One of my favorite passages in the Bible is the familiar story of the road to Emmaus from Luke 24:13-33. The passage shows our resurrected Lord coming alongside the disciples who were on their way back to their home after the devastating events of the crucifixion that had just taken place near Jerusalem. Jesus patiently listens as they pour out their anguish and grief. He was visibly present, but there was something more.
The disciples could not quite put their finger on it, but there was something authentic and believable about this fellow traveler. There was a spiritual presence as well; something that felt trustworthy and dependable. The conversation they shared together came easily and this “stranger” who walked with them seemed sincere and genuinely interested in what was happening in their lives. Whoever he was, the disciples seemed to sense a faithful presence, both physically and spiritually.
I find these verses from the twenty fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel to be particularly helpful in understanding what it means to be faithfully present to the students I work with. They are from all different backgrounds and have wide-ranging reasons and goals for pursuing higher education at this point in their lives. The encounter on the Emmaus Road has been a great example of the faithful presence of others in my own journey and it is a privilege to be physically (well at least on Zoom!) and spiritually present with students, other faculty members and staff. This passage gives us three important examples of providing faithful presence through listening, giving insight, and inviting conversation and reflection.
Faithful Presence Through Listening
One of the things I find interesting in the story of the road to Emmaus was how Jesus intently listened to the disciples as they poured out their hearts to him. They needed to process the trauma of all that had happened including their grief and sadness. Jesus does not interrupt but allows them to sort through and verbalize their feelings. He patiently provided faithful presence that helped the disciples grapple with their emotions.
This is true with the students that I work with as well. They do not come into their studies as simply people working on an academic program, but as whole individuals with families, jobs, and other obligations. And sometimes they struggle. Providing faithful presence is often just listening; listening as students pour out their frustrations or sorrow as well as celebrating their triumphs. For me this is a connection in which the Holy Spirit links our hearts together opening the opportunity for spiritual conversations to take place.
Of course, this isn’t always easy as I tend to want to jump in and help solve the problem or provide counsel. But when I think of the Emmaus Road and how Jesus listened and simply asked “what things?” (v.19), I’m reminded that while I may have insight to give, faithful presence means allowing students to voice what is on their hearts first. Jesus knew what the disciples were talking about, he lived through it! His example is that faithful presence means listening first.
The passage from Luke twenty-four continues as the group walks towards their destination together. After intently listening to the disciples, Jesus comes to a point where he offers insight into the discussion. He had heard their story and only then did he begin to offer his thoughts on their situation. As I have said, I like to “help” fix things, so I continue to learn from the model Jesus gives here.
Faithful Presence Through Insight
One of the great blessings in my ministry career is the wide variety of experiences I have had. Each one of those experiences has given me insight into what it means to live out my faith as a missionary for the gospel, no matter where I am. The various experiences I have had in both the secular workplace and ministry settings have shaped me, giving me the ability to meet students where they are and hopefully give them a glimpse of the “big picture” of God’s plan for them.
Looking back at the Emmaus Road account, we see that Jesus does exactly this as he walks along with his disciples. After carefully listening, Jesus provides some much-needed insight into the disciple’s situation (vv. 26-27). But instead of revealing too much all at once, he begins by asking some questions about what the disciples already knew. These questions may seem a little abrupt or harsh (v. 25), but it seems as if he is redirecting the conversation. Jesus then goes on to explain what the Scriptures had been saying about him for hundreds of years. He was physically present with them but drew on spiritual insight that the disciples knew but had not been able to piece together.
I have had many opportunities to share observations with students as they work towards their academic and career goals. Being faithfully present with them includes asking questions and offering insight. Sometimes those questions are challenging as a means of helping the student see their situation from a different perspective. The joy of providing insight through the spiritual presence of the Holy Spirit is watching students begin to explore the idea that God is working in and through them in their own situation to accomplish his plan and purpose in their lives. Insights shared through faithful presence then opens the door for conversation and reflection both for students who have a relationship with Christ and those who do not. No matter where the student may be on their faith journey, the example of Jesus on the road to Emmaus gives us a great model to follow for sharing insight with them.
Faithful Presence Includes Conversation and Reflection
Being faithfully present, physically and spiritually, and offering understanding often stimulates conversation. I can imagine the disciples walking with Jesus, listening to his explanation about who the Messiah is. Jesus carefully explained everything that had happened through the trial and crucifixion and what it meant to them and all humanity going forward. Luke doesn’t tell us of the conversation between Jesus and the disciples, but I would imagine that it was quite a dialogue as He “opened the scriptures” to them (v. 32).
What began as a very sad conversation filled with grief and despair took on a new meaning as the disciples reflected on what Jesus was saying. As they walked and talked together there was a strange familiarity, the conversation and reflections became clearer. It is almost as if the disciples were not ready for the dialogue to end as they invited the “stranger” to come home and stay with them (vv. 28-29). While Jesus was faithfully present with them through conversation and reflections on all that had happened, they still did not recognize who he was. That is until he did something very familiar; he (physically) prayed and broke the bread (vv. 30-31). Suddenly it all made sense! And the conversation and reflection took on a spiritual meaning as “they asked each other ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road’…” (v. 32). They realized Jesus was faithfully present with them physically and spiritually.
This is an important example for me when I am in conversation with students. Not only do we talk about the current events of the day or what is going on in their academic work, but it also sets the stage for reflection on how God has been working in all areas of their lives. As we talk about what is going on and how far they may have come or what struggles they are experiencing, the Holy Spirit enters the conversation and helps them to see the bigger picture. There have been many times as I’ve listened to students reflect on their personal experience of God’s presence when my own heart will “burn within” me as I see the work of the Holy Spirit taking place! This is also vitally important for students who do not hold a Christian worldview as the Spirit may open doors to a deeper conversation about who God really is. Conversation and reflection are vital parts of being faithfully present with students.
The account of the Road to Emmaus reminds us that there are many times when we feel as if the world may be crashing in on us, yet all too often we forget about the faithful presence that is with us. This is true for the students we encounter as well. When we take the time to listen, provide insight, and encourage conversation and reflection, we are not only physically present, but we are spiritually present as well. Making ourselves available to the Holy Spirit opens us up to the spiritual connection that students may need to help them put the pieces together. It may also help build trust for ongoing conversations about faith in Christ for those who do not have a relationship with him. Just as physically being there is so important in our post-Covid world, faithful presence in the Spirit is desperately needed to face the challenges that all of us do. Inviting the Holy Spirit to be part of that brings clarity and perspectives as we experience “our hearts burning within us” as s/he attends to our needs and the needs of our students.
About the author:
Jody Fleming is an ordained elder and endorsed chaplain in the Church of the Nazarene and is currently Affiliate Faculty with Kairos University and an Online Course Developer with Pacific Islands University. She holds an M.Div. in Biblical Studies/Teaching Ministries and a Ph.D. in theological studies with a concentration in Global Christianity and Mission and has published in the areas of the Holy Spirit and Missiology including her book Wesleyan Pneumatology, Pentecostal Mission and the Missio Dei. Jody has two adult children and lives with her husband in south central Pennsylvania.