Recognising Jesus – a reflection on the road to Emmaus

I wonder if you have ever had that experience of seeing someone familiar, and just not quite being able to place them. You know you know them from somewhere – but where? And what on earth is their name? I suspect it’s an experience we’ve all had, perhaps some of us more frequently than others. I know it used to happen to me all the time when I was a youth worker, working in a lot of different schools. I would see a child out of school – and, more crucially, out of school uniform – and just not quite be able to place them.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognise Jesus as he walks with them. We don’t know what they were thinking as they walked – was there something familiar about this stranger? Were they sure they knew him from somewhere, but couldn’t quite put their finger on it? And we don’t know why they didn’t recognise him. Was it simply that they really didn’t expect to see him? Was his appearance changed in some way? We can only imagine

Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple still don’t recognise Jesus as they talk with him. This is, to me, perhaps more surprising. As he asks them questions – Jesus whom they have heard asking questions so many times before, big questions which must have left them pondering – they do not recognise him in his questioning. And as he teaches them about the scriptures – Jesus whom they have heard teach so many times before, from whom they have learned so much – they do not recognise him in his teaching.

When they do recognise him, it in another action they have seen him do before: “in the breaking of the bread.” And not only the breaking of the bread, but in the four-fold action of taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing. This, the disciples recognised. Not only from their very recent meal in the Upper Room, but also perhaps from the feeding of the 5,000, and from who knows how many ordinary, everyday meals with Jesus, of which we have no record. It is in this familiar action that the disciples finally recognise the risen Jesus.

And once they have recognised him, they see their encounter with him differently. With the great benefit of hindsight, they see afresh their conversation with him on the road. I wonder how many of us recognise this experience, of realising only in retrospect where and how we have encountered Jesus? I suspect quite a lot of us. And recognising Jesus’ presence with us only after the event is no failure on our part. As we see from a whole host of stories – from this one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to the Roman Centurion’s belated realisation that “truly, this man was the Son of God” – it is part of a pattern of hiddenness and revelation, recognition and unveiling, which is common to the way God makes Godself known.

“Recognise” is an interesting word. It comes from the Latin roots ‘re’, meaning ‘again’, and ‘cogito’, meaning ‘to know’. To recognise is to know again. The disciples recognising Jesus in the breaking of bread know him again, perhaps know him in a new way, know him as risen. We might be reminded of the quote from T.S. Eliot which Al shared in his introduction to our Easter Sunday ‘Trees of Life’ material:

‘We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.’

This is an Easter kind of recognition. It is both a knowing again, and a knowing anew. The disciples both recognise Jesus as the friend whom they thought they had lost forever, and recognise him as the risen Christ. He is both strange and familiar to them. In some sense, even in their recognition, they are knowing him ‘for the first time’. And not only knowing Jesus afresh, but perhaps understanding afresh all that they have learned from him and experienced with him.

But this recognition is not, primarily, to do with understanding. It is a different and deeper knowing than that. This is primarily a knowing of the heart, rather than the head. Hearts are important here. “How foolish you are and slow of heart” says Jesus to the uncomprehending, unrecognising disciples. And then “were not our hearts burning within us?” they ask one another in their moment of recognition. Recognising Jesus for who he is is much more a recognition in the heart than the head (although we would be foolish to think the two can be entirely separated).

We may want to pause for a moment here and ask: when and where and how have we recognised Jesus in our own lives and experiences? When are the times that our hearts have burned within us? When are the times that we have looked back and recognised God in an experience in which we didn’t see God at the time? And where are the places and situations where we still need our eyes to be opened, to see afresh, to know again, the presence of Jesus where we least expect him?

There is something significant here about this moment of recognition occurring in the context of the disciples’ hospitality to the unrecognised Jesus. As we sometimes say in church in our eucharistic prayer: “Jesus was often a guest”. It is as a guest that the disciples receive him and recognise him. But he is also, in taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the bread, inhabiting the role of the host. And these disciples, perhaps shaped by all the teaching they have heard from Jesus himself over the years, are not only ready to offer hospitality to this stranger, but also receptive enough to allow him to take a hosting role which might more properly be theirs.

It is in this that Jesus is recognised: both as guest and host, both as the one who receives his friends and is received by them, in a mutuality which subverts expectations and breaks down the binary distinction between guest and host. We, the church, would do well to learn from this. Very often, the church can be concerned with playing the host, with being the ones with resources to offer, the provider, the giver. More rarely, the church is able to see ourselves as guest, receiving the hospitality of our neighbours. What Jesus shows us here, and in so many places, is that this isn’t an either/or situation.

Jesus invites us to become less concerned with who is the guest and who is the host, whose territory we are on or who is in charge. Jesus is not to be found in concerns for status, hierarchy, or proper order (which is so often a cover for power misused). Instead he is recognised in the gentle subversion of divisions and distinctions, and in the sharing of daily bread.

This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ series:

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