Seeing Again

Luke 24:13-49

13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then 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?” 19He 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, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But 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. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and 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. 24Some 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.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But 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. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They 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?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Sermon: Seeing Again Preached by Rev. Sandi Anthony for April 26, 2020

The story is told (at least on sermon illustration sites) that a funny thing once happened to a pastor of a Hispanic congregation in the United States. He was baptizing a family in a river near the church. As the newly baptized members came out of the water, he handed them their baptismal certificates. Afterwards, in true Latino fashion, they celebrated a fiesta. Since the whole event occurred outdoors, the baptism and celebration were open for all to see — including a couple of men recently arrived from Mexico. The next day these men showed up at this pastor’s church asking if this was the church where they “fixed papers.” These men naïvely mistook the baptismal certificates for official government papers that would legalize their status in this country. In short, they thought that the people getting baptized were receiving green cards.

I wonder, how often do we misrecognize things and fail to see the larger reality all around us?  I misinterpret things all the time; I’ve learned that there can be quite a disconnect between intent and perception, perception and reality.  In fact, as I move along life’s journey, study the scriptures, partake in the sacraments, and dialog with other believers, I feel like my eyes get opened wider and wider to God’s greater reality just beyond my sight.  That’s a theme in scripture, you know—being blind and then seeing.  God causes the scales to fall off our eyes, and sometimes in those wonderful moments, we can see into heaven.  The gospel stories that we read starting at Easter about the post-resurrection events all seem to involve cases of misrecognition. At the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene mistakenly thinks that Jesus is a gardener. While on a fishing trip, Peter and the rest of the disciples see a man walking by the shore, but they do not immediately know that he is the Lord. And then you remember, Thomas, the one who refuses to believe until he sees and touches Christ’s wounds. Sometimes it is difficult to see Jesus—to see the spiritual truth right in front of our face.  Often it is difficult to see things as they really are.

So much of our spiritual journey in life is moving from our initial, cursory perception of something, to a deep, life-reorienting recognition.  This is in essence what it really means to be born again or even to repent.  Being born again and repenting really involve having our minds and hearts changed, sometimes again and again.  And when our hearts and minds get changed, that is evidence of the work of the Spirit in us.  Encounters with the Spirit can give us a new way of seeing reality.  That’s what happens as we encounter the risen Christ.  As we go through life, we often come to very different and deeper understandings of what matters.  It may well be, as we go through this unprecedented time with the virus crippling life as we know it, that we will emerge more focused on what really matters.  We may be moved toward a daily attitude of gratitude for having our needs met more than having all of our wants satisfied.  We may have a better appreciation for the arts that we can access by our media.  We may become re-enamored with the simple rhythms of life: sleeping, making bread, cooking at home, walking in nature, giving thanks for the gift of home.  We may begin truly seeing and loving our neighbors as ourselves and find ways to address homelessness, the lack of healthcare for all, racism, and all kinds of lack and inequalities.

This story in Luke’s gospel about the walk to Emmaus is about two travelers who move from cursory perception to the big reveal. On the walk to Emmaus, Jesus is first recognized as a stranger.  He is not recognized by his two followers who are journeying home to Emmaus from Jerusalem engaged in deep, reflective, and sad conversation about the events that had just transpired in Jerusalem.

The gospel story goes like this:  The two travelers were walking along the road to Emmaus.  We know that one of them was named Cleopas.   Cleopas and his unnamed companion were feeling pretty down because Jesus had been crucified, the disciples had run away, a woman named Mary fantastically claimed she saw the Risen Christ, that somebody had broken into the tomb and stolen the body, and that the Jesus movement was over and dead. They were somber, because their Lord and master, Jesus of Nazareth, was killed and it was all over.  The Roman Empire was not overthrown.  Their hopes for a political messiah were dashed.

And so, the disciples on the way to Emmaus, walk down a path of despair. Their conventional hopes for a Messiah who would liberate their people from subjection had no place for a Messiah who would suffer and die, above all on shameful death on a cross (Byrne, 188). Jesus, during his teaching ministry, had repeatedly described his journey, but they had not fully heard it because it did not fit with their understanding of him.  Suffering, humiliation and death did not fit with their understanding of messiah.  The disciples, you remember, were often so slow to get it.  Their shallow expectations, though, would soon evolve because of this encounter as well as Jesus’ other post-resurrection appearances.

As the two men walked along the road in this sad state, a stranger was soon walking with them. The two men told the stranger about why they were so sad and how Jesus had been killed. The stranger then started to teach them about the Scriptures; Jesus opened up their eyes so that the men came to know that he was the Messiah who was prophesied in the Old Testament, the one who came to suffer and die on the cross.  The two men found their hearts burning with amazement. They invited the stranger to go with them that night and have dinner. At the meal, the stranger spoke and made gestures: he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them. In that sacramental moment, the two friends realized that this stranger was Jesus, the Risen Christ.  Their view of reality expanded; they were seeing again, seeing more deeply.  They were seeing the truth in the act that we celebrate as the deep sharing of communion.

Our text says, “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”  This recalls the first meal in the book of Genesis—the one where Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  Back in the Garden of Eden, “their eyes were opened” and they knew that they were naked.  In this instance, in Luke’s Gospel, “their eyes were opened” and they recognized Jesus.  This meal—the Eucharist—redresses the ancient problem:  The long exile of the human race—the long journey out of Eden—is over.  The new creation has begun.  Rather than seeing themselves and their own nakedness, they were seeing Jesus and recognizing him for who he was.  The human focus was moved from the self to the other, from ego to recognition of ultimate reality.

I am suggesting to you today that this passage offers us clues as to where to find the Risen Christ.  Too often we look in the wrong places and we fail to stay open to the unexpected.  Often people erroneously look to find the Risen Christ according to their personal expectations.  We think, for example, that we find Christ in our pastor or in our leaders.  We think we find Christ in our health and in our wealth.  No wonder we get disappointed.  Notice that our scripture teaches us today that Christ came to them as they journeyed; he was with them in their conversation, he opened up the scriptures to them, and he made himself known to them during supper in the breaking of the bread and in the sharing in the cup.  It was these things that made their hearts burn within them and transformed their seeing and their understanding.  It was all about the Word, the Sacrament of supping with him, and their fellowship together.  These were the things that ultimately mattered.

We may be looking to Jesus to deliver us from the new reality of the world we find ourselves in.  We may expect him to deliver us from this lockdown, to heal people we know who have gotten this virus.  We may be expecting him to return us to normalcy.  We may be looking to Jesus to deliver us from economic hardship this difficult time has brought.  But this may be misrecognition.  That is what the people in our Gospels had originally expected of him—that as the messiah he would throw off the Roman rule.  They wanted and expected a bread king, one who would satisfy all of their physical needs.  This is not what he was about.  He reveled something more: that he was there with them still, journeying along the path with them.  The take-home for us, at such a time as this, is that God’s presence in suffering is very real, but God is at work resurrecting the suffering, the grieving.  The post Covid-19 world may not look like the old world; what was once normal may not be that way again, but I would suggest that God will bring something new, some bigger way of seeing reality, perhaps this tragedy will inspire us to care more deeply for all our fellow human beings and our planet.

I find it interesting that these stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection experiences involve a response of witness—of witnessing.  The two men that had their eyes opened to Jesus over dinner, after Jesus vanished from their sight, left within the same hour to go back to Jerusalem to tell what they had seen.  There they found the 11 disciples gathered with their companions.  Peter had seen the resurrected Jesus as well, and I am sure they were all comparing notes.  Witnessing, you know, is all about how the church has grown—and continues to grow.  Maybe you could share our videotaped sermons that help you now with your friends.  Maybe they need to see again, to be reminded of God’s love and presence, and to have their eyes opened to the larger realty.

What do we do when we have an experience of the risen Christ?  We want to tell someone!  Some have profound experiences of Christ—and many varieties of such—and in an instant know that they are “born again.”  They become “on fire” for the gospel and are inspired to evangelize. There are a few who have had near-death experiences in this life come back transformed, with a new mission burning in their hearts—kind of like the Apostle Paul got from his experience on the Road to Damascus.  Some humans do get momentary glimpses into the broader reality—the dimensions just beyond our ordinary perception—and they know that this physical universe is not all that there is—and the experience is so profound that they are propelled to witness—just like Jesus wants them to—to spread a message of love and repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the nations.

This makes me think of a soil engineer Clint and I have hired to address problem of our sinking patio atop our hillside perch in Prescott—those of you who attend our church have likely heard our tale of woe, of our crumbling hillside.  When we met this man, he told us a story of how he suffered a widow-maker heart attack.  When his heart stopped, he had a full-blown near-death experience and a profound encounter with God.  When I asked him what changed in his life since this experience, he told me that he realized that love is truly the most important thing.  He wanted to tell everyone about God’s unconditional love, and he returned to making music—something he had long since given up—to help spread this news.  And he found a new church—one open to these encounters.  You can really see God’s love shine in his life; he is someone you instinctively trust—who embodies honesty, concern, and care.

My prayer is that Jesus is now opening up the scriptures to you along your life’s journey—along your journey to Emmaus.  Remember, this journey is a communal journey—not a solitary one, even though it may feel like that now.  People all over the world are feeling and experiencing the same things you are.  We still journey with others who are with us in spirit and who can connect with us in this strange new world of Zoom calls and electronic media.  But remember, we also journey with Jesus himself, who comes to join with us along the road—just like he did with Cleopas and his companion. 

Jesus has indeed risen.  With all the dark things going on, we long for Jesus; he is our hope.  In the meantime, we simply serve in the ways we can: by phone calls, texts, yelling across the street to check on our neighbors, and through the continued giving of our tithes and offerings.  No matter what, we remain the hands and feet of Christ in this hurting world.  I hope and pray we all get glimpses of Jesus along life’s journey; and that we see again, that we see more deeply the larger and eternal reality around us.  Amen.