Thanks to the easterly orientation of our current home, we are often bathed with the vibrant colours of the sunrise when we open the blinds on a Spring morning. We have tried, on many occasions, to capture these glorious displays with our phone cameras, but the results are never as good as the real thing. One of the problems I've had is getting the camera to focus on the sky. The autofocus keeps pulling the view back to the condensation (or dirt!) on the glass, failing to detect what lies beyond the surface.
I've often wondered if there was a similar thing going on with Cleopas and his companion as they travelled to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday. (A focus issue, that is, not battling with the AI on their smartphones.)
After what they had just witnessed, who could blame them for being preoccupied, if not outright haunted? Who can claim that they would have seen past the horrific surface details to the vast and glorious meaning of the Easter weekend? Having said that, though, it's still a mystery to me that they didn't say, 'You know what? You remind us of someone…..' at some point during the two-hour walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
The original text refers to their eyes being 'seized' or 'held' from recognising Jesus, using a word sometimes translated as 'arrested,' but seized by whom, or what? The manuscripts don't say. Some translations attribute the seizure of their senses to God. Why would God do that, though? It seems unnecessarily capricious to me. Whatever it was will forever remain a mystery, but it's the mystery that keeps me coming back to this story time and again.
I was thinking about the passage again this week, trying to come up with reasons why the disciples couldn't identify their beloved teacher. Their eyes may have been 'arrested', but didn't they recognise His voice and mannerisms? Were all their senses in custody? Were they so overwhelmed by what had happened that they still wouldn't have clocked Jesus if He'd had a neon sign flashing above His head?
Perhaps Jesus could alter the appearance of His post-resurrection body? He could appear and disappear at will, it would seem, so why not shape-shift as well? A bit far-fetched, maybe, but nothing's impossible with God, right? Some cynics have suggested that it wasn't Jesus at all but, if that's the case, why would believers turn this story into an eye-witness account of the risen Jesus?
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon." Luke 24:33-34
Can you imagine them adding, 'We have no doubts whatsoever! OK, so it looked nothing like Him. He was much shorter and had a southern accent and terrible breath, but it was Him!'
Once I'd had enough of speculating (and discounted a Doctor Who style perception filter from being the culprit), I tried looking at it another way.
A Change of Focus
I realised that my 'eyes had been seized' by the wrong details. I was doing the same thing as the disciples had done on that desert road. In trying to work out why they couldn't recognise Jesus, I was fixating on the surface story. So, I asked myself, what lies beyond the glass? What will I see if I refocus my imagination for a moment?
Just as when your eyes finally hit upon the right focal distance on one of those Magic Eye pictures, I recognised a new pattern - or more accurately, the same pattern, but a new layer. New to me, at least.
Looking beyond the top layer (the literal 'just the facts, ma'am' layer), I found a striking illustration of what life as a Jesus-follower would look like for every future generation of believers. There's a kind of 'post-resurrection-new-normal' described here.
Before Good Friday, Jesus would have walked and talked with His followers every day, in person. He would have been available to explain things and to help them make sense of things (although He would often confuse them, too). They knew His face, and they recognised His voice.
For following generations, though (once He had ascended into Heaven and poured out His Spirit), Jesus would walk alongside us in the form of a stranger, a friend or a neighbour. He would guide us by the gentle nudging and quiet whispering of His Spirit. He would help us make sense of things through the words of wise teachers and children alike. He would break bread with us through fellowship with His body. In a million different ways and with a billion different faces, Jesus would be with us. We may not recognise Him at first; we might miss all the signs (even the neon ones!). We might find ourselves preoccupied and distracted but, once in a while, we catch a glimpse of Him and realise that He has been with us all along. Perhaps we'll say to one another something like, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"
Looking at the passage again, I found confirmation of the parallels with our experience of walking with Jesus at either end:
As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognising him. (vv15-16)
Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight (v31)
To begin with, the disciples saw Jesus but did not recognise Him. In the end, they recognised Him but could no longer see Him. If we knew where and how to look, we would 'see' Jesus everywhere - His promised presence wherever two or three of us gather, just as He was with the two as they trod the road from Jerusalem. When we do catch sight of Him, it's His ways, His voice, His presence, that we recognise. We can know Him deeply even though we do not see Him directly. The Emmaus story shows us the transition from seeing and not knowing, to knowing while no longer seeing, and how Jesus could be with all of us, even to the end of the age.
*For word nerds: krateo - to place under one's grasp (seize hold of, put under control), sometimes translated as 'arrested.'
Darren Shaw © 2020 The Word Tribe, all rights reserved
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