He was going in the wrong direction, him and his wife. Yes, they were going home, back to Emmaus, where they had always lived. And the festival in Jerusalem was over, and that’s what they did every year, go up to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, and then head back home. But this time it was the wrong direction. They didn’t know that of course, not then.
It had been a roller-coaster week. They had watched the rabbi Jesus coming in to Jerusalem on a donkey, in just the way that the prophet Zechariah had predicted that the Messiah would do. They had heard him teach every day. They had been following him for a while, among the large group of followers. Not part of the inner circle, but Jesus knew them by name.
They had all been at the supper on the Thursday night, and saw how Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and shared it. And then the same with the wine. Actually, that was familiar, that’s what Jesus did at mealtimes. They had come to expect it. Except at that last meal, he told them to go on doing it in remembrance of him.
Then everything had gone horribly wrong. Jesus was arrested that night, and tried before the Temple authorities, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, Herod. He had been flogged and tortured, and then he was put to death on the cross. It seemed like it was all over. And in the middle of this, they were celebrating Passover, celebrating the liberation of the people of Israel from the slavery of Egypt.
That was on the Friday. Then came the Sabbath. And now it was Sunday, the first day of the week, and some of the women had come along claiming that the tomb was empty and that they had seen Jesus alive.
Tensions were already high amongst the disciples. Peter was utterly miserable because he had denied he knew Jesus. A lot of the other men were feeling guilty because they had just run away, and everybody knew it. The women were in bits. They had remained with Jesus, but had watched him die, and were badly traumatised.
So when the women arrived with their news, there was, I’m afraid, a bit of a row, a falling out.
For Cleopas and his wife, enough was enough. They had heard the women say that Jesus wanted everyone to stay together and wait, but they weren’t convinced by the story of Jesus being alive. Life just didn’t happen like that.
So they set off for home, a few miles away, still chewing everything over. And then the stranger joined them. He didn’t introduce himself, just got chatting, strangers sharing a journey. He knew his Bible inside out, and he showed them how the prophets had given them the signs to look out for, the signs that Jesus fulfilled, the signs that showed that everything that had happened was anticipated by God. And even the rising from the dead was part of God’s great plan. He talked them through it and helped them to see things in a different way. Their hearts began to lift. They felt much more hopeful.
It was all coming together and making sense when they got close to home. They had been walking all day. They were hot and tired. The stranger was all for saying goodbye and going on, but it would get dark before long. So they invited him in.
They put a meal together, and put it on the table. And then something strange happened. The guest took over as the host. Cleopas didn’t even get a chance to say grace and start the meal, but the guest picked up the loaf of bread and broke it and gave thanks to Almighty God in exactly the same way that Jesus had done so many times. There was a gasp from Mary. She got it instantly. Cleopas took a little longer to get it – this was Jesus. Himself. Here. And then the bread was there, broken on the table, and the stranger was gone. Except he wasn’t a stranger any longer, because he was Jesus.
They ate that meal in amazement, wondering what to do next. And then Mary said, ‘We need to tell the others.’ And Cleopas was beginning to plan the logistics of the return journey the next day. ‘Now’, said Mary. So they set off, in the dusk and walked through the night.
‘Do you remember that story he told?’ Mary said along the journey. ‘The one about the shepherd who left the 99 sheep to go and find the one that got lost?’
‘Yes, of course I remember,’ said Cleopas, ‘but what’s that got to do with us?’
‘Well, he came for us. Most of the followers were in Jerusalem. We left. He came for us. He wants us to go back. He wants us all together. It’s like we were the lost sheep.’
‘But we aren’t terribly important,’ said Cleopas, ‘more in the fringe than in the centre.’
‘Exactly,’ said Mary, ‘and he still came for us. He cares.’
And that’s what they told the disciples when they got back to Jerusalem, how Jesus came and found them, and sent them back in the right direction.
Actually, we don’t know who the other person was with Cleopas. A lot of people think it might have been his wife and I have called her Mary in this story, but it could have been anyone. Cleopas is named, but not the other person. Maybe that was deliberate – maybe Luke the Evangelist is leaving a place for you in the story. When have you gone in the wrong direction, away from the church, away from God? Think about the times that Jesus has come alongside you on the road, maybe through another person, and opened your eyes to see things in another way? And did there come a point when you recognised that he was with you all the way? And did you return with an open heart and find him in the breaking of the bread?