Easter: Hope in the Present Tense
Updated: Apr 7
Cleopas and his travel companion headed on foot for the seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus on the very first Easter in history nearly 2000 years ago. Their hearts were heavy. As Luke 24 tells us, they were disciples of Jesus, not from the inner circle of the twelve, but nevertheless from among those who had looked to Jesus to bring the redemption hoped for by their people. Christ had risen from the dead, but they didn’t know it. All they knew was that their Messiah was publicly humiliated and crucified only three short days earlier. While Tiberius Caesar’s rule from Rome seemed undisturbed, their Messiah was executed as a common criminal and now lay dead in a tomb. Evil had seemed to triumph. Their hope for redemption for their people had been crushed. Their way of coping was to talk about it. They had to make some kind of sense of it. All they knew was that hope was lost. But why! They had no idea that their confused situation was about to take a dramatic turn.
It happened through what seemed at first to be an ordinary meeting between fellow travelers on a journey out of town. The risen Christ unexpectedly joined Cleopas and his friend on their journey, but they were kept from recognizing him. The scripture does not say how this was so, but it did make their encounter more interesting. Their conversation began in a seemingly ordinary way. Noticing them in intense conversation, Jesus asks, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” The two men, looking downcast, stand still in amazement. Cleopas speaks, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” Jesus asked.
How ironic. Jesus is in fact the only one on earth who was truly in the know about what had actually transpired recently in Jerusalem, both as to the external facts and the deeper meaning. But he does not reveal it. Not yet. He first wanted them to speak from their understanding of events, out of their confusion and sorrow.
It did not take much provocation to get an answer. ““About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.” The problem lay with the Jewish leaders who collaborated with the Romans: “The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.”
Then came the decisive words that went to the heart of their disappointment: “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.” Hope was in the past tense (we had hoped). Three days have now passed and, though women reported the tomb empty and claimed to have had a “vision” of angels declaring Christ as risen, he was still nowhere to be found. The situation did not look promising.
Christ allowed them to speak from their confusion and despair, but he does not leave their situation unchallenged. He immediately starts to correct their lack of insight. “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Armed with the scriptures, Christ sets about to disciple them anew. He brings to light what the prophets make clear: Christ was indeed “mighty in word and deed” as the two travelers indicated. But the key to discerning the truth about him is not his miracles but rather his suffering. It is only in that context that the power of God makes sense. Divine power is the power of divine love. It does not overlook human suffering and need, does not abandon people to suffer alone. The Messiah must suffer before he is raised in glory for us all; he must first enter into the depths of human despair and join himself to us there before he rises in power to set us free. Indeed, the risen Christ comes to them cloaked in the scriptures of the Old Testament only this time interpreted through the lens of their fulfillment in the redemptive suffering of the Messiah. If Israel is to be redeemed, it will occur in the context of the story of this suffering and its victory at Easter and in the overflowing of Easter life at Pentecost.
The story concludes when later that evening the two men, their hearts aflame by the scriptural teaching they had just received, implore Jesus to dine with them. At their shared table, Christ “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.” The wording here parallels the words that described the Last Supper that Jesus had with the inner circle of the twelve before his death as reported two chapters earlier in 22:19 (“And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them”). But, unlike the Last Supper, this post-resurrection meal opens the eyes of Cleopas and his friend. They suddenly recognized him before he vanished!
Christ was revealed to them in the glory that was won through suffering in the same way we all recognize him now, in the breaking open of the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread, except we “see” solely in eyes of faith. In this sight, hope is in the present tense, because we are made to lay down our own understandings so as to see the mighty power of God through the lens of suffering love, the love that drove God’s chosen Messiah into the depths of human despair so as to take up common cause with us there. That lens that smashes all of our self-serving idols is now the only one through which we can recognize Christ, and, with him, God. Hope is born of suffering, not ours primarily, but his for and with us. In this Easter season, we are asked by faith to join our suffering to his so that born of the Spirit we can pass with him into the power of enduring hope. We are asked from the power of the Spirit to be agents of hope to others by sharing in the bearing of their burdens. This is the life that Easter calls into being. This is what Easter hope “in the present tense” looks like.