Recognizing Jesus (A sermon from Luke 24:13-35)
I am struck by the comment by the storywriter that as the two disciples were discussing the things that had happened with regard to Jesus, “Jesus himself came near and went with them, but,” says Luke, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” We get off track, I think, if we start speculating about Jesus’ appearance or whether this was a vision or something else.
The point being made, it seems to me, is that Jesus is not with them in the same way he was with them prior to his death. Jesus is now the living Christ, the cosmic Christ and what we now experience is the Spirit of Christ, not the human Jesus. But what does this mean – this inability to recognize Jesus? What’s the point?
These two disciples on the road to Emmaus represent all disciples, they represent you and me. There is great irony when the two disciples say to Jesus who is walking with them, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” Of course, they are the ones who do not know, who do not recognize that the stranger they are talking to is Jesus.
How often we go through life, we have daily conversations, we carry out our daily responsibilities, go through our daily routine, and do not recognize that the Christ is with us, accompanying us on the journey – and we are never alone.
The human Jesus, the historical Jesus of Nazareth was limited and finite like all of us. The living Christ, the Spirit of Christ is not. It has been some time, I think, since I told the story of the teacher who was trying to teach her kindergarten class on the first real warm day of spring. All the children were distracted. So this teacher in the late afternoon about an hour before dismissal decided to just scrap the lesson plan. She gathered all the kids in a circle on a mat in the center of the room. She asked each one to stand and tell the others what he or she wanted to be as a grown up. One said a police officer, another a sports player, another a nurse. One said, “I want to be a teacher like you Miss Smith.” When she got to the shyest little boy in the class, she was surprised when he stood right up and said, “When I grow up I want to be a lion tamer. I went to get in a cage with lions and make them sit on balls and jump through hoops and do what I want them to do.” Just then, he noticed all the boys and girls staring at him somewhat amazed. He paused and then said rather shyly, “Of course, I will have my mommy with me.” Well, Christ is with us, wherever we are, whatever we do, Christ is with us, though we do not always recognize his presence. Whenever we face lions – of our own choosing or those we meet randomly on the journey, we can be assured the Christ is with us.
So what can we do to help us recognize Christ’s presence? One thing we can do is read and reflect on the story of Jesus. In Luke’s story the stranger who is the Christ unlocks their sacred texts for them. Luke says, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” The key to a healthy and constructive use of sacred scripture is the story of Jesus. The story of Jesus is the story that takes precedence over all stories. It’s the filter through which we read the rest of scripture. Not all scripture has equal authority and usefulness. For disciples of Jesus no story has as much authority and inspiration as the story of Jesus. (I wonder why some Christians who have an extremely exalted view of Jesus, who have a high and lofty Christology are so willing to appeal to other scripture texts first and allow those scripture texts to take precedence over the texts that tell us about the life and teachings of Jesus. Could it be that they have an agenda? Of course, we all have an agenda, only some Christians are not willing to admit it.)
Minister and writer John Ortburg tells about a family friend who wanted nothing to do with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Her teenage daughter, however, began hanging with a Christian friend who invited her to her church. She started attending and liked going. This upset her mother who didn’t want her daughter to have anything to do with Christianity. One night this was all weighing on the mother’s mind and for whatever reason she felt like she should at least read some of the Bible. She knew she had one in the house somewhere. So she got up, found the Bible, opened it not knowing where to start. She had never read it before. She decided to start in the new part. So she began with Matthew. By the time she had read the first three Gospels and was somewhere in the Gospel of John, she told Rev. Ortberg that she found herself “falling in love with Jesus.” That’s how she described it – falling in love with Jesus. I think that’s great, because that’s what heathy religion does for us – it leads us into the kind of experiences where we are drawn more deeply into the love of God.
In Jesus we meet a nonviolent God. In Jesus we meet a God who cares about all people and especially is drawn to help the poor and disadvantaged, the powerless and marginalized, the excluded and condemned. Jesus always seems to be on the side of those who are left out or thrown out. Toward the beginning of the Jesus story in Luke when Jesus presents himself to the people in Nazareth his hometown and speaks in the synagogue, he defines his ministry in terms of Isaiah 61 as a ministry of bringing good news to the poor, giving sight to the blind, releasing the captives, setting the oppressed free, and proclaiming the day of liberation. The Jesus story – the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the story that determines how we read and interpret all the other stories in our sacred writings. So, if we want to recognize Jesus, then it makes sense that we would read, reflect on, talk about, and get to know rather intimately the texts that reveal Jesus to us – that show us what he was about, what his priorities were, the values he embodied and so forth.
Whenever the love of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus, the justice of Jesus is present, the living Christ is at work whether we know it or not. In the judgment parable of Matthew 25 those that are welcomed into the kingdom are welcomed because they served the Christ, but they did not know it was the Christ. They say, “When did we ever serve Christ?” The divine response is that when you visited the sick, gave food to the hungry, cared for the outcasts, you did it to Christ.
So, in these stories about Jesus and the teachings of Jesus we discover what the living Christ is about. And one of the most common and significant things that Jesus does over and over again is that he shares meals with people, which has great spiritual and moral significance.
Luke says that the two disciples urged the stranger to share a meal with them. Luke says, “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.” In the sharing of the meal there eyes were opened. That is significant. The language here is a direct allusion to the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his death. In Luke 22:19 Luke says, “Then he took a loaf, and when he had given thanks [that is, blessed it], he broke it and gave it to them . . .” Same pattern: Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave. The same pattern shows us when Jesus feeds the multitude earlier in Luke’s narrative. In Luke 9 Jesus gathers the multitude into groups and has them sit in the field. The field is the table. Luke says that Jesus took the loaves and fish and blessed them, and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people. There’s some wonderfully rich symbolism and meaning in the words that are repeated in these stories: He takes, he blesses, he breaks, and he gives.
All these meals are reflective of the meals he shares with tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, Pharisees, and anyone who would come. All are bidden to come. In Luke 14 instructions are given to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to the table. In one of the meal stories in Luke 14 those responsible for inviting the guests to the dinner are told to “go out into the roads and lanes and compel people to come it.” The welcome and hospitality of the table is extended to all, especially those who were not accustomed to receiving invitations to dinner banquets. And as you well know, it was Jesus’ table acceptance and inclusion of those labeled “unworthy” by the religious establishment that got him into so much trouble with the religious authorities who used the table as a means of separating the righteous from the sinners and determining who was “in” or “out.”
In the movie Antwone Fisher the story opens with Antwone, and African-American young man, who is serving in the Navy, asleep on his bunk. He is dreaming that he is a little boy standing outside a huge barn. As he approaches, the doors open and a man reaches out his hand to escort him to a wonderful feast. Those present at the banquet span history, and Antwone is the guest of honor. His mother sets before him a big plate of pancakes. Just as he is about to plunge into the pancakes he wakes up.
Antwone was born in prison. His father was killed before he was born and he was placed in an orphanage until his mother could come get him. His mother never came. He lived a painful childhood. His foster mother beat him and verbally abused him; the daughter in the home sexually molested him when he was six. Because of his volatile temper, landing him in one fight after another, he is sent by Naval authorities to the naval psychiatrist, Dr. Davenport, played by Denzel Washington.
The story moves back and forth from the present to his childhood as Dr. Davenport helps him confront his painful past. Antwone finally decides to follow the Doctor’s advice to look for his family. His girlfriend accompanies him. He locates an aunt who helps him find his mother. A relative introduces him. His mother tears up and withdraws. She says nothing; there is little expression.
Antwone talks about how he used to dream of her and wonder if she missed him. His mother is not able to respond. When he finishes speaking, he bends over and kisses her on the cheek. Still, no response. He gets up, leaves, and after he is gone we see tears well up in his mother’s eyes as she folds her head into her hands. Her life is so broken she cannot, at least at this moment, accept his offer of love and forgiveness.
When he gets back to his aunt’s house he discovers a house full of relatives, full of family. A man greets him with a smile and identifies himself as his Uncle Horeb. Another says, “I’m your cousin Jeanette.” Another says, “I’m your Aunt Anna.” His discovers family and belonging. And then he is led to some doors that open up into the dining room. Two small boys open the doors and there is a table set with all kinds of food—even pancakes.
The matriarch of the family reaches out her hands and takes his hands into hers. And as she prepares herself to speak, she takes one hand and puts it on Antwone’s face and then the other. With grace filled eyes she says, “Welcome.” Then the feast begins.
A beautiful story that begins and ends around the symbolism of the meal. The meal is a symbol of acceptance, of inclusion and belonging. It’s an expression of life shared with others. It’s a demonstration of grace and forgiveness. All are welcome at the table. His mother would have been welcome at the table had she chose to come.
There are religious people today very much like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who were enraged with Jesus for eating with all sorts of people. They wanted to only let certain people in. They wanted to determine who was worthy. Jesus broke through all of that just as he broke the bread.
Sisters and brothers, it’s not hard to recognize the presence of Christ. Just look for grace given and received. Just look for blessings broken and distributed to all around. Just look for forgiveness and hospitality shared with all. And when you see it, in a shared meal around a table at home or in the shared bread and cup of Holy Communion or in the shared meal at a soup kitchen or wherever grace and welcome and acceptance is given and others are blessed, there my sisters and brothers you will find the Christ.
Our good God, as we walk our road to our own Emmaus wherever that may be let us be aware that the Christ goes with us, that we are not alone. May we realize that all that Jesus was – what he taught, how he lived, the love and compassion he embodied, the works of healing and liberation he engaged it, all of it – was not lost when he was put to death by the powers that be. You honored him and vindicated who he was and what he was about, what he did, and how he lived and died. Help us to know that whenever we see the love and forgiveness and grace of Jesus embodied by others we are seeing the Christ in our midst. That whenever we see compassion extended to the poor and help given to the vulnerable and the disenfranchised empowered may we recognize in our hearts that we are seeing the living Christ, the Spirit of Christ at work among us. Open our eyes, O Lord, that we might see the Christ in all the meals we share together and in all blessings given and received. Amen