An Unexpected Guest for Dinner
April 30, 2017
Do you remember the television series of the late 1980s and 1990s hosted by Robert Stack called Unsolved Mysteries? The premise was just as the name suggests. The focus was on unsolved crimes, conspiracy theories related to famous events and even stories about the world of the unexplained such as UFOs, Bigfoot and why Baptists never sing the third stanza of any hymn. Well, maybe they didn’t do a story on that last one, but they missed a golden opportunity didn’t they! According to the show, these were the mysteries of the day that were begging for someone to come and crack the code or solve the riddle.
Luke’s Emmaus Road story in chapter 24 of his gospel has at least two unsolved mysteries connected to it as well. As we discussed last week, it is the story of two followers of Jesus who appear to have been present at Jesus’ crucifixion on the first Good Friday. In the story, they were now traveling home to the town of Emmaus where they lived on what would eventually be understood as the first Easter.
Jesus had died on a Friday, Saturday had been the sabbath and thus they had stayed in Jerusalem to worship while at the same time adhering to the Jewish law that forbid them to travel on the sabbath. Then, on Sunday, the first day of the week, as others among Jesus’ followers were beginning to discover and discuss the empty tomb and what had happened, these two began their journey home apparently somewhere around late morning or early afternoon since they too had already heard about the women’s experience from earlier in the day. According to Luke, one of these two followers was named Cleopas and the other remained unnamed.
This, in fact, is the first unsolved mystery – was the other disciple and fellow traveler with Cleopas a male or a female? Was the other disciple Cleopas’ wife or friend? What was the other disciple’s name? We don’t know anything about Cleopas’ traveling companion. It is a mystery of the story.
The other mystery has to do with their town of Emmaus which again was the place to which they were traveling as they left Jerusalem. Emmaus is never mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. And, to this day, we have no idea as to where Emmaus was located. Even though Luke tells us that Emmaus was only 7 miles from Jerusalem or roughly a 2 hour walk, we don’t know what direction the town was in or anything about life there. Emmaus, like the nameless disciple, remains an unsolved mystery.
In a lot of ways an unnamed disciple and the undiscovered location of Emmaus are insignificant and trivial. They don’t matter to the overall value of the story. Yet, I like what the Methodist Minister Bob Albritten says about these two unknowns of the story. Our not knowing anything about Cleopas’ companion means that we can insert our name in that spot. We can allow ourselves to be the unnamed fellow companion and thus make this story even more our own story. In the same vein, our not knowing where Emmaus was or anything about Emmaus means that the journey can be about our own journey to our own town. The point is that by filling in the blanks, we can make this story our story as we see ourselves in the Emmaus account. This is good word for we need to learn the same Emmaus lesson that these two travelers learned in Luke’s story when the stranger who had walked with them for several miles on their way home, came to dinner and revealed himself to them. (Bob Albritten in the sermon, “Did Not Our Hearts Burn”, April 10, 2005, Millbrook Baptist, Raleigh, NC)
When I was a boy, we had a yearly encounter with a stranger in our home. Every year, our little town hosted a 10K road race. The famous Olympian Jessie Owens was born only about five or ten miles out from our town in a rural unincorporated community and thus we claimed him as our native son. The race was named in his honor and because of his name and fame, it was a very popular event with several hundred runners descending on our community for the annual event. Every year, when the race took place and since there were no decent local hotels, my parents hosted a race official or a competitor in our home. It was always a potluck experience as to who our guest for the evening would be. The organizers of the race simply paired those needing a room for the night with a willing host family and thus you never knew who you would get. As a child, this was a fascinating event to me. I always went with my dad to the Friday night meal that kicked off the weekend. It was there that host families met the stranger who would stay the night with them. I can still remember studying name tags, looking for our lodger and wondering what kind of person they would be. I wanted to know what was in store for us – were we in for an interesting evening of stories and conversation with a new friend or would the night be sheer misery with a stranger who was uninteresting and had little to say? You just never knew and thus it was a time of both excitement and fear all at once.
Likewise, I can’t imagine what the Emmaus travelers thought when the stranger in their midst was revealed as none other than Jesus himself. If I were to guess, I would say that their feeling ran the gamut too- hopefulness, amazement but also fear. After all, Jesus’ followers had been a huge disappointment in his final days on earth. Most of them had not been there for him when he needed them most. Many of them had denied knowing him. Some of them had faded into the shadows to protect themselves rather than risking their lives for his sake. Collectively, they had not understood Jesus’ repeated words that he was going to die or that he would overcome even the grave. When he needed their support they had not given it and when he needed them to understand they had not been able to do so.
Thus, one can imagine that his reappearance must have been a bittersweet and unnerving moment. Without question, they were thankful he was alive. But, what would he say to them, how would he handle their failures and how could he possibly continue to love them, befriend them or have confidence in them when they had almost to a person failed him so miserably. Surely, the Jesus’ they would have expected in such a moment would have demanded answers, been upset and might have wanted to recruit some new followers.
But this is not the Jesus who came to dinner that night. What they discovered instead was that their guest came with love, grace and a continued belief in them. Despite their failures, Jesus still loved them. Despite their inability to remain faithful, Jesus still had confidence in them. Jesus was there to give these two and all of his other followers another chance to get it right.
This is the Jesus we must believe in on this side of Easter and it is such good news. You see, if we are honest, we have a picture of God that is often full of judgment, wrath and fury. Our God sees our failures, keeps scores and is disappointed in us. Our God so often is frustrated by us and looses faith. This is what we think of God because this how we have been taught or this is how we have been treated by others in authority and thus we assume this is how God must be too. But, this is not what we find in the Jesus of the resurrection. Instead, we find a Jesus of grace, a Jesus of second chances, a Jesus who joins us on our own Emmaus Road to remind us we are loved and to encourage us to try again.
Without question, God wants us to make good decisions. God wants us to do the right things. God wants us to be people of courage, grace and integrity. But when we are not any of those things, God doesn’t give up, abandon us or walk away anymore than Jesus did when his own followers exhibited similar behavior in his moment of deepest need.
When Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, the moment brought great hope to lots of South Africans and great fear to others. You see, Mandela had been a political prisoner before becoming President and was held in the famous South African prison on Robben Island for 27 years from 1963 until 1990. So, when he ascended to the highest office in the land, many of those who had treated him so unjustly during him imprisonment feared that he would exact revenge upon them. They, however, were wrong. Mandela instead had long before decided to be gracious, forgiving and to offer a second chance for the restoring of long fractured relationships. So, when it came time for his inauguration, one of the people that Mandela invited to be present was his jailer on Robbins’ Island who was a man named Christo Brand. Brand had been Mandela’s captor but now Mandela gave Brand a chance to be his friend. (The Guard Who Really Was Mandela’s Friend, The Guardian, May 19, 2007)
God, through Christ, does the same for us. He does not abandon us, give up on us or walk away from us. Instead, he joins us on our Emmaus Roads as we walk away from our own failures, bad decisions and poor choices. He whispers into our ear and says, “I am still your friend, let’s try this again.” Amen.