by David Baer, April 23, 2017

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Text: Luke 24:13-35

When I was living in a college dorm I rarely ate dinner alone. Breakfast and lunch I might catch on the go, but not dinner. Maybe it was a way of keeping up the family dinners I was accustomed to at home, but I found it comforting and humanizing to check in with people I knew over the evening meal.

One time I remember heading into the dining hall with a big group from my dorm, and somehow I got separated from the others. I looked across the hall and spotted someone from our group, a woman named Megan, so I strode over with my tray, plopped down, and started hashing through my day. I must have gone on for a minute or two before I said, “So, Megan, what’s up with you?”

“I’m not Megan,” said the woman across from me. I looked up from my dinner, and sure enough, it was somebody else! I made my apologies and beat a hasty retreat away from someone who I can only imagine thought I was a complete lunatic. How could I not recognize that the person seated across from me, not three feet away, was a stranger?

How do you recognize people you know? By their appearance? The way they move, and the gestures they make? The sound of their voice, or the patterns of their speech? Has anyone ever said to you, “I can scarcely recognize you!”? They might mean that they’re thrilled to see you’ve changed the way you dress, or lost some weight, or that you’re carrying yourself with newfound confidence. Or they might mean they’re dismayed to see you downcast or managing badly. It could be good or bad, but either way, they’re saying that the signs they’ve relied on to identify you as yourself have changed, that they’ve had to recalibrate the way they recognize you.

I got myself into this embarrassing situation with not-Megan, because I wasn’t really looking at her. That’s understandable. Less understandable is what happens in the gospel lesson we heard this morning. Two of the larger circle of Jesus’ disciples are on the road out of Jerusalem. This in itself makes a lot of sense—they’re part of a movement whose leader has been arrested and executed by the authorities, and if I were in that position, I’d want to make myself scarce too. But then Jesus himself approaches them, falls in alongside them, and says, “So, fellas, what’s the news?” And they don’t recognize him!

It’s not that they’re not looking. The problem is that, as the story says, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” And so upon seeing their friend and teacher alive, they don’t leap for joy. They stand there looking sad. Jesus asks what they were talking about, and he practically has to drag it out of them. They answer back with a question: “Don’t you know what’s happened in Jerusalem?” “No, what happened?” Jesus asks, toying with them. “You know,” they say. “All the stuff about Jesus of Nazareth.” And then they not only spell out the story. They also give voice to their own grief and disappointment: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they said.

I wonder whether Jesus might not have done this on purpose. Maybe it’s necessary for these men to acknowledge their sadness. Maybe the only approaches to the mountain of resurrection joy lead through the depths of loss and grief. Think about it… Who else, so far, is convinced that the resurrection is real and Jesus is alive? It’s the women who went to the tomb with spices and ointments to anoint Jesus’ dead body. It’s a loving and tender act that the women were prepared to perform, but it puts them in a place of acknowledging a devastating loss. And it’s from that place that the women’s eyes are opened, and at the empty tomb they become joyfully convinced that Jesus is alive. So too with the men on the road to Emmaus. Unless they admit that their hopes have been crucified and buried with Jesus, they can’t be raised up with him.

Is there a loss or a disappointment you’ve had trouble acknowledging? Or a mistake you’ve made that you’re reluctant to own up to? Jesus prods his disciples until they are able to say to him that yes, they are devastated, they are disappointed, they are hopeless. And it turns out that he has led them to take the first step toward having their eyes opened to recognize him. Is he trying to prod you, right now, to acknowledge something important that you’re sad or anxious or regretful over? Is this the first step you need to take too?

In any case, after these disciples have put their pain into words, Jesus tells them how foolish and slow to understand they are. (I’ve said it before: Jesus would have failed my seminary class in pastoral care.) He launches into an extended Bible study with them, speaking to their left brain, giving them all the information from the words of the prophets to support the claim that God’s Messiah was meant to suffer violence and disgrace on behalf of God’s people, that this was a necessary part of the Messiah’s journey toward an ultimate triumph. Later on, when the disciples have come to see the amazing truth of what has happened, they will remember that their hearts were burning within them as they received this information. But it’s still not enough to recognize the risen Jesus.

The words of scripture are powerful, aren’t they? When I was working as a chaplain intern in a hospital, I had a conversation with a gentleman suffering from dementia. He was confused about a lot of things, but at one point during our conversation he said, “Hebrews 13:8. Do you know that one?” And we said the words together: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” What an amazing promise to hold onto when your body and even your mind are becoming unreliable! On the other hand, I also remember talking with someone else who told me that in the grip of a severe depression, even the word of scripture that had once been so comforting seemed to turn into weapons pointed against her. The scriptures are powerful—when we hear God’s promises in them, we’re given hopeful possibilities. But when the words speak to our intellect, by themselves they can’t lift us out of a depression, or chase away the confusion of dementia, or raise the dead to live again. So when the disciples hear Jesus explain the scriptures to them, it’s another necessary step, but it’s still not enough.

Here’s what finally does it… The two disciples reach their destination, and although Jesus pretends that he wants to continue on the road, he allows Cleopas and his friend to persuade him to stay with them. When he sits down to eat with them, he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. This is almost word for word the same sequence as what Jesus does at the Last Supper before his death: take bread, give thanks, break, and give. With this gesture–the unmistakable sign of Jesus offering himself, offering his body—their eyes are opened, and they recognize him. When they tell the story to the others, they put it this way: the risen Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 023.jpg
By Rembrandt - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, Link

How do you recognize someone you know? From their face, their voice, their words? None of this was enough for Cleopas and the other disciple. What led them to recognize Jesus was him acting out a powerful symbol they remembered from his last day: “This is my body, given for you.” Now, on the other side of death, they heard it as: “This is my body, raised and alive for you!”

Now, you might recognize this story of the road to Emmaus as one that I often retell before we celebrate Communion. That’s appropriate, because when we celebrate Communion in church, we believe that God can use the bread and wine to speak to our hearts that so easily fall prey to disappointment and despair; to confirm God’s promises in scripture with substance we can see, touch, and taste; and to open our eyes to see that Jesus is alive in the living community that shares his body and blood. But that’s not all of it. Communion represents Jesus giving himself, laying down his life out of love for us. And so there are endless moments to have our eyes opened whenever someone gives generously, sacrificially out of love for someone else. Our eyes can be opened to the risen Jesus in a meal brought for someone who needs to feel cared for. Our eyes can be opened in the act of someone standing up and raising their voice for the poor, oppressed, or forgotten. Our eyes can be opened in hearing or speaking a humble apology, in asking or giving forgiveness. Wherever Jesus, dwelling in you, in me, in our neighbor, gives himself in love, our eyes can be opened to recognize him.

May you acknowledge the hurts and disappointments that drive your need for resurrection. May you find peace and possibility in the promises of scripture. And may God open your eyes to recognize the risen Jesus in the breaking and sharing of physical and spiritual bread. Amen.