The walk to Emmaus is one of my favorite New Testament stories. It contains everything a good story needs: heartbreak, challenge, effort, confusion, struggle—and ultimately, a big reveal and a happy ending. We learn from this story that there is good—that God is still working—even when it feels like all is lost. We’re reminded that our lives really are journeys and that God is likely closer, more present, more involved in our days and our understandings than we know.
In his commentary, Richard Foster expands this story a little, offering that the two people walking are most likely two disciples who are married to each other named Cleopas and Mary, who is mentioned in John 19 as one of women who were at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified. As they go along, Cleopas and Mary are despondent and struggling; their hopes have been shattered and they are filled with heart-wrenching disappointment, trying to make sense of it together as they walk the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
As they are walking and talking, a stranger joins them who somehow seems to have missed what took place in Jerusalem over the last several days. As they tell him the story, instead of offering sympathy and encouragement, agreeing with them about how awful it is, the man sounds a bit impatient and judgmental, chiding them and calling them foolish. He brings up scripture and talks about prophecies and asks them to consider that this event—as heartbreaking as it was—was a necessary part of the unfolding story of God. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Luke tells us, “he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
You know, if you and I were walking down Division street out in front of the church here, talking about something that upset us or expressing our concerns about the state of the world, we wouldn’t be too happy if someone with strong opinions just walked up and insinuated himself in our conversation. Even worse, it sounds like he was a real know-it-all, acting like he knew scripture better than anyone else, talking about why these circumstances that upset us so much had to be just the way they were, asking us to change our perspective. Chances are that’s not what we want to hear. Often when we hurting and confused, we’d rather have sympathy, commiserating, understanding, gentleness. We don’t want some stranger to swoop in and tell us where we’re wrong. There’s enough of that in the world already.
We of course have the benefit of knowing why Jesus did what he did here—he was putting their lived moment of heartbreak into the context of the big picture, God’s unfolding purpose and presence in the world. And that, ultimately, down the road a ways, will resurrect their hopes and strengthen their faith.
But as Cleopas and Mary grew close to their destination, the stranger walked on ahead of them as though he were continuing along the road. They invited him to stay and have a meal with them, since it was almost sundown, and he agreed. They sat together continuing their conversation and then the stranger picked up the loaf of bread, blessed it, broke it, and handed them each a piece. And in that moment, as Richard Foster so poetically puts it, “a crack between heaven and earth” occurred, and instead of the stranger sitting there, they see Jesus, they know God. This vision lasts only for a fraction of a second, though; as soon as they recognize him, he vanishes. I have this mental image of the bread Jesus was holding just falling to his plate and the two disciples staring at each other, open-mouthed, in wonder.
Have you ever experienced a mystery and just knew—even though your rational mind couldn’t explain it—that God was in it somehow? Or maybe you’ve had coincidences that felt like more than coincidences—answers that come at the perfect moment, a friend that calls just as you’re thinking of her, or a situation that unfolds in just the perfect way that seems to help, encourage, or protect you. How often in your life have you said, “Somebody up there likes me,” or “I’ve got Friends in high places”?
Imagine what Cleopas and Mary must have felt in that moment, when Jesus disappears in the blink of an eye. It must have taken a few moments to recover a little. Then they looked at each other and confirmed it really happened. “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” they said. In other words, we knew it—here—all along.
Most of us experience that kind of intuitive knowing often in our lives, but we may or may not pay attention to it much. In the big moments—like the first time we met our spouse or when we’re trying to make a tough decision—we may hear our hearts speak more loudly than others. But mostly we are caught up in living life, focused on things “out there,” reacting to events large and small. That’s the normal way of things. Something upsets us, and we react. Things worry us, and we plan. Things poke at us, and we recoil. That’s the job the amygdala, that fight-or-flight sensor in the center of our brains, is designed to do. It’s always on the lookout, scanning for threats, trying to keep us safe.
But while we’re scanning “out there,” we may be missing the better, deeper, more sure kind of knowing that’s “in here,” the wisdom of the heart. I like the way Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan says this. He writes, “The wonderful thing is that the soul already knows to some extent that there is something behind the veil, the veil of perplexity, that there is something to be sought for in the highest spheres of life, that there is some beauty to be seen, that there is Someone to be known who is knowable.”
Our souls already know that it’s Jesus talking with us on the road, but our minds are focused and fixating on all the details appearing in the veil. The way the stranger looks, the sound of his voice, the challenge he’s offering—all become input our brains use to try to assess whether we’re safe or not. But in the meantime, the heart knows something deeper, aware of the reality beyond the veil. Our hearts know there is Someone present who is knowable in our circumstance, whatever it might be.
The psalmist points us this way in the verses we heard from the Old Testament this morning:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
God meets us in the quiet of our very own hearts, this verse says—it’s the starting point of a new path. Our minds may try to interfere, misdirect, and distract us by urging us to focus on outward things, but when we invite God to know our hearts, we want the Light in to show us the truth about ourselves. And that starts us on an amazing and fruitful road of ever-greater intimacy with and trust in God.
Some of you may be familiar with Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from the Abbey of Gethsemane down in Bardstown, Kentucky. He was an unlikely monk, a boy born in France to a dad who was a New Zealand painter and a mom who was an American Quaker artist. He lost her to cancer when he was only six years old. This huge early loss—and the many years of searching and yearning that followed—were central to who he was in the world.
Five years after Merton entered the monastery, he finished writing the book he would be most famous for, The Seven Storey Mountain. It was ironic that although he’d become a monk intending to embrace quiet and poverty, his unique road led him to have a big impact on the world, as his spiritual autobiography touched the heart of a world that was trying to heal from the brutality of the Second World War. The Seven Storey Mountain would go on to sell millions of copies and stay continually in print for more 60 years. It has been named by the National Review as one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century. All told, Merton wrote more than 70 books and used his authentic voice and witness as a consistent call for peace, fairness, social change, truth, inclusion–for God. Thomas Merton would be the kind of guy–with strong opinions and a Godly view—who would join us on the road and offer a new perspective. He does that, through his books, even now.
One day in 1958, Merton had an epiphany as he simply stepped off a bus at a busy intersection in Louisville. This is how he described it in his 1966 book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
“… at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world…
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
How else could we understand this, except that Thomas Merton was given the grace of seeing beyond the mind’s veil of separation. The bread was broken, a crack opened up between heaven and earth, and his heart showed him: there was God. This is the paradise George Fox described, what we Friends know as “seeing that of God in each other,” the unique way of seeing with spiritual eyes that warms us and reveals deeply to our hearts what’s true, what’s lasting, what’s eternal.
Perhaps this week, whether we’re talking with strangers or eating with loved ones or just watching Jeopardy on the couch, we can remember that we have a constant, divine, loving Companion as we make the journey from sun up to sun down each day. All we need to do is quiet our minds enough to watch for the big reveal. The warmth of our hearts will show us what’s next.
- OT: Psalm 139: 23-24
- NT: Luke 24: 13-32
- Jacobs, Alan. “Thomas Merton: The Monk Who Became a Prophet,” The New Yorker, Dec 28, 2018: https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/thomas-merton-the-monk-who-became-a-prophet
- Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: https://books.google.com/books/about/Conjectures_of_a_Guilty_Bystander.html
- Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain: https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Seven_Storey_Mountain.html
- Hazrat Inayat Khan: https://wahiduddin.net/hik/hik_origins.htm