(Luke 24, 13-35; Acts 2, 14a & 36-41) ( Easter 3 Yr A)
Did you know that May is National Walking Month in the United Kingdom? One of the reasons for this special month is that people nowadays tend not to walk as much as they used to. Some people walk to keep fit, just as they go to the gym or play sport. You can see them walking purposefully down the street in their shorts or track-suits, clutching their water bottles, and usually looking miserable! And some people walk long distances, often up hills or mountains, as a leisure activity. But few people walk for pleasure or just walk.
A recent article on the BBC site lamented the slow death of purposeless walking. It quoted a survey, which found that although many journeys included a small amount of walking, ‘just walking’ (including walking the dog) accounted for only 17% of all trips on foot. And yet, the article reminded us, ‘just walking’ provided the time for creative thinking and inspiration for many of our greatest writers: Wordsworth, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell among many others. A scientific study found that even walking on a treadmill stimulated creative thinking.
“There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together. Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively,” says Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking. “Your senses are sharpened. As a writer, I also use it as a form of problem solving. I’m far more likely to find a solution by going for a walk than sitting at my desk and ‘thinking’.”
One category of walking which has increased in popularity recently is the pilgrimage. The ancient pilgrimage way to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Camino, has been repaired with EU money because it has become so popular, and the annual Youth Pilgrimage to St Albans on Easter Monday is now open to all ages. Walking or cycling a pilgrim way to a cathedral or holy place is a popular way of raising money for churches. Walking a pilgrim route is always a spiritual experience, but it is not necessarily a walk to be done alone. Companionship and conversation, especially with strangers, can be an important part of the journey.
Malcolm McKay who walked the Camino, and wrote a novel about it, and asserts he is not a religious person, said: “The Camino’s ancient heritage means it has what many would describe as a spiritual dimension. You can define that in any way you like, but it means that for many walkers it is a quest of some kind: a taking stock or meditation, undertaken in order to ask, and hopefully answer, a few important questions about themselves. Of course, there are as many questions as there are pilgrims: about their lives, loves, faith, jobs, relationships or even the meaning of their existence. The result of this is that most walkers are immediately open to conversations that can become as intimate as you want them to be. And it is this essential connection with others on the same path, with the same goal, the same very human concerns, that makes the Camino what it is. In my opinion, if you seek the spiritual, it’s right there in the man or woman walking beside you.” If you have ever taken part in a pilgrimage, or even a walk of witness, you may have had this experience too.
Our Gospel reading today describes just such a walk, a walk with conversation which is life-changing. Two disciples, of whom we know nothing apart from this story, are walking home from Jerusalem to Emmaus a couple of days after the death of Jesus. We don’t know where Emmaus was, and different Biblical manuscripts describe it as about 7 miles (60 stadia) or 20 miles (160 stadia) from Jerusalem. The two disciples are not among the inner circle. They are in obvious distress, reflecting on the dashing of their hopes for Jesus and his mission, when a stranger joins them. We, the readers, are let into the secret that the stranger is Jesus, but they do not recognise him.
The stranger comes close to them, and asks what concerns them. He allows them the space to tell their story, and listens attentively as they go into the dreadful details of how their pilgrimage to join Jesus at the Passover went horribly wrong, how he was arrested, tried and killed; and continues to listen as they share with him the strange events that have happened since, the empty tomb and the visions of angels. Then, and only when they have finished, does he gently begin to give them another perspective on what has happened, drawing on the material they know well from their scriptures, but interpreting it in a new way. As the stranger talks, the two disciples are given new light and restored hope. As they say later “were our hearts not burning within us as he talked?”
They obviously value the contact, and urge him to stay overnight with them when they reach home, and the darkness closes in. He graciously accepts their hospitality, but when they come to eat, he assumes the role of the host, takes the bread and says the blessing on it. The actions he performed are the actions of the presiding minister at communion – he took, blessed, broke and gave. It was at that point that they recognised him as their Lord and Saviour – and at that point that he vanished.
The two disciples are eager to share their new hope and faith, so, in spite of the approaching darkness, they hurry back to share their new insights with their community; and in turn, they are made aware of the encounters others in the community have had with the risen Lord.
This is the longest account of a resurrection appearance in the New Testament. It appears only in Luke’s Gospel. Each of the four Gospels have quite different accounts of resurrection appearances, and the original of St Mark’s Gospel has none at all. Christians have different approaches to these accounts: some see them as historical events, which could have been videoed or photographed had the technology been available; others see them as visions, especially since St Paul records his own encounter with Jesus some time after the Ascension; others see them as like parables, metaphorical accounts of the experiences of different communities of disciples as they come to know the presence of the risen Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Others have open minds on the question of historical reality, but emphasise that the most important thing about these stories is their meaning.
For the community for which Luke was writing, this resurrection story tells them three important truths:
1.The risen Jesus journeys with them, even when they don’t know it;
2.The risen Jesus opens up the true interpretation of Scripture; and
3.The risen Jesus is known most clearly in the sharing of food – both in the sharing of the necessities of life with strangers, and in the sharing of the bread of the Eucharist within the community.
The encounter on the road to Emmaus seems to encapsulate into a resurrection narrative the experience of Luke’s community over a number of years. It was a community whose centre had moved away from Jerusalem and the Jewish Christian church. If Acts is an accurate account of the development of this community, the sharing of resources, the agape meal and the guidance of the Holy Spirit were important to them, as well as the study of the Jewish scriptures. It was a community which contained many Gentiles, and which encountered persecution from both traditional Jewish congregations and the Roman authorities. It was a community which bore witness to the risen Christ through preaching, healing, and care of the poor and marginalised, as well as through patient endurance of suffering, and following Jesus to death at the hands of the authorities.
The story has a message for us too about how we act as Christ’s disciples, and witness to our faith today. We are called to interpret the scriptures through the lens of Christ, who is our window into the true nature of God, and God’s will for us. We are called to trust that Christ walks alongside us, even when we cannot recognise him, and don’t realise he is there. We are called to walk alongside those who are lost and in distress, to listen to their stories, and to offer them light and hope, through the promise of resurrection. We are called to recognise Christ in the stranger who approaches and befriends us, and in the strangers who need our help. We are called to offer hospitality, food and friendship to the stranger, in our private lives and in our church communities, and so to entertain Christ unawares.
We are called to live the resurrection, to walk the way of Christ on the road to Emmaus, together with our fellow disciples; not just once, but many times, away from our disappointments and traumas, through the heat of the day and into the gathering darkness, in trust and confidence that the risen Christ journeys with us; he walks alongside us, teaching us how to interpret our stories through him, healing us and giving us hope, so that we can witness with joy in our communities and in our world to the good news of the risen Jesus, that still makes our hearts burn within us.