Contemporary Christians have little difficulty relating to the two Christ-followers who unknowingly encountered the risen Christ on their seven-mile hike from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.
We smile at the irony as Jesus — on the same day he vacated his grave — joined Cleopas and his friend on the road. They were grieving, still sad that Jesus died but not quite sure what to make of the women’s amazing account that angels had assured them Jesus had been resurrected.
We might guess these two travelers were a bit skeptical of the resurrection report. After all, they were getting back to their daily responsibilities in Emmaus, the excitement and disappointment of the Passover behind them for another year.
On the road, they were joined by a traveler who pretended he knew nothing about what had happened to Jesus. Cleopas asked, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?"
"What things?" Jesus inquired, opening the door for them to tell their version of what had happened.
"About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place."
To add confusion, the pair related the experience of the women, who discovered an empty tomb but had been assured in a vision that Jesus was now alive. When the men followed up on the women's story, they, too, found an empty tomb.
At this point in the trip, Jesus assumed the role of teacher. Starting with Moses, he walked them through the Scriptures, including the message of the Prophets, thoroughly explaining what the verses said about the Messiah.
With the lights of Emmaus just ahead, Jesus pretended he was going further. Luke reports they urged him strongly: "Stay with us for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over." As we know, Jesus agreed to go home with them.
At the dinner table, Jesus took the bread, offered a blessing on the meal, broke the bread and handed it to them.
Suddenly Cleopas and his friend saw clearly that they had been with Jesus. Interestingly, at the moment their eyes were opened, Jesus disappeared from their sight, according to Luke.
They asked each other, "Were not our hurts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"
Then, after a seven-mile journey by foot, their sandals loaded with sand, they set out for a nighttime journey back to Jerusalem. They had to share what they experienced, so they set out to find the Eleven to give their testimony about the risen Lord. By the time they arrived, the news was circulating among the excited followers that Jesus had appeared to Simon Peter, too. The experience of the tired travelers lent additional evidence.
About that time, Jesus himself appeared to everyone in the room. The period of grieving was officially over.
Spiritually aflame hearts need not be simply an Easter phenomenon.
This Emmaus Road experience had all the elements of a powerful, ongoing encounter with Christ. The men were reminded of the testimony of Scripture regarding the Messiah; they recognized the fulfillment of messianic prophecy; and their hearts burned with excitement about what they had experienced.
We are left to assume that this spiritual enthusiasm stayed with them in the years ahead.
Many of us can recall the spiritual excitement we experienced as young people after attending a camp, participating on a mission trip or completing a challenging Bible study. Usually we reported back to the congregation, give our testimonies and expressed fresh commitments to God.
I remember overhearing some of the adults whispering something like this: "They're excited now but give them a week or two and they'll be back to normal. They will forget all about this mountain-top experience." These sounded like the voices of experience. But we were determined to prove them wrong. Sometimes we did but often our spiritual fervor cooled down.
What believers cannot recall experiences where "our hearts burned within us" during times when we have let God draw near? Pentecost produced believers filled with a passion for Christ.
I suspect that rather than discourage Emmaus Road experiences, we might do well to seek them for ourselves and others. Otherwise, the pilot lights of our hearts may go out and we may become less capable of experiencing spiritually sensitive hearts and Christ-centered lives.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.