by James Nieman
13 Now on that same day
two of them were going to a village called Emmaus,
about seven miles from Jerusalem,
14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.
15 While they were talking and discussing,
Jesus himself came near and went with them,
16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
17 And he said to them,
“What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”
They stood still, looking sad.
18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him,
“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem
who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
19 He asked them,
“The things about Jesus of Nazareth,
who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,
20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over
to be condemned to death and crucified him.
21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
Yes, and besides all this,
it is now the third day since these things took place.
22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us.
They were at the tomb early this morning,
23 and when they did not find his body there,
they came back and told us
that they had indeed seen a vision of angels
who said that he was alive.
24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb
and found it just as the women had said;
but they did not see him.”
25 Then he said to them,
“Oh, how foolish you are,
and how slow of heart
to believe all that the prophets have declared!
26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things
and then enter into his glory?”
27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going,
he walked ahead as if he were going on.
29 But they urged him strongly, saying,
“Stay with us,
because it is almost evening
and the day is now nearly over.”
So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them,
he took bread,
blessed and broke it,
and gave it to them.
31 Then their eyes were opened,
and they recognized him;
and he vanished from their sight.
32 They said to each other,
“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he was talking to us on the road,
while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem;
and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.
34 They were saying,
“The Lord has risen indeed,
and he has appeared to Simon!”
35 Then they told what had happened on the road,
and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Surplus of meaning. It’s a phrase coined by a guy who once taught just across the street. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur claimed that every text has its “surplus of meaning.” Long after the original use has been forgotten, new meanings will still overflow. On this side of the street, we should be grateful because that’s what keeps us in business. If not for this surplus, there would be just one way to interpret a sacred text—which might shorten seminary but vastly reduce the need for pastors. But instead, Ricoeur said that every text had a surplus of meaning because life itself holds a surplus of meaning. Despite the nonsense and emptiness all around us, life has inexhaustibly greater meanings yet to be found. That’s why an ordinary moment of your past can look so different from later perspective. A friend with whom you once danced on a passing whim later becomes your spouse, a surplus of meaning that was there all along but you never imagined at the time. That’s also why a beloved scrap of scripture can suddenly bear a mystery you’ve never sensed before. It’s that surplus of meaning waiting to be found.
These twenty-three verses from near the end of Luke’s gospel are surely a beloved scrap of scripture for me. I’ve read them again and again, heard scores of sermons on them (including a few good ones this past week), know their ins and outs by heart. Or so I thought. I love this remarkable resurrection story, but really thought I’d heard it all, wrung it dry, with nothing left to say. But true to form, the Spirit of the Risen One who strode through this text opened a little surplus of meaning I didn’t quite expect. And it all began with the simple, startling realization that even though Jesus was just raised from death, his role in this drama is quite small. Now, I had remembered him rather differently—big presence, many words—but that’s not really so. Jesus actually turns out to be passive and quiet in this story, almost a shadow.
Instead, it’s the two disciples who steal the show. And no wonder, since Cleopas and his companion have so many lines to deliver. In six different places they blather on and on about what’s happening, first to one another, then to Jesus, again to one another, and finally to the eleven back in Jerusalem. They just can’t seem to shut up, and it’s their talk that drives the bulk of the action. Nearly half of this entire story consists just of what these two have to say. Their words outnumber Jesus’ words by over four to one, which totally surprised me. I mean, even if you didn’t know you were walking in the presence of risen Lord (which they obviously did not), out of basic politeness and human decency wouldn’t you occasionally take a breath and let your guest get a word in edgewise? But no, they had a surplus on that first Easter afternoon, and I don’t mean a surplus of meaning—just a surplus of words.
My surprise about their wordiness didn’t end there, either. If Luke bothered to recall their words in such detail, I thought, maybe I should bother to listen. And when I did, it turns out that what these disciples say is train wreck. In their longwinded effort to update Jesus on the news, they breathlessly careen from one factoid to the next without a clue as to how those pieces fit together. This Jesus was God’s mighty prophet and still our leaders handed him over to be killed though we had hoped he would liberate us but besides he’s been dead three days so moreover some women found no body at his tomb yet instead they saw angels though later others who went there found nothing like that at all. Did you hear all the little connections, each changing course from the one that came just before? And still—though we—but besides—so moreover—yet instead—though later. It’s like an overexcited child trying to tell something that words just can’t contain. The facts are right, and they’re all right there, but they smash into each other like bumper cars at a carnival. In the end, these disciples are left with only these random fragments, a surplus of words without a hint of meaning.
So when Jesus finally speaks—and this is all he says besides two brief questions earlier—the contrast couldn’t be more jarring. Where once disciples’ words were strewn and scattered, now begins a calm, concise two-sentence sermon.
Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!
Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?
To us, those first words seem like needless insult—You stupid, godless dimwits!—but the Greek sounds to me more like heartfelt lament—Oh, how dimly, how slowly comes your faith! Jesus declares God’s own deep sorrow for those who long to believe but, of their own, cannot. Not a bad way to start a sermon—with compassion for the plight of those who listen.
Then comes part two of this homily, which Jesus uses like a lever to dislodge the disciples. And if this second move is a lever, then its fulcrum is a little word more potent than any other, the Greek verb dei—“it is necessary.” Luke uses that word far more often than any other New Testament writer to speak of the essential, binding, crucial thing Jesus must face. Was it not necessary that the Messiah should... And of course they had heard this a score of times before, but only now was its meaning clear. They had all the facts right, knew every detail of the story, but without this necessary thing they remained scattered fragments. The one thing that made the difference at this moment wasn’t their words or ways, but what God has done through this Jesus. It was necessary that through him, God embrace the heart of our suffering, the depth of our death. It was essential, binding, crucial—it was dei—that God meet us at such a place and hold us forever in mercy and light, no distance, no separation.
Oh sure, I know that Jesus has more to say in this story, but we never hear directly what. Evidently he teaches the two disciples the bulk of the Bible, from Moses through the prophets. Later on at table, he takes and breaks and gives the bread, blessing it as he does so. But of his actual words we know nothing, because he has already declared the most needful thing of all,
in a little sermon with just two sentences: God shares your lament. God bears your death for life. Is there anything more essential, more binding, more crucial? With that great dei in place, all the scraps of scripture, all the fragments of bread, those disciples’ scattered stories, even the shards of our lives make sense anew. Talk about a surplus of meaning.
Before long, many of you will leave here—some briefly, others for longer—while the rest of us will stay behind. But all of us, regardless our station or vocation, have a witness to make, an Easter message to bear. Quite often that can seem daunting. We know so much, or think we do, but holding it all together, knowing what to say is so hard. Let me make a little suggestion. We live in days of empty talk, endless chatter, excess verbal baggage—a surplus of words, if you will. You have something else to offer, something less. Let your witness be like that of Jesus—brief, spare, but necessary. Whether you depart this place or stay for another season, let your witness be the essential, binding, crucial word of Jesus, who said it all in just two sentences: God shares your lament. God bears your death for life. Let that be enough, the good news that opens all of scripture, that spreads a rich table, that emboldens your words, that restores your life. Let that good news, that surplus of meaning drive you, like those first disciples, back on the road with hearts aflame for those who dwell in darkness and fear.
God shares you lament. God bears your death for life. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.