Homily, Third Sunday of Easter (A)

“Did not our hearts burn within us when he opened up the Scriptures to us?”

Jesus once walked on the earth and his walking was far more important than walking on the moon. The Gospel of today is one of the most compelling narratives in all of the scriptures. So fascinating is this scene, in fact, that the gospel writer Luke includes it in detail near the end of his gospel writing. It is a story known well and beloved in the church – the story of two disciples walking down a dusty road to the village of Emmaus, the evening of that first Easter day.

The two disciples of Jesus were returning to their hometown and their talk centers around the crucified, dead Jesus. Their words come out slowly, almost painfully, as they trudge their way along, their feet heavy and their hearts broken. “I can hardly believe it,” one of them says. “In fact, I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. He is dead. He is really gone.” “What should we to do now?” the other asks. “Life seems hopeless.” And just then a stranger joins them – perhaps he has come up from behind, unknown to them. Perhaps he has walked along with them for a while without their noticing him. But suddenly he is there. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but I couldn’t help but overhear you. What are you talking about?”

They stop and turn to him. Other travelers step around them, anxious to reach their destination before night falls. The three of them stand there in the middle of the dusty road and talk. “Where have you been the last few days,” one of the disciples asked the stranger. “How is it you haven’t heard anything about Jesus of Nazareth?” And so the two of them tell the stranger what they know. The two beloved disciples of our Lord were filled with sadness and despair, grieving at the death of a friend, telling that stranger how the last nail has been driven into their hope for the future. And our Savior himself, unknown to them, patiently listening to them, his nail-scarred hands undoubtedly buried deep within his robe to keep them from recognizing him. As he heard those words of grief and sadness, there is no doubt his heart must have been touched by their pain.

Encounters with God: The Old Testament describes how the Chosen People encountered God in unexpected ways. Gen 18:1-15 describes how Abraham, at Mamre, entertained angels unaware. Running from his troubles, Jacob laid his head on a stone while he slept and saw a stairway to Heaven.  He is presented as wrestling all night with a manifestation of God in the flesh. Moses turned aside from his flock of sheep to see why a bush would burn and not be consumed and heard the Voice of God from it. Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the Temple. Saul of Tarsus met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and Jesus got Saul’s attention by knocking him to the ground and striking him blind. God’s Self-disclosure to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus was unexpected, but in a radically different way from the encounters mentioned above.

The Jewish custom required that Cleopas and his companion invite Jesus to dinner.  Hence, they invited Jesus for a night’s rest in their house–and Jesus accepted the invitation.  During the meal, when Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them, the disciples realized that this stranger was Jesus, the risen Christ, and Jesus immediately vanished.  Later they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us when he opened up the Scriptures to us?”  Since they could not keep the Good News to themselves, the Emmaus disciples walked back seven miles to Jerusalem to share their story with the other disciples.

The Fathers of the Church note how well the details of this Emmaus episode match our process of coming to faith in Jesus Christ.  First, there are questions and a search for answers.  Then comes a moment of discovery when our eyes are opened and our hearts within begin to burn with longing.  Finally there is the desire to tell the story to all who will listen.  Jesus began revealing himself through the Scriptures (vv. 25-27) and completed the revelation through the Eucharist (vv. 30-31). This means that Christ still reveals himself to us through Word and Sacrament. The word “companion” derives from two Latin words, “cum” meaning “together with,” and “panis” which means “bread,” implying that companionship is the result especially of eating together, breaking bread together, something which is at the heart of the Eucharist.

Luke’s Emmaus story teaches us that (1) Jesus’ death and Resurrection fit God’s purpose as revealed in the Scriptures; (2) the risen Jesus is present in the Word of God and especially in the Breaking of the Bread; 3) suffering is necessary for the Messiah “to enter into his glory;” and 4) we have a risen Savior, One Who personally walks with us in our daily paths, talks with us through His Word and with Whom we can talk through prayer.  He is the One, Who opens our minds to understand and respond to His Word.

Jesus meets us on our Emmaus Road.  The risen Lord meets us on the road to our Emmaus in the ordinary experiences of our lives and in the places to which we retreat when life is too much for us.  We, too, have hopes and dreams about better health, healing, financial security and family relationships.  These dreams often get shattered.  The story promises us, however, that Jesus will come to us in unfamiliar guises to support and strengthen us when we least expect our risen Lord.  Emmaus moments come to us when we meet the risen Christ on our life’s journey through rough times.

The road to Emmaus is a road of companionship. The risen Lord desires that we walk with Him and with one another: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:2-3).  He wants to join us in our travels of life: “I am a Companion of all who fear You, and of those who keep Your precepts” (Psalms 119:63). “Where two or three are gathered in My Name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).   We meet Jesus on a daily basis in our life’s journey. When we meet our risen Lord through the Word of God, we commune with him. We renew our relationship with Jesus through prayer. These two meetings will enable us to meet the risen Jesus living in all the people we meet and to do them humble, loving and selfless service.Do our hearts burn when we listen to the Risen Lord in the Bible? Christ comes to us most clearly in the Word. Our tradition teaches us that the reading of the Scriptures, the study of the Scriptures and the proclamation of the message of the Scriptures are the primary ways in which we meet God. Abraham Lincoln, whom many consider the best President of the United States, said: “The greatest gift that God gave to human beings is the Bible.” Another President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, said that it was a principle of his to read the Bible through each and every year. Yet another great President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, said, “A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.” Goethe, the great German philosopher, said that the beauty of the Bible grows as we grow in our understanding of it.