“Faith is the assurance of what we hope for, the evidence of things we cannot see,” wrote the author of the letter to the Hebrews nearly two millennia ago.
“Things we cannot see”—a realized just peace, swords beaten into ploughshares, the reign of God, the beloved community—contrast sharply with something so many of us have seen: the 8 minute, 46 second video of George Floyd dying with a police officer’s knee on his neck. Where are hope and faith when we sense so powerfully the gap between what we cannot see and what we are seeing?
Perhaps Luke’s Gospel offers companions for this dissonance and grief in the account of Cleopas and his unnamed companion on the Emmaus road. In this Bible story, Cleopas speaks a word of lament which resonates down centuries. Downcast, he sorrowfully reports to the stranger on the road: “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
We had hoped. With just three words, Cleopas names what we often sidestep as Easter people: the difficult truth that our hopes can still go unfulfilled, that our faith seems so far from realized. The difficult truth that crucifixion continues to messily and tragically coexist with resurrection.
With just three words, Cleopas names what we often sidestep … the difficult truth that our hopes can still go unfulfilled.
In spite of our faith, the murder of George Floyd (and so many Black people before him, whose names have become a litany of resistance and outrage) challenges what we want to believe about our nation’s collective identity. We cannot deny that we live in a world where unjust murders—like the murder of the Palestinian Jew we claim as Lord—continue to happen, and that while some are guilty, all of us are responsible. We had hoped for a world where we wouldn’t need national uprisings to state the truth that Black lives matter.
Our litany of lament continues, magnified by the impact of Covid-19: we had hoped that Black and brown bodies would not bear the brunt of the pandemic, as they bear the brunt of any injustice. We had hoped for a world free from domestic abuse where people would not be trapped with their abusers, sadly not “safer at home.” We had hoped for a world where low-wage workers in this time of pandemic would not be shallowly touted as heroes while being denied a living wage, health insurance, safety equipment. We had hoped for a world where public schools’ closure would not create so much hunger among children.
We walk with Cleopas, and our voices join his: we had hoped.
It is easy to turn the Emmaus text into a happily-ever-after story: their eyes are opened to Jesus at the breaking of the bread, their sadness erased. Cue triumphal alleluias. There is a temptation to oversimplify this (and maybe all) post-Resurrection narratives, jumping to a facile, glib positivity that glosses over trauma and loss. But this story is more textured and shadowed than it might first appear. Those shadows resonate with this moment, marked by Jesus’ presence – and by the fear, isolation, sickness, and uncertainty of the coronavirus, the rage and pain of police brutality, and pervasive systemic racism.
Along the road of dashed hopes—then and now—Jesus appears. Not a triumphal Jesus, some shiny superhero action figure. But a Jesus known by his scars, known in the breaking of bread which is a broken body. The Jesus with dusty and scarred feet, journeying in accompaniment on an unfamiliar road.
Along the road of dashed hopes—then and now—Jesus appears.
There is a temptation to allow Easter’s joyful trumpet blasts, blooming lilies, and major-key hymns of victory to feed a certain dangerous, prideful, vulnerability-denying exceptionalism. Because Jesus is risen, we are above risk and danger. Because Jesus is risen, we are elevated beyond “the world.” Because Jesus is risen, we have immunity from suffering and weakness. Some have preached this false gospel to those scared and disoriented by the coronavirus.
Into this fear-and-denial-fueled pride, our scarred and beloved Lord enters to shine light on this temptation to over-spiritualization and exceptionalism. Jesus offers words of peace, his own wounded body, and companionship on the road – which is what we need, even if what we think we want is a simple happily-ever-after. Jesus doesn’t offer the glittering promises of a televangelist. Jesus offers us the presence of his own wounded and resurrected Self – utterly human, utterly vulnerable. Utterly like us.
Jesus offers words of peace, his own wounded body, and companionship on the road.
Whatever the glory of the Resurrection means, it doesn’t mean followers of Jesus are exempt from the vulnerability and limits of the very flesh that Jesus took on. The scars remain for Jesus and for Jesus’ followers, then and now. Heartbreaks might be healed but not erased. Post-Resurrection life is still marked by sadness, disappointment, dashed hopes, dreams deferred, broken relationships. As it was for Cleopas and his companion.
Like many Jews of Jesus’ time, Cleopas and his wife hoped for a political messiah, yearning for liberation from the crushing violence and oppression of Roman rule. But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Roman Empire remained in power. Taxation and tyranny continued. Their hope of a political savior was not realized. The salvation Jesus brought did not look like what they had envisioned in a practical, political, immediate sense.
Moreover, after the revelation of Jesus’ identity, the Emmaus story concludes with Jesus disappearing again. Like the angel departing from Mary after the Annunciation, the disciples on Emmaus road experienced theophany, revelation, intimacy, Real Presence … and then the moment ended. The moment gave way to the call to believe without seeing, to walk by faith and not by sight.
Luke does not tell us the rest of the story for Cleopas and his fellow disciple. Did they face resistance as followers of the Way? Were they among those early believers persecuted or even martyred for their faith in Christ?
And yet, Luke recounts how their “hearts were burning within them” (Luke 24:31), a powerful witness to deep consolation. The encounter compelled them on to Jerusalem to bear witness of what they had experienced. Cleopas and his companion came away with not just deeper insight into the Scriptures, but a direct encounter with God that left them changed, nourished, emboldened, encouraged.
Luke recounts how their “hearts were burning within them,” a powerful witness to deep consolation.
Maybe an authentic Easter faith looks like this grief-infused gratitude, a stubborn hope that coexists with the feeling of near-despair. Maybe an authentic Easter faith looks like a willingness to hold both the truth of the redeeming, renewing, unconditionally-loving presence of Jesus alongside the truth of the pain of our very real losses and disappointments, the pain of the injustice with which we must admit we are complicit.
Perhaps our litany of “we had hoped” can stand alongside our hymns of praise, rendering our shouts of Alleluia even more honest.
Maybe an authentic Easter faith looks like this grief-infused gratitude.
Rather than a simple happily-ever-after, perhaps the Emmaus story offers a model for a faith spacious enough for both gratitude and grief, sorrow and surprised delight, as we continue in the struggle to realize our hopes and inch closer to the vision of just peace.