Some of my favorite Bible stories are post-Resurrection stories—doubting Thomas, the breakfast of fish and bread (both stories from John). My favorite is the Road to Emmaus story, from the Gospel of Luke.
In the story, two of Jesus’ followers are heading out of Jerusalem, on the Sunday after the crucifixion, on their way to a place called Emmaus. Though the text does not say why they had set out for Emmaus, we can guess that they probably thought the story was over, that Jesus was gone forever. He had been crucified on Friday and had not been seen since, despite the news that the tomb had been found empty.
As the two followers walked along the dusty road, they talked about the events that had taken place in Jerusalem. At some point, Jesus himself “came near.” The followers did not recognize their friend and their teacher. They thought him to be a stranger.
The stranger asked to share their conversation and the two followers—one named Cleopas, but the other unnamed—talked about the terrible events that had taken place.
And, then the stranger, beginning with the story of Moses, shared with them what was contained in the scriptures. Still, Cleopas and the other follower, failed to recognize their friend and teacher.
When they arrived at Emmaus, the stranger looked like he was planning to continue his journey, but Cleopas and the other urged him strongly to stay and to eat with them. After all, it was getting late in the day.
As they sat at the table, the guest took the bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them. And as they began to share the meal together, there came a burning in their hearts and they recognized the risen Christ. And, as soon as they recognized him, he vanished from their sight.
This wonderful story offers many lessons. Two of those lessons are especially important for Christians in this Easter season.
The first is that, we don’t always recognize Jesus Christ, even when he’s very close to us. The Christian writer Frederick Buechner has wondered if Cleopas and the other follower had a hard time recognizing Jesus because they really had never truly recognized him during his earthly life.
Those of us who identify as Christian and for whom the Christian faith is vitally important, must acknowledge that we sometimes have difficulty recognizing the risen Christ in our midst. At the beginning of the story, Cleopas and the other seem to have been looking for a magnificent, special effects kind of event on that Sunday morning, the third day after the crucifixion. But that didn’t happen, and though there were tales of the empty tomb, the two followers walk away, perhaps to get away from what they perceived as unfulfilled promises.
Even though the risen Christ “came near” to them and shared conversation about the events and what was contained in the scriptures, the two followers still could not come to that place of recognition. Recognition is sometimes—maybe often—difficult. The risen Christ comes to us in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.
The other important lesson is that those wonderful moments of recognition, those epiphanies in our lives of faith, are fleeting. We cannot hold onto them as precious jewels. As soon as that burning in their hearts came, and they recognized the risen Christ, he vanished from their sight.
Moments of epiphany feed us for a moment, but then we must continue the journey to the next place. Moments of recognition are brief, and do not contain all of the truth of Christ’s presence.
Our spirits are fed, but yet we are also drawn further into the story. Easter isn’t simply about the amazing news of resurrection, it is also about the continuing journey of discovering what it means to follow and to recognize our Risen Savior, who bursts through the tombs of our lives and beckons us to follow, often in ways that do not conform to our preconceived notions.
The challenge of Easter is to open our hearts and our minds to the unexpected nature of God’s presence with us.