The Gospel According to Cleopas
James C. Denison
People send me lots of stories, some of which I can actually tell in church. Here’s my favorite so far this year. A man says, “As a young minister, I was asked by a funeral director to hold a graveside service for a homeless man who had no family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a cemetery way back in the country, and this man would be the first to be laid to rest there.
“As I was not familiar with the backwoods area, I became lost. Being a typical man, I did not stop for directions. I finally arrived an hour late. I saw the backhoe and the crew eating lunch, but the hearse was nowhere in sight. I apologized to the workers for my tardiness and stepped to the open grave, where the vault was already in place. I assured the workers that I would not hold them up for long, but that this was the proper thing to do. The workers gathered around, still eating their lunch. I poured out my heart and soul.
“As I preached, the workers began to say ‘Amen” and ‘Praise the Lord.’ I preached and I preached as I’d never preached before, from Genesis all the way to Revelation. I wasn’t going to let this homeless man go out without someone taking notice of his service. I closed the lengthy service with a prayer and walked to my car.
“As I was opening the door and taking off my coat, I overheard one of the workers say to another, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for more than 20 years!'”
There are many reasons to have church, but none surpasses today’s. This is the Sunday when Christians the world over gather to celebrate the fact that Jesus rose from the grave and is alive today.
We do this because we need to–because we need the hope and encouragement and help which remembering the resurrection gives us. We do this because we’re Easter celebrants, but we’re also people with problems. We’re courageous and fearful, faithful and backslidden. We’ve had victories and we’ve had failures. Some days we’re excited to be alive and some days we’re not. Some Sundays we’re inspired, and some we want to sleep in. Some weeks we win, and some we lose. Some weeks we’re with Cleopas, and some weeks we’re with Christ.
Today we’ll learn why choosing latter over the former is the most important decision of life.
The gospel according to Cleopas
Our drama begins as two players enter the stage. One is named “Cleopas”–that’s all we know about him. Nothing more, just his name. We know even less about the second actor in the play, as he or she is never named in the script. Maybe this person is the wife of Cleopas, as they went home together; or perhaps his brother or close friend. That’s part of the beauty of our story–they are Everyman, Everywoman. Every one of us, at some time in our lives.
Now it’s Easter Sunday, the greatest day in human history, the day God’s Son rose from the grave, defeating death and sin and Satan and hell, the day he fulfilled the promises of God’s word and God’s plan and purchased salvation for all who would trust in him. The day that the Church began and the world changed.
But Easter has missed Cleopas and his companion. No “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” for them; no “Up from the grave he arose.” They’re shuffling off from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus, a small village 7½ miles west of the Holy City, a place known for medicinal springs in the area and not much else. They’re trudging from Dallas to Grand Prairie. The sun is setting on their day, and their souls.
Somehow they know a lot about the One who was crucified two days ago. They know that “he was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people” (v. 19), God’s spokesman and preacher. They know that he has been “crucified” (v. 20). They had hoped that he would be their Messiah, “the one who was going to redeem Israel” (v. 21); probably they had been part of the Palm Sunday crowd the Sunday earlier, throwing their palm branches before Jesus and their “Hosanna”s into the air with the jubilant crowd. They’ve heard rumors that some women have seen him alive, but the apostles “did not see” him (v. 24).
They know all about Jesus. And yet they don’t know him. He’s right here, walking beside them, and they are “kept from recognizing him” (v. 16). Perhaps by their grief, or their disillusionment, or something else. We don’t know. All we do know is that they appreciate Jesus for the good man he was, but nothing more. No living, life-transforming Lord for them.
Cleopas is alive and well and skeptical still today.
Atheism is making a comeback these days. Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, the man who said a few years ago that “religion is a virus in the software of humanity,” is publishing bestsellers with titles like The God Delusion. Sam Harris’s last book is called The End of Faith. They and others like them are telling all who will listen that the resurrection of Jesus is a myth, that religion is superstition we must outgrow.
Maybe you wouldn’t go that far, but some of us here today aren’t sure if it’s all really true. You’ve never seen Jesus, touched him, heard his voice. It’s all a nice story, fine for those who want to believe it. Churches do lots of good in the world; if faith helps you get by, there’s nothing wrong with that. Do whatever works for you. But don’t ask me to believe it just because you do. Just because some people say they’ve seen him doesn’t mean they have. Every religion claims to be right. Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims say they have met God or the gods. It’s a lovely story, a treasured tradition, Santa Claus for Christians. But nothing more.