Have you ever looked for something around your house, maybe your car keys or your glasses, only to discover after a long and frustrating search that they were right there in your hand or your pocket, or even on your face? We do have an uncanny ability to miss the obvious sometimes. In fact, a friend of mine swears by this principle when she plays hide and seek with her youth group. She insists the very best place to hide is right next to the seeker – who simply takes off after counting and never guesses she’s been sitting there all along. You can imagine how the seeker feels when he finally clues into his mistake.
I wonder if that’s something like the shock the two disciples felt when they finally realized who it was they’d been talking to along the Emmaus road. Why hadn’t they recognized Jesus sooner? Why did it take them so long to catch on?
Biblical commentators have come up with a number of interesting proposals to explain their difficulty. It was the blinding brightness of the setting sun in their eyes, they suggest, or maybe Jesus looked strikingly different after his resurrection. I wonder if it was something as simple as the fact that they weren’t expecting to see Jesus walking along beside them three days after his death. Let’s face it, it can catch us a little off guard to run into a colleague from work walking around Green Lake, or a classmate from high school standing in line next to us at the bank. Because we’re not expecting to see them in that context, it can take our brains a minute to catch up with our optical nerves. So I wonder: how long would it take me to notice that someone I last saw in a casket was sitting beside me on the bus?
Or maybe it wasn’t that simple. The text also says “their eyes were kept from recognizing” Jesus at first (v.16) and later that “their eyes were opened.” (v. 31) An extra-ordinary act of God could well be tucked behind the passive voice here. That hidden agent who first keeps them from seeing and then allows them to see. After all, how else could we explain Jesus’ quick disappearing act as soon as the two disciples finally do recognize him? So there may not be any perfect analogies in our own experience to this particular sequence of not seeing – seeing – not seeing.
But whatever the reasons for their lack of recognition, visually speaking, there’s also a deeper recognition issue at play here. Notice how much Jesus makes of the lack of understanding demonstrated by Cleopas and his friend. He calls them “foolish” and speaks of their “slowness to believe all that the prophets had spoken.” Perhaps they’d misunderstood something fundamental about the nature and the role of their Messiah. They’d certainly have been in good company if they found the news of the empty tomb hard to process.
Notice, too, that “a nice creative tension develops [here] as they wander down the road. It arises because according to [earlier verses in this chapter] the reports of the women had not convinced the disciples. [Of course] Luke’s congregations, hearing [Luke’s] story, know the resurrection has taken place. They (and we) comprehend a good deal more about what has happened than [do Cleopas and his companion]. We want to tell them – climb up on stage and whisper what we know or shout it!” Christ is risen! He’s standing right there!
But of course the two disciples are as deaf to our cries as they are blind to the identity of their companion on the road. Until . . . and notice what it is that finally prompts their understanding. When Jesus does something as ordinary as sitting down at a meal and breaking bread with them, then “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” We’ve been talking all fall about “Dinner with Jesus,” the many meals he shared with tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and disciples alike. Sitting around a dinner table together would have been a very familiar setting to the two who encountered Jesus along that Emmaus road. So I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that this is where they had their “aha!” moment. It may have been the familiarity of this simple action that struck a chord deep within them and triggered recognition.
What is it that triggers recognition in us, here and now? What is it that makes us aware of Christ’s presence in this place? It doesn’t need to be anything fancy or complicated. I can be the simplest of things. A prayer. A favorite Bible verse. An old familiar song. A splash of water on someone’s forehead. An ordinary looking loaf of bread and a pitcher of grape juice sitting on a table.
Remember that Jesus had already lectured, at some length, on the many references to himself throughout the Scriptures. It wasn’t that he hadn’t presented the material. But the two disciples didn’t actually clue in to who he was and what he was saying until he sat down with them and broke bread at their table. An ordinary act, to begin an ordinary meal, in an ordinary house, with ordinary folks. Nothing fancy. Just a simple meal. And it was then that they recognized their Lord.
And although these two disciples don’t seem to have been with the twelve at the Last Supper, Luke clearly invites his readers to reflect on that other important meal at this point in the story. The phrase “the breaking of the bread” becomes a catchword for the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the early church, as Luke’s gospel story continues in its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.
The good news in today’s text is that in spite of their “foolishness,” their “slowness of heart,” and their mistaken expectations, the two disciples who walked with Jesus from Jerusalem to Emmaus finally were enabled to recognize him. Their eyes were opened. And Luke says their hearts burned within them. One preacher talks about how Jesus transformed these two dis-heartened people, turning “weak hearts” into “burning hearts . . . ablaze with the good news of the gospel. Another aptly titles this episode “Holy Heartburn.” . . .
Just a couple more observations about today’s text…
First, this is one of a handful of stories we find at the end of the gospels about the resurrected Christ having something to eat. This is a big deal, because it shows us that after he had died, he came back in such a way that he was able to ingest food. The gospel authors want to make clear that the disciples hadn’t seen a ghost. Jesus was back in the flesh. Later in this same chapter in Luke’s gospel, we find him eating a piece of broiled fish. In John 21, he hosts a barbeque on the beach. And here in Emmaus, he sits down to dinner and breaks bread. That the disciples continued to have Dinner with Jesus following his resurrection is not coincidental, but actually quite significant to the story line.
Finally, I’m intrigued by the identity of the two disciples here in Luke 24. You may have been “a little surprised that Jesus appears to a couple of second- or third-string players” here. The fact that only Cleopas is mentioned by name, and that he is not identified anywhere else in the gospels, has puzzled readers for generations. Some of the more intriguing suggestions are that Luke himself was Cleopas’ companion, or else that the two were a married couple, the second disciple being Cleopas’ own wife. Unfortunately none of these proposals can be proven from the text. How fascinating that Jesus would appear for the first time after his resurrection (according to Luke anyway), not to any of the twelve disciples, or even to the women who went to the tomb, but to two of his lesser-known followers.
Kind of encouraging isn’t it? For it reminds us that the way of discipleship is open to each one of us. As Ruben Duran puts it: It “may be strange to you [at first], but . . .Christ will open your mind to understand his word. The word will be a light to your path, and his holy meal will sustain you on your journey. Why me, you say? Well, Jesus isn’t looking for supermen or wonder women. He is looking for ordinary people, open-hearted men and women, to receive God’s gifts of grace, forgiveness and love – and then [to] pass them on to others.”
May God grant to each of us ordinary disciples, in some familiar moment, clarity of vision and the “holy heart-burn” that comes from an encounter with the risen Lord. Amen.
 William Loader “First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary (Easter 3: 14 April, Luke 24:13-35)
 Ruben Duran, “Tranformed” (The Lutheran, 2001, Augsburg Fortress)
 Susan R. Andrews, “Holy Heartburn” Christian Century, April 7, 1999, p. 385.
 Bruce van Blair, The Believer’s Road: A Journey Through Luke, Mercer Island UCC Publications, 1990, p. 263
 See, for example, William F. Arndt’s summary of scholarly opinion on this matter, The Gospel According to St. Luke (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), p. 488
 G. B. Caird, (The Gospel of St. Luke, New York: Seabury Press, 1963) holds this view, p. 259. I. Howard Marshall also mentions it as one of several possibilities (The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978) p. 894.