On the road to Emmaus, two of Jesus’ followers spend an afternoon walking with the risen savior without even knowing it. They converse with him and listen to him recount the prophecies, interpreting all that was foretold about him. Even so, they still didn’t recognize him until deep into the evening when they sat together to break bread and their eyes were suddenly opened. There are multiple ways of seeing. We grow accustomed to using our eyes and senses, but as the story illustrates, trusting that alone can fail us at times. How might we have missed encounters with the divine for sake of our ‘blindness’?
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
This text presents many of the paradoxes of resurrection. Mysteries abound. Jesus was right there but the disciples did not recognize him. It has led me to wonder how often Jesus is walking next to us and we do not recognize him.
On my first reading, I read this as if Jesus or God interfered with the disciples’ recognition but now it occurs to me that it is more likely an ‘us’ problem’. If we depend upon what our biological eyes see we will often miss the point entirely. There is more to seeing than wavelengths and reflected light. Seeing God’s truth is a spiritual discernment that is often obscured by our human frame. We can get lost in a warren of resurrection details if we only see with human eyes. We like the disciples must see beyond what our eyes see.
Taken literally, the passage is self-contradictory. The resurrected Jesus is simultaneously described in both bodily and spiritual form. He walks with them, eats with them and shows them his wounds. But in the same verses, Jesus is spirit. In one case, as soon as he is recognized, he vanishes and in the other, he suddenly appears in the midst of them. No wonder the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost. If we only use our eyes, if we only say ‘but the bible says’, the resurrection story is, at best, confusing and contradictory and at worst, just plain crazy. But in real life truth is often paradoxical but seeing the paradox requires seeing more than our eyes see.
When we are bound by our assumptions about what the scriptures say, our biological imperatives, and, especially in our world today, our insistence that what we do not understand must not exist, it is very hard to see Jesus—even if he is walking beside us. These were the same issues which interfered with the disciples seeing.
The disciples understanding of the messiah began with their misunderstanding of scripture. They sought a messiah who would redeem Israel—a messiah who would ease pain, who would raise them up and punish those who persecuted them. But that is not the kind of God Jesus is. The idea that God is doling out good fortune and bad is very hard to shake. A quote on Facebook succinctly captures the radical change that Jesus brings: “God does not give us what we can handle, He helps us handle what we have been given.” Jesus is God with us, not God fixing us.
That is not what the disciples assumed or expected. What these disciples knew was that their hope that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel had died on the cross. As long as they (or we) insist on holding on to our own ideas of what redemption and eternal life are, we will be unable to see Jesus. No matter how many times they had been told, the disciples could not imagine that the messiah would be crucified. They could not imagine that death was not the end. They could not imagine that love is rooted in helplessness rather than control. They could not imagine that to save their lives, they must lose them. Their understanding and assumptions about God stopped up their ears and blinded their eyes.
We even witness Jesus’ frustration— “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! “ They had been with Jesus for his entire ministry and still missed the point. But in real life, this is often the case. In real life we often retain less than ten percent of new information—especially information that is contrary to our own thinking. I try to warn clients of this reality early. It is one of the reasons counseling can take so long. The brain is like a self-sealing tire. A new idea can penetrate but it is quickly sealed off. In the moment a new idea can be vivid, real and true but twenty minutes later, we can’t repeat it. The gospel is at least that difficult to make a part of us.
But Jesus persevered. He goes over the scriptures yet again. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” The messiah must suffer. The messiah is a servant. Eternal life is not life as we know it. The kingdom of God is distinct from the natural world that reflects our primal biology and evolution. The way of the world is survival of the fittest. It is either you or me. It is us/them. Jesus challenges that world. He treats everyone as a child of God. He does not insist of his own way. He redefines what death and life mean. He calls us to values above our natural self-interest. He shows us a more excellent way.
Though, like the disciples, in order to see Jesus we have to give up what we think we know, it is not completely outside of our experience. This is not magic. We get glimpses of what resurrected life might mean in the ordinary experience of surviving the death of someone we love. In ordinary grieving, it is very common to see and talk to a lost loved one. It is very common to reflect on their life and to see them—and ourselves, in a new way. We can even see implications and impacts that we could never have anticipated and which are well beyond our control. Death is the end of many of the ways we knew loved ones but death is not the end of life. Even in our earthly lives, we can begin to experience how life ripples into ours well after death. We can see, dimly, that death is not the end.
Similarly, it does not take a whole lot of detachment to realize that any ‘me first’ way of life can only work in the short term. In that way of life, anything we achieve or acquire must be defended and requires constant vigilance. That life ends in death. I had a client, a very successful entrepreneur, who said, “every penny stolen is a penny earned.” He had perhaps the ultimate ‘me first’ way of living. He spent his life acquiring and protecting himself from people like him. By his own values, he had won—but it was an empty victory. He could never have enough. The treadmill gave no rest for his soul.
It is fairly easy to see that we are all better off if we work toward mutual respect and love—rather than an unending search for personal security. In dramatic contrast, the resurrection faith claim is that no matter what happens to us—even if we are crucified—we are safe with God and love will prevail. But it is hard to see Jesus.
Experiential glimpses and rational arguments, however, are still very different from the ‘aha’ of seeing that Jesus lives. That experience is transformative. It literally turned the disciples around. They had been fleeing danger (as predicted, they were all deserters) and returned to Jerusalem. In the memory of Jesus’ teaching and in the breaking of bread, they suddenly ‘knew’ what he meant. Death had no dominion over Him. God’s love continued. Jesus lived. Curiously, the very moment that truth crystallized, Jesus vanished. He needed to be seen in human form for them to see him in transcendent form. Both were and are true.
Can you see Jesus? I promise you, you will be startled, terrified, disbelieving and wondering—and you will be joyful. He lives. The love he has promised is real and it will survive any human ending. Seek him in the study of scripture, in worship, in the breaking of bread. Seek him whenever two or three are gathered in his name and when we are in faithful service. These are the times it is most likely that the Holy Spirit will visit us, when it is most likely he will open our minds and allow us to see him.
Be transformed. Know, from the inside out, that Death had no dominion over Him. And it has no dominion over you. Live in the Lord. Live in Love. He is risen. He is risen indeed. Let it be so.