In Luke’s gospel none of the disciples immediately understood what happened to Jesus. Mary Magdalene comes the closest but even she needed instruction by an angel to remember Jesus’ own prophecy. When she and the other women tell the apostles that they had seen Jesus’ tomb empty and heard the explanation of the angel only Peter believed them. He ran to the tomb but left amazed and more confused than enlightened. Particularly clueless were the disciples that we meet today on the road to Emmaus. Perhaps that is why they are among my favorite characters in the New Testament.
Luke emphasizes that they are leaving Jerusalem. The destination is unimportant; indeed, we are not certain where Emmaus was. They not only knew about Jesus but were close followers and if their eyes were not clouded, they would surely have recognized him. They can think and talk of nothing else but Jesus. They are downcast and cannot understand how their new companion is not likewise obsessed.
They knew about Jesus, but they really didn’t know him. They knew of and perhaps saw Jesus’s mighty acts and certainly heard his profound teaching. They knew as well that he had been handed over by their own leaders for crucifixion. They even knew that some women disciples said that an angel had told them that he was still alive and that other disciples had gone to the tomb and found it empty.
They know the facts but not the meaning and so must be taught. Jesus does not add anything to what they already know but shows them how to interpret the data. The first and most important lesson is that the Messiah had to suffer to be glorified. That Jesus died on the cross was of great significance. It was not only the most degrading and hideous death but social extinction. To crucify a person was to declare them valueless. They wanted Jesus to have the power to change everything and redeem Israel, but how could a crucified man change anything?
Jesus then reviews the Old Testament with them. He reminds them that the Messiah was to start a new world, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. This would change the relationship with God, their covenant with him and each other, and that this always requires a sacrifice. Luke leaves this undeveloped at this point. He will bring it out more clearly in the “Acts of the Apostles”. All new Christians require education. Feelings are not enough, without a true conversion of mind and heart we will be like the disciples today and walk away from the demands of Jerusalem to our own Emmaus, our place of escape and comfort.
Luke also shows that this education must be connected to the Eucharist, so beautifully called the source and summit of the Christian life. (Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1324) Luke says that Jesus “took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them” He uses these same words at the feeding of the 5 thousand (Luke 9:10-17) and the Last Supper (Luke 22:19) to describe the Eucharist. It was in participating in ritual that their eyes were opened, and they saw that Jesus was with them.
For Luke all disciples must learn the scriptures and celebrate the Eucharist. This is not a purely intellectual exercise but part of a spirit-led journey. Luke often uses the divine passive to show that God is in charge. So, “at first their eyes were prevented from seeing him” but then at the end “they were opened”. Also, the disciples did not come to an intellectual insight but a radical change in life as their hearts burned within them when Jesus explained the scriptures. Burning was often used in the OT for experiencing the presence of God and in the NT for the particular experience the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist says that the one after him would baptize in Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16) and indeed the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost as fire. (Acts 2:3)
The Holy Spirit not only enlightens our intellect but is also the bond of unity. Therefore, the disciples turned back from the road to Emmaus and returned to Jerusalem. They do not seek the comfort of solitude but the challenge of community. Luke is at his most subtle in showing why. They are greeted with “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon”.
Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter early in the Gospel (Luke 6:14). Since then, he has referred to him as Simon only twice, in today’s reading and when he speaks to him at the last supper:
Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” (Lk 22:31–32).
Simon ultimately did not fail and now can strengthen his brothers. It is only because he has acknowledged his weakness that he can give strength not only to these literally wayward disciples but the entire church.
This is a story of every Christian and Christian community. We must know the facts about Jesus and a parish must provide both the opportunity to learn about him and to experience him. Thus, we provide lifelong religious education. Most importantly we help parents pass on their faith with our Children’s religious education program, but we also have a variety of programs for adults including Bible study.
But the reality of Jesus can be experienced only through a vibrant community. As Luke reminds us today this is centered on the Eucharist. Most important of course is the weekly Sunday Mass but his needs to be occasionally enhanced. Our deanery is sponsoring a wonderful opportunity for a larger celebration for Corpus Christi, of which you will hear much more.
We are called to be saints, yet we find ourselves sinners. But as Luke shows us through the disciples who thought they could run from Jesus when our eyes are opened, we will find him running with us.