Their Eyes Were Kept from Recognizing Him
Dr. Rev. Fritz Ritsch
Easter Service • 2020
It is Easter day, but it’s actually not for me and this team prepping worship for you today. For us today is Thursday, and Easter Sunday is still ahead of us. Technically speaking, we are recording this on Maundy Thursday, the day of Jesus’ Last Supper, arrest and conviction. Tomorrow he will be executed. There are several days of bad news ahead, but we are recording this service with confidence that even though we haven’t seen it, and there’s a lot of bad news in between today and Sunday, nonetheless Easter will come on Sunday.
It is Easter day, too, for the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus in our Gospel, but they don’t know it. They are walking in the shadow of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. As our reading from Isaiah says, there is a
“shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations.”
That shroud is death itself. The death of Jesus has for them only confirmed the power of death over their lives, over the world. So they are walking a path by themselves on Easter day, possibly not just leaving Jerusalem but fleeing it out of fear; because there aren’t any Easter church bells ringing, and there aren’t any Easter worship services going on anywhere, and everyone they know is hunkered down in their homes and afraid. It seems like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have won the day.
Along the way, they meet a stranger. They actually know this so-called stranger, but they don’t recognize him, because social distancing makes it so hard for them recognize others in those difficult days, or even to look at them too closely.
The two disciples wonder at this stranger who doesn’t seem to have gotten the news about how toxic things have become. They tell him about Death’s victory over hope. They also tell the stranger about the mysterious report of the women who went to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty and claimed an angel had told them Jesus was alive. These two disciples view this as the unkindest cut of all. Silly, empty-headed people running around offering false, made-up hope is the worst thing they can imagine at this time. It only makes them feel angrier and more helpless.
This stranger, though, has an air of expertise. He assures them that they are right to hope, that the promises of Scripture are true, that despite the appearance of the victory of death over life, the opposite is true; that though it looks like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday have won the day, Easter is sure to come. They mustn’t lose hope, because the resurrection is certain. He assures them of the promises of Isaiah,
God will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for our God, so that we might be saved.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in the Lord’s salvation.
If you have patience, if you wait, that day will come, the stranger assures them. If you have patience, if you wait, you will be saved. God is the God of resurrection.
In our reading from Luke, only one of the two disciples is named, Cleopas. But there is a strong scholarly opinion that the unnamed disciple is actually Cleopas’ wife, who is named Mary. We are told in the Gospel of John that Mary, the wife of Clopas, was with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross with Jesus. She was right there with him when Jesus died, right by his side. Can you imagine the thrill of hope she might have felt, hearing this stranger’s words?
Excited, they invite the stranger to join them at an inn for dinner, and he accepts.
And then, at that table—in many ways the very same table we have set in this sanctuary today—he breaks the bread and they realize, to their amazement, to their wonder, to their joy, that they’d been in the presence of the resurrected Jesus and they hadn’t realized it. He’d told them that if they had patience, if they waited, if they trusted, Jesus would rise and Easter would come. What they hadn’t realized was that what was to come was already here, and that the resurrected Lord had been with them the whole time. Right then, when they thought that they were trapped in an eternal Good Friday, it had been Easter all along. What they hadn’t realized was that even though there weren’t bells ringing, or Easter egg hunts, or corporate worship services to recognize it, it was still Easter day. And from then on it would always be Easter day.
They told the other disciples later, “Were not our hearts burning within us[f] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Their hearts were burning because they knew, deep in their hearts, that even though there was no evidence of Easter around them, it must still be true. They had feared it wasn’t but still hope had burned in their hearts. All the stranger had done was confirm it. They didn’t need an official day on the calendar or a national holiday for Jesus to be resurrected because they knew it in their hearts.
A few years ago, a mom came to me with a story about her four or five-year-old daughter. Easter was coming at the end of the week and the daughter was very excited because she knew that that was the day Jesus would rise from the dead and she’d get to meet him! Mom realized the poor kid had heard all the talk about “Jesus rising on Easter Day,” and had taken it literally. She expected Jesus literally to rise on that upcoming Easter morning.
I’d never thought about that as a problem with the way we memorialize events as if they are happening right now. I am talking as if today is Sunday when it’s literally Thursday; as if today is Easter when in fact as I am recording this, you are likely watching our Maundy Thursday service on your computer. We announce that Jesus has risen from the dead today when historically, literally, that actually happened about nineteen hundred and ninety years ago. Jesus’ resurrection is a literal event but getting too literal about it could actually damage our faith when we most need it. Think of Cleopas and Mary. They are so literal about the fact that Jesus died that they can’t see the risen Jesus right before them.
Right now in this Covid-19 crisis we’re fighting an unseen enemy, and the problem is that this enemy has created quite visible problems—like churches unable to worship, like staying at home distancing us from one another, like millions of people applying for unemployment. It’s also caused thousands of deaths, but we aren’t seeing that so much, at least not yet. There’s evidence that all those literal, visible problems are making us impatient. Covid-19 doesn’t seem real, but all these other problems do. We want to forget all the protections and get back to our lives.
But we can’t give in to that. The enemy may be unseen, but it can kill.
And so it’s vital for us to have an equally invisible, but just as real—arguably more so—hope. Faith, the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” We gather today at the Table of our Lord. It is the same table as Cleopas, Mary, and Jesus were seated at when it was revealed to them that the stranger in their midst had been the risen Jesus. But of course, we’re not literally gathered—all of us are scattered all over creation and even watching this service at different times from one another. And we certainly aren’t at the literal table where Cleopas and Mary sat, any more than we are literally at the table for the Last Supper, any more than we are participating in the first Passover meal that the Last Supper was commemorating. You are at church but obviously you aren’t because St. Stephen is closed for worship.
Sometimes we become depressed or distressed or angry because these literal manifestations of our faith aren’t the way we’d wish. We all wish we could literally be worshipping in the St. Stephen sanctuary—and we will, again. Deep in your hearts, you know that. In the meantime, you are worshipping at St. Stephen—because St. Stephen is in your heart. You are worshipping with your friends—because your friends are in your hearts. And you are having the Lord’s Supper and sharing its communion with one another and with God, because you don’t need a big building or to be surrounded by your friends to know that it’s true that you are in communion with them and with God. These things are true. They are truer than Covid-19 and will long outlast Covid-19. We don’t need to see the resurrected Lord to know that it’s true. We feel our hearts burning within us.
Isn’t this how it has always been for us? Whenever we are in a crisis—whenever we are tested—we don’t suddenly start demanding that the resurrected Jesus come down from heaven and personally hold our hand. We are satisfied that he is holding our hand when a friend or a loved one is holding our hand. We are satisfied that he is with us when we find the strength to overcome impossible odds; or on the other hand, if we can’t overcome, we are satisfied that he is waiting for us on the other side.
I have sometimes had the oddest experience: people will say to me, “What you said that time meant so much to me, pastor.” Whatever it is, I don’t remember saying it. But they heard it anyway. They heard it because Christ was there, and he knew what they needed to hear. The Christ in me may not have said it, but the Christ in them heard it.
We don’t have to have the church bells ringing and the throngs in the pews to know that Easter is here, and that Jesus is raised from the dead. We don’t need the literal presence of the risen Jesus to know that he will see us through to the other side of this crisis. We don’t need an Easter day in order to be Easter people. We know that the risen Jesus is with us. We know it because our hearts are burning within us.