The gospel of Luke has two very distinctive resurrection appearance stories, and the second one is our gospel for Sunday. I’m happy to be preaching on the second one because it seems like the Emmaus story gets more than its share of air-time in Lutheran circles.
Most of the time the Emmaus story gets preached something like this: Jesus appears on the road with two disciples, opens the Scriptures to them, and then is known in the breaking of the bread. The disciples spontaneously dash back to Jerusalem to tell others what they have seen. And so we follow the same pattern in our liturgical worship – word and table, recognizing Christ’s presence when we break bread in communion. It’s all very tidy and – if preached well – moving. But I’m a little weary of it, perhaps because of its neatness. In recent years I’ve been more interested as to why these two disciples – Cleopas and someone Luke doesn’t bother to name – get to be the first witnesses to his risen presence. And why were they leaving town to begin with?
The second appearance story takes on a different pattern, and I think it’s important for us not to lose sight of this one. You could make a case that the second story follows more a nondenominational pattern of worship instead of a liturgical one. Jesus shows up, surprising everyone, and only after he has assured them of that physical presence does he mention the scriptures, and then he commissions them to go and tell. Now, eating does not play much of a part in many evangelical services, but the typical pattern of starting with half an hour of praise music certainly counts as a physical endeavor (I would make a case that 4-part harmony is MORE physical, but there’s no denying that singing with others is a full-body experience), and this “worship time” is designed to be basking in the presence of Christ. Only after that does a preacher stand up and offer a message. And the commission to go and tell others is definitely articulated in these congregations far more than in our Lutheran circles (not that it has to be that way, it just is).
It’s not exactly a biblical question to ask, “Well, which kind of appearance is more effective”? – but I can’t help but make comparisons. On the road to Emmaus hearts are opened and burn within them. The disciples definitely are excited by what they have experienced and repent -- literally turn around and head back to Jerusalem. But there’s no lengthy basking in the presence of Jesus. Once they know him, he’s gone.
In the second story Jesus seems to be at pains to set them at ease, saying “Do not be afraid,” pointing out his wounds, asking for food instead of waiting for an invitation. But it’s clear that the disciples are disbelieving as well as joyful, confused by this visit. If Jesus can’t set them at ease, who can? And then there’s this “commission,” which compared to Matthew’s is very indirect. There is no command here except that they wait for the Holy Spirit. Jesus is clear that repentance and forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed to all nations, but there is no GO. Only “You are witnesses of these things.” It’s simply a statement of fact. The message will be proclaimed, and the witnesses are those who are there.
What does this mean? Perhaps only that no matter how you experience Christ’s presence, no matter whether you put Scripture’s witness or first hand spiritual encounters first, you are witnesses. Repentance and forgiveness happen. God is known, even in the midst of doubts and fears and confusion and, yes, joy. Christ is risen, and our attempts to order our faith lives won’t change that.