Our favorite Easter story is a strange one. It’s commonly known as The Road to Emmaus. Two men are walking on a road from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus two days after the Crucifixion. As Frederick Buechner says of these two, “There was nothing left to do that Sunday but get out of town.” In the margin of The Magnificent Defeat, the collection of Buechner’s sermons in which “The Road to Emmaus” appears, Ben scribbled “This place is dead anyways,” a reference to Swingers when Charles says that of every party just before he leaves.
Where did [those two] go? They went to Emmaus. And where was Emmaus and why did they go there? It was no place in particular really, and the only reason that they went there was that it was some seven miles distant from a situation that had become unbearable.
Do you understand what I mean when I say that there is not one of us who has not gone to Emmaus with them? Emmaus can be a trip to the movies just for the sake of seeing a movie or to a cocktail party just for the sake of the cocktails. Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred.
Emmaus, he concludes, “is where these two went, to try and forget about Jesus and the great failure of his life.”
“Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her latest book, An Altar in the World. Spiritual failure might be an odd topic for Easter, but as Buechner says, the first mood of the day was despair. By every account Jesus had failed, and these two men did what we would have done, anyway: Get out of town. Move on to the next thing.
The story continues with a stranger joining the men on their walk. The reader is told it is Jesus, who eyewitnesses have already seen alive again, “resurrected.” But the two men don’t recognize him, even though they’ve heard the rumors of an empty tomb. The three of them walk all the way to Emmaus and the men still don’t recognize Jesus, even though he has talked with them the whole way, explaining the scriptures as they went. When they reach Emmaus, the men invite Jesus to join them for a meal. Only then, after Jesus breaks the bread and blesses it, do the men recognize him. And as soon as they do, he disappears.
Strange story. “All the stories about how Jesus appeared to people after his death are strange,” Buechner writes, “and the strangest thing about them is how unglamorous they are, how little fanfare there is about them.” What appeals to us so much about this story is where it happens: Emmaus, “the place” (sayeth Buechner) “that we go in order to escape.” But, he adds, “There are some things that even in Emmaus we cannot escape [and] it is precisely at such times as these that Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable.”
One of the things we love about Barbara Brown Taylor — aside from the fact she’s a terrific writer — is that she’s well acquainted with failure. We’re pretty sure she’s experienced “life at its most real and inescapable” more than a few times. “In my life,” she writes, “I have lost my way more times than I can count.
I have set out to be married and ended up divorced. I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick. I have set out to live in New England and ended up in Georgia. When I was thirty, I set out to be a parish priest, planning to spend the rest of my life caring for souls in any congregation that would have me. Almost thirty years later, I teach school. … I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I stayed on the path. … These are just a few of the reasons that I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead. The Bible is great help to me in this practice, since it reminds me that God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.
We are people who have been truly, seriously lost. We’ve gotten lost pursuing so much of what we planned to do with our lives — write a book, see the world, play in the NBA, go West. We’ve gotten lost in our marriage. We’ve both struggled with mental illness, and while that has literally been a hell to go through, we’ve learned things about God we certainly would not have otherwise. We have come to many of our beliefs through our failures. The truth is, our story would be a strange one like Emmaus. We’ve been on that road many times before, and what we celebrate today is that even there God still found us.
Does that mean we wake up every morning relishing a new day of failure? No. That would be perverted. But we’re learning to see our trials and our shortcomings as spiritual opportunities. We’ve wondered before if Christians shouldn’t be better at failure. Are we, the church, guilty of worshipping success? Because Jesus wasn’t an example of earthly success. He didn’t look much like anyone expected, which may have been why the two men didn’t recognize him either. They weren’t prepared to see him. They were looking for someone else.
Easter is an occasion for celebration, and it’s top dog on the Christian calendar. But before it was the Easter story, it was the Road to Emmaus. The Road to Emmaus is the Easter story. It contains within it both failure and redemption, faithlessness and belief, death and resurrection. It is, to our ears, a true story. And so we believe it.