My father had a knack for running into people he hadn’t seen in a long time, and in unexpected places. It seemed like every few weeks he would come home from work or business travel with a story of someone he had met on the sidewalk or in a restaurant in New York, or in an airport waiting area. It could have been a childhood friend, someone he’d known from college or the Army, or even a former co-worker. Somehow, Dad was able to recognize the essential quality of a person – whether by their face or eyes or voice – even if it had been a long, long time since they had last seen each other. This ability fell into the category of what our kids used to call a “hidden talent” (as in, we all have a hidden talent), which served him very well in his work in public relations.
Inevitably, Dad’s reporting of these meeting to us involved not only the conversation they had, and catching up on news – some of it forty years old or more, and usually in a very brief space of time – but it also involved some reminiscing about how he first knew the person – some tidbit of their boyish hi-jinks, or a college prank, or a sailing experience, or the details of a business project they had worked on. His delight in telling these stories was obvious; he wanted us to share in the joy the encounter had given him.
In a secular sense, Dad was doing what the new definition of evangelism in the Episcopal Church is all about – some of you may have heard me talk about it when I came back from the Evangelism Matters conference a month ago. To refresh our memories, here’s the definition again: “Evangelism is the spiritual practice of seeking, naming, and celebrating the loving presence of Jesus in the stories of all people….and then inviting them to MORE!”
Dad was always on the lookout for people with whom he could make a connection or a recognition; he remembered their names and their stories; and then not only was he pleased to have seen the person again, but he shared the encounter with our family – seeking, naming, and celebrating, if you will.
In today’s Gospel reading, there’s a problem with recognizing – specifically, some of the disciples don’t recognize Jesus in his resurrection body. It is the night of Easter day. In Luke’s telling of the resurrection, the women who had been with Jesus even during the ministry in Galilee had gone to the tomb early in the morning with spices to anoint his body. When they arrived, the stone was rolled away, and two figures in white told them that Jesus was not there, that he was risen. They didn’t see Jesus then, but went back to the place where the small band of followers were staying, and reported to the apostles what they had seen and heard – what they had been witness to. But their report was dismissed, “seeming to the apostles an idle tale”; women in the first century, after all were not considered to be reliable or credible witnesses for legal matters.
Later that afternoon of Jesus’ followers – one called Cleopas – were walking out of the city to the village of Emmaus, and on the way they met a stranger with whom they talked all about their distress and sorrow over the death of Jesus, and now the strange account of his body being missing. The stranger talked with them all about what the Scriptures had to say about the Messiah, but it was only when they stopped for dinner and their guest blessed and broke the loaf of bread for their meal that they recognized Jesus, who then disappeared from their sight. So Cleopas and his companion rushed back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that they had seen, and spoken with, and walked with Jesus. The others had their own news: Jesus was risen and had appeared to Simon Peter.
And in the midst of all of this, Jesus himself stood among them. What was their reaction? They weren’t joyful, they weren’t celebrating; they were startled and frightened, thinking that they were seeing a ghost. But Jesus made it very clear that he was no ephemeral spirit, but had flesh and bones and was able to eat. Even more importantly, Jesus spent time reminding them of the story he had been telling them all along, reminding them of the Scriptures, and God’s purposes. He told them that they were witnesses to all that had happened – every one of them – and that they had a role in making known these events and the meaning behind them to the rest of the world.
This transition from being followers to being witnesses to the Resurrection had a rocky start: the women didn’t recognize the meaning of the empty tomb without a word from the angels, and the male disciples didn’t recognize the meaning, either; the two disciples on the road didn’t recognize Jesus until he was breaking the bread – a flashback, perhaps, to so many meals they had shared together, especially the Last Supper; and then the whole assembled company didn’t recognize Jesus when he came and stood among them.
How good are you at recognizing Jesus in your midst, the Risen Christ? Do you think to look for Christ’s presence in a variety of ways: in prayer? in Bible reading? in your relationships? in your conversations with others? in the suffering of the poor, the sick, the down-trodden, the marginalized? in the beauty of creation and the arts? There are many things that can keep us from recognizing Jesus – not that least in our modern-day reality of living life at warp-speed. I think many times we rush right past Jesus, never even thinking to keep an eye for him, and then we wonder why we don’t seem to see him. I’m not talking about seeing with our physical eyes, as the disciples were able to in the post-resurrection/pre-ascension period were able to – although I certainly wouldn’t rule that possibility out.
Most often, I believe, we are asked to recognize the Risen Christ through his felt-but-unseen presence in the very human-yet-divine activities of comforting, healing, strengthening, advocating-for, teaching, standing-up-for, creating, helping to restore broken lives, caring for Creation, respecting the dignity of all people, being a loving and true presence – activities we are all called to engage in, especially in relationship to other people.
We need to practice seeking the presence of Christ; recognizing or naming the presence of Christ (Yes, that is what is going on; Jesus is here); celebrating the presence of Christ – being glad, giving thanks. And we need to seek, name, and celebrate the loving presence of Jesus in our own lives, our own stories, and in the story of Scripture just as much as we seek, name, and celebrating the loving presence of Jesus in the stories of others. Recognizing the Risen Christ in our own lives will give us practice and skills in recognizing him in the lives of others.
We are the current generation of disciples. The commission that Jesus gave his followers on Easter night has not changed with the passage of time; we are not off the hook. We are to be witnesses to the power and purpose and promise of God in Christ, just as we vow in our baptismal covenant: ‘Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? I will, with God’s help.’
So, practice this week. See how many times you can see and know and feel and recognize the loving presence of Jesus in what you do and say, and in situations in which you find yourself. And when you recognize the Risen Christ, when you meet him on the road or in the breaking of the bread or in a conversation – tell someone else; share that story with a friend or a family member - and celebrate the loving presence of Jesus in your life.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, give us eyes to see you, ears to hear you, hearts to love you, voices to praise you, and minds to be awakened by you, so that we may know that you are our companion in the way, revealed in Scripture, in the breaking of bread, and in the stories of all people. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday of Easter
April 15, 2018