176. From Jerusalem to Emmaus: The Spiritual Logic of Suffering

25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. [Luke 24:25-27, NRSV]

 “The Road to Emmaus,” by Robert Zund, 1877. [Public Domain]

The four Gospels of the New Testament each offer slightly different takes on what happened on Easter morning and its immediate aftermath. Two examples stand out. First, only the Gospel of John touchingly recounts Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene outside the tomb and later appearing to the once-doubting Thomas. Second, only the Gospel of Luke leaves us with this memorable narrative of what is popularly known as “the Walk to Emmaus”.

Luke includes the Emmaus account in his biography of Jesus because it fits well with themes the evangelist wants to emphasize.

[1] Turning and Returning

In Luke’s Gospel, the location of Jerusalem demands special attention. Unlike Mark who begins in Galilee and ends with the resurrected Christ calling his disciples back to Galilee, Luke begins at the temple in Jerusalem and ends after the resurrection and ascension in the disciples returning to the temple continually praising God.

Furthermore, all the resurrection stories happen on the same day: the women and Peter going to the tomb, the two on the way to Emmaus, the appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem, and the ending of the Gospel with the disciples praying in the temple are a single flow of events. Each episode is integral to the whole revelation, but Jerusalem is the key.

Towards Jerusalem, the true path of the Messiah where he would endure suffering and death, his face had resolutely turned (Luke 9:51). The whole Gospel, in fact, is a journey towards Jerusalem where the revelation of the cross takes place and where the Gospel ends. In Luke’s Gospel, then, avoiding Jerusalem – as in walking away from it and heading towards Emmaus – is avoiding the true path of Christ.

  • For them to walk to Emmaus, then, the two disciples are embarking on a movement that involves a turning away from Jerusalem.
  • Walking away from Jerusalem and towards Emmaus means they are abandoning the way of Christ displayed ultimately in his passion and death, and embracing the “worldly” power of Rome that took his life away.
  • The two are then, according to John Shea, “not travelers but deserters, not people on a mission but people walking away from a cause”.
  • That is why, a good story that it is, the Emmaus-account, commonly dubbed “the walk to Emmaus”, is essentially “a return to Jerusalem”.

However, this return journey to Jerusalem is not something easily taken. It entails no less than a rethinking of who Jesus is and what it is that he wants to see the disciples do.

[2] Rethinking the Messiah

The question that is often asked is why the disciples were so blind that they could not immediately identify their beloved master. One assessment is that they expected the Messiah sent by God to be a political and military liberator of Israel, the chosen of God. The last thing they expected was to see God’s anointed suffer and, worst of all, killed in a most humiliating way. They had not understood, much less accepted, the message of the prophets, that the Messiah would be a suffering servant. So they saw Jesus’ death as the end of God’s plan.

  • It is easy, then, for those who are looking for a glorious Jesus to come and rescue them from their enemies with violence and power, to miss the humble Jesus who shows up on the road with them.
  • Luke’s emphasis on the suffering Messiah is not about the typical theory of atonement – that Christ had to die so human sin could be forgiven. Luke’s emphasis is rather different: he insists that what it means to be faithful to God in a world that is addicted to wealth, violence and power and other values that contradict what God’s kingdom is about, is necessarily suffering – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things…?” Jesus walking on the road with the two disciples is saying that the way of suffering is the only way. It is the only way to bring God’s love to a death-bound, recalcitrant, humanity. Any other way would fail to convey God’s love and even compromise human freedom. That is the spiritual logic of Jesus’ suffering.
  • We then come to what is really crucial for our understanding of who Christ is and what he wants of us. Christian discipleship is best understood as an imitation of the way of Christ. Jesus in the Gospels is the model for what faithfulness to God looks like; to have seen Him is to have seen the face of God. So the Messiah must suffer, because those who obey God will end up suffering on account of the nature and the way of the world. The real failure of Jesus the Lord would not be his death, but the inability of his disciples to comprehend the spiritual truth hidden in the social and political suffering and dying that underlay his passion and death. He preached the kingdom-message of peace and love on the mountain where Matthew’s Gospel symbolically says the great Sermon on the Mount was preached, and he lived that message to the full on the other mountain – Mount Calvary – where he laid down his life to show the disciples that the only Kingdom of God they will have is the kingdom that they help Jesus build “on earth as it is in heaven”. And the way to build that kingdom is to follow Jesus’ way. For humanity, the kingdom of God is not in heaven; if it does not exist in human hearts here on earth, it does not exist at all.

[3] Beginning again on the road of discipleship

The two disciples had a new leash of spiritual life not only because Jesus walked with them and taught them the deeper messages of Scriptures “beginning with Moses and the prophets” and their “hearts were stirred”, but when they began to behave like community by showing love and care to a fellow traveler and inviting him to stay the night and sharing fellowship with him. The purpose of the Scriptures is to burn the hearts; but the communal meal-celebration eventually opens the eyes to see the spiritual dimension of what is taking place. It is only on the level of the spirit that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus can be understood.

The openness to Jesus, the stirring of the embers of the human hearts, and the breaking of bread together in communal fellowship can lead to the revelation of Christ and the true opening of our eyes. With spiritual eyes thus opened, the disciples could return to Jerusalem again – to mission, as the hands and feet of Jesus.

Not only is this Emmaus story beautiful, it is inspiring and potentially life-changing for today’s Christians. So across the globe, we see retreats – essentially a journey with Christ – being conducted based on or inspired by Luke 24. They create the opportunity for people to meet Jesus Christ in a new way as God’s grace and love is revealed to them. There is, for example, the three-day Roman Catholic Cursillo Movement. The Protestant version is called the Walk to Emmaus or Emmaus Walk movement. The follow-up is crucial. After the three-day experience, participants are joined in small groups to support each other in their ongoing walk with Christ. The objective of all these movements is commendable: they aim to inspire, challenge, and equip the local church members for Christian action in their homes, churches, communities and places of work. Back to Jerusalem is back to Christian mission, again, as the true practice of discipleship.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, May 2017. All rights reserved.

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