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Luke 24:13-35 "The Walk to Emmaus", by Susan Durber (Pilgrimage Bible study)

There are all sorts of pilgrimages for which one plans and prepares, looks forward to and anticipates with excitement. This story in Luke 24:13-35 is nothing like that. This is a story about a walk that comes from grief and trauma, from profound disappointment and sorrow. It is a story that starts with the slow steps of the depressed and cast down. But it ends with the excited running of the redeemed, and the joy of finding life transformed.

09 May 2018

Bible studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
"The Walk to Emmaus" (Luke 24:13-35)
Susan Durber*

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him. 17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast.18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. 28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” 33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

There are all sorts of pilgrimages for which one plans and prepares, looks forward to and anticipates with excitement.   This story in Luke 24:13-35 is nothing like that. This is a story about a walk that comes from grief and trauma, from profound disappointment and sorrow. It is a story that starts with the slow steps of the depressed and cast down. But it ends with the excited running of the redeemed, and the joy of finding life transformed.

This story can speak to us when we feel that we are not on a positive journey forward, when both justice and peace seem far away, and when we feel that we are simply retreating or walking slowly into a future that we dread or fear. This story speaks to those who might think they have no energy for anything as positive as a pilgrimage at all, and whom God comes to meet as they struggle to put one foot in front of another. It is a story that is very honest about hopelessness and loss, but also about how God comes to find us in those places. It shows how God walks beside us and can transform even the deepest bereavement and loss into a journey of hope. This is a story that invites those who are deep in sorrow to walk in hope again.

***

I can remember a particular time in my own life when grief knocked me sideways. I had known that loss was coming, but when it came it was shocking in its impact. There were days when I did not want to get out of bed, days when I felt that the weight of grief was too much to bear, days when I did not care about very much at all. As I read this passage, I can remember those very feelings, and so these two disciples have all my sympathy.

The death of Jesus, his humiliating crucifixion and his burial in a cold grave meant that something in them had died as well. “We had hoped,” they say to the stranger on the road.  They seem to have no curiosity left anymore to look carefully into his face, and their grief is so deep that their eyes look blankly out from tired faces. “We had hoped.” With hope emptied and drained from them, I imagine them deciding to get out of the city, to see whether a different place would ease the pain.

I picture them walking the seven miles to Emmaus with the slow pace of the depressed and the traumatized. I have walked like that too. And I have seen that slow walk performed by the grief-stricken, the disappointed and the defeated, in so many contexts and places. Grief drains us of energy. Once hope is gone, there seems little point in moving from one place to another. Every step seems like the most unappealing and uncomfortable effort. And yet we cannot rest where we are either. Anything is better than staying still, but every step is painful too.

There’s no peace in grief. There’s no justice either, for every life deserves to flourish. And these two pilgrims were bereaved not only of a friend but also of a cause. Their lives had been shaped by a purpose, by a Gospel, by good news for the poor and hope for a new kind of world. All of that, all that hope for a real change, had apparently gone. Now the only change they could imagine was a different skyline, a quieter place, a walk to pass a few desolate hours.

It often feels something like this in the midst of personal grief, and in collective grief as well. Among the smaller, declining churches in Europe today, as we lose numbers and influence and hope, it is as though we are enduring something like grief. “We had hoped,” people say, as they remember times when the church was powerful, when even governments listened to Christian voices, and when the churches were full. But now, in some of our churches, people just move slowly as they do what the church has always done, keeping buildings open and traditions going, sensing the irony of a church going on “retreat.” The sea of faith is going out, the poet says, and the faithful are left slowed down by a kind of grief and sense of loss.

“We had hoped.” Some ask whether this is a kind of end of the pilgrimage. Some mourn the going out of the high tide of ecumenism and wonder who will now walk with them on the road. In some churches in some places, there is grief and loss, a sense of being exiled from the places of power and influence, and a sense of uncertainty about the future. This is a reality in my U.K. context, and as I reflect on the fragility of the churches that I know well, feelings of grief and loss surge within me.

But this story speaks powerfully and movingly to grief and loss, and it offers hope for the future to those who think that hope belongs only in the past. They have, at least, the courage to do the right thing and to invite the stranger to dine with them. They have not forgotten, even in the depths of their loss and trauma, the courtesies of hospitality and the central practices of faith, to welcome the stranger. They keep the rituals going, and they do what followers of Jesus have always done. And then they found, as they listened to the stranger open the scriptures and as the bread was blessed and broken, that hope was returned to them. They had invited him because “the day is now nearly over,” surely both a statement of the time of day and a powerful image of their sense of an ending. But now, “that same hour,” they get up and return to Jerusalem.

We might imagine the difference in their pace now, the walking that is almost running, the sense of life re-kindled and the sense that Jesus is not dead but risen. And this transformation happens because these two worn out pilgrims are returned to the source of faith and to the practices they had learned to cherish: to reading the scriptures and to breaking bread with the stranger. In those very ordinary things, grief was overcome and life renewed.

In my own life and in my own context, my own pilgrimage has been transformed in just this way. The accompaniment of Jesus in our own lives can hold us through times of loss and grief. And ministering in small churches, I have learned that there is nothing so restoring to hope and so energizing as returning to the scriptures and the sacraments, remembering the acts of faith through which God continues to come to us and restore us. And keeping on going in those simple ways does mean that every church could be renewed in faith and hope, in the way that God wills. Of course, loss and grief are never simply erased, as though they had never been. Of course social changes can never be easily reversed. Hope does not return in the way we used to hold it. But God comes nonetheless and quickens our steps.

Lesslie Newbigin, the great missionary and ecumenist, was once asked whether he was a pessimist or an optimist. He simply replied that he believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many of us have experienced or fear death, whether of people or institutions. But death is overcome, in Christ, by resurrection. The slow pace of grief can be turned to the dance of hope again. The painful walk of the bereaved can become a pilgrimage toward peace. The wounded feet of the traumatized will find justice again.

***

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. Where in your context do you see people walking in grief or trauma?
  2. Where in your context is God, through the work of the church, turning the painful steps of those in exile and pain into a pilgrimage of hope?

Invitations for Action:

  1. Go and visit someone who has recently been bereaved or experienced loss and trauma. Listen to their story and be alongside them on behalf of the church.
  2. Prepare and organize a service of worship for those who are grieving in which the reading of the scriptures and the breaking of bread can both express profound grief and offer hope.

Resources:

- A painting by He Qi: two disciples with Christ walking with them

- Myrlene Hamiton Hess, On the Road to Emmaus: A Travel Guide through Grief(2008): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Road-Emmaus-Travel-Guide-Through/dp/0817015337

Almost Sunrise: A 4-minute film about two veterans who walked thousands of miles to draw attention to the trauma of those who have experienced war: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gySFEhXxV-0

* Susan Durber is a minister of the United Reformed Church in the UK and Moderator of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order. Her publications include Preaching like a Woman (SPCK, 2007) and Surprised by Grace: Parables and Prayers (URC, 2013).