When Jesus meets the broken-hearted disciples, he first walks alongside them, listens, he lets them tell their story even if they are not aware that it is the story of Jesus’s suffering too. Then, he opens the scripture to them, so their hearts gradually move from broken to burning within them.

Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. --Luke 24:31

When the Penny Drops

Nancy and I have watched a lot of British detective shows in the last few years. When we begin a new show, it always takes me at least a couple of episodes for my ear to get used to the accents and idioms. English countryside, Welsh, Irish, Scottish Highland or Lowlands, they’re all different, and they all have their own colloquialisms. Recently, a character used the phrase “when the penny dropped” in two episodes in a row. I googled it to make sure I understood it correctly and learned that it means “when I suddenly understood.” It is a phrase that describes that feeling you have when evidence has been adding up pointing to a hidden reality, but you haven’t really paid attention to it, or you deny it because you don’t want to believe it, but then, all at once, everything becomes clear.

Luke describes that kind of moment happening to Cleopas and the other disciple: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

The penny dropped.

As human beings, we’re put together in such a way that all kinds of learning happens in this pattern: we try, we fail, our hearts are broken, nothing make sense, then gradually at first, we see a bit of progress until suddenly, Click, things fall into place.

Learning a song on guitar or piano; learning a new language; learning to ride a bicycle or to swim.

Do you remember learning to ride a bicycle?

I met Rachel, our oldest daughter, when she was nearly six years old. She had been riding her bicycle on training wheels for a while, and I offered to take those training wheels off and help her learn how to ride without them. Even though I did not yet know that expression, “when the penny drops,” I knew that riding a bicycle happened in this way—fail, fail, fail, then everything comes together and “click,” she’ll be riding without training wheels.

When that happened, I would take my place as her mom’s cool boyfriend. That was my plan.

I ran behind her and held on to the back of the seat as she picked up speed. Gradually, it seemed she was keeping the bike upright by herself so I could let go for a few seconds at a time, just catching the handle on the back of the seat if she began to wobble a bit.

It did not take long until it all came together for her, so I let go and let her ride on ahead of me. She rode away and I celebrated by letting her know I no longer held the seat, she was riding on her own. “NO HANDS!” I shouted.

So she let go of the handlebars and raised her hands in the air.

And ran into the mailbox.

I made quite an impression on my girlfriend’s daughter.

My actual memory of that incident has faded a bit, but Rachel tells it all the time, so I have not been allowed to forget it.

I learned something important there. It can look sometimes like the penny has dropped, all has come together, but there’s more progress to be made.

These four words from the disciples walking to Emmaus will break your heart: “but we had hoped.”

They were walking, they were functioning, still talking with each other, and headed home, but underneath that exterior, their hearts were broken. Their hopes had been dashed.

As we read this story, we find that Luke has put it together in such a way that we as readers want to jump in there and tell them, “He’s risen! He’s right there with you, that stranger is Jesus! Wake up!” 

Luke tells us, . . . wait for it.

Many have pointed out how the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus provided a model for the design of Christian worship.  It is the first day of the week, Jesus interprets scripture for the disciples, the disciples reach out to Jesus in hospitality, urging his presence at the table, and then, in a surprise move, he sits at table and becomes the host when he takes the bread, give thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them.  Their hearts were set on fire as he interpreted the scriptures to them, and their eyes were opened when the bread was broken, and they responded by getting up and telling others that Christ is risen.

It’s what we do in worship: come together in the presence of Christ, hear the scripture, share a meal, then go out into the world with the good news that Christ is risen.

Here’s something important about this story I had not noticed before.

Jesus comes alongside disciples whose hearts are broken. He does not try to shake them out of it. He interprets the scripture. He walks with them, he accepts their hospitality, then breaks bread as the host. The penny drops only after a gradual build-up; he doesn’t rush it, he lets it happen.

It raises some challenging questions for us who seek to follow Jesus.

One of those questions is, “How can we make sure the church we serve is a place where the broken-hearted will feel welcomed?”

Popular Christian theology can stray sometimes into a place where broken-hearted sadness is considered a lack of faith; where those who grieve and mourn will feel judged instead of blessed and comforted.

“Don’t worry, be happy!” is a fine uplifting song, but it’s not a moral imperative. Jesus’ preaching, “Do not be anxious,” is an assurance, an invitation to let it go, not a guilt trip demanding that we start feeling different right now.

A friend of mine had been through a very hard time. His wife was battling cancer, his aging mother had had surgeries that failed and had to be repeated, and one of his children nearly died from an overdose.

When “Don’t worry, Be Happy” came on the radio, he slammed it off and pointed at the radio: “Too soon,” he said, “too soon.”

We may have experienced that feeling of waking up one morning with the clouds have lifted, faith has been restored, and a song fills our heart. When that happens, we naturally want to share it with others, bring everyone else along.

Luke celebrates that here on the one hand, while he counsels patience on the other.

When Jesus meets the broken-hearted disciples, he first walks alongside them, listens, he lets them tell their story even if they are not aware that it is the story of Jesus’s suffering too. Then, he opens the scripture to them, so their hearts gradually move from broken to burning within them.

We who share the gospel often expect that if we’re doing our job well, our words will bring about that “Aha!” in everyone who hears. Luke reminds us here that it’s not up to us alone.

Tony Campolo was asked to speak at a Pentecostal college. Before the service, eight men had him kneel so they could place their hands on his head and pray. Tony was glad to have the prayer, but each of them prayed a really long time, and the longer they prayed the more they pushed on Tony’s head. And then they even seemed to wander in their prayers. One of the men didn’t even pray for Tony. He prayed for some guy he was concerned about. He began to pray and said, “Dear Lord, you know Charlie Stoltzfus. He lives in that silver trailer down the road a mile. You know the trailer, Lord, just down the road on the right-hand side.”

Tony wanted to interrupt and tell him that God already knew where the guy lived and didn’t need directions, but he just knelt there trying to keep his head upright.

The prayer went on: “Lord, Charlie told me this morning that he was going to leave his wife and three kids. Step in and do something, God. Bring that family back together.”

With that, the prayer time ended and Tony went on to preach at the college chapel. Things went well and he got in his car and began to drive home. As he drove on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, he saw a hitchhiker and felt compelled to pick him up.

Tony said, “We drove a few minutes and I said: ‘Hi, my name is Tony Campolo. What’s yours?’ He said, ‘My name is,” (wait for it) “Charlie Stoltzfus.’

The penny dropped.

Tony got off the turnpike at the next exit and headed back. Charlie got a bit uneasy with that and after a few minutes he said, “Hey mister, where are you taking me?’ Tony said, ‘I’m taking you home.’ Charlie narrowed his eyes and asked, ‘Why?’ Tony said, ‘Because you just left your wife and three kids, right?’ That blew Charlie away. ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s right.’

With shock written all over his face, Charlie plastered himself against the car door and never took his eyes off Tony. Then Tony really did him in as he drove right to Charlie’s silver trailer. When Tony pulled up, Charlie’s eyes seemed to bulge as he asked, ‘How did you know that I lived here?’ Tony said, ‘God told me,’ which I guess God kind of did, right?

When Charlie opened the trailer door his wife exclaimed, ‘You’re back! You’re back!’ Charlie whispered in his wife’s ear and the more he talked, the bigger her eyes got. Tony said with real authority, ‘The two of you sit down. I’m going to talk and you two are going to listen.’ Man, did they listen…that afternoon Tony told them about the love of Jesus and brought them back together.

When I reconstruct the development of my own call to ministry, one episode that stands out is a worship service when I was a senior in high school.  A friend of my parents named Motlelepula Chabaku, a South African minister who had been banished from her home country for speaking out against apartheid, came to my home church in Greenville, Texas, and preached the Sunday service.  She was the first woman I remember hearing preach from that pulpit, and she was, by anyone’s memory, the first non-white person ever to stand in that pulpit.

She told stories of her family’s abuse at the hands of police. She told of her own arrest and banishment from her home country. I don’t remember the details, but my poor memory of it is similar to the fact that I can’t recall every meal I’ve ever eaten, but I know I’ve been fed.

I do remember clearly, however, a moment in that service; a moment as Motlelepula stood at the table next to our pastor and broke bread and pronounced the words of institution.  In that moment, worship was transformed for me.  No longer would I ever think of worship as a ritual that helped me escape from the troubles of the world; rather, it became, in that moment, a time of recognition – a time when the community gathers in the presence of Christ to receive strength for the journey. After all the sermons I had heard, the Sunday School, and the confirmation class, finally, the penny dropped.  In word and sacrament, Christ feeds us the bread of life and the cup of salvation not just for our sake, but for God’s.

One of the insights of the story of Cleopas and his companion meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus is that we may go through much of life in the presence of Christ, but unaware. This story invites us to pay attention—to pay attention to the people around us, to our own subconscious mind, to all our senses, and consider, in what way is Christ present?

When we celebrate communion next week, when we hear again the words of this story, Luke invites us to broaden our attention beyond the communion meal.

After this time of mass quarantine, I will never again take for granted the privilege of sitting down at a table with both family and friends.

And perhaps in the future, I will remember more often what Jesus said—that any time we gather at a dinner table with friends or family, any time we travel and meet a stranger, any time we have the opportunity to offer or receive hospitality—Christ is present with us as guest and host.