One of the most influential events in my life was the "Walk to Emmaus" spiritual retreat. I attended in 1996 when I was only 21 years old. This was before I was a preacher (or even knew I was going to be a preacher), back when I was still in college trying to figure things out. I had heard of the Walk to Emmaus from others at church. Then my friend asked if he could sponsor me to attend. I agreed and it was so powerful it helped shape everything that's happened in my life since then.
After attending "the walk", I served on many teams--right up until this year. Unfortunately, all future Walk to Emmaus retreats are on hold indefinitely because of COVID-19. It's just not safe to gather a hundred people into a small conference center where social distancing is not possible. So many of our usual activities are disrupted right now—school, church, sports, etc. How do we find the inspiration, encouragement, and release that we need?
I want to talk about that today. But first, let's read the story of the original "Walk to Emmaus" together from the Gospel of Luke.
13 That same day two of Jesus’ followers were walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things, Jesus himself suddenly came and began walking with them. 16 But God kept them from recognizing him.
17 He asked them, “What are you discussing so intently as you walk along?”
They stopped short, sadness written across their faces. 18 Then one of them, Cleopas, replied, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days.”
19 “What things?” Jesus asked.
“The things that happened to Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” they said. “He was a prophet who did powerful miracles, and he was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people. 20 But our leading priests and other religious leaders handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel. This all happened three days ago.
22 “Then some women from our group of his followers were at his tomb early this morning, and they came back with an amazing report. 23 They said his body was missing, and they had seen angels who told them Jesus is alive! 24 Some of our men ran out to see, and sure enough, his body was gone, just as the women had said.”
25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. 26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” 27 Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
28 By this time they were nearing Emmaus and the end of their journey. Jesus acted as if he were going on, 29 but they begged him, “Stay the night with us, since it is getting late.” So he went home with them. 30 As they sat down to eat,[d] he took the bread and blessed it. Then he broke it and gave it to them. 31 Suddenly, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And at that moment he disappeared!
32 They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” 33 And within the hour they were on their way back to Jerusalem. There they found the eleven disciples and the others who had gathered with them, 34 who said, “The Lord has really risen! He appeared to Peter.”
Often when I tell people about the spiritual retreat called “The Walk to Emmaus”, they think it is some kind of hike or walking trip. It is not. It is based off this passage from Luke. Two disciples are walking on the road to a town called Emmaus when Jesus comes up along side them, but they don’t recognize him. He walks with them and explains how the Old Testament Scriptures said that the Messiah would come and be crucified and rise from the grave. Then, the two disciples recognize Jesus when he breaks bread for Holy Communion.
One of the two disciples was a man named Cleopas. The other disciple isn’t named. If he was one of the 12 disciples, Luke probably would have told us his name. So I think it’s safe to assume it wasn’t Peter, James, John, or any of the other “famous twelve” men we know as the Apostles. I don’t know about you, but it encourages me to think Cleopas and the other disciple were a couple of the lesser known followers of Jesus. (You see Jesus had many followers and we only hear the names of a few of them.) I like that, because I’ve never thought of myself as anyone special—not someone worthy of my name going down in history for people to remember thousands of years from now. I’m just a regular guy trying to follow Jesus through this messed up world. How about you? And the fact that Jesus appears to these two obscure guys on the road to Emmaus speaks to me. That’s my story. Maybe that's your story too.
And why do we assume these two disciples are guys at all? I mean, as far as I can tell, it never says they were guys. Does it? We just assume they were men. And whenever this story has been told for two thousand years, or whenever someone painted a picture of “The Walk to Emmaus”, they painted the two disciples as men. I guess that says more about us and our preconceived notions than it does about the actual story. There’s no reason I can see that this couldn’t have been two women walking along (or a man and a woman). Cleopas was probably a man—it’s a man’s name. But etymologists also speculate Cleopas could be the shortened form of Cleopatra (and as far as I can remember, Cleopatra was typically a girls name). I don’t know, it can get confusing—kinda of like my name could be male or female. (My wife and I once attended a party where know one knew us and we said we were "Chris and Kelly", but they didn't know which one of us was the husband and which was the wife, because both our names can be used for either gender).
It could have been a married couple—Cleopas and his wife. A lot of scholars think that was the situation. I guess that makes sense to me, but we can’t know for sure. The truth is, we know one was Cleopas and one was unnamed. We don’t know their genders. We do know they were two of Jesus followers, and they were confused and probably frightened. Their master had been arrested and crucified. And know some of their fellow disciples were claiming Jesus alive again.
This is an important story for the dark times in which we live. Many are wondering who they can trust. We feel like the world we know and love is coming to an end. You may feel like society has changed so much that you no longer fit in. Well, consider Cleopas and his companion in this story. They were living in dark times too—much darker than ours. While we’re arguing about whether we should wear masks or send our kids back to school, these disciples lived in a time when the government very clearly could not be trusted and had just definitively confirmed they were out to get Jesus and all his followers. They arrested Jesus in the middle of the night, convicted him in a kangaroo court, and sentenced him to death. The very next day, the nailed him to a cross and threw his dead body in a tomb. You can’t make it more clear than that. Now Cleopas and the other disciple are walking away from Jerusalem to Emmaus. (I’m tempted to re-translate that “They were getting the heck outa dodge!” because their afraid the soldiers would be breaking down their doors next and dragging htem off to be nailed to a cross.)
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were sad. They were afraid. They were on edge. They were amazed at the crazy story they’d heard that Jesus' body was missing from the tomb and he was alive. I can’t blame them for not recognizing Jesus when he walked right up beside them. We miss some pretty obvious stuff all the time—especially when we’re worn out, scared, and/or overwhelmed. One time I grew out a beard for the winter and then shaved it off on Easter morning. Then my wife had a cup of coffee with me and didn't even notice until hours later when she saw my at church. Haha! I've done a similar thing to her after she came home from the hair salon with her hair colored and styled and, like an idiot, I said, "So what'd you do today?" We miss stuff all the time.
Holy Communion is a very special sacrament Christ has given us as sacred way to know his presence with us. It helps open our eyes. As we break the bread and drink the juice, we see Christ with us. We also remember how Jesus' love lead him to die on the cross for our sins. We are called to repent of our sins and return to Christ so that His blood washes away our sins. Holy Communion also reminds us, in a special way, that Christ is with us, strengthening us to face whatever darkness surround us. Jesus is the light of the world and His Holy Spirit lives inside all who believe; and the darkness shall not over come the Light. Therefore, we can shine brightly for all the world to see. The light of a candle is the most noticeable when it lights a dark room. The light of Christ in our life is most noticeable when we shine in a dark world.
However, as special as Holy Communion is, don’t ever forget Jesus is always with you if He is your Lord. He was walking with the two disciples the whole time they were on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t recognize him, but he was there the whole time. Don’t you know that—if you are a believer—Jesus is with you the whole time too? Not just when you are taking Holy Communion, but all the time.
We haven’t celebrated Holy Communion at Pleasant Grove since the beginning of March (for obvious reasons). Four months. Yet Jesus has been with us the whole time. His presence is not the issue. It’s our recognition of his presence. Do you recognize he is walking beside you? How can you remind yourself daily that he is there?
Let me summarize a short list of things—besides Holy Communion—that help Christians remain aware that Jesus is with us always.
You can also remember Jesus is with you by reading other material too. I often hear a word from God while reading a good book. Maybe you can too. But please, pick good stuff. What you read becomes part of your spirit. If you read a lot of trash, soon you will be full of trash. So read good stuff so you will be full of good thoughts and ideas.
Preaching has often reminded me of Jesus presence. It was preaching that helped me hear God's call to repent of my sins and follow Jesus as my Lord. It was in sermons of good preachers where I heard God calling me to be a pastor. Preaching has inspired, challenged, convicted, and motivated me. Make it a regular habit to listen to good, biblical based preaching.
Music can also be a special grace to help us recognize Jesus presence with us. Does the music you listen to turn your eyes toward Jesus? you don't have to listen exclusively to Gospel or Christian music. (Everyone enjoys a piece of cake now and then, but it's not healthy to eat cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.) So be sure to listen to music that turns your heart to God, because what you consume with your ears can either build up or destroy your heart.
There is also contemplation. What do you think about while you are going about your day or while you are out in the world. When you are at the beach on vacation, do you see and hear the waves of the ocean as the majesty of God' creation or are you too busy looking at the pretty girls in bikinis? What you think about habitually altars the shape of your mind. So let your thoughts shape your mid positively.
There is one more thing I want to mention. What were the two disciples doing on the road to Emmaus? They were talking to each other about their thoughts and concerns and hopes and dreams about Jesus. And it was as they were walking and talking that Jesus showed up. Do you have a friend to talk to? Do you always, only talk about sports or the latest TV shows or gossip? Do you ever talk about more important things like your faith in Jesus? I hope so. For when we talk with our friends about Christ, he appears and we begin to understand.