Where do we find Jesus in the post-resurrection time in which we live? For those of us who did not get to know Jesus during his embodiment on earth, how do we now get to know him now? This Sunday’s Gospel, the road to Emmaus story from Luke 24, gives us some important clues to answering these questions.
This Gospel story opens with two of Jesus’ disciples walking toward Emmaus, a village seven miles from Jerusalem. Along the way, their conversation, not surprisingly, turns to the events that had recently transpired involving Jesus’ death and the empty tomb found three days later by some women from their group. We are told they were “conversing and debating,” and we can imagine them trying to make sense of these events that defied all of their expectations about who Jesus was. The one who they had hoped would “redeem Israel” was put to death, along with their hopes that Israel would find political and religious freedom apart from their Roman occupiers.
As the disciples are deep in conversation, a fellow traveler joins them, a man the Gospel reader knows is Jesus but who is unrecognizable to the disciples. We are told that “their eyes were prevented from recognizing him,” but I do not think we need to look to supernatural explanations for their blindness. Post-resurrection, Jesus is no longer human in the same way that he was during his lifetime on earth. If we expect Jesus to look a certain way, or if we place too much importance on what Jesus’ physical visage would have been, we will miss what is crucial about Jesus’ identity, like these disciples who can’t quite wrap their heads around what has happened now that Jesus has turned out to be someone different than who they thought.
In order to join their conversation, Jesus asks them what they have been discussing, and they tell him about what has happened to “Jesus the Nazarene, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” They end their story by relating their own visit to Jesus’ tomb, where they saw indeed that Jesus’ body was gone but did not see Jesus himself or a vision of angels announcing that he was alive, as the group of women had. At this, it seems that Jesus gets a bit fed up with the lack of understanding evidenced by the disciples, and he gives them a scripture lesson as they walk, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” interpreting “to them what referred to him in all the scriptures.”
And even having heard this interpretation from the mouth of the resurrected Jesus himself, the disciples still do not know Jesus. Now certainly gaining this perspective, this knowledge, may open them up to being able to recognize Jesus later in the story. But in and of itself, this cognitive knowledge, this knowing about Jesus, is not sufficient for them to recognize their traveling companion as Jesus, as the one whom they had followed and with whom they had had an intimate relationship. Thus we will not come to know Jesus in a personal, life-changing way if we only know about him. We will not meet Jesus by being able to offer a “correct” interpretation of scripture or by reciting an orthodox set of beliefs about him.
As the traveling group approaches Emmaus, Jesus seems as if he will keep traveling, but the two disciples urge him to stay with them since the day is almost over (perhaps demonstrating in this offer of hospitality that they have not completely missed the message of Jesus’ life). Then the dramatic climax of the story occurs: Jesus sits with them at the table and takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And they recognize him for who he is in this action, just as he disappears again.
There are at least two aspects of this moment of awakening for the disciples that are instructive to us in our post-resurrection time. The first is that it is in a communal moment that this recognition takes place. Knowing Jesus is not only about an individual’s relationship with Jesus or “accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior,” as common evangelical parlance puts it; rather, knowing Jesus demands participation in a community (Matthew 18:20). Second, it is in doing something that Jesus had done in during his life, in imitating this past action, that the disciples finally awaken to the reality that Jesus has been raised. Thus knowing Jesus is never only about head knowledge; it involves imitating the life of Jesus in our own lives. This begins, of course, with participating in the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life. But it also involves imitating other aspects of Jesus’ actions on earth: reaching out to those on the margins, speaking as a prophet, and grounding one’s life in adoration of God.