“Were Not Our Hearts Burning Within Us?”

Meditation on Luke 24:13–35

Third Sunday of Easter

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, NY

Pastor Karen Crawford

April 23, 2023

Road to Emmaus by Ivanka Demchuk, a Ukrainian artist
“Were our hearts not burning in us as he spoke to us?”

We honored the life of Karl Kraft on Thursday and witnessed to the Resurrection. Thank you to those who helped with that wonderful worship service – and the beautiful reception afterward.

So many things were good that day, but what touched my heart was watching as longtime friends of Karl and Ethel approached her wheelchair before she passed through the Narthex. She was shedding tears of sorrow, grieving her husband of nearly 70 years, and tears of joy at the emotional reunion with friends.

When we are together in Christ’s name, we sense the presence of the Lord with us. Our faith leads us to see Christ in each other. We remember God’s love for us and our belonging not just to this congregation, but to the Body of Christ.

We need reminders of God’s love and presence with us because it is a part of our faith journey that we don’t always sense God’s presence. We may know with our minds that God loves us, and, at the same time, the Lord may seem far away from us. When we are going through something hard. When we are disappointed in God. Has that happened to you? Or we can’t understand what God is doing in our lives. Or when we just don’t know what the Lord wants us to do.

This is all part of our journey of faith.

These two otherwise unknown followers of Jesus are on the road from Jerusalem to their home in the village of Emmaus. It is still the day of the empty tomb. They are overcome by grief, struggling to make sense of the things that have happened. They call Jesus, who was crucified, “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” Notice they don’t call him “Messiah.” They don’t call him, “Lord.”

They are experiencing doubts. They had hoped that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel,” they say. They are experiencing disappointment. These followers have a different idea of what redemption or liberation looks like—and it isn’t suffering and death on a cross! Or an empty tomb.

And it isn’t militaristic, says Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, though others have said this. “Some Jews were looking for the end of Roman rule,” she says. “Others were looking for the return of the exiles to the homeland, a general resurrection of the dead along with final judgment and an end to war.” The Greek word translated here “redeem” actually means “ransom.” It only appears in Luke and in two other places in the New Testament, both of which the word doesn’t have political or militaristic connotations. In Titus 2:4, Jesus redeems “from all iniquity” and in 1 Peter 1:18, Jesus ransoms “from futile ways.”  (660)

So, why are these two on the road to Emmaus? Really? Why have they left the other disciples? Luke doesn’t say. I think they are going home to return to the lives they led before they met Jesus. But they aren’t going to be able to do that, are they? Because when we meet Christ, we and our lives are forever changed. We may not realize it right away, but the understanding of the new resurrected life that Christ offers us by faith comes to us gradually, as we grow to spiritual maturity.

And what about these two unknown followers? Who are they?

 One is Cleopas—a name found nowhere else in the Bible. Cleopas is a Hebrew boy’s name that means, “Glory to the Father!” The other follower isn’t named. We will come back to that detail! I have heard the other person could be female—perhaps the wife of Cleopas, as they live together and Cleopas does all the talking, as husbands sometimes do for their wives… in ancient times. But I don’t think so. You know why? They talk about “the women.” Somehow, I think a woman would remember the women’s names and not just lump them into a category of “the women.” The one with Cleopas could also be a son or daughter, slave or friend, says Amy-Jill. But “the masculine plural form of the verb would mask the presence of a woman” because it can refer to just men or both men and women. The Church Fathers of long ago thought Cleopas was really Clopas, from John 19:25, “standing near the cross was his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (657)

But there’s no way to know for sure.

So, if you think about it, this story is a case of mistaken or unknown identity for us and for them. Amy-Jill Levine sees comedy in this. We don’t know who the two people are walking to Emmaus. And they don’t know the stranger with them is Jesus.

We can smile through this passage because we know there’s a happy ending—for the two unknown followers on their walk to Emmaus and for us on our journeys of faith.

At the beginning of the story, though it is clear to us—and to Jesus—that these two are mired in doubt. They are in the dark. They don’t believe the women or the vision of angels or that Jesus was raised from the tomb. Luke says their eyes were “held back” or “seized.” Some ask, “Has God prevented them from recognizing Jesus?” I agree with Amy-Jill that it is more likely a case of “not believing what one sees. The two are convinced that Jesus is dead; therefore, the man walking next to them cannot be Jesus.” (656)

I find surprises in this familiar story. Why do they sound so hostile towards the stranger that joins them on the road? Or maybe, that’s part of the comedy. This is the first time I have seen this that way. When Cleopas and the other follower are standing there looking “sad,” that same adjective could be “mad,” Amy-Jill says. They could be both! Cleopas answers Jesus’ initial question of, “What are you talking about?”  with, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  

I find myself relieved when Jesus finally sets them straight, after listening to their tale of woe. It’s like an I Love Lucy gag that has gone on too long. Turn off the chocolate candy conveyer belt! Enough already! There’s no more room in her hat. And, does it sound like they are feeling sorry for themselves? “Oh, how foolish you are,” Jesus scolds, “and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared….”  To Jesus, one believes not just with the mind—but with the heart.

We are all waiting to get to the good part: when the two followers are able to see and know what we have seen and known all along. When does it happen? When they urge him to come and stay in his home—and they are about to share a meal. This is important! The Lord wants to be invited into our hearts and homes—and to our meal tables. The breaking of the bread evokes the memory of the Last Supper and the feeding of the multitude. The miracle happens when the bread is blessed, broken, and given.  At the meal table, Christ has not spoken. They have not eaten a bite. Neither was necessary for the Lord to be revealed. Just as Jesus disappears from their “sight,” they are able to “see” the Risen Savior!

Friends, let’s go back to the unnamed follower with Cleopas. Who do you think that person is? I think we are that person on the journey to Emmaus. Luke wants to make sure we know this is our story. But it doesn’t end at Emmaus, does it? We have the hope of return to our faith, no matter how many times we stumble and fall and feel disappointed with or abandoned by God. Our faith doesn’t depend on us! It depends on the author and source of our faith—Jesus Christ. We can trust in Him! We always have the hope of Christ’s forgiveness and restoration, redirecting and regathering us. Once we have met the Lord, we are changed. We might still sin, but we can’t go back to be the people we used to be. Our home is the Lord, who keeps drawing us deeper into the fold and transforming us, little by little.

I want to make sure that you remember one important thing: Christ is with the disciples for this journey. He is with them when they don’t believe. He is with them physically until they come to believe. And he will be with them again, forever, after he sends his Spirit.

My favorite line of the whole passage? “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…?”  Faith isn’t just an intellectual assent to a body of knowledge. Presbyterians can be so intellectual! And faith isn’t just doing good things for God, though faith and love will lead us to do good things for the Lord and God’s people.

Christ is the one who sets our hearts on fire!

Look at the passion and excitement of the two followers as they rush back to Jerusalem that night! Seven miles in the dark to share the good news with the other disciples, who share their good news.  Alleluia!

“The Lord has risen, indeed!”

Let us pray.

Holy One, set our hearts on fire for you. Let our hope and passion for you burn brightly—and never be just an intellectual thing. Give us patience and perseverance. Grant us joy for our journeys of faith. Lift us up when we feel down, disappointed, or weary. Open our eyes to your loving presence with us always—when we are weak and when we are strong. Remind us that we are not who we were yesterday. We can’t go back to Emmaus. Draw us ever deeper into your fold. Stir us to do good things for you and your Church, in response to your love, mercy, and grace. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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