The rise of social media has brought about the decline of life’s most awkward moments - the guess-who-I-was encounters at a high school reunion. In case you’re unfamiliar with this moment, it goes something like this. You attend your reunion and someone from your class approaches you, covering up their name tag and says, “Hey, remember me?” You stand there for what seems an eternity, looking at this person, and for the life of you, have no idea who they are. Fading memory, receding hairlines, and calories have made them unrecognizable. It’s a horrifically awkward moment.
So you respond with some safe answer like , “How could I forget you?” and put out your hand. With any luck, this forces them to put out theirs, revealing their name tag, thus enabling you to pretend to recognize the kid who sat three rows behind you in health class. In recent years, social media has at least given many of us a heads up on what our old classmates look like, and gives them a preview of how we all have aged. Hopefully, those awkward guess-who-I-am-at-the-reunion moments are fewer these days.
After his death, Jesus had a few reunions of sorts with his followers. The details of these incidents varies greatly, but a common thread in almost all of them is that when the Risen Jesus appears, no one recognizes him. I don’t claim to know exactly what the disciples experienced in the resurrection experiences. The Gospel writers themselves seem to struggle with how to describe it. The RIsen Christ has the ability to suddenly appear in a room, but also eats fish. That’s heartbreaking to vegans, I know. For his followers, words and concepts fell short in describing who and what Jesus now was.
In Jesus’ day, there was no social media to prepare them for these encounters. There was apparently no expectation among his disciples that once Jesus was crucified and buried, he would be back. Yes, there were Hebrew Bible passages like Psalm 22 and the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah, but up to this time, no one viewed them as Messianic predictions. No one was flipping through their Bible at the foot of the cross having an a-ha moment. Sure, there are some Gospel stories where Jesus tells his disciples that he would be killed and raised after three days. But either they weren’t listening too well or they didn’t believe him, because no one was waiting at his tomb three days later for him to come out. The resurrection of Jesus was totally unexpected and unprecedented.
As the Gospel of Luke draws to a close, it tells the story of two of Jesus’ followers journeying back to Jerusalem on the day of the first Easter. One is named Cleopas, the other is unnamed. Some scholars speculate the other disciple was a woman, possibly Cleopas’ wife. This would be in keeping with earlier stories of Jesus’ sending out other disciples in pairs. In any case, as they traveled, they were busily chatting about the death of Jesus, just a few days earlier. In a way, it was much like this past week for many of us. The death of Osama Bin laden spurred many conversations and questions. What does this death mean? What will happen now?
Along the way, the two travelers were joined by a mysterious companion, who unbeknownst to them, is the Risen Jesus. When he asks what they are talking about, they give him the story so far, the story of Jesus’ ministry, his execution by religious and political leaders, and the rumors and uncertainty about whether or not he was really dead. From their comments, we can also infer their sense of Jesus’ failure. They expected him to to deliver their people of Israel and clearly what happened to Jesus was evidence that their expectations and hopes were misplaced. In other words, they tell the story in a framework of what was expected, and the limitations of what they thought was possible. As Jewish people, they were more than familiar with their own sacred scriptures. They knew their Bible. They thought they knew what it said about a Messiah. Yet, when they looked to their Bible and their tradition, they couldn’t recognize Jesus in there, any more than they could recognize Jesus walking along with them.
Before we judge Cleopas and his companion too harshly, let’s be honest with ourselves and admit we can be just like them. We have paradigms of faith and ways of telling the story of God in which we are so deeply enmeshed, that we don’t even recognize them. Like Cleopas, we may know our Bibles so well that we don’t recognize Jesus. We may know its words of the past so well, that we cannot recognize what the Living and Risen Word is saying to us in the present. Like the companions on the road to Emmaus, our previous understanding of our Scripture and the events in the world around us, may need to give way and allow the Risen Jesus to reinterpret them so we can recognize the new things God is doing.
That is exactly what the Risen Christ does on the road to Emmaus. Luke says, he brings them on a journey through their Bible (what we Christians would later call the Old Testament) and guides them in recognizing Jesus in its pages. We have to be careful here. I don’t think Jesus helped them decode hidden messages or prophecies. He did not, as many mistakenly believe, reduce the Hebrew Prophets to mere fortunetellers who predicted the future. Instead, he helped them recognize that which was Christ in their own tradition. Recognize, the way one recognizes an old friend from the past in the present. But in this case, Jesus is inviting them to recognize a friend from the present in the past. For a God who is eternal, that is outside of human concepts of time, such distinctions disappear.
Think of that word “recognize”. Not only does it mean to remember something we have seen before, it also means to “re-cognize” to “re-think” to “re-conceptualize”.
After guiding them through scripture, the share a meal together. Later Jesus’ companion describe this as time when their hearts burned. In a scene reminiscent of the Last Supper just a few days before, Jesus takes bread blesses and breaks it. In that moment, these two Jesus followers recognize him.
Like many other resurrection stories, this is one where we long to have been there. But don’t you see? We are there. As the body of Christ we gather each week on our own journey with Jesus. The Risen Christ guides us through scripture. It’s the Risen Christ who helps us recognize Jesus in its pages. Sometimes that same Jesus challenges us to re-cognize, re-think and re-conceptualize. He may challenge us to re-think ancient laws and texts that sanction revenge or violence. He may challenge us to re-think religious pronouncements about which people are chosen, or about race, war, money and sexuality. As people of the Resurrection, we interpret our tradition and texts through Jesus, not the other way around. It is the gospel and love of God that reign supreme, not the Law, not religion.
In the same way, the Risen Christ leads to to recognize Jesus in what seems to be the worst of circumstance. When we look at a broken world and conventional wisdom tells all hope is lost, Jesus guides us to recognize himself in the midst of it all. The brokenness of the world becomes what the Apostle Paul calls the groaning and birth pangs of the new world God is creating. That goes for the uncertainty and turmoil of nations and economies, and it also goes for the uncertainty and turmoil in our own personal lives. Like Cleopas, we can look at what has happened in our lives and only see shattered dreams and hopelessness. But the Risen Christ, by guiding us through Scripture and breaking bread with us, enables us to see God at work in our own lives. Whether it's in worship, or a small group, or working in mission in our community, the Risen Christ journeys up alongside us and helps us recognize Jesus at work in the middle of all of the troubles we go through. In recognizing Jesus, we re-cognize and re-think our own lives. That allows Jesus to transform us into someone new.