April 28th, 2019       Easter 2

Luke 24:13-49

With what heavy sorrow these two disciples dragged themselves down the weary road home. Cleopas and his nameless companion. It is possible that they were friends from the same village; it is possible that they were husband and wife – John’s gospel refers to Mary the wife of Clopas as one of the women at the foot of the cross. In any case, they have been through a brutal and horrible couple of days. Gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, with a large group of Jesus’s followers, men and women. There must have been a strong sense of excitement, the premonition that things were building towards something, a joy and camaraderie as the crowds welcomed him with cheers of enthusiasm. Oh, they were on a roll, something wonderful was in the offing!

And then the sudden, brutal end. It happened so quickly. One moment Jesus is celebrating Passover with his friends, and then out of nowhere the iron hand of the state came crashing down. Armed soldiers descended on the garden, scattering the disciples and seizing Jesus. They dragged him off to the council, who beat and mocked him. The next morning he was up in front of the cold, ruthless power of the Roman governor. The crowd that had cheered so enthusiastically just a few days before now jeering and calling for his blood. Then the inexorable cruelty of the crucifixion, obscene torture, but made public, made routine by the impersonal pitiless power of the state. The gentle, wise teacher they loved so much stripped, beaten, mocked, cruelly murdered.

“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” He was the one they put their hopes on; he was the one who in his caring concern had touched their lives and made them feel that they mattered, that there could be hope for them. And it is that hope that has been intentional, methodically crushed on the cross.

And now they are heading home. Sometimes coming home can be a terrible thing – like coming home from the hospital when a loved one has died, coming home to that empty house. There is nothing left for them in Jerusalem; nothing left of that community of friends but a broken, desolate group of people rapidly falling apart. They have wept till their heads and their chests ache; and then they have packed up their few poor belongings and started on the road. Sometimes that is all you can do, put one foot in front of the other.

Lost in their own thoughts they trudge on; and then, slowly, they find they can begin to talk about it, find words for the despair and pain in their hearts. What a gift it is to have a friend who shares your grief, who understands, who you trust enough to let all those raw, unsorted thoughts and feelings well up, as you stammer out what is on your heart. And so they fall into conversation, and perhaps their hearts are a little lighter for being able to let some of that grief out. And as they talk about the strange reports from that morning, that he was not in his tomb, and this talk about the vision of angels – well, they can scarcely make sense of it, but perhaps it is a bit less disturbing for saying it out loud.

Lost in their thoughts, lost in each other’s shared grief, I wonder when they first became aware of the stranger who had drawn near. They can’t have been glad of his presence at a time like that, and his intrusive questions, and his ignorance of what has happened. How can he be coming from Jerusalem and not know? But something about his manner, his calm questions, must have won their trust, because they begin to unpack to him what they have been talking about: the hope, the horror, the grief, the disturbing stories of the empty tomb.

The stranger listens. And then he begins to talk. He speaks with passion, but also kindly. He does not bulldoze over their grief, but picking up the unravelled threads of what they have been telling him, begins to speak of Scripture. He speaks of the law of Moses, he speaks of the ancient prophets of Israel. But he does not speak as the Pharisees speak, who use the Scriptures as a weapon to berate the people. Instead, he tells the story of a God who was always on the side of the heartbroken. A God who freed the slaves from Egypt and made from them a chosen people. A God who gave a law to protect the poor and the vulnerable. A God who passionately cried out to his people when they became rich and proud; a God who came closest to the people when they were broken and in exile, bringing them comfort, calling them home. A God whose power was not might and force and pride, but gentleness and suffering love.

As he spoke, their hearts burned within them. And the more he spoke about God, the more the events of the last days seemed to settle within them. Because they began to sense that it was part of a pattern, a pattern that the stranger was telling them ran right through Scripture. They began to understand – perhaps not yet with their heads, but certainly with their hearts – that what they had seen was not the triumph of hatred and power and violence, as they had thought, but the power of God’s suffering, self-giving love, which always had the last word.

And so with full but peaceful hearts they arrived at their village, entering the familiar streets as evening was falling. The stranger turned to say good-bye; but they were unwilling to part from him yet, and invited them into their home. The house was not so desolate after all, as they lit a lamp, and tidied up, and prepared a simple meal. They laid the table, said the blessing, and then the stranger, as though he were the host, picked up the bread to break it and share it with them. And something about that gesture, which they had seen Jesus do so often, something about the trick of the lamp-light, perhaps, and they recognized him.

How is that possible? He can’t have looked like Jesus, or they would have recognized him long since, on the road. And afterwards they wondered how they had not recognized him by his words, which touched them and made their hearts burn within them, just as Jesus used to.

When they recognized him, they knew that he was alive, they realized that Pilate’s brutal sentence of death did not have the last word, that the love of God was stronger in the end. I wonder, though, if they began to realize something else in what they had experienced: that Jesus’s living presence among them was different now, no longer bound to the face and body that they knew. That Jesus could appear in the guise of a stranger, or a friend; that whenever people approach one another in kindness and hope, Jesus himself might well be present, recognizable maybe only by a familiar gesture of sharing, or by a tilt of the light.

And they arose that very night and headed back to Jerusalem, back down those weary miles, but this time with a spring in their steps, driven by a joyous hope. They returned to find their friends, still awake in the middle of the night, themselves filled with the same joy and excitement that had touched them.

Of Cleopas and his companion we hear no more by name. But we can presume this much: that they were part of that movement that exploded joyfully on the scene, a movement of men and women who, miraculously, were not crushed or cowed by the worst that Pilate could do, but filled with the conviction that death and brutality had no power left. A movement of men and women dedicated to sharing the ministry of Jesus, to reaching out to the downtrodden, the heartbroken, the hopeless, the grieving, with the good news that runs through Scripture: that God draws near us in our pain, healing and redeeming our lives through his love.

And that, of course, is the same movement of which we also are a part. Because we believe Jesus moves among us still today, unrecognized in the form of a stranger, or a friend, reaching out to touch us with kindness when we need it, and empowering us to extend that same kindness, witness to the self-giving love of God, to those around us who need it. Thanks be to God!