St. Thomas Memorial Church
May 4, 2014
Have any of you ever seen The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon? It’s the show that replaced Jay Leno's. It's very similar to the Late Show with David Letterman, just with a much younger host—a host not much older than me. Anyway, sometimes on Jimmy Fallon he’ll have a segment where a famous athlete, actor, or musician will walk around the streets of NYC with a microphone in hand ready to interview unsuspecting passers-by. Sometimes the famous interviewer assumes a false identity and asks questions about their true self. Not too long ago, the show featured New York Mets’ pitcher Matt Harvey. He walked the streets asking New Yorkers what they thought about him. Only, he wasn’t wearing his baseball uniform. He was dressed much like any ordinary New Yorker. Because he was not in uniform few, if any, recognized him right away. It was as if he had transformed. Ordinary and anonymous Matt Harvey asked his interviewees if they thought baseball star Matt Harvey was any good. Did they think he was getting lucky, did they think he had what it took to become a real star, and lastly, and most importantly… did they think that he was attractive?
Watching the skit makes you and I, the in-the-know audience, laugh. We see some die hard Mets’ fans either gushing or talking smack about a person that is right in front of them; a person they have gone to see in person or have watched on television countless times. Most of them did not recognize him until, as they began to walk away, he revealed his true identity. For some of them what they said about him during the interview was so awkward that he didn’t even bother revealing his true identity. He let them walk away in complete ignorance.
Thinking about this morning’s gospel reading is what made me think of this skit. In the reading, Jesus comes up to two of his followers, Cleopas and his friend, and they do not recognize him. Why? We are not told. They are on a walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. A long walk, about seven miles in distance, so there was a lot of time to talk. What were they talking about? Their dashed hopes about Jesus, of course. While they were walking, Jesus overhears their conversation and asks, “What are you two talking about?” Jesus, the one whom they loved and followed--upon whom their hopes were placed--was right in front of them and they did not recognize him.
In his grief, Cleopas said, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?... The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who… [was] condemned to death and crucified. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
Cleopas then went on to tell this stranger about what some hysterical women had said about finding Jesus’ tomb empty and seeing a vision of angels who said he was alive. You can imagine what Cleopas might have been thinking. “You know women, sir. Unable to handle the truth. Always telling ‘idle tales;’ always in denial.” (Luke 24:11)
In imagining Cleopas’ thoughts, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Met’s fan who unwittingly told Matt Harvey that he was overrated to his face. There he is, so close, right in front of you in fact, but you can’t see him… Bono sings it perfectly in U2’s latest album, “How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?” And yet, and yet, how often is this the case for you and me as well? How often am I blind to the truth that’s staring right at me? How often am I unable to read signs that in hindsight seemed all around me? How often am I oblivious to Jesus and what he's doing to set things a right in the world? Too often. Most of the time I need someone to state the obvious, to spell things out clearly. And sometimes that doesn’t even work. Sometimes I need the proverbial ice-axe to break my perpetual daze. I need the Holy Spirit to illumine my sight.
But back to the Gospel reading; it’s at this point in the reading that Jesus unexpectedly interrupts Cleopas. “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into glory?” This stranger was no ignorant wonderer after all. If anything, to Cleopas and his friend, this interruption must have betrayed an acquaintance with the awful events that rivaled their own.
The text goes on to say that this stranger then talked about how Moses and the prophets point to a Messiah who would redeem his people through suffering. A Messiah who would redeem his people through the very events that have just taken place. Taking a look at the overall arc of the Hebrew Scriptures, he demonstrated to Cleopas and his friend that death and resurrection is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. He showed them that the crucifixion of the Messiah fits into a pattern that can be seen throughout God’s dealings with the people of Israel. ( see http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1992 ; http://kaleidobible.blogspot.com/2014/01/in-accordance-with-scriptures.html)
Cleopas and his friend must have been shocked by all this. Here is this stranger telling them that the long-awaited Messiah would live and die just like their teacher had. He was essentially saying, “All is not lost! In fact, this is what had to happen!” This must have rocked their world, for they had come to follow Jesus because they believed that he was God’s chosen to redeem Israel. They believed that this new redemption would look just like the old one--the Exodus from Egypt. They expected the redemption of Jesus to have all the same “shock and awe” right away. They believed redemption would be accomplished through a glorious victory for all to witness and marvel at, not a humiliating death that all would shield their faces from. Cleopas had said, “...they crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” The stranger right in front of them was saying “They crucified him. And that is how he redeemed Israel.”
At this, the Jesus began to set out from them just like Matt Harvey on Jimmy Fallon let some of his interviewees leave the interview without revealing his true identity. But, in this case, Cleopas and his friend were gripped by this stranger and they begged him not to go. “Stay with us,” they said, “for it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
So he went in to stay with them. He dined with them just as he had with his disciples in the upper room at the Last Supper. When he was at table with them, “he took bread, he broke it, and gave it to them.” And at this, their eyes were opened. At this, they recognized him. At this, he vanished from their sight.
When I read this I imagined the faces of the interviewees on the Fallon show just as they had been told that it was Matt Harvey all along who had been interviewing them about himself. There was that moment of recognition. Eyes grew wide, embarrassment and shock set in. It’s the same for these two travelers in our Gospel reading. Here he is, their teacher, their master, their savior, he's been right in front of them all this time. And like so many of us who have had moments of epiphany—who have had moments when we finally “get it"—they say to each other, “Didn’t we know this whole time.” “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” When they had finally been given “eyes to see” they got up, turned back to Jerusalem, and told Jesus’ eleven disciples, “The Lord has risen indeed.”
Jesus’ followers, including Cleopas and his friend, had not been following the overall arc of the Scriptures. They had only been reading the promises of the Messiah half right. They believed that their Scriptures told the story of how God would redeem his people from suffering, when, in fact, it told of the story of how God would redeem his people through suffering.
It wasn’t simply, then, that they couldn’t recognize Jesus. Sure this is a true feature of resurrection stories. Jesus body, emerging from the tomb, had been transformed. It is the same, yet different—a mystery which we will perhaps never unravel until we ourselves share in the same resurrection life. But what Luke is really trying to show us here is that the disciples couldn’t recognize Jesus at first because they couldn't recognize the events that had just happened as the way of God’s redemption. Luke is saying that we can only now know Jesus, can only now recognize him in any sense, when we learn to see him as the Messiah who came to take the world’s sufferings upon himself through death before rising again and destroying the power of death itself once and for all.
The followers of Jesus, including Cleopas and his friend, were looking for a glorious liberation from the Romans. And, to be sure, this desire was not a bad one. It was a good one. But until they saw that liberation not merely from Romans but also from death itself was to come through humiliation first, they could not see it. They could not see him. And the same is true for you and. Until we see that the way of glory is, in fact, the way of the cross we will not see Jesus. Until we see that the Christian life first and foremost characterized by death then resurrection, we will not “get it.”
Jesus will come again in glory to liberate us from death, oppression, and even Roman soldiers. But until then, a foretaste of this victory through the Cross is all around us even in the midst of death and despair. A foretaste of this reality waiting to be revealed is found in the Scriptures. A foretaste of this coming reality is found in the breaking of bread. As you and I hear the gospel read and proclaimed, may our hearts "burn within us." As you and I eat the body and blood of Christ, may the Holy Spirit illumine our eyes, like he did Cleopas’ and his friend's, to see the “stranger” right in front of us.