Do Not Our Hearts Burn Within Us?

“Easter occurs when we find in Jesus not a dead friend but a living Savior” (Williams, 74). Williams’ statement captures the strangeness of the risen Jesus. In this essay, I hope to consider the appearance of Jesus to the two disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus as a picture of this strangeness. One of the most interesting aspects of the appearance is the disciples’ complete failure to recognize Jesus. The disciples travel a significant distance with Jesus and engage in extended conversation with him about his own ministry, death, and resurrection, all without showing the slightest hint of recognition. The narrative motion of the story seems to suggest more than one “level” of estrangement, and paying attention to this movement may help us better understand how we can fellowship with the strange crucified but living man of Nazareth.

The first level of estrangement is intellectual. As Williams notes, “Jesus condemns the inadequacy of their earlier understanding: he is not what they have thought him to be, and thus they must ‘learn’ him afresh, as from the beginning” (75). They thought that Jesus would be the one to “redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21), likely in a political sense. But their understanding of Jesus is completely unable to cope with his death and is further confounded by the missing body and the women’s testimony. Jesus immediately ties this lack of understanding to a lack of understanding of the Scriptures. To be more exact, Jesus castigates them for failing to see the true nature of the Messiah in the Scriptures, an understanding conveyed by “all” of the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27). Their understanding is not merely a failing to understand Christ, but a failing to understand the Scriptures that he fulfills. Why this insistence upon the Scriptures? Why must an explanation of Christ be grounded in the entire Jewish Scriptures? This is, after all, rather different from how we attempt to approach our understanding of Christ in much of contemporary American ecclesial life.  Yet, their relearning can only be done when they learn to read the Scriptures properly. Might this suggest that a bare account of Christ’s life is not enough for us to see him in his fullness and his strangeness? For it is in this exposition of the Scriptures, we are later told, that the hearts of the disciples were “burning within” them (Luke 24:32). Christ reveals himself in the opening of the Scriptures. Perhaps the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus can only begin to be understood once it is firmly placed in the divine economy.

Yet the narrative further complicates this question by the continuing hiddenness of Jesus. The disciples recognize the power of this stranger’s words, and they desire his continued companionship and company, but they do not yet recognize Jesus. Why? Has not their inability to see him, both his work and his place in the larger context of the Trinitarian work already been revealed? The passage is not explicit on this point. Perhaps it suggests, as Williams does throughout his essay, that simply to intellectually perceive something of the mystery and significance of the glory and sufferings of Jesus is not enough to allow us to truly encounter Jesus in his strangeness, to encounter the one who embraces a shattering death and even more disruptive empty tomb.

It is, in fact, in a moment of personal fellowship that Jesus finally reveals himself. After Jesus and the disciples enter the place they mean to stay, they sit down to share a meal together. Luke’s description of the moment is both beautifully simple and pregnant with significance. “When he [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30-31). The Eucharistic overtones are clear. Just as Jesus distributed the bread at the last supper, he distributes it to his disciples now. And in his prayer and giving of bread, he reveals himself to them, makes himself present to them. A deeper communion is established, and a deeper recognition is shared. It seems that it is only when they are fed by him and share in his blessed table (and this as a community) that they can fully recognize him.

Luke’s account suggests that it is not enough to come to an intellectual understanding of Christ to truly recognize him, for him to cease being a nameless stranger. We must fellowship with Christ, be fed by Christ to find the “risen friend” Williams speaks of. And we must do so in fellowship with other disciples. We cannot, as we often think in the age of science and quantification, gather enough information to develop this fellowship. Nor can we impose it upon Christ. He must give and reveal himself in fellowship to us, as we begin to understand the depth of who he is, of the Revelation of the Father in the Son.

But even this revelation in fellowship, this culmination of word and bread, breaks off in a surprising way. For Christ immediately “vanishe[s] from their sight,” (Luke 24:31). In the moment of recognition and of fellowship, Christ becomes once more distant and strange. What are we to make of this vanishing Jesus? Some answer may be in the close of Luke. The disciples return to the eleven apostles and again encounter Christ in what may be a more glorious revelation than the one given on the road. Shortly thereafter, Christ ascends, promising the coming of the Spirit as a guide to deeper fellowship with himself and with the Father. Perhaps Luke wants to teach us that we can always continue to grow in deeper fellowship with Jesus and deeper understanding of him without him ever ceasing to be strange. Is this who Jesus ultimately is? The inviting friend, the gracious Lord, the only begotten Son, and the stranger who continually invites us into ever greater knowledge of and fellowship with him?

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