Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him —Luke 24:31
It is now the third Sunday after Easter; two weeks ago, we gathered for “the big day.” Some of us got up early and went down to the beach to sing with the sunrise, all of God’s creation — dogs included — echoing the same melody of resurrection and new life; others dressed up in Sunday-best, gathering in a sanctuary here or there. Families worshiped in practically every corner of the globe, and afterward a feast was laid out, lamb or ham, hot cross buns or Cadbury eggs.
The story was the same on Easter Sunday this year as it is every year (I’m not even sure what would happen if we told a different story on Easter Sunday; I’m guessing none of us are willing to experiment on that one…). And so, the Easter story went like this: on the third day, when the women went to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, they found that his tomb was empty.
Shocking news, yes? They had gone to plan a funeral, and ended up planning an investigation into theft. Or was it theft? The men at the tomb (were they angels? Luke doesn’t make this completely clear) ask “why are you looking for the living among the dead?” as if they know something more, but won’t tell.
I’m not sure the disciples were ready for any more surprises or secrets or unexpected news, but as Easter day turns to afternoon, two disciples depart for the nearby town of Emmaus, barely as far as downtown Evanston is from here, and as they walk, they encounter a man also walking along.
Our narrator, Luke, lets us, the reader, in on the secret early; this man is Jesus, but the disciples do not recognize him yet, and they won’t until the day is almost done.
When Jesus asked them what they were talking about, the disciples were taken aback that this man did not know what had taken place in Jerusalem that week.
You’ve been in situations like this, thinking that surely everyone had heard the news that the Boston Marathon or Oklahoma City had been bombed, or that a Germanwings plane had crashed, or that a boat sank off the coast of Libya or South Korea, or a hurricane hit the coast of New Orleans. How could someone not know?
And so, the disciples tell Jesus what happened:
- that their friend, mentor, prophet, their hope for the future, had been sentenced to death on a cross,
- that they laid him in a tomb, that his body had turned up missing just that morning,
- and that this one who could have redeemed all of Israel, who had turned their lives upside down and offered them a way towards new life, was not just dead, but gone. Not even a funeral could be held.
They rehearse the story that we tell on Easter Sunday; they tell this story, not to just any stranger, but to Jesus himself, and they still do not recognize him until they sit down together for an evening meal.
It is at these surprise feasts that we recognize and encounter God in Jesus Christ. For example, in my last semester of college, I had the opportunity to study Early Christian History in Italy. Our assignment was to choose a topic, a theme of sorts, to explore throughout our travels, and while my classmates choose more academic and studious topics, I choose food as my theme.
My dad, of course, would say this is a classic Snipes way to travel; he remembers every trip he ever took based on what he ate while he was there. I thought I was being clever, really. Food, in Italy? I’d taste all the seafood and pasta, pizza and gelato, and maybe find a way to weave in some coursework before I had to return home. Studying food in Italy was just the level of academic rigor I was looking for.
Yet, I accidentally stumbled upon a different kind of feast. The food was good, yes. But as we visited museum and mausoleum, crypt and catacomb and cathedral, I wandered Italy in awe. Whether it was an ancient tomb or a fresco in an old monastery, each one had a feast. Not actual food, but food in art. The Italian art work depicted banquets and dinners, people gathered around a table, loaves of bread and glasses of wine, even wheat stalks and grape vines repeated throughout the country; painted in catacombs, etched in stone, depicted in mosaic and gold on the ceilings of churches. Some of you have probably seen this, I’m sure.
In the oldest pieces of early Christian art, most times, it was unclear exactly which story was being depicted; was it the feast from that crowded day when Jesus was multiplying the loaves and the fishes, or the last supper with Jesus in that intimate upper room, or maybe this story, today’s story, when Jesus’ disciples went to Emmaus, and were caught unaware by the presence of Jesus sharing bread with them?
But, in Early Christian Art, I was beginning to learn, the banquet was more symbol than story, or rather, the feast was a symbol that tied up multiple stories in one. Each feast etched in stone or painted in a catacomb was visually offering us the full story of Jesus, interpreting God to us through the most recognizable, tangible part of our day —dinner — the most mundane part of our day, even.
The visual exegesis depicted feast after feast, telling the widest possible version of God’s love; that in the most difficult times, when it seemed all was lost – whether there seemed there wasn’t enough food to go around, or a friend was saying goodbye, or a loved one had died – God offered us a feast that transcended tragedy. Artists were reminding us God’s good news: that “the worst thing is not the last thing” as Frederick Buechner would say.
Like early Christian artists, our Gospel writer, Luke, is as Fred Craddock would say, “communicator with a purpose.” Luke is trying to reach us, his reader. Luke did not sketch this story out haphazardly on a coffee shop napkin, nor did he type it out quickly on his iPhone while trying to multitask. Luke is anticipating exactly how he will tell this delicate post-resurrection story while keeping you, his audience, alert and engaged. This is no ordinary novel; it is not fiction for the sake of entertainment. Luke is laying out an orderly account of the events that took place for the sake of those who love God.
You can practically feel Luke’s restraint in this story. It’s a story that has been set up perfectly, with Jesus spending half the gospel eating with people: tax collectors and Pharisees, wealthy and poor. And now, in the same way that Luke doesn’t tell us the Christmas story until the end of Chapter two, Luke waits until the sun is setting on Easter Day before telling us the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus shows up at dinner time.
Here’s what I wonder about, though: The disciples are not watching for Jesus’ resurrection appearance. They are not expecting it. Yes, they are wondering what all these events might have meant. They are taking each event in sequence, again and again, trying to understand it. But they are certainly not watching for Jesus’ resurrection appearance.
It is not until Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them that they recognize him. They are not paying attention (another theme that is at play throughout the gospel of Luke), and it is only at the table that their eyes are opened.
This story is about as difficult to catch as a snowflake or a child-like soap bubble. It points to the physical reality of Jesus’ presence with the disciples, and yet as quickly as the story settles, Jesus, what? Disappears from their sight; just like a snowflake or soap bubble as it hits the palm of your hand. In the same way that mist is neither quite rain nor quite air, and dreams are neither quite waking nor quite sleeping, Jesus is neither quite with us nor not with us.
This is a story that points us to Jesus being at once with us and with God; to Christ being both human and divine. It points to the threshold, the doorway, the liminal place between physical presence and spiritual presence that remains at the center of our faith.
It is a perfect story for Confirmation Sunday.
On the one hand, our confirmands are on the threshold, standing in a doorway, so to speak. Not quite dependent and not quite independent, not quite child and not quite adult, straddling the doorway between. On the other hand, this very mystery, of Jesus being at once human and divine, at once present and distant is the very thing that is so difficult in confirmation. I’ve heard it again and again, if only I had some proof of God, some evidence, some physical tangible data to show God’s existence, then I could really know what I believe.
But, faith isn’t like that, is it? Proven? Well, yes, the gospel writer, Luke, does set out to give an orderly account based on years of research.
But, Luke’s story is nonetheless a mingling of history and personal narrative, woven together by poetry and ancient scripture, embellished miracles and mystical dining room encounters late on Easter Sunday.
To me, this story is a reminder that we come to church, not necessarily because we are paying attention to God in our midst, but because we need to be in a community of people who also rehearse the story of our faith.
We need to tell and retell and re-imagine and wonder again at this story of Jesus, with us and with God, at once human and divine.
Church is a place where we stand at the threshold of God’s story, and allow our lives to be reflected in the narrative of life and death, empty tomb and Emmaus meal.
We come, not to “prove” that God showed up on that road to Emmaus, but to wonder how we might be like those disciples, how we might recognize or not recognize Jesus at our own tables; how Jesus might be standing in our midst, walking alongside us, asking us what we are talking about, what we are worried about, what we are frightened of.
In the end, the disciples, after encountering Jesus, didn’t go back to their ordinary lives; they ran back to tell their friends, and ultimately to live differently in response. In that way, the feast on the road to Emmaus was not a graduation feast. Yes, the feast happens at the end of the story; it is an ending of sorts. The disciples are beginning to understand that their relationship with Jesus will be different than it was before.
But, at a graduation feast, you say goodbye to the people and place where you studied and learned and lived. Maybe you enter the doors of your high school or college again, but only rarely. And certainly, if you are a parent at a graduation feast, you are proud of your child, you are relieved that it is over, you are looking to the next thing on the agenda.
Allow today’s feast — your lunch, your dinner, your donuts or Culbertson room cookies and cake — to be an Emmaus feast, one where you might be caught unawares by Jesus breaking bread in your midst. Amen.
Frederick Buechner. Whistling in the Dark, 2009. http://frederickbuechner.com/content/adolescence-0
Fred Craddock. Luke: Interpretation, 1991.
Robin Margaret Jensen. Understanding Early Christian Art, 2000.