I’ve been a Christian all my life and in vocational ministry for the past thirteen years, but I’ve been in some sort of spiritual wilderness wandering for the past several years. I’m beginning to think that this may just be the new normal for me. But my time worshiping at Holy Trinity Edmonds has been particularly refreshing over the past year and a half.
I had the honor of giving the following homily there, this past weekend, the third week of Easter. The text is Luke 24:13–35: the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Imagine you and one of your friends walking and talking around Green Lake, or on the Burke-Gilman trail, or along the Edmonds waterfront. You’re talking about something that has both of you enthralled, maybe completing one another’s sentences, or even cutting into one another’s sentences because you’re so worked up. You’ve lost track of time, lost in the conversation.
Maybe you’re talking about the Seahawks off-season trading and all of its implications for the coming year. Or, maybe you’re still talking about the recent presidential election and all of its implications for the coming year. Maybe your friend is a trusted co-worker at a company you both work for who’s decided to downsize—and what future might that bring?
And now, don’t just imagine a conversation partner who shares all of your opinions exactly. Instead, imagine someone who sharpens your own thinking as you go back and forth in dialogue. Your passion about the topic growing ever more intense as you walk and talk.
Walking and Talking
In our Gospel reading today, Luke chapter 24, starting verse 13, we meet two disciples having just such a passionate conversation. Their whole world had changed that week. As we read it, this walking conversation happened “that very day”.
This is Easter Day Luke is talking about here. There couldn’t possibly have been bigger events to capture their imaginations than those culminating on the first ever Easter Day.
As they walk and talk, someone overhears their boisterous conversation and comes alongside to join in. Who wouldn’t want to join into a lively discussion?
Hey guys, what are you talkin’ about? What’s got you so excited?
Here comes the new guy.
They catch him up to speed on the latest news, and kinda make fun of him for being so uninformed in the first place. “What rock have you been living under?” He would later return the favor: “Oh foolish ones, slow of heart”, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
They don’t know, of course, that their new conversation partner is none other than the allegedly resurrected Christ.
But here’s a key detail and something we should stop to think about: their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
Now, there are a few different ways of understanding what that means, but it seems most likely that God himself, somehow, for some reason, didn’t want them to recognize Jesus—at least, not yet.
As we continue this story, we should pay close to attention to how much Luke says about eyes, recognizing, seeing, appearing and vanishing.
At the moment though, in about verse 19, the new guy—we’ll call him Hidden Jesus—asks “what things?” What things, as you say, have been going on in Jerusalem these days?
The two disciples proceed to help Hidden Jesus to see what they meant. Imagine them saying: We’re perplexed that this Jesus of Nazareth died. He did some pretty amazing things, and we thought he was going to redeem Israel. We’ve been waiting for that for a really long time. And we had thought—finally—he was the one. But, just like the other messiah candidates, our religious leaders crucified him. Well, they didn’t crucify him, exactly, but it’s all the same. By the way, you might wanna steer clear of those guys.
The disciples go on like this, helping Hidden Jesus to see what’s got them worked up: So, this is the third day we’ve been pacing around, biting our nails, and trying to make sense of all this. And you’ll never believe this: some women friends of ours claim that angels told them that he’s alive now. That doesn’t make sense. Messiahs don’t get crucified, and people don’t come back from the dead. Well, anyway, we’re not believing that unless we see him alive with our own eyes. So…we’re stumped. What do you think?
It’s ironic, isn’t it?
Now let’s pause from the story for a moment.
Have you ever stared right at something that you still couldn’t see? Maybe the surface of a strawberry, but zoomed in so close you can hardly recognize it? You see this smooth translucent red surface with some sort of craters holding these things that look like pears—and what are these, hair follicles? You’re looking at it, and it might seem sorta familiar, but you still don’t know what you’re looking at.
Or maybe a loose set of jigsaw puzzle pieces on the table. You could be staring right at those pieces, and yet not really know what you see, because somehow the whole doesn’t quite come together.
Or, one more analogy, which may be trivial for some and totally impossible for others: How about one of those color blindness tests, with a letter or number made of green spots surrounded by red and orange spots? Some of us look right at those things and see no symbol at all.
Sorta like that, the disciples on the Emmaus Road are looking right at Hidden Jesus. They’re walking and talking and walking with him. But they don’t see him.
A Bible Study with Jesus
They must have had plenty of time to walk together because, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Hidden Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning the Christ. As if to say: “See here, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Have you seen the Son of Man lifted up?” Or see here, in the prophets how the Messiah would be “despised and rejected by men.” Can’t you see that having been despised and rejected by men is evidence for, not against, a suffering Messiah?
And he goes on, and on, and on. See here? See here? And now, see here?
I have a hard time with the idea that Jesus would have begun this Bible study saying: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart”. I can’t think that Jesus would shame them. On the other hand, I can see how it deepens the irony that Luke wants to convey: they started by insulting him for being so far out touch with current events. But in this walking Bible study, it’s as if Jesus turns it around on them to say, “who are you calling foolish?” showing that they are, in fact, the ones who are out of touch with their own Scriptures. So, maybe he’s just joining them in the banter.
But still, he takes the time to show it to them. He walks alongside them to help them learn.
They still didn’t see him, though.
By the way, plenty of smart people have read those Scriptures from Moses through the prophets and haven’t seen what Hidden Jesus saw in them.
Eventually, they reached the turn off point to the disciples’ destination village, Emmaus.
And this time, Hidden Jesus hides not only his true identity, but also his true intent. “He acted as if he were going further.”
Have you had a friend walk away disgruntled, saying “I’m leaving and don’t you try to stop me.” Well, that’s pretty clear. What does he really want you to do? “Stop me!”
So here we have Hidden Jesus acting like he has something else to do, somewhere else to be. Acting as if he did not intend to reveal himself eventually.
What is it with Jesus and this game of hide and seek?
I don’t know for sure, but it worked. Because they responded by “urging him strongly.” “Stay with us!” And then Hidden Jesus followed the disciples.
Don’t you think Jesus knows that their striving to see in this moment is all a part of their deep transformation? It’s almost like when he walked by the man lame for thirty-eight years, lying beside the pool of Bethesda, and asking “Do you want to be healed?” He healed in a way that allowed that lame man to stretch out his faith, his most atrophied muscle.
Or like when Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” as if it wasn’t plain to see.
Our intentions are not hidden to Jesus. He sees them clearly. And he calls them out of us, asking “What do you want?” And sometimes we’re not sure who or what it is drawing these desires out of us. Why do we even long to know what’s real and true? We may not even be so sure that there’s anyone or anything there at all to be known. And yet, we feel pulled forward into that hiddenness. There must be something here, isn’t there?
Let’s pause to notice the emotion in this story.
Well, to us readers, the irony is clear, hence we get to experience some humor in it, but it didn’t seem so humorous to the disciples. They were enthralled in a life and death conversation.
Notice when Hidden Jesus asks “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” It could also be translated: “Discussing so intently,” as in, “What is it you’re discussing so intently?” as if it were hidden him. The Greek language there carries the sense of “arguing” or “debating.” And apparently, they were doing so vigorously enough to catch the attention of a passer by, at least someone with a common interest, like Hidden Jesus. Have you ever had that feeling that your ears are burning?
And then notice how they respond to his question. They shift immediately from vigorous debate, to standing still and looking sad. The question stops them dead in their tracks and you see the gloom just beneath the surface. And the despair—“we had hoped that he was the one”.
Also, they were amazed—amazed by the women who had claimed that Jesus was no longer in his tomb, but was in fact alive. Amazed, may be, but still confused. What does that even mean, “he’s alive”?
And then the moment when they truly wore their hearts on their sleeves—though trying to hide that behind talk of how late in the day it was—they pleaded urgently with Hidden Jesus to follow them home. They don’t even know who he is yet. But they must sense that there’s something more here to be known. “We’re not done with you yet. This is just getting good.”
What an emotional roller coaster this “chance” conversation has turned out to be.
And Hidden Jesus just lets all of that play out in their emotional experience. He knows something they don’t know, of course, something I think he wants them to know. But in this moment, he seems to be in no hurry to make them see. He’s content to let them wriggle a bit longer. There is something transforming deep inside them as they struggle to see just whose face it is that they’re staring into.
But in a way—at least for these two disciples in this moment—it’s as if Jesus is still buried, though he’s standing right in front of them. He’s buried beneath their doubt, buried beneath the confusing mass of theologies and rabbinic teaching that they’d no doubt been rehearsing and debating with one another, like their digging through the proverbial haystack in search of the needle.
How many of us, who resonate with the doubts of these disciples, might say: if only Jesus were standing here in front me. If only I could make sense of these Scriptures that claim to reveal him. If only…
Well, those disciples had all of that. And, Jesus, standing right in front of them was still hidden.
To see him, they needed something more than physical proximity. They needed something more even than perfect apologetics, or a perfect Bible study.
They needed a new kind of sight, and it had to be a gift given to them.
Now, it occurs to me that all of this might sound arrogant to those who are struggling, wrestling, striving to find needles in haystacks. That universal, existential, internal conflict to find answers to questions like: Why are we here? What is true?
And then the Christians go and say that their sightedness is a gift—that they can’t help but see. Frankly, that sounds suspicious to me. If I were one of those skeptics—well, actually I am one of those skeptics—it just sounds too convenient, doesn’t it. It’s frustrating to those of us who find it hard to see sometimes, find it hard to know what we know, like those disciples on the road.
But, then again, maybe something transformational is happening deep inside of us too.
And so we come to the final moment, where “he went in to stay with them.” Surely this was the moment he had been waiting for. The moment he had meant to arrange when he pretended to walk on ahead, as if to invite them to invite him to their table. They’re probably exhausted after hours scrabbling about for answers. But maybe what Hidden Jesus has been feeling has been excitement, building anticipation to show them the best thing anyone has ever seen.
“He took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them.”
“And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”
They didn’t see him on the road. They didn’t see him in the dialogue, nor yet in the Bible study. They didn’t see him when he turned to follow them home.
But in the breaking of bread, they finally saw him. And I believe that from that moment on, they saw him forever. In that same moment, he vanished.
Before, their physical eyes could see only Hidden Jesus; now, the eyes of their hearts were opened to see the Resurrected Christ, whom they would know from now on by faith and not by sight.
What was their emotion then? If I had been in their shoes, I might have felt disappointed and frustrated, after all the striving to make sense of things, and to finally see him but for just a moment and then he vanished! What a tease.
Not so with those two disciples. No, they savored that moment: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” They knew somehow that something had been happening in that moment on the road. That’s why they couldn’t look away, couldn’t let him leave. They were pledged to see that conversation through to the end. There was something hidden there, or rather someone, and now at last, they saw him forever.
The Real Presence of Christ
In the end, they traded one kind of seeing for another. From someone hidden to someone revealed. They see that he is alive. He is the resurrected Christ who entered not into glory before he was crucified.
So they wasted no time, but quickly went and found the eleven disciples to tell them what had happened.
Have you ever tried telling a friend something exciting that she already knew? And she can’t even wait for you to complete a sentence before jumping in with her own enthusiasm? That’s something like what happened when these two came to the eleven with news, but it’s the eleven whom we hear say something like: “I know, right. He appeared to Simon too!”
How now would others see this Resurrected Christ for who he truly is? It’s in just these sorts of stories—then and now—echoes of that first Easter story from people who have recognized him: he is risen indeed, Alleluia!
That meal with Jesus somehow empowered them with both sight and witness like they’d never had before.
Each week, we engage in a liturgy of the Word, and a liturgy of the Table, in just the same pattern as this story in Luke. (Ironically, this week is an exception—Evening Prayer with no Eucharist. But just let this whet your appetite for next week.) These liturgies of Word and Table work together to give us sight to see the resurrected Christ, and also to witness to the world—through our testimony—that Jesus Christ is alive.
All are invited to come and see him here. I don’t know exactly how that seeing happens here with us any more than I understand how it happened for them.
But one thing that Luke’s story makes clear is that it didn’t happen just because they were striving to see. Their sight ultimately was a gift. And yet their striving, their reaching out, was very much a part of the faith process. They happened to be at the right place at the right time to encounter Jesus. Or was it Jesus who arrived at the right place at the right time for them? What was he doing out there anyway—on the road in the middle of nowhere on resurrection day? Perhaps he was seeking them.
And he is here with us every week. Of course—at this time—he’s not here with us in the body, like he was with those disciples on the road. But they couldn’t see him then anyway. So is that what we would need in order to believe—seeing him physically right in front of us? Or maybe scientifically proving that he rose? Or maybe showing by some irrefutable historical argument that he rose? Those disciples were staring those kinds of proofs in the face—literally—and, yet he remained hidden to them. Until he opened their eyes.
You might feel angry right now, saying: “then why won’t he open my eyes too?”
Of course, I don’t know the answer, except to show that—apparently, there are times that we are kept from seeing. There are times when he seems hidden. There are times when we sort through all of the bits and pieces that used to fit together—when we used to think we could see, but now we don’t. We may feel lame, like the man at the pool of Bethesda, or blind like Bartimaeus.
And Jesus asks, “What do you want?”
That is the question, isn’t it?
We cannot force the seeing, but we can ask for what we want—the gift. And while we wait, sometimes painfully awaiting, we can show up where he may be found in just the same way that those disciples themselves finally saw him: prepared by the Word that witnesses to Christ, and ultimately in the meal that Christ himself offers, where his presence is every bit as real to us as to them on resurrection day.
The next time we celebrate the Eucharist, may recognize the one who is truly present with us, when we say to him:
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.
have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.
grant us your peace.
photo: [email protected] (CC)
music: Light at the End by Stephen Keech, courtesy of Soundstripe.