Sunday, May 8, 2011

#324: The Jesus We Don't Recognize

The gospel lesson in church this Sunday was one of my favorites. It's about two men who thought they knew Jesus very well, but didn't know him when he showed up right in front of their eyes.

Road To Emmaus, Jack Mattingly
That very day, the first day of the week, two of the disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then 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?" He 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, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But 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. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and 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. Some 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." Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But 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. 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; and he vanished from their sight. They 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?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
~ Luke 24: 3-35

They thought he was a stranger. They thought he was out of touch. They believed their rabbi had been a failure, and that his body had disappeared. They had seen these things with their own eyes, even looked into the empty tomb. The two travellers knew all the facts, and they were deeply sad.

The stranger was not sympathetic to their grief at all. He said they were foolish to be sad. He showed them how all these things had been prophesied. He also said that the story had not yet reached its glorious conclusion.

Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio
They didn't know who he was, but they felt something special in him. Not with their minds, but in their hearts. The stranger's words seemed to set them on fire. Still, they did not recognize him. Only after they offered him hospitality, invited him to join them in a meal, watched him take, bless, break, and give away the bread did they see him for who he was. And they were changed, changed so radically that they could no longer continue travelling the way they had been going. They did not continue to Emmaus, they turned back to the dangers of Jerusalem to be evangelists, to tell the good news that Jesus. was not dead, but risen indeed.

How many times, as I have traveled along the road of my life, have I dismissed a stranger? The bum on the subway? The retarded child? The crazy guy at the bus stop? The dopey redneck who lives down the street and sits on the porch drinking beer with his friends all day long? The pregnant teenager. The hustler in drag, working the alleys and back streets of Manhattan's meat packing district? The kid with his jeans sagging down below his butt crack?
Why do I overlook them? Because they aren't smart enough? Not clean enough? Don't have a job? Don't have an impressive vocabulary? Because they aren't as good or pious or humble as I am?

I read Luke's story of the road to Emmaus and can only ask myself, "How many times have I met Jesus and blown him off because he wasn't familiar or respectable or smart?

So many people are waiting for Jesus to show up on a white horse, swinging a shining sword and slaying the devil's armies. And maybe that will happen. But in the meantime, Jesus shows up every day, unrecognized, in the people and places where we least expect him.
At least Luke's travellers got to have a forehead smacking moment when they realized what had happened and whom they had encountered on the road. They got the chance to change direction. That's an opportunity we don't often enjoy. Usually, Jesus comes and goes and we miss him completely. We continue on our busy way to our own Emmaus without ever taking the time to hear the blessing or receive the bread. How tragic. What a waste: that we would ignore the Savior of the world because he doesn't look or sound or smell like we expect him to. 

Homeless Christ, Deb Hoeffner

Our culture loves to remind us how dangerous the world is, how much we should be afraid of strangers, neighbors, even family. So we go though life with our blinders on and our guard up, as if anyone we meet might be the one who has come to destroy us. This gospel says something different. Luke says that anyone we meet might be the one who has come to save us. But we can't recognize him if we don't look.

My movement teacher in college used to say that the word "respect" actually means "to look again." To give someone respect means to give them a second look. Especially when we are tempted to look away and plow along ahead to our Emmaus. In this story, Jesus seems to agree. We may not find Christ when we look again, but then again, we just might.

Seems like it's worth the trouble, doesn't it?


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