Not An Unknown Fellow

Luke’s walk to Emmaus is a favorite of mine.

It simultaneously feels believable, magical, realistic, eerie, down-to-earth, and spirit-filled. As Snapple ads promote, the twenty-two verses contain some of the “best stuff.”

The 3rd Sunday after Easter – for May 8, 2011

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road…” (Luke 24:32)

The story feels gritty, possessing a you-are-there realism. Two guys, Cleopas and an unnamed fellow, tramp toward a village seven miles from Jerusalem. It’s been an awful and awesome weekend. Jesus was killed. Jesus’ resurrection was reported. Did the two need to “get out of Dodge” because of turmoil over the events? Or were they clearing their heads and their zip code to discern feelings? Thus, they scurried for Emmaus, a well-known and safe spot on the map. Then again, perhaps they’re Emmaus-bound because it’s an unfamiliar village, and its newness will help them build a future. Regardless of why they departed Jerusalem or chose Emmaus, I easily picture them.

Cleopas and Unnamed Fellow are so dull-witted. I relate to their stunning ignorance about who joined their Emmaus sojourn. They walk and talk . . . and don’t recognize Jesus. They share “today’s” news and engage in scriptural discussion . . . and don’t recognize Jesus. How often do I search for my cell phone or the book I’m currently reading and not find it? Too often! And how often will my wife calmly point to the table where the “lost” object brazenly rests? It can be worse with friends and family, as I overlook another’s expressed fears or hopes. Cleopas, Unknown Fellow, and I should register for a “Be Here Now” workshop.

I like these verses because it takes a long time to get to the ah-ha! revelation. Is that because it’s mostly a fictional story and the writer of Luke does a great job plotting delayed gratification for the reader? Au contraire mon fraire! Perhaps it’s because, in this factual rendering of events, Luke helps all readers/believers experience exactly what Cleopas and Unknown Fellow did. Either way, it doesn’t matter for my faith. Whether the Emmaus stroll is made-up mythology or you-are-there history, I appreciate that it slowly unfolds.

Call it a journey story. Call it a story with relatable, faithful characters. Call it a glimpse of Jesus’ followers starting to form an extraordinary community after his life and death and life again.

But when and why did it become a “favorite” for me?

I know. I don’t know.

I know because of who first shared the meaning and importance of Emmaus with me. Unlike Cleopas’ companion, it’s not an Unknown Fellow. One of my favorite seminary professors was Jack Coogan.

Though I attended church every Sunday as a kid, and had endlessly heard about the Bible, from Adam and Eve’s poor snacking habits to Jesus hoisting children onto his lap, I never grasped the depth and breadth of the Bible for my faith until seminary. Sure, some classes were boring. Some professors seemed as dull-witted as Cleopas. But enough of the time, like the comics, a “light bulb” snapped on above my noggin. And, to be Methodist about it, I had several precious moments where my heart was “strangely warmed.”

Jack Coogan liked Emmaus as a believer and as a scholar. It helped him understand the resurrection and the church’s contemporary mission. But I can only mention his views in generalities. You see, I can’t remember a specific thing he related to me or to a class.

And yet . . . I remember something else very clearly. During seminary I got divorced. My world collapsed. I went from knowing how my life would play out to barely crawling out from under the sheets in the morning. I went from having a place to live to having no idea where I’d lay my head for a restless night of guilt and self-pity.

Jack invited me to live with him. For a few critical months in the aftermath of my divorce, I slept in a narrow bed shoved behind the television in the corner of his living room. One day I took something from the refrigerator—maybe a jar of mayonnaise, maybe a pitcher of lemonade—and it slipped from my grip and tumbled to the floor. Shattered. It symbolized my life then; I was a shattered, splattered mess. Jack murmured kind words and then cleaned up the floor (his floor) with me. I spilled lots of things in those months. Jack murmured many kind words.

I couldn’t tell you why Jack the professor thought Emmaus a theologically essential Gospel account. I just remember him liking it because of how much he helped me in a terrifying time of life.

In a time of life when . . . everything went wrong for me…I saw myself as a failure…I had no future . . . a friend invited me to sit and stay awhile, to share a few meals. In a gesture of compassion, a friend helped me reclaim God’s love.

Why is Emmaus important to me? I know what it’s like to have my eyes opened by a Christ-like gesture.

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