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?” (Luke 24:13-35)
This story places Jesus walking with two disciples on the road to the town of Emmaus – a village outside of Jerusalem. They have no idea whatsoever that Jesus is with them. Lesson number one: resurrection life looks nothing like “real” life. Or, is resurrection real life?
They are talking about the events of the past few days in Jerusalem. Jesus we can safely assume knows what has happened. Still, he asks them to tell him “what things” they are talking about. They are astonished that this stranger appears to be the only one who does not know, and proceed to tell him the story. Lesson number two: Jesus wants to make sure we know the story and can tell the story.
But when they get to the part of some women claiming that not only is Jesus’s tomb empty but that some angels announced that he is alive, it is clear they see for themselves that the tomb is indeed empty – they went to look to be sure – but harbor some doubts about the women’s story and the angels’ announcement. At this point Jesus, clearly exasperated, says let’s start at the very beginning – so beginning with Moses and the prophets (i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament) he reviews everything that brought them to this point. Lesson number three: to understand Jesus, the New Testament, Resurrection and Life itself, we need to remember the rest of the story.
They get to their home in Emmaus. Jesus is going to continue on, but they invite him in for a bite to eat. At the table Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Four ceremonial actions they had witnessed before at the Feeding of the 5,000, and at the Last Supper. The same four ceremonial actions repeated every Sunday at thousands of tables in thousands of churches week after week, year after year. It is only when he does this that they realize they had been traveling with Jesus all the way home! His work is done there. He vanishes. Then they realize: their hearts were on fire as he spoke to them on the road. Lesson number four: Jesus meets us in the most ordinary of places when we least expect it to set our hearts on fire.
I grew up walking past a former YMCA building on Oak Park Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois called Emmaus Bible School. I never knew what it was. It had started in Toronto, moved to Oak Park in the1940’s, and in 1984 moved to Dubuque, Iowa where it is now a fully accredited 4-year college. Not only did I not know what it was, I really did not know the story – the origin of its name.
I had no idea that the people who attended classes there on Oak Park Avenue were people whose hearts had been set on fire by this story! I had no idea that people spent hours in that building studying “the rest of the story,” the back-story if you will, so that they might go out into the world and set people’s hearts on fire. Years would pass by before I ever realized what Emmaus Bible School in Oak Park, Illinois was.
Years later, at a diocesan camp and conference center in Mississippi, where it was 113 degrees in the shade, I heard the following blessing as we had just finished taking, blessing, breaking and sharing bread in the chapel:
May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you
May the Lord’s countenance lift you up and give you peace
May God give you grace not to sell yourself short
Grace to risk something big for something good
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth
And too small for anything but love
May God take our minds and think through them
May God take our lips and speak through them
May God take our hands and work through them
And may God take our hearts and set them on fire!
The Reverend Elizabeth Jones had found it in a drawer in her desk at an Episcopal School. She had come across it by chance – or by Providence. Just as I would one day come to realize what had been happening at 156 North Oak Park Avenue all those years. Whoever had written it surely knew this story of what happened at dinner in Emmaus nearly 2,000 years ago.
What would it take today to set our hearts on fire? Would we be willing to take the time to walk and talk with companions as those on the road to Emmaus had done that afternoon long ago? Are we willing to take the time to know the story and tell the story in our own words? Are we willing to take the time to study and know, really know, the back-story? When we take, bless, break and share bread who do we see? Who is there before us?
Now more than ever the world needs people whose hearts are set on fire for God! For God’s Shalom – God’s Peace which passes all understanding!
The one time YMCA building, one time Emmaus Bible School on Oak Park Avenue is still there. You can see it here: http://www.trulia.com/property/3019757699-156-N-Oak-Park-Ave-1G-Oak-Park-IL-60301#photo-1.
It evidently has been turned into condominium apartments! I have to wonder – do the words and lessons learned there still echo in the walls and halls? Do the inhabitants every now and then find their hearts strangely set on fire – they know not how or why? Does Jesus appear to them and then vanish as he had that one evening long ago in the village of the same name – Emmaus?
One afternoon, long ago, standing in Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore just a few blocks away down Lake Street, I had a vision, a glimpse of my future, not dissimilar from that experienced by the disciples along the road to Emmaus. Was it inspired in part by all those who had spent years in that building on Oak Park Avenue just minutes away? I’ll never know. But that, of course, is another story! Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, indeed! Alleluia!