Texts: Acts 2:36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
What I find so intriguing about this story from Luke is that what happens here is the exact opposite of that. Easily the most obviously confounding part of this story is that these two disciples traveling to Emmaus spend hours with Jesus talking about scripture and the events of the last several days and do not recognize him, even when they persuade him to stay the night with them before he continues his journey. Contrary to the idea that they might be more likely to see him where he wasn’t, they couldn’t even see him where he was: staring them right in the face.
There are all sorts of theological and psychological rationale for why they didn’t recognize him, and I’m betting that between us we’ve heard them all. God kept their eyes from recognizing him; they were looking down and didn’t ever see his face; they were distraught and not thinking clearly; knowing he was dead, they didn’t expect to see him; and so on. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, but we are still left wondering: how could they not recognize someone they knew so well?
One of the points of this story is that appearances can be deceiving. Not only is there the case of mistaken identity on the road, but if we pay attention to Cleopas’ story, a pattern emerges. Some women went to the tomb, but didn’t find Jesus’ body; what they do see was a vision of angels who said he was alive. When others went, they find exactly what the women described: Jesus’ body was gone, and they do not see him. Everybody is looking for Jesus, but nobody is finding him. What they do see does not bring clarity, only confusion.
This is all emphasized by the truth that we know but of which Cleopas and his friend are ignorant: Jesus is standing right beside them, talking to them. They see him, but they still can’t find him. He is there, but they don’t recognize him.
Cleopas and his friend, we soon learn, are distraught. The Greek word might best translated “gloomy.” When pressed them they tell us why: “we had hoped that [Jesus] was the one who was about to redeem Israel,” but then their own religious and political leaders had him crucified. On top of losing a friend and teacher, all their hopes have been crushed. A week ago, they expected the redemption and salvation of their nation; now, they know only the sting of defeat. Jesus’ response to their pain is none too kind: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” Just like these disciples can’t recognize their friend right in front of them, neither can they recognize what God is doing, instead they think that they’ve lost everything.
They have assumed that Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross is an ending; not just to their relationship with Jesus, but to what God was doing through him. What they cannot see is that Jesus’ death is the means of God’s work, not its ending. This is foolishness; it runs counter to everything we know. Is it any wonder that Cleopas and his companion cannot see this? And yet, as St. Paul reminds us, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.
And here is the foolishness of God: that through the cross of Christ, when we suffer, God suffers alongside us. Instead of separating us from God, suffering becomes one more way that God may be present with us; and that even death becomes an opportunity to share in new life with Christ.
I, for one, can understand perfectly how Cleopas and his friend did not recognize Jesus walking with them. As I was growing up, I started becoming aware of all sorts of unpleasant dynamics and politics that existed within my home congregation. There had been messy staff dynamics and a pastor who had been run out; there had been back-biting and power plays and other unseemly behavior.
And yet, I was reminded again and again the depth of their love for me and for one another in spite of all the politics and personal dynamics. These were the people who had raised me, who had made me who I am. These were the people who had supported my family and me when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, who had bought our family a trip to Disneyland so that we could have that time together and make those memories, and these were the people who had fed us and cared for us when she died. It was in the faces of these people that I first recognized Jesus.
Cleopas and his friend walk and talk with Jesus without knowing who he is; it is only in the breaking of the bread that they finally recognize him. I know how this can be true, because in spite of all the shenanigans I have witnessed within the Church, it was in the Church—the community of people gathered around and shaped by the breaking of bread—that I first met Jesus face to face; it was in the Church that I first experienced resurrection. Appearances really are deceiving.
We desperately want and work very hard to be a community in which Christ is revealed, but the truth is that in the end, it is not anything we do that matters. Just as on the road to Emmaus, Jesus shows up wherever and to whomever he pleases. He does not wait for the proper action or the correct profession of faith; he appears even—perhaps especially—to people mired in sin and disbelief. We spend so much energy worrying about how we will convince or prove or persuade people to believe the gospel, but it wasn’t any sort of evidence or testimony that convinced Simon or Cleopas or anyone else; it was Jesus himself showing up. What is truly important is that we continue to be a community that breaks bread together because that is how Jesus has chosen to be revealed.
And yet, this breaking of bread also changes us. It transforms us, whether we know it or not, from a cantankerous, contentious group of people into the Church the Body of Christ. It changes us like it changed Cleopas and his companion, compelling them to make the journey back to Jerusalem in the same hour that Jesus was revealed, traveling even in the dark of night to share the good news that the Lord is risen. We share the Lord’s supper together not because Jesus shared it with his friends before he died, but because he shared it with them afterwards. This meal is a sign of the new life we share with Christ even now.
Appearances are often deceiving. What looks like a little chunk of bread and a small sip of wine actually hides the risen Christ who greets us and feeds us with his own body and blood. What seems to be a bunch of random people who have all given up their Sunday morning is actually the community God chooses to bring new life to the whole world. What sounds like nonsense—a man walking out of a tomb?— is actually good news: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.