Recognition is something that many of us strive for in our lives. To be recognized as a leader in our field, to be recognized for the charitable works that we do, to be recognized as a good friend and confidant, to be recognized means to know that others have seen good in you and have lifted you up, honoring those things that you have done. But, often enough most of what we do, including those things that we pour our hearts and souls into, goes unrecognized. And, this is true of when we are in the position to recognize others as well. We cannot see everything that is done and therefore we cannot always recognize the level of work that someone has committed, deserving and worthy of recognition.
The disciples walking along the road to Emmaus today do not simply fail to recognize Jesus, but their eyes were forcibly withheld from recognizing Him. We hear that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” At first glance, this turn of phrase appears odd. How can their eyes be kept from recognizing Jesus, someone that they ostensibly know quite well. The Greek word used in this sentence is krateō, a word that denotes a sense of having power over, to get possession of, to take control.
It was not enough that they simply didn’t recognize Jesus, but something deep within them actively prevented them from seeing Him. It may have been the extreme amount of grief they were experiencing following the death of their closest friend and teacher. It may have been the complete and utter confusion that caused them to head out for a walk on the same day that they’ve heard tale from the women amongst them that “the tomb is empty, angels have descended to us and Jesus has risen from the grave!” This total lack of recognition goes beyond any slight that we personally have felt has been done when we’ve been passed over for recognition. This lack of recognition is wielding power over these two. It cuts to the core of their beings, because they have yet to accept the fact that Jesus’ teachings and prophecies were not simply educational stories (or confusing riddles) but the truth of their existence.
It is not uncommon as followers of Christ to experience our own walks to Emmaus. Periods in our life where confusion, fear, and grief reign, keep us from recognizing the saving grace that is found in the recognition of Christ’s salvific act. It is not until we are forced to face the presence of God in our life, that we can recognize that presence.
A little over four years ago, I was living and working in Seattle, Washington. I had been there, and employed as a paralegal working in tax law, for the better part of 16 months when I experienced my road to emmaus moment. On a cool, grey, overcast January day, I hopped the bus home from my office downtown out to my neighborhood, a ride that usually took about 50 minutes in the evening rush hour traffic as I lived almost at the end of the line. With a dead ipod, and having forgotten my most recent library book on my bedstand from the night before, I was left alone with my thoughts as we trudged along. It didn’t take long for my thoughts to become melancholy, as I began to focus on the areas of my life that were sucking my soul dry. These melancholy thoughts began to cloud my vision, keeping me from seeing the life-giving aspects present in my life. As I began to spiral downward into the mire of these dark and depressing thoughts, I was losing my recognition of Jesus’ presence in my life, the salvation that is offered if only I could have my eyes opened thoroughly to His presence. And yet, as I began to wallow in this darkness, confused, scared, and grieving over a life that I thought I wanted to live, something deep down inside me offered a ray of light.
Sitting upright in my seat, I was struck with the sense that I had two options moving forward: I could continue to sit in this darkness, forcibly keeping myself from recognizing the presence of Christ in my everyday experience; or, I could give in and be made thoroughly open to Christ, just as the two in Emmaus are made thoroughly aware of the presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
This pivotal moment in my life is the foundation of my call to ministry, because for the first time in my life, I recognized that God is ultimately in control and that when I try to go it alone, I am bound to fail. Luckily, God provided to me a chance to take my own Emmaus journey, venturing out hurt, confused, lost, and still having the great blessing of Jesus encountering me in this moment of greatest need.
The hard part of this, is being able to recognize Jesus when he is standing in front of us, teaching us, loving us, saving us. Too often we get stuck in the mire, not letting ourselves recognize the love that surrounds us, trying to pull us out of that place and unto solid ground. When we experience these moments of hurt, confusion, abandonment we begin to attribute these same emotions to God, blaming God for abandoning us in our time of greatest need. It is scary, painful, and utterly exhausting to feel as if the world and God have abandoned you. Unfortunately, it is these emotions that are actually shrouding our vision from seeing the presence of God at work in our life.
The two followers themselves are shrouded in their misery, and yet are pulled towards this stranger they’ve encountered, begging him to stay with them just a bit longer, joining with them to break bread and share in fellowship. In the moment of Jesus breaking bread, it was “At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him.”(Luke 24:30, The Message) The word used to describe this moment is dianoigō, which translated literally means to open thoroughly that which had been closed. When their eyes are opened they know fully the presence of Jesus in their midst and are astounded by the return of their Lord. If only we can have that moment of recognition of God, Jesus, Spirit moving in our lives, then our eyes can be opened.
To know Jesus is to recognize His continuing presence in our lives. Jesus made himself known to the disciples in the breaking of the bread, and continues to reiterate his presence in the here and now every time we come to the table. When we approach the altar rail, we are saying to God that we want this presence in our lives, and we pray that the shrouds that cover our eyes may be lifted through the recognition of the power and majesty of God’s work in this world.
For the two on the road to Emmaus, the context of Jesus had been finalized with his death on the cross. Jesus is with them a great deal of time, teaching and exhorting to them as they walk along, but it is only within the context of the Eucharistic feast that Jesus had instituted only a few days prior that they are able to truly see the nature of their companion on the road. Context is often key for our own recognition, but context can also distract us when something (or someone) is sitting directly in front of us. It must be our goal then to remove the shroud that is context and look for the presence of God at work in the world, not just at work in the church. It is when we look beyond our preconceived notions of what is and isn’t real, that we can enter into the possibility of recognizing the work of God in our lives.
So, stepping out of the context of this sermon, I want to share with you a favorite camp song of mine. This song speaks to a level of recognition that goes beyond Jesus Christ, Son of God, capturing the totality of Jesus’ saving grace, the burning within our hearts when Jesus is present, and the impact this presence has on our lives, particularly when we are stuck in the dark:
Jesus, lover of my soul
Jesus, I will never let you go
You’ve taken me from the miry clay
Set my feet upon a rock, and now I know
I love you, I need you
Though my world may fall, I’ll never let you go
My savior, my closest friend
I will worship you, until the very end