“We had hoped.” Three devastating words. “We had hoped.” In other words, we USED to hope, but now hope is MIA. It has disappeared. Hope has been replaced with, fear, sadness, and uncertainty of what the future might bring.
This is the story of Cleopas and an unnamed disciple as they encountered a stranger on their journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We totally get how they’re feeling as we struggle to maintain hope in the midst of bad news, death, and conflicting stories about what’s going on in our world.
We had hoped that we would only have to shelter in place for a month. But that day has passed and the frustration we feel about this is real and visceral.
We had hoped that our nation’s leaders would be on our side, giving health care workers the protection they need to take care of us, and financial aid to help the most vulnerable among us to pay our bills and feed our families. But partisan politics continue to divide us, giving resources to some but not to others. Supporting the affluent while largely ignoring small independent businesses and the poor.
We had hoped that we could hold our newborn grandchildren, sit at the bedside of those who are dying and give them a proper funeral, hug our friends and family, and gather together for worship. But we continue to shelter in place, as a sacrificial gift of love, hoping our efforts will save the lives of our families, friends and neighbors.
So, make no mistake about it. We are well acquainted with the death of hope. We try to keep it alive, but some days it’s easier than others.
You may take some comfort in knowing that our gospel lesson is not the only Easter story that deals with the loss of hope. We see it in the words of Mary on Easter morning before the sun even rose: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
We see it in the actions of Peter, who ran to the tomb, saw it empty, but failed to understand the scripture, that Jesus would rise from the dead.
We see it in the faces of scared disciples who hid behind locked doors in fear of being persecuted.
The death of hope is all over the Easter story, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see it. Believe it or not, this is good news, because, eventually, hope was restored by the presence of the risen Christ who appeared to his followers in surprising and beautiful ways. Today’s gospel reading is no exception.
As the story begins, two disciples were walking on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It was Easter evening. They were trying to comfort each other, as they discussed everything that had happened to Jesus in the previous week. I’m sure it was a somber conversation.
According to Luke, these two disciples had heard the women’s testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead. They had also heard that some of the male disciples went to the tomb and found it empty. While it’s not mentioned in our gospel lesson, I’m certain these two disciples reacted the same was the others did. They thought the women’s talk of resurrection was a fairly tale and they did not believe it. So there is no doubt that their conversation was a somber one.
As they continued to walk down the road, a stranger approached them and asked them “What are you talking about?” There’s nothing more frustrating than a stranger who butts into a private conversation. Luke says “they stood still, looking sad.” But I’m certain that a big sigh, or at least an eye roll, was involved.
Cleopas responded to this intrusion by saying, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” Then I’m sure Cleopas was surprised when the stranger asked “What things?” It would be like someone not knowing about the coronavirus in 2020.
While it’s not recorded in scripture, I can clearly hear Cleopas saying, “Dude, have you been living under a rock? Jerusalem is in turmoil. People are frightened. We’re getting the heck out of town. I cannot believe you don’t know what has happened. It’s all everyone is talking about.”
Then Cleopas, like a TV news anchor, brought the stranger up to speed. He told him about “Jesus of Nazareth, who was a mighty prophet in deed and word.” He told him about the trial and crucifixion. Then Cleopas spoke those three devastating words, “We had hoped. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
With these words Cleopas admitted that hope no longer resided in his heart. The future he had envisioned was dead and buried. A “new normal” had taken its place and there would be no going back to the way things used to be.
This, this is the hardest thing for us to hear as we face this global pandemic. Even when it ends, we will not be able to go back to the way things were. We will be forever changed. The only thing we can do is move forward into a new reality that Christ is creating for us.
This is what happens in the Emmaus Road story. Jesus didn’t require these two disciples to believe he had resurrected from the dead. He didn’t expect them to have unshakable, optimistic faith. Instead he met them on the road, in the midst of their fear, sadness, and uncertainly of what the future might bring. He met them on the road, even after hope had died. He fed their minds with the scriptures. He nourished their bodies and spirits with bread that was blessed and broken, and wine that was poured.
In these holy moments of being together with this stranger, their eyes were opened and they realized it was Jesus who had been with them all this time. Their hearts were burning because they felt a seed of hope germinating inside of them, once again. With great joy, they got up from the table, went back to Jerusalem, and told the other disciples “The Lord has risen!” They shared with them their amazing story of how they encountered the risen Christ while on the Road to Emmaus.
Friends, we should find comfort in this story as we deal with this global pandemic. First of all, it gives us permission to feel whatever we’re feeling on any given day. Jesus, still loves us, even when we’re sad, scared or confused. Jesus meets us on the road, even if hope has died within us.
Secondly, he offers us two gifts of grace: Scripture which gives us wisdom and encouragement. Bread and wine gives us strength for the journey. We may have to receive these gifts, through pre-recorded sermons on YouTube and holy communion on Zoom, but they are offered to us nonetheless. We will continue to share these gifts online until we can safely meet in person, once again.
I hope and pray that as we feast on the Word and Bread and Wine, our eyes will be opened to the presence of the resurrected Christ who journeys with us during these troubled times. I hope and pray that our hearts will burn within us, as a seed of hope germinates inside of us, once again. Amen.
Copyright ©2020 by David Eck