“The Disappearing Christ”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Luke 24: 13-49
April 15, 2018
“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” – Luke 24:31i
This is what we know. Two men are traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus – about 7 miles or a 2½-hour walk. Jesus joins them but the two men do not recognize Him. They continue talking about what transpired in Jerusalem over the last few days and they are specific regarding the details. They thought Jesus was the promised Messiah only to have their hopes crushed by His crucifixion. We know Jesus reframed the situation and told them the Messiah had to endure all this pain and shame. We know that it was getting late. They arrived at where they were staying. The stranger appeared to be journeying on. They beseeched Him to stay with them because it was growing dark. The stranger takes them up on the offer and the group prepares dinner. The stranger prays over the bread and breaks it and as He does so, the two men realize they are in the presence of the risen Lord. We also know as soon as they recognized Jesus, He disappears from their sight. These are the facts as the author of Luke puts them forward.
By now you have come to realize that I often seize upon that part of the text that I don’t understand. I ask why it happened this way and not some other way. I want to find out what the text is trying to say to me and to us today. Here is the part I don’t understand, why did Jesus immediately disappear? I’ll come back to that.
I do understand why they wouldn’t recognize Jesus. They were there, in Jerusalem when it all came down. They knew Jesus was dead so this stranger, no matter how much He may have looked like Jesus, could not be Him. Right? Jesus is dead. I probably would not have recognized this stranger either.
Which begs a question. Why? I know for myself that I measure truth by what meets the expectations of my reason. It could not have been Jesus because in my modern mind, it doesn’t make sense. And you? Are you sure you would have recognized Jesus from the outset? Wouldn’t our skepticism get in the way of our belief? Notice the trade off. I have allowed my cultural bias to stand in judgment of what is possible for God. This is idolatry. I have made my own standard of truth greater than the One who is Truth.
Now I suppose we do this for our own sanity and security. I don’t want my children to follow some pied piper over the cliff of destruction because they think anything can be true. Some circumspection is needed. But have I closed myself off from mystery? Have a diverted my eyes from anything that does not meet my standard for truth? Have I become blind to the Christ we stands and walks with me because I, like these two travelers to Emmaus, can’t see beyond my own preconceptions of truth? I believe this will be my challenge. I need to make mystery and miracles a part of how I see the world or I may be blind to God’s presence in the world.
But note what happens in this passage. God gives them just enough. Indeed, it is at the very point when they realize that the One before them is the risen Jesus that Jesus disappears.
Is that where you and I live today? I have seen enough. I have listened to many. I have seen people change. I have seen enough evidence to affirm the risen Lord. But this Jesus to whom I have given my life, does not stand before me. Like the two who traveled long ago, the physical Jesus has disappeared. Is this not true for us all? We may say that Jesus walks with us, but our language is meant figuratively. His spirit is in our midst. His actual body is not.
But the disappeared Jesus is not a limitation of Christ’s power in our lives. Indeed, I argue that the disappearance of Jesus deepens our faith and the power of our message. Why do I think this way?
Look at what happens to our two travelers. They encouraged the stranger to stay with them because night was descending. Didn’t we say that it was a 2 ½-hour hike to Jerusalem? So what do they do? Do they stand with their jaws open? Do they take a seat and try to make sense out of what just happened? No. They get up and do what they said the stranger shouldn’t have done. They journey in the dark to Jerusalem.
Suppose Jesus had not disappeared. I know I would have had more than a few questions to ask Him. And how comforting it would have been in the presence of Jesus who just proved not even death could hold Him. How safe. How warm. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else but in His presence. I would have gone nowhere. But Jesus did not stay. “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Had Jesus not disappeared there would have been no movement forward, only a desire to preserve the present moment.
Within the life of the Spirit, there is a danger that we will want to remain in God’s presence while forgetting God’s purpose. We will come to fall in love with an emotional high and become motionless. This is not what God intended. It is not what God accepts. Remember when Jesus was transfigured? His clothing became dazzling white and Moses and Elijah appear and stand with Jesus? What did Peter, James and John want to do? They wanted to cling to the moment, to commemorate the event; they wanted to build little shrines to preserve the moment. They were tempted to do what many good Christian want to do – form a building committee, build a church and forget their purpose. But Jesus would have none of it. No building. Just purpose. They came down off that mountain and immediately Jesus heals a soul in need. Being a Christian without a mission is like trying to start a fire without the needed fuel.
It is important to remember that in Goethe’s Faust the soul of Faust is to belong to the Devil when of any moment Faust is willing to say, ‘Ah, moment, stay: thou art so fair.'”1
The Christian faith requires a living faith.
So Jesus disappears and we wonder “why.” I would offer this:
- You cannot follow Jesus if He remains in your presence. They are only really challenged to follow the risen Lord when they no longer posses Him.
- To believe you have captured Jesus is to be captured by the Devil. What evil fears are those who know they have work to be done – the crooked is to be made straight, the mountains of resistance to the will of God are to be brought low, the uneven ground of crippling doubt is to be made smooth and the Church is to unfurl its banners and serve as a voice for the voiceless and a champion of the poor. You want to walk with Jesus to Emmaus and then cling to Him when your eyes are opened? Satan will help you seize Him. The most important word in the Great Commission is one of the smallest:
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
The greatest word is “go.”
My friends, we should never lament the disappearing Jesus. Our task is to go and find Him in our service. Let us pray…
1 Middleton, Robert G., Sermon, “The Creative Approach to Change,” Malden, MA, September 25, 1983
i Luke 24:13-49
13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
36While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. 44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”