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.
I love this Eastertide story because for me it captures both the difficulty in, and the transformative power of, recognizing Jesus. No matter how churched or unchurched we are, Jesus can be standing right in front of us and we’ll fail to recognize him.
Luke describes two men walking to a neighboring town, Emmaus. I had always thought they were two of the twelve disciples fleeing Jerusalem because their hopes had been crushed. That makes for a more dramatic sermon but actually we have no idea why they were walking to Emmaus. They may well have been going to visit relatives. And we learn in vs 33: “they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.” They were certainly followers of Jesus and they certainly had access to the inner circle but they were not part of the original disciples. These are very small points but in real life, even reading scripture, we have a habit of conflating stories and adding a bit of drama. But in doing so, we risk missing some of the holy in the ordinariness of life.
“Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” One of the first places our FIRL group focused upon was the failure of these men to recognize Jesus—and then later, how Jesus vanished as soon as they did recognize him. This sentence should not surprise us. I know it can be read as God playing tricks on humans to make some Godly point. But I don’t think of God that way. Luke was describing a common real-life experience. We fail to recognize what is important every day. Rather than focus on “Why would God do such a thing?”, we need to ask: “How is it that we fail to recognize Jesus?”
One answer is that our preconceptions interfere with recognizing something new. For the disciples, as with us, we recognize what we have experience with. If we don’t have some kind of frame of reference, it is nearly impossible to recognize something outside of that frame. No matter what they had been told, seeing a walking dead man just doesn’t fit into human thinking. In spite of Jesus’ teaching and the reports of the women, meeting Jesus on a walk to a neighboring town had no context. It would be like me telling you, you will meet Jesus at the CVS while walking your dog. It is one thing to preach that Jesus is in the face of every person we meet and quite another to recognize him. It is hard enough to understand the concept. It is nearly inconceivable that we can be transformed by it. Yet that is exactly what happens to these two disciples.
Not only do we tend to think of apparitions, ghosts and zombies when we think of the undead, we have the same difficulty that these disciples had. We have particular ideas about Jesus, the afterlife and how Jesus will redeem. Each of these preconceptions make it difficult to recognize Jesus. The disciples were sad—”we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” It was inconceivable that a messiah would be crucified. Jesus’ death meant the end of their hope. Even though they had been told multiple times to the contrary, the disciples could not put suffering and death into the same category as redemption and messiah. So the same lesson is repeated in this passage: “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?” The memory and the repetition become crucial aspects to the disciples sudden ‘aha’ moment when they finally realize who Jesus is and what he had been about in his ministry.
As long as we imagine we know how love will come or how it ‘should’ be’, we run the risk that we will fail to recognize it when it is standing in front of us..
In our Faith in Real Life group, Betty Cousar described looking back at the cards she and her husband had exchanged over the years. Many of them carried the theme—”I can’t imagine life without you. I don’t think I could go on without you.” Yet here she is—a widow, still missing him but discovering a life on her own she could not have imagined. She took solace from other widows who had survived, and she even realized that her husband’s slow journey through Parkinson’s had prepared her to do more and more on her own. Who could have imagined that the disease which had been so hard could have been part of what helped her? Such a thought was unimaginable at the start of that disease.
I have a dear friend who was struggling with her mother’s death. Her mother was inexorably declining. I said at one point, that if she could stand it, her mother’s slow decline gave her time for them to say what they needed to say. The suffering of loss is not put upon us any more than God interfered with the disciples’ recognition. The opportunity to prepare or to speak to a loved one is not a trade off—but even in such dire circumstances, something unexpected and valuable can emerge. If we stay stuck in how we think of losses, we will miss those opportunities.
Finally, Mimi Thurman, discussed how her children doubted she could manage alone. She takes pleasure in their surprised reactions as she has navigated life without Bob. Their relationship has shifted. These things are learned by living them. None of us can really imagine what it is like to lose those we love. The very thought is frightening and painful. The experience is worse. There is nothing virtuous in such suffering but there are outcomes we cannot predict if we find a way to live through them. That is what Jesus’ death teaches and what his resurrection promises.
But none of this is possible until we give up our preconceptions about how things should be and particularly who God is. We must let God teach us instead of imposing our thinking. This imposition is almost universal and difficult to alter. In a much more commonplace example, everyone who gets married has preconceptions about what is going to happen and what their partner should do. We all start out with our own experience and assume (without even thinking about it) that that is how things are. But one of the quicker ways to end a relationship is to tell your partner what they ‘should’ be doing or feeling, that they should do ‘at least…’, they ‘shouldn’t get so upset’, etc. Indignation, defense, self-righteousness and counter attacks are the nearly inevitable consequences. It is hard to actually listen to what is going on with another unless we suspend our own assumptions. We have to create space for the person our partner is rather than force them into the mold we need or expect.
When the disciples sat a table with Jesus, they reenacted a daily experience. They ate with him often. When they walked with the stranger on the road, they were reminded of what Jesus had been teaching them. When they broke bread, it all dropped into place. This is what he meant when he said: “This is my body, broken for you. This is the cup of the New Covenant.” Jesus entered this world because we need concrete manifestations of what God means when God loves. We need an experience of what is ultimately important in life and what leads to life. Once that ‘aha’ occurs, Jesus vanishes. The disciples are transformed from sadness and defeat to excitement and optimism. Jesus was dead. Yet he lives.
When we realize that relationship, regard and reliability are the traits of the Good Shepherd, following him gives us life. All of the ways we seek to secure our place in the world matter much less. The things we live for, security, recognition, possessions, self-sufficiency, power etc., will be lost in the passage of time. They only seemed to add to the significance of our lives. Simple acts of kindness become the most important thing we can do. Every act of love matters. Love will prevail—even all seems lost. Loving is eternal.
The disciples suddenly realized what Jesus had been teaching. They were transformed. God was not just ‘up there’, he was present in the most ordinary activities of daily life. He was still with them.
Jesus is present in the most ordinary activities of our lives. He is in the face of every person we meet. Seek to recognize him. Let it be.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.