Emmaus and the creation of the Gospels
In church today we heard about the meeting on the road to Emmaus.
It takes place on the day of the resurrection. Two male disciples are walking along discussing the crucifixion. They’ve heard about the women’s discovery of the empty tomb. The men don’t believe that Jesus has risen.
On the road they meet Jesus and don’t recognise him. Jesus explains his own story through the words of the Jewish prophets, but still they don’t recognise him. Finally they stop at an inn to eat together. When Jesus breaks the bread they realise it is him. He disappears into thin air.
The men rush back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that Jesus has risen “and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
This story is found in chapter 24 of the Gospel according to Luke. There is more than one way we can use it to talk about following God.
1. We could use the story to talk about how we don’t always recognise that God is walking alongside us, teaching us. Christians often say it can be easier to locate God with hindsight than in the present.
2. The story has a parallel with the common experience of spiritual dryness. Lots of believers go through phases where they can’t feel God’s presence. Life feels desiccated. The road to Emmaus is a comfort to believers in that situation.
3. The tale shows that it is human to not fully understand Jesus. If even the disciples failed, how can we expect ourselves to always have a perfect understanding? Christians should never think they know everything about Jesus.
4. The disciples’ failure to believe the women warns powerful Christians to listen to marginalised believers. In those days women were not taken seriously.
5. The story also makes a point about the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the ritual breaking of bread that began with Jesus at the Last Supper and became a regular worshipping practice. The dinner scene illustrates the belief that Jesus is made known to us in the Eucharist.
It’s likely there are more than five ways to use the road to Emmaus to talk about faith. Most of the Gospel stories can be used in multiple ways to help believers think about God. The Gospels are a brilliantly ingenious teaching tool.
I came to Christianity late in life. For a long time I was suspicious of the Gospels. How could they be so brilliant yet also authentic? Like many people I felt the Gospels would be more believable if they were crude and unsophisticated.
That would have suited my prejudiced and subconscious belief that Jesus’s first followers were not as mentally capable as we moderns. I think Christianity encourages this prejudice. We are so keen to highlight the shining magnificence of Jesus that we depict his human followers as dim bulbs. And for some reason it’s very human to think that people of the past were slightly stupid.
I no longer worry. I believe the Gospels are a brilliant teaching tool because the early Christians had some truly brilliant teachers and preachers.
It was these people who, with the help of God, kept the early churches going. It is from these people that we have inherited the Gospels.
The Gospels were written down in their present form several decades after Jesus went to heaven. By that point the Church was small, vulnerable but established in some of its ways.
The first Christians learnt about Jesus through the memories of the people who knew him. They were helped by people like St Paul, who never met Jesus in the flesh but had a life of astonishingly deep prayer and revelation.
I believe God watched over these early believers as they told the stories, and helped the writers who made an official record of them in the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.
I believe the rich and largely unknown story of the creation of the Gospels within the early Church is the reason why, nearly 2,000 years later, preachers, teachers and writers are still able to use them in multiple ways to share ideas about God.
The Gospels are surrounded by clouds of human faith. When Christians assert that God wrote the Gospels by using writers as sock puppets, the harsh sun of wishful thinking chases those clouds away.