not to be. Indeed, their healing and hope was theirs to be found in the very place they had just left behind. Among others who had walked the same path, who had followed the same hope, who shared the same regrets, and who had staked their lives and their hearts on the life of Jesus. Their home was no longer in Emmaus. Their home was wherever it was they would meet Jesus next. And that could be anywhere.
Now I have to say that more than thirty years ago, we did not meet Jesus on the highway as we drove home late on a Friday night in May. Not the way these disciples did. And yet, I expect we did meet him in the companionship and tears and laughter we shared with one another as the miles passed. And yes, I expect we did encounter Jesus as together we recalled a life marked by both joy and struggle — a life which had been shaped and grounded in faith. And, to be sure, I expect we did meet Jesus as we were gathered in and cared for and fed before we were sent on our way again back to the lives we were meant to live from there on out. I knew those were true even then.
But this is what came to me later. As I looked back I could see that, in fact, my heart was burning within me even then as I received gifts I would turn to again and again and again. For in the years since I have realized that I have met Jesus over and over again when the next time and the time after that came and I remembered how important it is to go when called: for time can, indeed, run out in this life. Oh, I have met Jesus over and over again when I have walked into pain instead of coming up with a convenient excuse to avoid it altogether: as I’m afraid I did so long ago. As Jesus did.
And surely I have met him, also, whenever I have experienced the forgiveness of others when I have failed to do and be all that I should. Indeed, this was so even the day of Susan’s funeral so long ago. This is how I remember it. We pulled up to the church and found our way in. Her now too thin body lay there in the casket in the narthex — her head wrapped in a scarf. I was simply overcome. And as my tears of grief and fear and yes, regret fell, my cousin, her brother, Marty came up beside me and speaking gently he said, ‘She loved you, you know.’ It was a moment of pure grace which I will never forget. Yes, Jesus was there in that and every time like it since.
And yes, I have met Jesus, too, whenever we gather at the table as Cleopas and his traveling companion did so long ago. I meet Jesus again whenever I speak words recalling all the “choirs of angels” who join us when we break the bread and pour the wine. For I know that Susan and so very many like her are among them. And I meet Jesus again when I hear and repeat the promise that the promises of forgiveness and life are ‘for you and for you and for you.’ And as they are repeated back to me as well. As it was so long ago when I stood weeping at her casket. Oh yes, as Jesus was known then in the breaking of the bread, he still is. Every single time. He always is.
- Like Cleopas and the other disciple, have you ever walked a road to Emmaus? What do you recall about the journey?
- Did you meet Jesus on the way? How was this so?
- As you look back, can you recognize now how your heart was ‘burning within you?’ What do you know now that you did not quite know then? How has it changed your life, your living?