Just Where Do we Find Jesus?
Reflection by Rev. B Langton
( from Heavenly Humour, many years ago by Ralph Milton,)
Ralph Milton once said, While cleaning my glasses (I am 48, which is relevant) I started musing about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. “I know why they didn’t recognize Jesus!” I said aloud. “They were past 40 and their eyes were beginning to fail. Only with the so-familiar gesture of breaking bread did they suddenly realize who he was. Anna, who sits in front of me in church is about 25 years older than I am. “Never mind,” she said. “If they were my age they’d recognize his face all right, but wouldn’t be able to remember his name!”
We laugh at this story because it rings true for many of us aged 48 and older. It rings true because we have experienced it at least once and probably many times more. I remember one time, long before I was 48, when I spent 10 minutes looking for my glasses. Finally a friend, puzzled by my dilemma, asked what I was searching for. When I told her that I couldn’t find my glasses, she told me to look in the mirror. They were on my face.
In today’s gospel, two disciples had left Jerusalem on Easter Sunday morning and were walking toward Emmaus, a village about 11km from Jerusalem. They had a long way to go, and on foot it would take a considerable length of time, so they had a unique opportunity to talk intimately about what had happened over the weekend. Remember, they did not have to worry about someone texting them or calling them on their cellphone, so they could just talk without interruption, or just walk together in silence, something many of us have forgotten how to do. As they walked together, side by side, I can only sense the emotionally loaded tone of their words. When you walk with other people, you don’t have to look them in the eye. As you walk down the road with someone else, you have to watch where you are stepping.
I once heard someone say that if you want to talk to someone about something important, take them out for a car ride. Talk to your kids in the car about sex. Talk to your parents in the car about preparing for the last years of their lives. Talk to someone during a car ride about something that had really made your angry. You don’t have to look at them. In fact, if you are the driver, you’d better not be looking at them. All you have to do is listen to them and all they have to do is listen to you.
So here were two folks walking together down the road discussing the untimely death of their friend, Jesus. Maybe they were crying. Maybe they talked for a while and were silent for a time, talked again and were silent for a time. Then, as if out of the blue, someone joined them. The passage in Luke’s gospel says, “As they talked and discussed, Jesus himself drew near and walked along with them.” I’ll bet that if he had been walking behind them for awhile, he had already heard the gist of their conversation. But when he joined in, they had no idea who he was.
I have no idea why not, but neither did the gospel writer. He said only, “Something prevented them from recognizing him.” What a helpful statement that is! I wonder why they didn’t recognize him. I wonder why they couldn’t guess who he was from the tone of the conversation. I wonder why. Perhaps the answer is as simple as they knew he was dead. Why would they be looking for someone who had died??
Then I wondered again. If his disciples couldn’t recognize Jesus, what chance do we have? If someone who had listened to, worked with, argued with, and lived with a person didn’t guess who he was, what chance do we, at a distance of 2000 year later, to recognize Jesus?
Those disciples finally recognized Jesus not by how he looked, not by what he said, not by the clothes he wore, but by what he did. As they came near the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther; but they held him back saying, “Stay with us; the day is almost over and it is getting dark.” So he went in to stay with them. Hospitality matters now and it mattered then, especially for one they assumed was a stranger. Then something really strange happened. He assumed the role of host. He took bread, said a blessing, broke the bread and offered it to them. “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” He took something from them, offered a few words of blessing, performed an action they remembered, and offered to include them in the celebration.
I got to thinking this week about how we might recognized Jesus if he (or she) might be among us. How would we know?
I remember an experience I had a few years back when Ralph MIlton invited some of us to gather together to talk about worship. One of the participants in the group was Allan, a young black Episcopalian priest from Houston, Texas. We took turns to worship for the gathered community and it was the turn of the Anglicans/Episcopalians. Worship that day was about Christian community and sensing the presence of Christ among us. I don’t remember what gospel reading they read, but I do remember Allan’s words. He told us about being interviewed before being accepted into theological college. Picture this scene: 20 white brothers sat in a circle and Allan sat in a chair in the middle. That’s an interesting way to conduct an interview, but never mind. After a few questions, Allan knew that his interview was not going well. One person confirmed that suspicion when he asked Allan this question: “What experience do you have of the white church?” Having none, Allan shrugged inwardly. “I’m toast. I might as well get up now and leave.”
But immediately he had another thought. So he replied. “I have no experience of the white church – only of God’s Church.” And with this answer, the interview ended. The 20 white brothers unanimously approved his acceptance. “And their eyes were opened and they recognized Christ in their midst.”
But Allan hadn’t finished. After ordination, he was sent to assist in a large, middle class parish – quite posh, he said. One Sunday morning he noticed a scruffy man shuffle into the back pew. From his appearance and from the body language of the people sitting nearby, Allen know that he was probably smelly as well as scruffy. And he knew in the depth of his soul that the visitor was going to come up to receive Communion.
You can guess the ending, I’ll bet When the Communion invitation was issued, the man began to edge his way to the front, surrounded by ‘posh’ people not accustomed to touching shoulders with scruffy, smelly men. When he reached the rail, the priest – not Allen, by the way – who was presiding at the table offered bread to everyone in line, passing by the stranger. He reached for the chalice, but the stranger tugged on the sleeve of the priest’s gown and said in a clear voice, “I would like this Jesus too”. Fortunately the priest turned back and served the stranger.”
Allan continued his story. “and I saw the Christ reach out to one in need.”
At first, I thought that Allen was describing the priest who reached out as the Christ. Then I began to understand that Allan meant that the smelly, dirty one who reached out first might be more appropriately a sign of the risen Christ. “And their eyes were opened and they recognized the Christ in their midst.”
It’s not just in Texas that Christ appears. I have seen Christ in this church as well. I have seen Christ in the face of children or youth who ask such deep questions with such sincerity. I have seen their faces when they come to receive Communion for the first time – be they 3 or 6 or 20 or 60. I have felt Christ beside someone as I stood at a hospital bedside. I have sensed Christ in those whom age has weakened, who long for God to take them so that they can always be in God’s presence.
I watched my mom last week, floundering a bit after a stroke, as she talked with a former parish nurse who came to visit with her. Mom has been feeling a little distant from her community of faith, maybe even a bit neglected. Anne’s visit reminded her that she has not been forgotten, that she still has a place at the table. We shared at the portable coffee table in my mom’s living room not with bread and wine but with tea and the last of Jody’s Christmas shortbread and in Anne’s lilting Irish voice, I heard the voice of the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Mom smiled for hours after Anne left. It was impossible not to recognize the Christ in our midst.
I have heard Christ in the words of a person struggling to discover what God means in their lives. I have seen Christ in the tears, the pride, the joy of a family coming together for a baptism, a wedding or a funeral. Sometimes I may be Christ to you and sometimes you may be Christ to me. But always, if our eyes can be opened, we can find Christ all around us, wherever we do.
The story of Emmaus did not happen just once. It happens whenever we let our eyes be opened to the possibility of new life, to the possibility of hope, to the possibility that the Christ is in our midst or, even more astounding, that others see the Spirit of Christ in each of us.
I thought of this Christian Church of ours yesterday when I read a Still Speaking Devotional that arrived in my inbox at 2am on Saturday morning. The writer this day was Lillian Daniel, a United Church of Christ minister in the USA. She wrote, “Where two or three gather in my name, I am with them.”
It seems to be a growing trend – people who claim to love Jesus but don’t want to call themselves Christians. The latest to stake a claim for not staking a claim is Marcus Mumford, of the wildly popular Mumfor and Sons, whose Christian-themed lyrics have been a source of fascination to believers and nonbelievers alike.
In a Rolling Stone cover story, Mumford demurred when asked if he considered himself a Christian. “I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage,” he said, “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.”
I too want to distance myself from hateful statements made in the name of my faith. If this is all that Christian is, I don’t want to be associated with it either. But of course, that is not all that Christianity is… When people say they love Jesus and not the church, I hear them saying that they can’t abide the people. If we could just kick all the people out, we might actually be able to do this Christian community thing. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.
The church is something you enter at your own risk. Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition har older that you. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.
And, I might add, you might even meet the risen Christ.
May those who love the church learn from those who do not, so that one day the church may welcome the injured with a new vision of what Christian community can be. Amen.