Journalist Cokie Roberts said once that, decades after her father’s death, she still thinks she sees him on the streets of Washington, D.C., the city where he lived and worked. Someone with a similar gait, or mannerisms, will catch her eye, and for a brief, impossible moment, she thinks it’s her father.
We have the same experience when we think we see a friend on the street, and then remember she’s in Kansas City, or think we see an old college roommate, and then find it’s just someone who looks similar. The same thing happens at home, too. One generation recalls another. Your nephew tilts his head and looks just like your father. Your cousin moves her hands just like your grandmother.
Most often, it’s a movement that catches our eye. The same thing happens for these followers of Jesus, as they finally recognize him when he takes the bread and breaks it.
Read the scripture here.
Read Eric Barreto’s Working Preacher commentary here.
We can change our hair color, our weight, the color of our eyes (temporarily, at least), the shape of our nose and chin, and even our posture, but the way we move speaks of our own unique stamp on life. In this Easter story, Jesus spends a long time with these two – he speaks, asks questions, teaches and listens all through this story…but his friends recognize him in a gesture. A movement of the hands – the one that defined him more than anything else – and then they know him.
Emmaus is west of Jerusalem, so they were walking into the setting sun. Some people speculate that the two travelers are a husband and wife, since one isn’t named. The story says their eyes were kept from recognizing him. By what? The way the light fell in their eyes? The burden of their grief and shattered hopes? That they’re not yet ready, until they hear the things Jesus is teaching them?
Breaking bread is familiar, and so is his presence at meals. All through his life, people complain that he eats with sinners and tax collectors. Bruce Chilton, in his imaginative book Rabbi Jesus suggests that Jesus “developed the practice of holy feasts into an art form.” Village life, the harvest, the completion of projects, and marriages all involved celebrations and feasts, of various sizes, depending on the importance of the occasion. Jesus understood the power of the spirit at work when people gather, and used the feasts to teach, to pray, to tell stories, and to connect people with each other.
Eating with people is familiar, and so is eating with a diverse bunch of people. His meals are a parable acted out. Marcus Borg translates the common criticism of Jesus, that he ate with sinners, as eating with “outcasts,” eating with people on the edges of society. No wonder that the disciples recognized the risen Christ at the table. It’s a moment of muscle memory, and they know exactly who he is.
These followers of Jesus have learned a few things along the way, too. I suspect that on a day of grief and puzzlement, after a weekend full of despair, they weren’t much in the mood to listen to a chatty stranger. But they extend to him the best hospitality they know, and listen attentively and then invite him to have dinner with them. They’ve learned the lessons of hospitality and welcome that Jesus taught, and now they extend them back to this stranger. They see the risen Christ, and he sees something of what he taught in them, too.
The sermon might look at:
- Why did their “hearts burn within them” while Jesus talks? Excitement? Renewed purpose? Shame? Guilt? What gets our hearts to burn with energy and passion these days?
- What are some of the ways your community of faith recognizes the risen Christ in a stranger? Is it in the guests who stay overnight when you host the rotating shelter? The people who comes for a meal, and teach what it’s like to be poor? The neighborhood kids who come for tutoring? And how do we treat them with the same grace that these followers of Jesus showed to the unknown traveler?
- Or, how might people recognize the spirit of Christ in us? What gesture will we make so people recognize the spirit of Jesus in us? A gift for praying with people? Being the go-to neighbor when there’s a problem? It’s as unique, for each of us, as they way we chew, or move our hands, or walk. We each have something we do all the time, that reveals the spirit of God in us.
- Or the sermon might look at the things that keep us from fully seeing the risen Christ in our lives. What keeps our eyes from recognizing him? Distraction? Consumerism? Our expectations of the world? Being too bossy, or too anxious, or too blind to others?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to continue the conversation in the comments section below.
Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. She has recently started taking Spinning classes, and finds them to be a lot like church – the language is mysterious, you watch the clock a lot, and just when you think it’s over, there’s one more thing. She blogs from time to time at Stained Glass in the City. The image above is “Supper at Emmaus” by He Qi, and is from the Vanderbilt Library of Art in the Christian Tradition.
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