“When We Come to the End of Our Hope”
April 23, 2023
Now on that same day two disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.***
In only four words — “But we had hoped” we find one of the most profound expressions of human emotion in the entire New Testament.
It is Easter afternoon and two disciples are leaving Jerusalem and walking on a road to Emmaus. They are leaving a place where pain weighed heavily. They had come to the end of their hopes.
“But we had hoped” are words we utter when we walk our own roads to Emmaus.
But we had hoped the marriage could be saved. We had hoped our family could get along again. We had hoped the addiction treatment would have helped. We had hoped the depression would lift. We had hoped the cancer would stay in remission. We had hoped to live out our retirement together. We had hoped to experience God’s presence. We had hoped our faith would survive.
The words we speak on the road to Emmaus are words of disappointment, bewilderment, loss, and yearning. They are the words we say when we have come to the end of our hopes — when our expectations and dreams have been dashed and it seems as if there is nothing left to do but take leave. But we had hoped.
In the reading, the two disciples, Cleopas and his unnamed companion, say these same words to the stranger who appears alongside them as they walk to Emmaus on Easter evening: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Jesus, as far as they know is dead. While he walks with them unrecognized, they speak of how they had staked their lives on him, thinking he would change the world, only to die the most humiliating and godless death imaginable. His promise of a new kingdom, a better world have come to nothing. The two continued speaking. “Worse, Jesus’s tomb is empty, his body is missing, and the women who loved and followed him appear to have gone crazy, what with their bizarre reports of angels, gardeners, and talking ghosts.” How completely things have fallen apart. “But we had hoped.”
According to Luke this is an Easter story. Easter — the very day people fill up churches and sing their hearts out because they need a recharge of hope. Yet this biblical resurrection story of Easter is of disillusionment, defeat and misrecognition. Perhaps this is to say that at times resurrection and its hope takes longer than three days. Sometimes new life comes in fits and starts. Sometimes, seeing and recognizing the risen Christ is hard.
This Easter story reveals the heart and character of Jesus. It reminds us that that Jesus is not who we often think he is, and not who we necessarily want him to be.
Instead, on this road of sadness and disappointment, Jesus listens and gently inquires. He does not come running from the tomb backslapping everyone he sees, shouting about his accomplishment. There is no grand entrance at the temple or knock on Pilate’s door to announce justice. There is no revenge tour, no effort to vindicate himself or proudly right all the wrongs and immediately erase the dashed hopes of his followers.
Instead, on the evening of his greatest victory, the risen Christ takes a leisurely walk on a quiet, out-of-the-way road. When he notices two of his followers walking ahead of him, he approaches them in a guise so gentle, so understated they do not recognize him.
Is this comforting? Surely, this is not what we want from the resurrected Christ. “But we had hoped” he would claim his new, death-defying glory and power. Be more convincing. More unmistakably divine. We had hoped he would make post-Easter faith easier.
Part of the disappointment we face on the Emmaus road is the disappointment of the quiet resurrection. The disappointment of God’s maddening subtlety and hiddenness. The disappointment of a Jesus who prefers the quiet, hidden encounter to the theatrics we so crave and admire.
As soon as Jesus falls into step with the companions on the road, he inquires: “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” Astonished, Cleopas and his co-traveler tell Jesus everything, about their faith and expectations of Jesus, “a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” They admit their profound shock and sadness over his death and now the confusion and uncertainty of their future.
And Jesus listens, which is grace in itself. When they finish, Jesus, with notable emotion, retells the story back to them, and as he does so, it changes to become what it really always was — something far bigger, deeper, older, wiser, and richer than the travelers on the Emmaus road understood. Jesus seems to say, “Here’s what you’re missing.”
When Jesus tells the story, the death of the Messiah finds its place in a sweeping arc of redemption, hope, and divine love that spans the centuries. When Jesus tells the story, the hearts of his listeners burn.
The lens of faith amidst the demands and challenges of daily life can easily become very myopic. I know it is easy to lose the big picture when life crashes with unwanted changes and disappointing failure. When that happens, we lose our awareness of life in the broader, more expansive context of God’s all-encompassing story. Like Cleopas and his companion, we need Jesus to meet us on the road, and weave memory, Scripture, context, pattern, and history back into the tiny narratives we cling to. We need the Word — eternal and all-loving to shape, hone, and enliven our words.
“But we had hoped the story was bigger. We had hoped it would have a better ending.” Well, it is. And it does.
As the walking trio came near Emmaus, it looked as if Jesus was going to continue on. Imagine what might
have happened if Cleopas and his companion had said goodbye to Jesus on the road? How would their story have ended if Jesus walked away? They would have missed so much. The Messiah they thought they knew and loved might have remained a stranger. They would not have experienced the intimate knowing of the broken bread, the shared cup. The joy of resurrection would not have become theirs.
“Stay with us.” That is what Cleopas and his companion say to Jesus. Stay with us. An invitation. A welcome. The words a patient Jesus waits to hear.
Then in a small action while seated at a table, Jesus takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them. A tiny, quiet act that changed everything. “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”
I know it is difficult to trust in the transformative power of small things. A bit of bread. A shared meal. A listening ear.
This Easter walk to Emmaus story shows us the power of the small and the commonplace to reveal the divine. God shows up during a quiet walk, even amidst heavy hearts and minds full of questions. God is made known around our dinner tables. God reveals God’s self when we listen to each other, without judgement or one-upmanship. God is present in the rhythms and rituals of our ordinary days.
The Emmaus story tells us that the risen Christ is not absent when our faith is small or weak or when our hearts are empty of hope.
“But we had hoped.” Certainly, we had. And yet. The stranger who is the Savior still meets us on the road we walk. The guest who becomes our host still nourishes us with presence, hope and grace.
Images: thechurchofjoy.org; themissionalnetwork.com; olqpretreats.com