By Dr. Cameron Lee
It’s Easter afternoon. Two of Jesus’ disciples are talking as they walk along the road to Emmaus. They are utterly confused, trying to make sense of the news swirling in their minds.
Suddenly their resurrected Master comes alongside to join the conversation. But they are prevented from recognizing him, and treat him as if he were completely clueless about current events. They give him the short version of the story: “Are you the only person in Jerusalem that hasn’t heard about Jesus of Nazareth? We put our hope in him, but he was betrayed to the Romans by our own people and crucified. But some of the women told us an unbelievable tale: they went to the tomb this morning, and the body was gone! They even saw angels who said Jesus is alive! Our friends went to check it out, and sure enough, the tomb was empty—but Jesus was nowhere to be found.”
One can imagine Jesus shaking his head at their lack of understanding. Slowly, patiently, he tells them his own story in response, walking them through everything the Hebrew scriptures said about the Messiah who was to come. In the minds of the two disciples, disparate texts and ideas begin to come together into a single narrative; their hearts are burning with the sense that they have fallen into something much grander than they had ever imagined.
They reach Emmaus. Jesus pretends to have a further destination, but the two disciples beg him to stay for supper. At the meal, Jesus unexpectedly takes the role of host, giving thanks for the bread then breaking and distributing it. Suddenly their eyes are opened. And in that moment of recognition, Jesus disappears.
They run back to Jerusalem, and find the place where the Eleven are together with other disciples, abuzz with even more news: Jesus has appeared to Peter! The two from Emmaus add their story.
They’re still spilling out their tale when Jesus appears again. It catches the group by surprise, and they recoil in fear, thinking they’re seeing a ghost. Comically, Jesus has to chew and swallow a piece of fish to convince them otherwise. And then, for the second time that day, he walks his followers through what the Scriptures declare about the Messiah, showing them how all the events of the past days fit one long, continuous story of God’s actions among his people (Luke 24:13-49).
That story continues, and as Jesus’ present-day disciples, we are part of it.
In The Story of God, Michael Lodahl uses the Emmaus narrative to illustrate the close interweaving of the four elements of the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral—experience, reason, tradition, and Scripture—in theological reflection. The disciples’ experience of the events of the Passion and Easter morning had set them a puzzle, which they attempted to reason out on the basis of what traditions they knew. But they were still confused. Thus, Jesus had to “[interpret] for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27, CEB).I appreciate Lodahl’s observations, though I am not of a Wesleyan tradition myself. But reading the Emmaus story again, in the context of a narrative theology, I became more aware of things I had taken for granted.
Why didn’t the disciples on the Emmaus Road recognize Jesus? We can speculate all we like, but Luke doesn’t say. It’s interesting, though, to note the order of revelation. As the first part of the story begins, the disciples fail to understand. Jesus gives them the grand sweep of the ancient narrative, then draws their imaginations into the story by blessing and breaking the bread with them. Only then do they recognize who he is.
The second part of the story begins with Jesus’ self-revelation, and the disciples respond with a terrified lack of understanding. Then Jesus reassures them and “[opens] their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45, CEB). In essence, he puts the pieces of the narrative puzzle together for them.
Thus, in Luke’s narrative, the revelation of who Jesus is and the corresponding joyous response of faith is bracketed by the telling of the larger story of God—even for those who are already disciples. It’s not enough to have the isolated facts about Jesus: born of a virgin, crucified, risen again. Those facts must bring us to the story of what God has been doing since Genesis, is doing now, and will continue to do through the final days of Revelation.
And through the grace of God’s Spirit, we must find ourselves within that story. As we walk along the road, let us stop and break bread with one another in the presence of Jesus: to remember the story, to recognize him for who he really is.
Cameron Lee is Professor of Marriage and Family Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a licensed Family Wellness Trainer and a member of the National Council on Family Relations. Lee’s current project is the development of the Fuller Institute for Relationship Education (FIRE), which seeks to help congregations create sustainable marriage and relationship education ministries through the low-cost training of volunteer leaders. Lee is also a t
eaching pastor and licensed minister in the congregation where he is a member. He teaches and preaches regularly in church settings. He is the sole or senior author of six books, including three on the lives of clergy and their families. Lee’s most recent book, written with his colleague Jim Furrow, is Preparing Couples for Love and Marriage, a practical resource to help busy pastors in their ministry of premarital preparation.