“We had hoped…”
The grief of Jesus’ followers after his execution is so powerful it almost jumps off the pages of scripture. They are heartsick with disappointment, fear, and sadness.
“We had hoped,” the two disciples say, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
They try to explain to this mysterious man how deeply they grieve, how torn apart their community has been. How can you not know these things? they ask him. How can you have missed this huge event, the death of Jesus of Nazareth?
But this man, whoever he is, calls them foolish and slow of heart. They are foolish for having misunderstood all the words Jesus spoke about his death while he was still with them. They are slow of heart for disbelieving their women friends who told them of Jesus’ resurrection. I wonder how these poor, grieving friends felt at those words from a stranger. Ashamed? Indignant? Hurt?
Invitation and Recognition
However they receive the criticism from this stranger, they still invite him to stay with them when they get to town. It is their hospitality that softens their hearts enough to see the truth: this is the man they have been grieving! This is Jesus, himself, here with them this whole time! How much more those words of rebuke must have stung after realizing to whom they spoke. How their embarrassment, shock, joy, and confusion must have jumbled together in their weary hearts.
Like Mary at the tomb (John 20), these men had not recognized the risen Jesus. I wonder how he has changed that his closest friends are unable to identify him. It is not until he does something familiar that they truly see him: he speaks a name, he eats a meal at the table, he greets his friends. In these small gestures, his followers recognize the man whom they thought was lost. The man in whom they had hoped. How often do we, like these men, get caught up in talking about religion that we forget that we are always walking with God?
Frederick Buechner — poet, prophet, pastor — offers these words:
Jesus is apt to come into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but … at supper time, or walking along a road. This is the element that all the stories about Christ’s return to life have in common … He never approached from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of people, in the midst of real life and the questions that real life asks. (Listening to Your Life, 78)
The followers have to invite Jesus, the stranger, to stay before they can see him for who he is. He has been with them all along, but it is their invitation that finally drops the clouds of grief from their eyes. Of course, the moment they recognize him, he is gone, vanished from their newly-opened sight. As Jesus told Mary at the tomb: “Do not hold on to me…” (John 20:17). Here he tells his disciples the same thing with his disappearance: Do not hold on to me. Do not let your expectations of who I am limit what you think I can do. Do not be afraid to let my work be done.
We still hope now
This new risen Jesus can’t seem to be pinned down. He keeps showing up suddenly, then disappearing, surprising and shocking his friends. Here and there he offers words of wisdom or peace or blessing. If it was difficult to know what to make of Jesus’ cryptic teachings before his death, this zen, ghost-like Jesus is even more confusing.
But these stories of resurrection revelations carry so much hope. There is hope in the reality that Jesus’ presence breaks through our expectations and grief — it even breaks through death. That presence remains with us as long as our hearts and eyes stay open enough to truly see him, as long as we have the courage to invite him — even when he wears the shape of a critical stranger — to sit at our table.
We can hold on to the truth that God’s presence is already here: our open hearts and service to others can reveal Him to us. To me, that is reason enough to say “We had hoped… and we still hope now.” Friends, do not let life’s grief blind you from that hope.
What kinds of conversations do you exchange with God on your life’s journeys; do those conversations change in times of deep grief? What might be getting in the way of your hearing or seeing God’s response?
Have you ever found yourself hoping for redemption that you had already received? What are the familiar parts of God that always allow you to recognize God’s presence? What reminds you to invite the stranger Jesus into your home and heart, to offer hospitality?
The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is the lectionary reading for this 3rd Sunday of Easter: Luke 24:13-35. If you’d like to read some reflections on the weekly lectionary readings, these are some great ones that I use a lot: