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Recognizing Jesus

Scripture: Luke 24:1-35

I’m a big fan of U2. (The rock band). A few years ago, I had the opportunity to go see them in concert. It’s hard to describe, but that evening in New Jersey felt like a deeply spiritual experience. The old Meadowlands became an outdoor cathedral.

This morning I want to give space for the “worship leader” from that evening, Bono, to give witness. Here he is talking about his faith in the risen Christ.

Bono’s words remind me that perhaps the most compelling witness we can offer regarding the risen Christ is the story of our own experience.

That’s how Luke’s account of the resurrection begins.  It begins with the experience of a group of women who go back to the tomb early on the third day.  They go back to the tomb with spices because they are planning to take care of a dead body.  But they don’t find one. Instead, they hear the surprising news that Jesus has risen.

The women go back and share their experience. But to the apostles, their story seems like nonsense. Peter at least goes to the tomb to see for himself.

What we know from this account is that no one was expecting resurrection to happen. The events of the whole week had blindsided the apostles. They were in shock. Numb.

No one expected the kingdom of God coming on earth to look like the body of Jesus hanging on a Roman cross in early spring…

This was not the way things were supposed to go.

What do you do when your vision of God’s work has been crushed, leaving you deeply discouraged and disillusioned?

Luke’s account gives us a glimpse of what this looked like for two disciples. They’re heading home to Emmaus. As they are walking and talking about all that has happened, a stranger joins them. It’s the risen Christ, but they don’t recognize him.

Father Thomas Keating says that “the price of recognizing Jesus is always the same: our idea of him, of the church, of the spiritual journey, of God himself has to be shattered…”

What strikes me at this point in the story is that resurrection has happened, but the disciples are not able to see what is right in front of them…because they are not looking for it.

The text tells us they had hoped that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel. But they had a different idea about what redemption looked like. They had a different idea about how Jesus would bring his kingdom on earth.

So the first thing this story helps me understand is this. Recognizing Jesus and living into the story of resurrection has everything to do with us. Our ideas about God, the church, and the spiritual journey. And our grief and pain when those ideas are being shattered.

It is painfully difficult to be in the darkness that comes when our ideas are being shattered. The darkness, where things do not go like we think they should or want them to… The darkness, where we lose our vision and energy for church… The darkness, where we cannot see a clear way forward for our lives…

The good news is that God is with us in that darkness…even when we can’t see God. That’s the witness of the Emmaus road story. And the witness of the Emmaus road story is that sometimes, in order to recognize how God is with us, something has to happen in us.

A second thing I notice in this story is that part of what needed to happen for the two disciples is that they needed to re-work their understanding of scripture.

Their ideas about Messiah were not big enough to contain all that had happened—the suffering, the dying, the tomb. So of course they weren’t looking for resurrection. They needed someone to re-orient them to a new way of understanding scripture.

Jesus, whom they still do not recognize, does this. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus leads them back through the ancient texts and helps them see with new eyes how to connect what they had seen and experienced with the story of scripture.

I don’t think we’re any different than these two disciples. We also have our ideas about Jesus, the church, the spiritual journey that have been formed by the ways we read scripture. By a tradition. Ways of reading scripture that have been formed by our culture, by our family of origin, by our economic status, by our particular experiences in life.

So what I want to say this morning is this. As you desire to allow scripture to guide your life, stay open to the voices of those who seem like strangers to you. Stay open to those voices who are familiar with suffering and are interpreting scripture with a keen awareness that the road to the glory of transformation goes through the cross of suffering.

When we open ourselves to the reality that God’s kingdom comes on earth through suffering, we begin to see scripture and our place in the world a bit differently.

The apostle Paul writes about this in Colossians 1:24 saying:

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

And again in 2 Corinthians 1:5:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.

There is no way to understand the story of Jesus and live into the story of resurrection without embracing the way of suffering and death. It is the only way transformation happens.

We see this same thing in nature. For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.

What we see in our text is that it is this very process that opens the disciples up in a way that changes everything. The two disciples arrive at their destination. The day is almost over, so they urge the stranger to stay with them.

He goes in to stay with them. And when he’s at table, he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. It’s at that moment, the text says, that their eyes are opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

The very moment in which they recognize Jesus, is the moment he disappears. But now their eyes are open to see that he has been with them all along. Even when they hadn’t recognized him.

So a third thing I see in this text is that recognizing Jesus is not about control or power. Rather, it’s about coming to a place of surrender. Surrendering to the mystery of death and resurrection.  Surrendering to the process of transformation that needs to happen in us.

When we give ourselves to this process, there will be moments when our eyes are opened to the reality that Jesus is with us…has been with us all along. Even in the midst of deep discouragement and disillusionment…

That’s why I love this text. It’s my favorite passage in scripture. The reason I love this text is because it is not an abstract formula. It’s not a theological proposition that reduces the risen Christ to a cog in our doctrine of salvation.

Rather, it’s a very human story. It’s a story about two disciples who have fully invested themselves in the dream of God’s work in the world. But they are struggling.  They’re struggling because their ideas about God’s work in the world have been shattered.

We also struggle at times. We also experience times when our ideas are being shattered. We also experience times of darkness, discouragement and disillusionment. I think that is true for most of us.

The good news this morning… the witness of Luke’s gospel is that it is in these kinds of places…that we encounter God in unexpected ways.  The good news this morning is that God is with us even when we don’t recognize it because we’re so focused on our pain and grief.  The good news is that as we walk this road, as we give voice to our hopes and our struggles, we are opened up to a process of transformation that makes it possible to recognize Jesus.

This is the witness I hear in the story of the two disciples.  This is the witness I hear in Bono’s testimony.

May this also be our story, our witness, as we journey with Jesus in the coming months of transition at Sunnyside.


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