Why Didn’t They Recognize Jesus?
by Carol Howard Merritt
Gospel Reading: Luke 24:13-35
For Sunday, May 8, 2011: Year A - Easter 3
I was reaching for the handle of the lobby door when I saw the back of his head through the glass. I gasped for breath and my heart started beating faster. I was elated and scared all at the same time. The split-second sight of Phil touched an emotional response deep within me, and it took a couple more seconds for my intellect to catch up. My mind collided with my gut when Phil turned around.
It wasn’t him. It was someone else entirely. That made sense, and I felt better, even though the exhilaration drained from me.
I had been “seeing” Phil everywhere. Even though he had been dead for a month, I didn’t want to believe it. He committed suicide when he was so vital and strong. Phil was at the beating heart of every party, so I couldn’t quite imagine him, still and lifeless, in the bottom of that Jeep. When his life was cut short like that, it was so tragic that my head kept playing games on me. I would recognize him in a crowd moving onto the elevated train, or he would be standing at the back of the bus during rush hour, or he would be waiting in the lobby of our apartment building. Just as quickly as I would recognize him, his face would vanish and morph into another man’s visage.
This time in my life always comes up when I read this passage of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. I imagine Jesus’ friends with that same trauma, the disorienting grief, not quite believing the reports of the women who bravely watched Jesus die. Then the men weren’t sure if they could believe the women when they said the tomb was empty either. The disciples seemed to be confused, afraid for their lives, missing their friend, and realizing that his life was cut short, along with their hopes for the Messiah.
Losing my friend and living through the bewilderment that followed, always makes me pause and wonder about this narrative. Why didn’t the disciples recognize Jesus? The gospel of John reports that Mary had a difficult time recognizing Jesus, and it was only after she heard her name on his lips that she realized he wasn’t the gardener. Thomas longed for the extra confirmation of feeling Jesus’ torn flesh. And here, Jesus is having a long conversation with two of his disciples. Even after hearing him for such a long time, even after the strange warming in their hearts, they didn’t recognize him.
Uncertainty & Incarnation
Does this uncertainty tell us about Jesus’ incarnation? Was there something about Jesus’ resurrected body that made him unidentifiable? The stories tell us that he was appearing in locked rooms and vanishing before the disciples’ eyes. Clearly, there was something different about Jesus’ flesh and blood.
Does the fact that the disciples did not recognize Jesus point to the nature of the revelation of God? Could it be that God could not be identified unless God reveals Godself?
Or is this passage telling us something about us? Is it showing us the nature of grief and how disorienting it can be? Kathryn Johnston, a pastor at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church, explained her answer in a tweet to me this way, “When grief and the dark of the valley engulf you, you cannot even see Jesus in front of your face. He’s there. Just. keep. walking.”
The Hardest Question
What do you think? Why couldn’t they recognize him?
Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church, an intergenerational congregation in Washington, D.C. Western’s deep commitment to serving the poor in the city has helped to initiate programs like Miriam’s Kitchen, a social service program for the homeless which provides a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner for over 200 men and women each weekday. Carol is the author of Reframing Hope (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church, (Alban, 2007). Carol is the co-host of God Complex Radio with Landon Whitsitt. And she blogs for the Huffington Post. Carol is a frequent conference speaker. Her blog is at TribalChurch.org.