The two travelers in our text were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the broad daylight of Sunday, yet they were still walking in the shadows of Friday. They were tangled up in disappointment, grief, fear, confusion, and the list could go on. The man they thought would redeem their people had been nailed to a cross. The man they thought would bring them a new way of life was sealed in a borrowed tomb. And now there was a rumor running around that the tomb was empty. All the hopes and all the dreams that they anchored in this man named Jesus, had come crashing down around them. Belief and hope had come to a dead end. They were walking somewhere between the grief and hopelessness of Friday and the joy and hope of the Resurrection.
In the midst of this walking a stranger joined them. We know that the stranger is Jesus only because Luke tells us so in his narrative. We find ourselves shouting to the story like we would to a game show or reality TV show, “Come on! Open your eyes! It’s Jesus!” But, if Luke hadn’t have told us that the stranger was Jesus, would we see Jesus? Would we recognize Jesus?
While their minds were occupied with their bitterness, grief, disappointments, and hopelessness, the unrecognized Christ was walking in the midst of their tangled lives.
This is not the only time we see the risen Christ as a stranger – a mere bystander in the Resurrection narrative. In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene does not recognize Christ. She thinks he’s the gardener. Later in John’s gospel, Peter and others are in a boat fishing doing what they know best, and a stranger appears on the beach, asking if they have caught any fish. Here in Luke’s narrative of the two travelers, Jesus is walking with them and they don’t even know it.
Jim Palmer, in his book Divine Nobodies talks about how religion almost destroyed him. After a hard childhood, Palmer went to college and got involved in campus ministry. This led to a calling which took Palmer to seminary and put him on a fast track to a booming ministry. He would become a part of the ministry staff at a large North American church, become front-page news in the local newspapers when he started his first church on his own, and was on his way to becoming one of those Christian gurus you spend lots of money to go listen to.
But Palmer was tangled up. Listen to what he writes:
Like Jesus, I began in humble circumstances, but unlike him, I rode high on the palm branches of people’s praise. I’m sure that was where my addiction to becoming a mega-something (anything) was born.
So Palmer began a journey down a road to his Emmaus. He left the ministry and began working any job he could find. And on this journey of rediscovering his faith, he met various strangers.
This is what Palmer says about the experience:
On this journey God has provided the necessary epiphanies to save me from complete self-destruction and has opened my eyes to deeper realities. With a seminary degree under my belt, you could think those epiphanies would have come when caught up in a deep theological treatise – Calvin’s Institutes or Barth’s Ethics. But that’s not what happened. . . God opened my eyes . . . through the unlikeliest people – people I, well, just kind of ran into along the way. The cast of characters includes a Waffle House waitress, a tire salesman, a hip-hop artist, and a swim teacher.
Each of these strangers that Palmer encounters becomes a Christ –figure, teaching him something else about his faith and through these various encounters with strangers, Palmer began to slowly be untangled.
This story of the two travelers, on a deeper level, is the transcript of human experience: a history of God’s gracious dealing with the human soul. Jesus doesn’t make a big deal that the two traveling believers didn’t recognize him. He doesn’t make a big deal that Mary thinks he’s a gardener or that Peter and the others think he’s some random guy on the shore. Jesus sees what we sometimes cannot see – that we are tangled up in our fears, our doubts, our anxieties, our disappointments, and our addictions. That’s because Jesus is grace, mercy, and love walking beside us. Jesus is healing through the hurting we cannot understand. Jesus is a risen Savior that could not be killed, a risen Savior that is always with us.
We cannot forget that these two travelers, for the most part, are unknown. Luke reminds us that Jesus did not appear just to the cast of characters in the Gospel narrative that we’ve learned to love. Jesus appears to the unknown believers as well. And I can’t help but wonder if Luke wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of these two travelers. When considering the narrative of the road to Emmaus, James Hastings writes: “Here is the Master of all those obscure lives that are yet precious in the sight of heaven.”
Here in the midst of two obscure, unknown lives, the Risen Christ is in their midst, walking right beside them. Our lives for the most part are obscure lives. We go to school, we go to work, we go to the movies, we go to the park, we go to the grocery store. For the most part, there is nothing extraordinary about our lives. And yet, the Risen Christ is walking in the midst of our tangled lives as well.