Looking Back on Jesus

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 24:13-35.

Have you ever looked back over an experience – an experience that was strange or disturbing or inexplicable while it was going on – but when you looked back, it began to make sense? I think that is what is happening to the disciples in our Gospel today.

It’s the afternoon of Easter day, and two disciples are leaving Jerusalem. We don’t know why they’re leaving: maybe they have business in Emmaus; maybe the death of Jesus has so demoralized them that they’ve had enough of this whole “Reign of God” movement Jesus started, and they’re heading home; maybe they’re afraid the authorities are still looking to round up Galileans and they’re getting out of town while they still can. Whatever the reason, Cleopas and his unnamed friend are leaving, they’re on their way to Emmaus, and as they walk they rehearse with each other the whole sorry chain of events that has gotten them to where they are: how they’d first come to know Jesus, how they’d followed him, how they’d hoped he’d be the one to liberate Israel, how those hopes had been dashed when the Roman authorities seized Jesus, how that very morning some women of the group had brought the disturbing news that Jesus’ tomb was empty—and what was that all about?

The disciples are walking along, talking, and suddenly Jesus comes and joins them, but they don’t know it’s Jesus, their eyes are prevented from recognizing him. I’ve always wondered about that bit in the story: why didn’t they recognize him? They’d seen Jesus before; they weren’t part of the inner circle of The Twelve, no, they weren’t as close to Jesus as Peter and James and John; but they did know Jesus, they’d traveled with Jesus; they’d spent time with Jesus, certainly they ought to be able to recognize Jesus. There’s something almost dreamlike about their lack of recognition—you know how, in dreams sometimes, there’s somebody there, and they seem kind of familiar, yet you know you don’t know them? Or there’s lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land which hauntingly evoke this scene:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman.

—But who is that on the other side of you?

Why didn’t they recognize Jesus? Especially when he began to talk to them, when he went with them through all the things that had happened to them, when he helped them understand the meaning of it all, when he connected it to scripture, when he revealed to them the purposes of God that they themselves had been part of but hadn’t realized at the time. It’s only at the end, when Jesus has spoken with them and helped them understand and helped them make the connections—it’s only when that process is fulfilled that Jesus takes the bread and breaks it and they recognize who he is. It’s only when Jesus vanishes from their sight that they realize he has been stirring in their hearts the whole time.

And I think that is what makes this such a powerful resurrection story. There is a profound psychological truth in the way the disciples only recognize Jesus at the end, the way the disciples can only recognize what God has been doing in them when they can look back over the flow of their experiences and see that as a whole. I think in that way Cleopas and his friend are representatives for all of us: they point us to the important truth that we often see God only in retrospect—we come to know the Risen Jesus with us, we come to recognize how God is working in us, when we can look back over our experience and see it as a whole.

One time, years ago, while I was going to graduate school and doing interim work in congregations, I went through a rough patch of really wondering what my career and my vocation and my ministry was all going to add up to. I felt God was calling me to a teaching ministry—after all, that’s why I was getting a PhD—but it seemed like teaching ministry and parish ministry were balancing on a knife-edge: sometimes reinforcing each other and sometimes in conflict with each other. I felt tugged in two directions and I really didn’t know which way God was wanting me to go—or, worse yet, I felt like maybe I wanted to go one way but God had something else in mind. One night all that confusion and anxiety and conflict came to a head; and I went out for a walk to clear my mind.

And as I walked, I went over the chain of decisions I had made that had brought me to this point, each of them seeming like a good decision at the time, each of them seeming like a call from God, but taken in total, decisions I was beginning to wonder about. I looked at each step and I began to fear that maybe I was headed down a path that really, in the end, wasn’t going to lead anywhere after all.

And it occurred to me that maybe I could pray about this. What if, I said to myself, what if I pretended that Jesus was walking here beside me, and as we walked I could tell Jesus everything that was boiling up in my soul—if I had the chance to talk to Jesus, what would I say? So I began to rehearse what I would say to Jesus, how I would present my decisions and my opportunities and my anxieties.

And the more I went over it all, the more my perspective changed. I began to see how I could recognize God at work in it all, God guiding, God inspiring, God shaping my experiences to form me for this mission, this ministry, I was discovering along the way. I still wasn’t sure what was going to happen next; but I began to be more sure that, whatever happened next, God would be with me and God would not leave me high and dry.

And when I recognized that, I recognized something else at the same time: I hadn’t just been rehearsing for prayer, I had been praying; I hadn’t just been pretending Jesus was walking with me, Jesus was there, the Spirit of the Risen One had been with me all along, firing my heart, clarifying my understanding, dwelling within me so that I could more deeply dwell in him. It was only at the end of my walk that I could see how Jesus had been walking with me the entire time.

And I wonder how often that is true for all of us. How often do we ruminate on things, or engage in activities, or think about praying, only to realize God has been there with us through the entire process? How often do we look back over our experiences and recognize with an astonishing clarity that Jesus has been walking with us all along? And how often, recognizing that Jesus has been with us, do we then find the courage and the faith and the insight to go forward on our path, trusting that the Risen One walks with us wherever we go?

When the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, that gave them the energy to run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others they had seen the Lord—the beginning of their mission to spread the Good News of God in Christ throughout the world. When I recognized Jesus with me in my nighttime walk, it gave me the courage to work through anxiety and confusion and take the next steps in ministry and mission. Today, in this Eucharist, we are given the opportunity to recognize Jesus here with us, in the breaking of this bread, and, recognizing Jesus, we are given the opportunity to receive strength and courage and faith to go forward in our ministries, to engage our part in God’s mission, trusting that Jesus is with us now and Jesus will be with us always, in every place our faith walk takes us.

All we have to do is get up and get on the road.