The Incognito Christ: the Walking Partner

Preacher - Doug Bratt

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.  Luke 24:30-31

Many of the risen Jesus’ friends to whom he appeared just didn’t know who he was. So at least initially the risen Jesus appears not as a long lost friend or even risen and returning Savior. At first he appears to many of even those who knew him best as a stranger.

On Easter we watched the sobbing Mary meet the resurrected Jesus. Yet we also saw how she doesn’t recognize him through her tears. Only when the risen Jesus speaks to Mary does she finally recognize him. The risen Jesus’ appearance often at least initially confuses rather than comforts people.

Perhaps that’s nowhere truer than in our text’s story. The people whom Jesus meets on the first Easter afternoon seem pretty ordinary. In fact, this is the only time the Bible even mentions Cleopas. And the Scriptures don’t even bother to identify his travelling companion.

What’s more, the city toward which these ordinary people trudge is also very ordinary. A few biblical scholars, in fact, refer to Emmaus as “Hicksville” or “the middle of nowhere.”

These ordinary travelers have heard about Jesus’s death and burial.  They’ve also heard rumors about Jesus’ empty tomb and resurrection.  Now that all the hubbub seems over, however, they seem to be trying to return to their ordinary lives in ordinary Emmaus.

On this apparently ordinary trip home, of course, someone comes up and walks along with Cleopas and his companion. We might even think of him as a kind of walking or even jogging partner that some of us have.

Yet the risen Jesus must look so ordinary that his ordinary fellow travelers simply don’t recognize him. They may fail to realize it’s him at least partly because they aren’t looking for Jesus in such an ordinary place. Like us sometimes, Jesus’s walking partners may assume the only place to meet the risen Christ is in an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time.

I think some people still come to Easter worship services partly because we hope to witness or experience something extraordinary. We suspect the best place to somehow meet the risen Jesus is on Easter in a church, among his followers.

You and I can sometimes hardly imagine how the risen Jesus would, by his Spirit, for instance, come up and join us while we’re walking or driving home. It’s hard to imagine meeting Jesus while we’re taking a shower or cooking dinner. We can’t imagine how he would meet us behind a pile of dirty laundry or next to our computer.

Yet more seems to be at work in Jesus’ fellow travellers’ failure to recognize him than just diminished expectations or shrunken imaginations. To help explain their failure, Luke tells us “they were kept from recognizing him.” The Greek phrase for “kept from” literally means the travellers’ eyes were prevented from identifying him.

Yet Luke doesn’t identify what or who keeps Jesus’ walking partners from recognizing the risen Jesus. Most scholars suggest that it’s their sin that blinds them to Jesus’ identity. Jesus’ fellow travelers share our natural spiritual blindness to who the risen Jesus is.

We sometimes wonder why family members and friends, co-workers and neighbors whose parents raised them in the church don’t recognize Jesus for who he is. But we won’t recognize the depth of God’s grace until we accept the fact that no one recognizes the risen Jesus without the help of the Holy Spirit.

There are, in fact, many things or even people that may keep us from recognizing the risen Jesus. It may be our bad experiences with his adopted brothers and sisters. Jesus’ failure to answer our prayers or be present to us in the ways and as quickly as we wish may keep us from recognizing him. It may even be our own physical or emotional pain that keeps us from recognizing the risen Jesus.

It isn’t, however, just Jesus’ fellow travellers’ eyesight that’s poor. They also have heart trouble. Notice, after all, how the risen Jesus diagnoses their condition. He calls his walking partners “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.”  So it’s as if Cleopas and his companions’ hearts, the symbol of their very being, simply beat too slowly.

You and I share Cleopas and his companion’s heart trouble. We, in fact, inherited our bad hearts from our ancestor Adam. We, after all, naturally give our hearts to all sorts of people and things besides the Lord. Our hearts are, in fact, naturally hardened toward God and God’s purposes.

But, of course, the risen Jesus deeply cares about spiritual arrhythmia and cataracts. He, in fact, graciously heals his walking partners’ hearts and eyesight. The risen Jesus does so by first continuing to walk with his friends toward their home rather than just abandoning them to their spiritual blindness.

Jesus also, however, begins to remove his friends’ spiritual cataracts by leading a Bible study for them. He points to all the places in which what we think of as the Old Testament points to himself.

Through this, of course, God graciously jumpstarts the travelers’ hearts.  Eventually, after all, they look at each other and wonder, “Were not our hearts burning … while he talked to us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

It’s a good reminder that those who wish to recognize the risen Jesus pay close attention to the Scriptures. After all, the gospels suggest that his disciples failed to recognize him because they forgot the Scriptures’ prediction of both his death and resurrection. So those who wish to recognize the risen Jesus, by his Spirit, spend time carefully listening to him speak by reading, studying and meditating on God’s Word.

Cleopas and his companion’s hearts may have initially been slow.  However, they’ve been gradually quickening to the Holy Spirit work within them through the Bible study Jesus leads for them.

Yet this ordinary pair still must finish their ordinary journey to their apparently ordinary home in an ordinary town. Jesus gives his traveling companions every opportunity to return to their ordinary lives without him.

However, since it’s getting dark, Cleopas and his companion beg Jesus to stay with them. They even try to entice their fellow traveler they don’t yet recognize with the offer of an apparently ordinary meal.

Nothing seems particularly special about these travelers’ offer of lodging or a meal.  Who, after all, would expect to meet Jesus in a guest room or around the supper table any more than we’d expect to meet him on a dusty road to the middle of nowhere?

However, Luke reports that when Jesus does something as apparently ordinary as praying over and breaking bread, God finally opens Cleopas and his companion’s eyes. While Jesus’ fellow travelers once were spiritually blind, the power of the Holy Spirit helps them to see. With some common gestures repeated in countless Jewish homes both before and since, God quickens their hearts.

Only then, Luke reports, do Cleopas and his friend finally recognize the risen Jesus.  These two ordinary people in an ordinary house in an ordinary town at an ordinary meal recognize Jesus when he breaks ordinary bread for them.

That’s a reason why Christians sometimes celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Easter.  And why the elders have chosen to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week during the past year.

We usually think of communion as a meal at which we remember Christ’s death on the cross. So we’ve sometimes limited the Lord’s Supper’s number of celebrations, the focus of those celebrations and their timing.

However, Reformed Christians also profess that each Lord’s Supper is also an encounter with the risen Jesus, by his Spirit.  After all, on the first Easter evening Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke the bread and shared it with his traveling companions.

In a few minutes we plan to take some bread, break it, pray over it and share it with each other.  And maybe you and I too will through the power of the Holy Spirit recognize the risen Christ in our midst, in no small part through these ordinary elements.

The risen Christ, after all, still comes up and walks along with his friends.  He meets us wherever and however his followers meet for worship.  The risen Christ also meets us, setting our own hearts afire by his Spirit, as we read and study God’s Word.

However, we also profess that in this ordinary bread and wine or juice, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper Christ also graciously meets us.  Through these elements he guarantees our participation in his death and resurrection.  The risen Christ offers us this ordinary food and drink to more fully unite us to him and each other, as well as strengthen our faith for service to God and each other.

So those who wish to see him don’t just look for the risen Christ in the big, splashy and spectacular events and places.  We also look for him, by his Spirit, in our ordinary lives, doing ordinary things with ordinary people.

The risen Christ is, after all, by his Spirit, on the move, always walking with us. So we pray for eyes that the risen Christ’s Spirit opens to his glorious presence. We pray for hearts that the Spirit quickens to recognize him even in these ordinary elements in this ordinary building, and on Zoom in these extraordinary times.

My dad’s death on Easter afternoon reminded me of the disciples’ encounter with the risen Jesus on the Emmaus road on what was probably Easter afternoon. I like to picture the Spirit of the risen Jesus graciously coming alongside my dad in his hospital bed much like he joined those travellers.

My dad was a loving servant of God, his family and his neighbors. But he was also, like Jesus’ fellow travellers, a naturally spiritually blinded sinner whom God saved by God’s grace alone. So we trust that God’s amazing grace allowed my dad to recognize the risen Jesus when he came to take him into God’s presence in the heavenly realm.

Because when God’s adopted children pass from life to Life, God graciously takes away all that keeps us from recognizing God and God’s glory. Now, says the apostle Paul, Jesus’ friends see but a poor reflection in a mirror. Then, by God’s grace, we shall see face to face.