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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

April 27, 2014

 The Best Bible Study Ever

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Luke 24:13-35


            Today we turn to the Emmaus Road account in Luke’s Gospel. It is an encounter that only Luke shares, though Mark likely makes a brief reference to this event in Mark 16:12. It is one gem of an account, one that Rembrandt painted in 1628, then painted twice more in 1648. Caravaggio painted this encounter in 1606. They all capture the surprise and awe of the two disciples when they suddenly recognize at table who this stranger they have met along the road really is.

             We are now a week into Easter, but this event takes place later on Easter Day itself, according to Luke. Luke tells us they were headed to Emmaus, a village “sixty stadia,” or seven miles, from Jerusalem. Emmaus is such a small town that today archeologists are not even sure where it is exactly. Luke identifies one of the two disciples as Cleopas, and the other is never given a name. Some scholars, N.T. Wright among them, identify Luke’s Cleopas with a man John calls Clopas in his Gospel, who is the husband of “the other Mary,” who was present at the tomb. Wright thinks that Luke’s two travelers could hence be a husband and a wife. But Luke tells us so little that this can only be conjecture. One thing is sure: these are not the disciples closest to Jesus, as “the eleven” are back in Jerusalem. These are ordinary, almost anonymous disciples of Jesus. In other words, they are a whole lot like us: ordinary disciples struggling to keep hope alive.

             We are all more familiar with the Emmaus Road than we might imagine. The Road to Emmaus is the route we take when we have given up on our hopes and dreams. It is the path we follow when life has not worked out as we hoped that it would. Luke says, “They stood still, looking sad.” You hear this in their voices when the Stranger draws near: “But we had hoped that He would be the one to redeem Israel.” They had such great hopes for Jesus of Nazareth, and now He was dead and gone, “condemned to death and crucified” by “the chief priests and leaders.”

             This could be part of why they fail to recognize the Risen Christ as He meets them on the road. When someone dies, you do not expect to see them again! And make no mistake about it, the expectations we bring to life shape powerfully what we see and what we fail to recognize. Add to this the fact that the Risen Jesus was not recognized at first by Mary Magdalene in the garden, or by the disciples one morning by the Sea of Galilee, and you have to conclude that it was possible to miss Jesus completely when He was in your very presence. I would contend that it still is possible to miss Jesus, not to recognize Him, even when He is right before you.

             But note how Jesus takes their grief and sadness and uses it. “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 glory?” They expected, hoped for a Messiah who would save them from suffering, and in Jesus, they were given instead a Messiah who would save them through suffering. There is no savior who can save us from suffering. Suffering is written deeply into the contract of life, and for those who are open to God in the midst of it, it is one of life’s greatest teachers. I can surely witness to the truth that I have encountered God more often through suffering and sadness than I ever have through sunshine and pleasure. Theologian Joseph Suttler says, “If you don’t have a crucified God, you don’t have a big enough God.” Remember the poet Robert Browning Hamilton?

 “I walked a mile with Pleasure; she chatted all the way;

But left me none the wiser for all she had to say.

 I walked a mile with Sorrow; and ne’er a word said she;

But, oh! The things I learned from her, when Sorrow walked with me.”

             Then Jesus proceeds, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” “to interpret to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” The road to Emmaus was seven miles long, so this conversation about the Bible by Jesus could have lasted for a couple of hours. That is why we might call this “the greatest Bible study ever.” This is a great word on how Christians are called to read the Bible. Augustine said, “In the Old Testament we find Jesus Christ concealed. But in the New Testament, we find Jesus Christ revealed.” In all of scripture though we find Christ, and we are called to read the whole of the Bible Christo-centrincally, or in the light of Jesus Christ. This distinguishes us from our Jewish brothers and sisters with whom we share two-thirds of the Bible. Karl Barth said, “Jesus Christ is the one sufficient revelation of God,” and when we study the Bible rightly, we meet Jesus in it again and again.

             Earl Palmer is the retired pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. We spent twelve years together on the Board of our seminary, and I have never met a better Bible teacher than Earl. Recently he wrote an article about how he came to know and love the Bible. He was a sophomore at Cal Berkeley in the 1950’s when he was invited to join a small group Bible study in his dorm by a friend. In reading the Bible with a group of friends, something happened to Earl. “For me, the decision to trust in Christ happened in simple steps…. It happened naturally, week by week, as we read together from the Bible.” I love how Earl puts it! “What happened is that this first century text pointed in one way or another to its living center: Jesus Christ. Jesus did the rest.”

             This is the power of the Bible to point us to Jesus, to connect us with Jesus, the Living Word of God! I wish I could have heard Jesus’ Bible study that day. But I am thankful to God that I have access to the same Bible, which we call the Old Testament, that Jesus did. And even more, I am thankful for the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, every one written out of the conviction that the whole of scripture points to Jesus and reveals Him as the one Word of God.

             Finally, let’s note that as they came near to the village, Jesus “walked ahead as if He were going on.” Cleopas and his travelling partner did not yet know who this stranger was, but they did not want to part yet from Him. So they urged Him to come and stay with them. When Luke’s Gospel begins, there is no room for Mary and Joseph in an inn, so Jesus is born in a cattle stall, in a feed trough. But here, with the Risen Christ, though still unrecognized, they offer Him hospitality. They make room at their table for Jesus. Molly T. Marshall is president of a small Baptist seminary in Kansas. She says, “The hospitality of the travelling companions becomes the doorway to grace. The willingness of the stranger to enter their space suggests trust and hope, and Jesus more than repays their convivial overture. Hospitality expresses deep vulnerability; welcoming a stranger is always risky.” But thank God, they take the risk, and as Jesus “took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him.”

             Rembrandt has a sketch of this moment when Jesus appeared to them in the breaking of the bread, and then “vanished from their sight.” He never turned the sketch into a painting. But it shows a sunburst of light, and the surprise of awe and worship on the disciples’ faces, illumined by Jesus’ sudden departing aura. I love that sketch because my life has so often been illumined by Jesus when I have encountered Him in the scriptures, and in the breaking of bread. These are the ways Christians have always met Jesus, in opening the scriptures and in acts of hospitality. Note what happened here: As they welcomed Jesus, as they offered to Him hospitality, Jesus in turn became the host and fed them.

             This past week I was in Atlanta for three days with one of the most hospitable human beings I have ever known, George Bryant Wirth. Each year George hosts The Pastor’s Masters. We stay at East Lake as guests in the home of Tom and Ann Cousins. Nine pastors and as many lay folk play golf for three days as guests of George and Tom. Tuesday we played Peachtree, and after the round, as each foursome finished, we sat at a large round table in the clubhouse. As each group came in, we found more chairs, and widened our circle to include everyone in our circle. This is the church at its best! We are called by Jesus to be a fellowship marked by hospitality, always making room for more travelers, aware that when we do, the Stranger, who is Jesus, becomes the host at our feast. “Did not our hearts burn within us, while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the scriptures?”


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