How do we recognise Jesus? Do we expect him to look like we see him in our icons?
Icons are a very important part of our Orthodox tradition – so important that this First Sunday of Lent commemorates the restoration of icons in the year 843, after a long period of iconoclasm. But icons can also limit our ability and freedom to recognise Jesus! “When did we see you, Lord?” we might end up crying out, as they do in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46)
The answer Jesus himself offers in that parable is that we see him in the least of his brothers and sisters. But he is not only a brother to the least; he is also our brother. We need him as much as any of the least!
Let’s pick up the story of the Emmaus walk on that first Easter afternoon, from where we left off last week. The two disciples are walking to Emmaus and Jesus joins them on the road, but they don’t recognise him. They are sad and confused about what has happened to Jesus those last few days…
And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Walking with the two disciples, still unrecognised by them, Jesus responds to their sadness and confusion by going back to the scriptures – meaning, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The two disciples are intrigued by how this stranger understood the scriptures, so they ask him to spend the night at the inn where they are staying for the night. They sit down for dinner. And that’s where it happens. “He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them” – and their eyes were opened. They immediately recognised him – but just as immediately he vanished from their sight.
“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” Yes their hearts burned on the road, he touched them deeply as he opened their eyes to the meaning of the scriptures. But they only recognised him at the table, when he blessed and broke the bread and gave it to them. They immediately remembered how he did the same when he fed thousands, every time he sat down to eat with his disciples, and how he took the bread, blessed, broke it and gave it to them at the last supper.
It was at dinner that they recognised him. It’s always a dinner at the heart of Jesus’ teaching – a communal meal. We recognise Jesus when we are a community. When two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with you,” he promised. The two disciples going to Emmaus were two, and he came to them. We are two, three, fifty-three… We are a community, a communion – koinonia. Not just a community as an incorporated entity,. but a living organic communion of people – diverse in so many ways, but united by the presence and bread of Christ.
This past week I considered many reactions to the recent school shooting in Florida. One came in a New York Times column yesterday. The writer made an interesting connection between gun massacres and the opioid crisis. He concludes that the root cause of both crises is isolation. Specifically with respect to guns, over many years of research, he found the same description of assailants: a lost, isolated, unbalanced (usually white) young man with legal access to firearms. Isolated, rootless. And this NYT writer points to what is lacking: Community! “All this, in other words, is a community approach to a plague feeding on our isolation. Mass murder calls for the same.”
“A community approach”! When the “failing” New York Times starts talking about “community”, you know some important awareness is growing in our society of individualism. Drugs, mass shootings – “symptoms of our culture of isolation, in which we’ve lost the habit of collaborating with our neighbours.”
Dear friends, fellow believers in Christ Jesus. For many years my friend Leon Nicholas, a child of our churchcommunity and one of my altar boys years ago, has been telling me exactly the same thing: Rootless, isolated teenagers and young men are the ones most likely to go on a shooting rampage and the easy availability of deadly weapons makes it all too easy for them. Imagine, teenagers can’t drink legally but they can buy weapons of mass destruction. Of course they still drink – illegally – but that’s not an excuse for not changing some of the laws applying to gun purchases.
No, Leon has been right all these years that we have discussed social problems, and we talked again yesterday over coffee. Community is the key. An actual eucharistic community, that meets regularly, shares the same meal that Jesus shared with those disciples, and works together to manifest the grace and peace that only Christ can give. The peace that is beyond human understanding (Philippians 4:7).