When I was a hospital chaplain, it was often my role to accompany families into hospital rooms to see their loved ones for the first time after a sudden illness or injury. Very early on, I started to notice that almost invariably the first thing they would say upon entering the room was, “I don’t even recognize her” or “he doesn’t look like himself.” It happened so much I quickly learned to prep the family ahead of time, not only describing for them some of the medical equipment they would see, but to also tell them their loved one would look so different it may be hard to recognize them. But, no matter how well I thought I prepped them, the families would always look shocked when they saw a person they loved after something extraordinary had happened to them. On more than one occasion, families would question if the person lying in that hospital bed was even their loved one – ‘surely this must be someone else’, they would say or plead, to me.
Extraordinary experiences transform us. Not just our bodies but our presence and way of being in the world. Our bodies may carry wounds or scars, and we also may be more carefree or more thoughtful. We may need to talk and talk to process, or we may become quiet and reflective. Extraordinary experiences transform us. And something extraordinary had happened to Jesus, and I wonder if that is why the disciples had such trouble recognizing him.
Today’s story takes place the same day as the resurrection as told in the Gospel of Luke. Each Gospel includes a story of the risen Christ appearing to his disciples, and each of the stories are different. Today’s scripture from Luke tells of Jesus appearing to two of his disciples right after he had appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden. It was still Easter, but these two disciples did not know that. They were running away from Jerusalem in fear, leaving for Emmaus, hoping that they would not be recognized and persecuted there for being followers of Jesus. They were running away in fear, not trusting what they had heard about the empty tomb. So, with their heads bent down as they hurriedly walked the road to Emmaus, talking about the events of the last few days, wondering and fearing what would happen next, the stranger who started to walk alongside them may have been seen as a nuisance. Maybe they even viewed him with suspicion and fear. These two disciples were running away so they wouldn’t be persecuted, and any stranger they encountered along the way was likely viewed as someone who may cause them trouble. They had no idea they were walking with Jesus.
The scripture says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” So, I wonder, what kept their eyes from recognizing their savior right in front of them? Was it their fear? Were they more concerned that this person would give them away to the authorities as followers of Christ? Was it their grief? Their grief over the loss of the person who they thought would change everything, but who instead was murdered like a common criminal. It could very well be. Fear and grief do something to us. They make it harder to know what is up and what is down. Fear and grief put a veil over our eyes and make it difficult to navigate even familiar terrain.
Maybe it was their fear and grief. And maybe it was that the extraordinary events of crucifixion and resurrection had transformed Jesus in such a way that the person who was walking alongside them no longer could be recognized as the man they were following just a few short days ago. In all of the different post-resurrection appearance stories that we find in the Gospels, there is one common theme: people do not recognize Jesus. Not until he says or does something familiar. “Peace be with you” he said in last week’s lesson – a blessing and a prayer he had said for his followers before. For Mary Magdalene is was hearing him say her name,
saying her name like he had said it countless times. So, maybe it was grief and fear. But I tend to think the lack of recognition was because the person standing before them had been so transformed by the events that had happened to him, that he no longer resembled the person they knew before.
Beloved Community, we are going through an extraordinary event, and when we emerge from this we too will be transformed. But, what that transformation will look like for each of us is still yet unknown. Will we be more grateful, or will we eye each stranger we encounter with suspicion? Will we celebrate more easily, or will the grief and fear of these days settle onto our spirits permanently? This extraordinary moment in our lives will transform us. So, I wonder, will we be able to recognize one another? Will we recognize ourselves?
I stopped today’s scripture reading early. We will finish this story next week, and the disciples will finally recognize Jesus. But I stopped where I did this week because I want us all to sit for a little while in the uncertainty. In the time of unrecognition. I think it is important for us to consider how we, not only as individuals, but also as a worshipping community, will be transformed. We will emerge from this time, I am confident of that. But how we will emerge and how we will be transformed is not yet known. It is not yet known, but I believe we have within each of us the courage and conviction to decide what our transformation will look like.
As Easter people we are given that choice. We are given the promise that new life is possible. We are given the assurance that death is not the end, that the story goes on, even if it is impossible to imagine. We are Easter people, which means we are given the ability to embrace life by the love of God. So, rather than letting the grief and fear of these times be the markers that transform us, let us instead be transformed by the love and grace of God. Let us be transformed by that promise, assurance, and love – so we will be able to recognize one another by the way we reflect that love. By the way we care for our neighbors. By the way we care for creation. By how we greet strangers on the road. We are Easter people, so let’s embrace the transformation that means for each of us.
One afternoon, sitting with a family in an ICU as they stared at a young man who had been in a horrific accident – I witnessed what that transformation can do. This family, like nearly every family I encountered during that sacred work, didn’t recognize the man lying in the bed. It wasn’t him, they said. He is so full of life, the first to laugh, the first to help. This can’t possibly be him, they said over and over again. But, when that young man started to wake up, and his family started to notice him stirring, they stood over him, closely watching that unfamiliar, familiar face. And when he opened his eyes, and the smallest of smiles emerged on his lips, his mother exclaimed, “Now I recognize you!”
When we emerge from this extraordinary event in our lives, we will be transformed. We may be unfamiliar to ourselves and to one another. It may take us some time, we may even find ourselves walking alongside someone who we feel like we should know, but don’t quite recognize anymore. But, if we allow our identity as Easter people to be that which ultimately transforms us, then recognition will come more easily. When we emerge from this and the first thing we choose to do is smile, then we are choosing to allow God to be that which transforms us. It won’t be easy. The fear and grief of today will likely linger. But if we hold onto that promise of Easter, if we allow God to work in our hearts and spirits, then the veil that grief and fear has placed over our eyes will be lifted. So my prayer for all of us, you and me, and our entire world is that we will allow ourselves to be transformed by love. God wants to answer that prayer for each of us. And we can help to make that happen. We can give God the space God needs to transform us into beacons of that love, that promise we have as Easter people. We will
emerge from this extraordinary event, so let us be transformed, not by fear and grief, but by the love of God.
Let us pray:
God of love and new life – you have always sought transformation for our lives. You have always reached out to us with love so that we may reach back as mirrors of your image. You seek transformation for us, so help us now to embrace it. Help us to see past the fear and grief and focus on you. Help us to make room in our lives and spirits so that you have the space you need so we can better reflect your love of us, of one another, and of your entire creation.
God, we seek this transformation, but we also know it will not be easy. So much uncertainty exists now, and for many it is hard to see past this moment. When we are stuck, when the veil of grief and fear blur the road ahead of us, give us the strength we need. And when even familiar terrain feels unfamiliar, walk alongside us, guiding our steps, showing us the path that you have laid out for us.
On this day, we pray in particular for all those who are helping to reflect your love. For people who show up even when they are scared or feel as if they have no choice. For people who go to bed exhausted and wake up early to keep caring for others. For people who are teaching our children in ways never imagined before. For people who are growing and making our food. For faith communities who are finding new ways to worship you. We pray this day for those who are reflecting your love out into the world.
We pray all of this and so much more, in the name of Jesus Christ. Our risen savior, so transformed by your love that some in the world could not recognize him. We pray in his name because we are Easter people. And we pray, scattered but together, in the way he taught us by saying…