The difference between knowing, hoping, and recognizing.
A sermon on Luke 24:13-35
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]
[Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash]
It’s a well-used idiom that sometimes we need to laugh, or else we’ll cry.
Today’s gospel offers us an invitation to laugh in the midst of a moment that was – at least for those whose story we hear – full of grief. The two disciples on the road were mourning, and also probably afraid. They had built their lives around certain expectations about who Jesus was and what he would do, and all of that now seemed to be in ruins. Their journey to Emmaus was a journey of defeat. The mission was over. The dream was lost. They were going home because… where else was there to go?
And in the midst of this scene of despair, we – the readers – are invited to laugh! Perhaps that invitation is not obvious to us, but it would have been to Luke’s first readers, who would have recognized the conventions of Greek comedy in the set-up of the scene: Following a familiar pattern, the “audience” is in the know, and invited to enjoy the bumbling of the comic character who thinks he understands everything, although he is actually woefully uninformed.
The laugh line in this story comes in verse 18, when Cleopas asks, incredulously “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place here in these days?”
It’s funny because he’s the one who “doesn’t” know what’s going on. Obviously, Jesus does know. It all happened to him, not to mention that he has been in on the plot twist from the very beginning. And we, as the readers, also know, because Luke has told us that it’s Jesus they are talking to. Even the disciples who stayed back in Jerusalem know by this time that Jesus has risen, as will be clear by the end of this story.
The only people who don’t know the full story are Cleopas and his companion – the very ones who express shock and derision about the ignorance of the supposed stranger… who is really Jesus. Cue laughter.
But, to use another familiar phrase, “it would be funny if it weren’t so true.”
The fact is, we can too-easily recognize this pattern of human behavior. We know what it’s like to feel scared and disoriented by events beyond our control, by circumstances that dismantle all of our expectations about how life is supposed to go. And so, we know what it’s like to look for any source of certainty we can find, however bitter. We bolster our fragile sense of security by convincing ourselves that – actually – we are the ones that know what’s going on.
Whether it’s obsessive consumption of the latest news, or grasping onto conspiracy theories, or derision of the guidance of experts, or even a commitment to think only positive thoughts, it’s human nature to try to reassure ourselves that we have the truth and perspective that others lack. We are not the ones who need to feel uninformed and vulnerable during a time of anxiety and uncertainty. We understand why these two disciples would shrink back from fear and confusion and build up walls around their shattered sense of safety by assuming superior knowledge. We all have that same instinct.
But, perhaps – if we are willing to move past instinct to self-reflection – we also know that these efforts to make ourselves feel secure trap our pain and fear with us inside the walls of false assurance.
Perhaps the two disciples know that too… They start their encounter with Jesus with the scripted laugh line, the false claim to superior knowledge and understanding that we know to be misplaced. But then, they veer off script. A crack appears in their self-protective armor and they let their pain and disorientation show:
“But we had hoped…”
In those four words they confess their LACK of understanding, their confusion and disappointment. They shift from a posture of derision to one of vulnerability. They let the unrecognized Jesus see their pain and hopelessness. They admit that they have lost their mooring and now don’t know what to think and do.
And that shift is what opens the door for what comes next. In admitting that they don’t understand, they let go of the false security of derisive superiority. Without their armor, they are open to learn.
And Jesus is ready to teach them. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
That must have been quite a Bible study! I’ll admit that at times in my life of faith I have had moments of pretty intense jealousy for these two disciples … imagining what it would be like to have JESUS open up the scriptures to me like that. I would understand so much!
But that’s the temptation for certainty sneaking in again, isn’t it? The desire to possess the secret knowledge that will give me greater insight than everyone else.
And one of the most powerful things about this gospel story is that the illuminating Bible study, taught by Jesus himself, is NOT THE POINT! Presumably, Luke could have shared at least the highlights of Jesus’s teaching in his telling of this story, if insight and understanding was what mattered.
But he doesn’t, because the theological exposition is not what matters. Recognizing Jesus is. And the recognition doesn’t happen in the acquiring of knowledge about how the scriptures explain the life and ministry of Jesus. The recognition happens in the simple, daily task of blessing and breaking bread. It happens in the welcome of hospitality, and in the intimate moment of shared need for nourishment.
It’s not special knowledge that lets the disciples recognize their friend and Lord – even though their hearts had burned within them as he taught them. Rather, it’s in the mundane act of taking bread from him hand, after he had asked God’s blessing. It’s in the moment that is accessible to any of us who are willing to recognize our need. Need for food. Need for blessing. Need for Jesus’s simple presence… whether or not we understand how it is that he can possibly be present with us.
This powerful scene begins with a trope, with a comedic character set-up to provoke our scorn and laughter. But in the end, when the two disciples realize that the joke was on them all the time, it doesn’t matter. They show no chagrin. No embarrassment. They dropped their defenses on the road when they admitted their fear and need, when they voiced the pain of “but we had hoped.”
And when they finally recognize Jesus, they recognize that their hope was not in vain after all. His death and resurrection were not what they had hoped for, but they were what they needed. And what mattered was not how much they understood. What mattered was that Jesus was there for them, in the simple moments of daily life.
As he is for us.
Thanks be to God.
 The following sources were instructive in the crafting of this sermon: Amy-Jill Levine & Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Debie Thomas, “But We Had Hoped,” lectionary essay for April 26, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2616.