One of my favorite books by the iconic American author John Steinbeck is his 1962 work Travels With Charley. If you are familiar with the title, then you may remember that the story focuses on a real life adventure that Steinbeck made in 1960 with his poodle whose name was Charley. For the trip, Steinbeck and Charley traveled in a retrofitted truck with a camper shell over the bed. They visited virtually every section of the United States and travelled over 10,000 miles. More than anything, Steinbeck wanted to answer this question, “what are Americans like today?” (“Travels With Charley”, wikipedia.com)
In essence, Travels with Charley can be characterized as an epic adventure in which there were things to learn about life and people around almost every turn.
In many regards, this is an equally good way to think about Luke’s story in Chapter 24 that we remember as the Emmaus Road journey. On the one hand, it is the story of a life changing trip as two of Jesus’ followers, one named Cleopas and the other whose name we never learn, were walking home the seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus on the very first Easter itself. Apparently the two had been in the city for the Passover and were thus present at or at least nearby when Jesus was crucified on Good Friday. With Saturday being the Sabbath, Jewish law prevented them from traveling, so as Sunday dawned, they headed home, walking, talking and reflecting on what they had experienced in recent days.
On the other hand, this story is a time for learning. As the two early followers travel they are joined by none other than Jesus himself who they do not recognize until they arrive at their home and share a meal with him. Yet, it is in this very trip that lessons abound not only for them but also for us about what it is like to travel and interact with the risen Lord along the winding road which is the every day human experience.
This morning, I want to zero in on some of these lessons. Again, like these two followers, our lives daily and holistically are a journey. So, what do we learn from their encounter with the risen Christ on their journey that can be insightful lessons for us as we anticipate and best prepare ourselves for our own inevitable encounters with the Lord in our own daily travels?
Let me mention four things that stand out to me. First, they learn that our living Lord comes to us in our joy and in our sadness. I find it very insightful to read Luke’s specific words that these two followers were sad as they travelled home. I think we can also say that in our other resurrection text from last week in which we focused on the disciples meeting Jesus behind locked doors on successive Sunday nights that fear, anxiety and sadness likely were the feelings they were dealing with too. All of this I think is to make the simple point that the Risen Christ not only comes into and permeates our lives in the happy times but equally so in the sad, hard times. We don’t struggle to look for God in the good but we do sometimes find it awfully hard to recognize God in the bad. Yet even now, in this particular journey that we are on as people right now, aren’t there ways that God is with us, near us and trying to teach us even in this hard place?
Second, this story and journey of these two followers reminds us that recognizing the living Lord in our midst is often hard to do. Now, let me be clear that Luke says that “God caused” the two not to be able to identify Jesus. Yet, one of the overarching characteristics of these resurrection stories is that Jesus’ own followers struggled to identify him. Of course, there were obvious reasons for this – they didn’t expect to see him, their clarity was affected by their emotions and they simply made natural assumptions that he was the gardener, merely a stranger or someone else. This is a good word for us to hear. The discipline of expecting to encounter and thus recognizing the Lord in our daily lives is hard, challenging, not easy. So, we must work hard to prayerfully enter the day, to expect that in natural circumstances God will speak and to develop eyes to see the movement of God in our midst. After all, if Jesus’ earliest followers who had known and been in conversation with Jesus in a real way struggled to recognize him after the resurrection should we not anticipate similar struggles for ourselves?
Third, this travel story makes the excellent point that encounters with the Risen Christ are often not simply for our personal edification but rather they are an invitation to join God in God’s work. Again, there are similarities here between last week’s story and this week’s resurrection story. In both, the encounter with Jesus leads to action. Last week, we emphasized the point that Jesus not only came to clearly and definitely communicate his aliveness but also to challenge the disciples not to stay behind locked doors. Remember that he said to them “as the Father sent me, so I send you”. It is as if Jesus was saying “I am not here so that you will stay behind locked doors, I am here to give you the courage to open the door and reengage with the world.”
This week, we see this same truth in the response of the two Emmaus followers. After the meal, when their eyes are opened and they realize that they have seen and been with the Risen Jesus, they immediately turn around and walk the same seven miles back to Jerusalem to give witness to what they have seen. Said another way, their encounter creates a desire within their being to go and share. They don’t simply internalize what they have experienced, they immediately go and do something with it.
A huge challenge for the modern believer and for the modern church is our tendency to internalize our faith or to make our relationship with Christ only about us. We celebrate the experience of the Risen Christ in our lives because those moments make us feel good, ease our mind, give us courage and peace. And, that is all wonderful and needed. But, is that really the end goal – only that we would feel better? Or, much of the time, is our experience of Christ meant to propel us forward into some type of act on behalf of others or the kingdom? Again, in our two resurrection stories from last week and this one, the focus is on action.
Fourth and finally, this text, again like last week’s resurrection story, speaks to Christ’s individual care for his followers. Yes, Jesus appears to larger numbers of people according to the gospels, but Jesus also appeared to individuals and small groups. He appeared to Thomas and he appears to Cleopas and the other unnamed follower. He appears to the women at the tomb and he will make a specific appearance to Peter despite his betrayal. The point all of this makes, I think, is that our Living Lord cares about us and does so by name and individually. None of us are so insignificant that we are unworthy of the Lord of all of the universe showing up and walking with us on the very dirt or gravel roads that we travel in what sometimes feels like a lonely existence. That is a powerful word of hope and affirmation.
I don’t know if you saw the story last week about the Southwest Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Saint Louis, Missouri? Of course, these have been hard days for the airlines due to most folks staying at homes and not wanting to go anywhere that requires hours in confined spaces and with strangers. Yet, airlines have continued to try to operate on a limited schedule including this flight last week from Fort Lauderdale to Saint Louis. On board that day was a man by the name of Bob Pitts. What made the flight remarkable is that Pitts was the only passenger onboard. That’s right the rest of the plane was completely empty save Bob and the crew. What resulted was an unexpected, personal VIP experience. Everyone called Bob by name including the captain who welcomed him aboard personally over the intercom. The attendants also called Bob by name throughout the flight and made sure he had whatever he needed. Obviously, Bob Pitts boarded the flight expecting to be an anonymous traveler and ended his journey with all of the attention squarely on him. (“Sole Passenger on South Florida Flight Receives ‘Unique’ Experience”, April 20, 2020, nbcmiami.com)
That, I believe is the whole story of the gospels and the resurrection. Yes, God so loves the world, but God in Christ also loves us personally and comes to us as individuals and in our unique situations. Yes, Jesus can be hard to recognize and particularly so in the sad times. And, yes, often, Christ comes not only to love us but to challenge and call us. Yet, this does not take away from Christ’s personal presence even on the lonely roads that we sometimes travel. After all, we just never know, on any given day, who may just join us on the road. Amen.