Seeing Christ Aright

Mark Bratton
Sunday 04th May, 2014

Easter 3A: Acts 2:14a; 36-41; Luke 24: 13-35

We’re meant to be reading through Matthew’s Gospel this year, so you may (or may not) have been surprised over the last few weeks to discover that our readings have largely come from John’s Gospel, and, today, from Luke’s Gospel. Isn’t this a little unfair on Matthew? There is an explanation. We are in the Easter season or Easter-tide as it is sometimes called, when our attention is directed to the good news that Jesus has drawn the sting of death by the Spirit’s act of power in raising him from the dead and what it means for our lives. The problem is that there isn’t a great deal about the risen Jesus in Matthew, and even less in Mark. Most of the post-resurrection stories are found in the Gospels of John and Luke, and it is from the latter that we draw this remarkable story of an encounter with risen Christ by a group of companions on the road from Jerusalem, located approximately 7 miles northwest of Jerusalem. It shares the same mysterious and elusive qualities as the two Gospel stories from John 20 – the story of Mary at the garden of the tomb on Easter morning and the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ which was the set reading last Sunday. They each seem to share a common theme – for in each there is a strange shift in consciousness from non-recognition or misrecognition of the risen to Jesus to a knowing encounter with Jesus in his risen existence.

How do we come to recognise the risen Jesus? Christianity makes an incredible claim. It proclaims that God Almighty, the Creator and Framer of the Universe, became part of the created order, taking on human nature, living a human life, dying an excruciating death at the hands of sinful men and women. The Church testifies that by an act of the Spirit’s power, God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, appearing to Mary, Peter, the other disciples, and over 500 others on 11 separate occasions; and that by His Spirit, God in Christ continues to be present with us and promises to be so to the end of the age. But there is a problem that has attended this momentous claim from the very outset. It’s what philosophers call an epistemological problem. How can we know? How do we know this outrageous claim is true? How can we possibly tell, at 2000 years distance, that this otherwise gifted Palestinian Jew really did conquer death itself and that we should place our trust in Him, follow him, and become like him – in life, in death, and beyond? Even the Gospels testify that when Jesus appeared to the crowds after his death, ‘while many believed, some doubted.’ And the Apostle Paul was clear about the implications of this great claim not being true when he says to the congregations at Corinth: “if Christ has not been raised, you faith is future; you are still in you sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

The difficulty is that we can’t achieve the certainty we seek by normal means. We can’t reproduce Jesus’ resurrection experimentally because it was a unique event. All we have is the testimony of the Gospels and the New Testament. But why should we accept that as authority? There was once a caption for an advert for a dog food – Pedigree Winalot – which ran "surely generations of dogs can’t be wrong!". Christianity has a long history – surely generations of Christians can’t be wrong. Well, actually, they could. And the same goes for other great religious traditions about their central truths.. From the very beginnings of Christianity there wasn’t universal consensus about Jesus’ identity and significance. This is clear from the Gospels, let alone Church history. Was he Elijah come back to life, or one of the prophets – John the Baptist even – or God himself? Even in the Gospels, Jesus is a constructed figure, interpreted in different ways. Christians debated for centuries whether Jesus was a man with unique access to God or God Almighty in human form, who was right thinking or orthodox, and who was ‘beyond the pale’ or heretical.

“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 his glory?” (Luke 24: 24: 25-26).

One of the reasons the testimony of the Gospels has authority for me is that they have the ‘ring of truth’ about them – the Gospels don’t have the contrived or fantastical quality of some of the other literature that was circulating in the early centuries of Christianity. The Gospels have mysterious and elusive qualities about them that lead me, at least, to believe, that their authors weren’t ‘cooking the books’. They make it possible to chart the path from non-recognition to recognition of the risen Christ in compelling terms, and nowhere more clearly that in this story of the Journey to Emmaus.

As with Mary in the Garden, here in this story, Jesus is not immediately recognised. Something about Jesus’ body has changed, but not so as to draw undue attention to himself, at least to start with. Human beings are very good at facial recognition. From birth, human babies possess an astonishing capacity for facial processing – mimicking the facial expressions of adults, reproducing similar muscular patterns in their own faces. Adults have a remarkable capacity for recalling the human face many years later, even after a fleeting glance. But human recognition is very closely linked to expectation. I often embarrass myself by failing to recognise people I know very well when I unexpectedly encounter them, as it were, out-of-context. And Jesus captures his companions on the Emmaus Road in the depths of disappointed expectation, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21). Another remarkable element of the story is the way the hearts of Cleopas and his companions “burn within them” as Jesus recounts to them the whole history of Israel in explaining to them why the Messiah had to die. This suggests to me that the act of recognition is not just a matter of something simply being delivered to sense experience, but rather something ineluctably bound up with expectation and interpretation. When Peter, in our reading from Acts, boldly declares to his Jerusalemite audience, "Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified”, he is presupposing a framework of understanding within which his claim would make sense. But the most intriguing element of this story is the finale. It is only in the breaking of bread that the scales fall from the eyes of his Emmaus companions, recognise Jesus: “When he 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 recognised him; and he vanished form their sight” (24:30, 31).

So there are these three elements on the path from non-recognition to recognition that are crucial in the experience of the companions: disappointed expectation; the opening of Israel’s scriptures and table-fellowship, the breaking of bread.

How do we recognise the risen Christ? How can we even know the Christian claim to be true? My short answer is that it takes practice. It involves turning up, receiving God’s word, and breaking bread together. “We see”, as the poet R.S. Thomas writes in his poem Suddenly, “not with the eye only, but with the whole of our being.” These practices purify and attune our spiritual senses, equipping them to register the presence of the risen Lord. And these practices are not undertaken in isolation, but within a community of practice, a community of mutual recognition, as we learn to recognise in each other the presence of the risen Christ who first recognises us. So let us in this season of Easter-tide commit ourselves to those practices through which we may see and believe. Let us commit ourselves to turning up, committing ourselves by taking our own Christian formation and education more seriously, and preparing ourselves to receive God’s word by opening the Scriptures and in the breaking of bread.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!!

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