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Austin, TX 78705

Recognizing the Risen Christ

San Williams

May 4, 2014
Luke 24:13-35

I recently saw a portion of a television documentary. The film-maker asked several people to disguise themselves as homeless.  He then arranged for them to stand or sit on a street where a relative or good friend would pass by.  The film depicted a son walking past his mother, a wife past her husband, a mother past her daughter, and so on.  Some would give a furtive glance in the direction of their disguised loved one, but in no instance did their faces light up with recognition.  They simply passed by unable to recognize their own kin. Well, the problem of recognition is endemic to the Easter story.  “Christ is risen!” is our Easter proclamation, but recognizing the risen Christ has been a challenge from the very beginning..

All the Gospel accounts of Easter acknowledge how the first disciples found the resurrection baffling, difficult to believe and hard to recognize.  In Matthew’s account of the resurrection, for example, the eleven disciples went to Galilee as instructed, to the mountain where they encountered a vision of the risen Christ.  Yet Matthew is careful to insert the words “but some doubted.”  In Mark’s terse telling of the resurrection, the women simply flee the empty tomb seized by terror, amazement and fear. Or in John’s account, remember how Mary struggled to recognize Jesus?  She at first mistakes him for a gardener.  Then there’s Thomas, who declares that he will not believe unless he can actually see the nail marks in his hands and touch his pierced side.   So while these resurrection appearances vary in detail from Gospel to Gospel, they are consistent in reporting that even these first disciples had trouble believing in and recognizing Christ in their midst.

And Luke’s telling of the resurrection is no exception. In today’s reading, Luke depicts two disciples who have left Jerusalem.  They are heading back to their home in Emmaus.  While they were talking, the risen Christ draws near and goes with them.  When Jesus asks them what they are discussing, these saddened and dispirited disciples rehearse the events of the last few days. The depth of their disappointment is contained in the phrase, “But we had hoped…” They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah who would redeem Israel from her Roman oppressors, cleanse and restore the Temple and rule as Israel’s true king.  But the crucifixion put an end to these messianic expectations. Luke describes them as “standing still, looking sad.”  Their hopes had collapsed. 

Of all the resurrection appearance stories, Luke’s Emmaus Road account may be the one that strikes a chord in our own experience.  For one thing, it involves two ordinary people, Cleopas and the unnamed disciple.  They were not part of the inner circle of disciples.  No mention is made of them prior to this point, and we won’t hear of them again.  They could be any one of us.  Also, their emotions are so genuine, human and honest. Their words, “But we had hoped…”  give voice to the almost universal reality of disappointment. Who has not at some time or other echoed their very words, saying, “We had hoped…”   We had hoped that our career would be more successful…We had hoped that the cancer could be cured, that the old addition wouldn’t come back, that the marriage could be saved…We had hoped…you fill in the blank.

We need to remember that the reality of deep disappointment characterized the first disciples as much as it does disciples today. The news of Jesus’ resurrection did not answer all their questions, eliminate their doubts or dispel all their fears.. They struggled, as we do, to understand how Jesus was still with them even in the face of unrealized expectations.  .

According to the Emmaus story, the disciples had to be instructed in the scriptures.  Beginning with Moses their mysterious companion rehearsed the Biblical story of how God never forsakes his people or breaks God’s promise. Rather the scriptures proclaim a God who accompanies his people, does not forsake them, leads them and even suffers with and for them. When the scriptures are opened to these Emmaus Road disciples, their hearts burn within them rekindling hope and renewing confidence.

Then, as the evening descends and they near their village, they offer Jesus hospitality. “The day is almost over,” they insist.  “It’s getting dark. Come eat with us and rest and be safe.”  At supper Jesus takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives them.  Suddenly, Luke reports, their eyes are opened and  they recognize him just as he vanishes from sight. 

What was it about the breaking of bread that opened their eyes to recognize him?  When he took the bread in his hands and offered it, did they suddenly remember all those other times they had seen those hands serving people?   Hands that had taken bread and fed the five thousand…Hands that had fed them so often at Table.  The same hands that gathered the children in his arms, fed the hungry, touched the leper, healed the sick, comforted the grieving,  embraced sinners and welcomed the lost and despised.  Helping hands, loving hands, open hands.  Yes, they recognized him when they saw those hands doing what they were accustomed to seeing them do—serve others! 

In a few minutes, bread will be broken, blessed and given to us.  This sacrament connects our lives and ministry with the presence of the risen Christ in our midst today.  It signals that recognition of Christ’s presence is not a product of superior spiritual insight or unshakable faith. Rather it is made known in continued practices of hospitality, friendship and service.

When the grocery cart that Kathy talked about in the children’s sermon is rolled down the aisle to collect food for the hungry the presence and ministry of the risen Christ in made known. When little hands take packets of brownie mix and give them to guests in our congregation, Christ’s welcome to strangers is made known.  Last week we received a letter from a woman who visited our worship in February.  She was so touched by this gesture of welcome that she has incorporated the practice in her own congregation in Louisiana.  She wrote us a thank you saying, “I have used your recipe to bless others.”  

Friends, all the Easter stories confirm that Christ’s risen presence is illusive and not easy to find.  But the scriptures also confirm that the risen Christ will find us, walk with us and serve through us. Therefore, whenever gifts or kindness are given, food is shared and help is rendered, eyes  and hearts will be opened and the presence of Christ made known once again.

Christ has risen! Christ has risen indeed!