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Beyond Emmaus

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. … So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.” Luke 24.13-16, 28-31.

The story of the meeting of Cleopas and his companion with the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Emmaus is, of course, very well-known and much-loved; but as I read it afresh this morning, I was struck by something in the story that I had never really noticed or thought about before. It is that, when they arrived at Emmaus, Jesus “acted as if he were going farther”. The verb here is prospoieo which, though it can mean “to pretend” is far more likely to have the meaning the translation above gives to it — particularly when we consider that the two companions had to “urge him strongly” to stay with them. (The verb there is parebiasanto which can mean “to force”).

In my mind’s eye, I see Cleopas and his companion coming to a standstill by some parting of the ways at or near Emmaus and saying to Jesus, “Well, here we are. This is where we live.” And Jesus nodding, then, with a quick smile, his face still half-hidden by his turban, bidding them “Shalom aleikhem” as he turns away and starts to walk on again down the road before him. No pretence, no dishonesty of action, I’m sure. He does not know that they will call him back, and if they don’t he will press on ahead. He is not play-acting.

But here’s the thing. If that is so, where was he going? It was a question I’d never thought to ask myself before; but now it had me pulling down the Bible Atlas in excitement to see what it was that lay beyond Emmaus. And what a discovery! Despite the uncertainty as to which of three possible villages was the Emmaus referred to in the story, all were on the road west to two more towns. And not two unknown towns but towns we know well — not from the Gospels however, but from the book of Acts. The two towns of Lydda and Joppa.

Lydda and Joppa feature together in Acts 19. Five or so years after the resurrection, the church is growing and spreading, and Peter, visiting the various congregations, arrives in Lydda …

“There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord” (Acts 9.33-35).

Sharon was not itself a town but was the coastal region beyond Emmaus in which Lydda was situated; and, in that region, on the coast, was Joppa — the second of the two towns I have mentioned. In Joppa, there had lived a follower of Jesus called Tabitha who, after an illness, had died and had already been prepared for burial. But Tabitha’s fellow believers, having heard of what had happened to Aeneas, took the seemingly pointless step of sending to Lydda and asking Peter to come to Tabitha in Joppa. Peter, once there and alone with the corpse, …

“knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, ‘Tabitha, arise.’ And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9.40-42).

So what am I saying? What have these two miracles and the subsequent spreading of the faith throughout the region got to do with the fact that the risen Jesus would have ended up in Lydda and Joppa had he not been persuaded to turn aside and take supper with Cleopas and his friend?

Well, two thoughts strike me. The first is that Luke calls his Gospel the story of “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1.1) which implies that Acts is the story of all that he continued to do and teach through his body, the church. So might we not be seeing here, in Acts 9, the story of Jesus doing something through Peter which he would have done in person had he not stopped off in Emmaus for supper?

The second thought is that perhaps, even though Jesus did stop off for supper in Emmaus, he did in fact continue on to Lydda and Joppa once he had “vanished from the sight” of Cleopas and his friend after making himself known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24.30-31). Perhaps that is why there was such faith for a miracle in Lydda and in Joppa. Perhaps that was why Peter could declare with such confidence to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you”. And perhaps it is a truth I need to learn that, wherever and whenever a miracle takes place through one of Jesus’ followers, the risen Jesus has already gone ahead to give the gift of faith and to make the miracle possible.

Maybe there is something of that very idea in what Paul says to the Christians at Ephesus: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2.10).

Lord, show me what good works you have prepared beforehand for me to walk in today. Amen.

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