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.
For you, Jesus was a good man, even a great one. A wonderful teacher and example. We ought to imitate him and try to do what he says, honoring his memory and continuing his legacy. But he was just a man.
A little boy was asked in Sunday school what “faith is.” His definition: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
You can find Cleopas in the culture, and in the church as well. Some of us who come every week have read his “gospel” and know that his story is ours.
Like lots of people in church, you accept the story of Easter on a level of history, the idea that Jesus Christ rose from the grave on April 19, AD 29. You know that there’s no explanation for the empty tomb: if the authorities had the body, they would have produced it; if the disciples stole the body, they died for a lie. You know that 500 early Christians saw him alive, and that there is no other good explanation for the birth and miraculous growth of the Church.
You understand the theological importance of the resurrection: that Easter fulfilled the biblical predictions that God’s Son would rise from the dead (cf. Matthew 16:21); it proved the divinity of Christ (John 20:28); it guarantees our victory over death and the grave (John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22).
You know all of that. But to you it sounds like so much data, statistics without relevance. It’s been a while since you felt the touch of his power, his answer to your prayers, his help for your needs. It’s been a while since he gave you his joy or changed your life. For you, Easter is a story and a tradition but not much else. It’s not your story today. You’re with Cleopas. His gospel is your gospel.
The gospel according to Christ
Fortunately, Luke’s Easter drama doesn’t end with verse 24. In response to the misgivings and doubts of Cleopas, the Christ preaches a sermon I want very much to hear when I’m in heaven: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27).
He showed himself alive in the word of God, and in the worship of God: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. [This describes what we call the Lord’s Supper today.] Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?'” (vs. 30-32).
He showed himself alive in God’s word, and worship, and world: “They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, ‘It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread” (vs. 33-35).
Jesus is still alive in his word and worship and world, for any of us who will do what Cleopas and his companion did. If we will listen to his word and his Holy Spirit. If we will meet God in our worship and our world. If we will settle for nothing less than a personal, intimate, passionate, daily relationship with the risen Christ, it will be ours. Yours. Today.
When last did you start the day by giving it to Jesus? By spending time in his word and worship? When last did you go out into the world in prayer, walking with him through the day? Praying first about all that came your way–the problems and opportunities, frustrations and joys of life? Practicing the presence of God, surrendered to Jesus as the King of your life? When last did his word and worship change and empower your soul? When last did you experience Easter? Today you are walking to Emmaus, and he has joined you. He is at your side right now. He is ready to walk through this day and this year with you. Are you ready to walk with him?
Is Easter the story of Cleopas or Christ for you? Have you come to give thanks for a good man, or to meet God? When last did meeting Jesus bring Easter to your soul?
Jesus rose from the grave on Easter Sunday–I can show you that it’s so. Two weeks ago, it was my privilege to be part of a group following the footsteps of Paul and John in Greece and Turkey. On Sunday morning we made our way to Patmos and the cave where John received the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
It was AD 95. John had been Jesus’ best friend on earth for 60 years. Probably the first to join his apostolic band, and the last to leave it. The only one at his cross; the one to whom Jesus entrusted his mother. His “beloved disciple.”
Now six decades have come and gone, and all the other disciples are with Jesus in heaven. Only John remains of the original twelve. He has been exiled by Emperor Domitian to Patmos, the Alcatraz of the ancient world off the coast of modern-day Turkey. Separated from his family, his friends, his congregation; his witness silenced and his ministry over. At least that was Domitian’s plan. But John won his jailer to Christ, and his fellow prisoners, and started a tiny church on that island rock.
Weeks went by. It was Sunday, and John was with his trusted assistant Prochorus. They were worshiping in their cave on the island, when there came a voice he had not heard in 60 years. He turned and found his best friend, the One he never expected to see again on this side of heaven. The One who rose from the grave on Easter Sunday and is alive today. And the risen Christ gave him the Revelation, the last book of Scripture, truth which is still changing souls across the world 20 centuries later.
Two more years passed. Domitian was executed, and replaced by Emperor Nerva. Nerva freed John to return to his home in Ephesus. He left that prison island and his tiny church behind, never knowing what would become of them. He died a few years later and went to join his best friend in heaven.
Now 2,000 years have passed. Two Sundays ago, our tour group entered John’s cave. There we found the table where the Revelation was written, and the handhold he used to get up from the ground after praying. And John’s church. Worshiping Jesus in the cave, as they have since John left. As they will until Jesus returns. All because the risen Christ brought Easter to Patmos. And never left.
Now he’s ready to bring Easter to Dallas. And to your soul. This is the invitation and promise of the living God.