Almighty Father, who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord: give us such knowledge of his presence with us, that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life and serve you continually in righteousness and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE collect for this Sunday takes its central idea — sight of the risen Lord and confidence in “his presence with us” — from John’s description of Jesus’s appearance to the disciples on the evening of the day of resurrection (John 20.19-20). Their gladness at seeing the Lord is a corporate and indestructible joy, as they recognise a promise come true (John 16.20-24).
Luke brings the disciples to the same recognition by a slower and more tortuous route. Although, like John, he is connecting earlier events to this new experience, the kind of seeing which he sets out to evoke depends less on the eye than on a visceral level of perception. In fact, he goes as far as saying that the eyes of Cleopas and his companion “were kept from recognising” the stranger who fell into step with them on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.16). That blockage will turn out to be the pivot on which the inexhaustibly compelling story of the encounter turns.
In the mean time, the stranger has the opportunity to hear the two men’s version of recent events in Jerusalem, leading up to the death of the prophet. He hears their bleak admission that their hope for the redeemer of Israel had come to nothing. There had been one last flicker of optimism, when the women of Jesus’s circle went to the tomb found it empty, and heard from angels that he was alive (Luke 24.23). “But”, Cleopas concludes poignantly, “they did not see him” (Luke 24.24).
This is Jesus’s cue to reinterpret the men’s account of his earthly ministry as a failed project, and to help them see differently. Tellingly, Jesus does not suggest that their limitation is a matter of comprehending facts. Instead, he comments wryly that they are “slow of heart” (Luke 24.25). At every stage, scripture had been fulfilled, and the story had not ended. They had witnessed the suffering; now the Messiah was about to “enter into his glory” (Luke 24.26).
Still they fail to recognise more in their fellow-traveller than the needs of another human being for food and shelter as daylight begins to fail. Their eyes are not “opened” until he assumes the part of host, and, instead of waiting to be offered bread, takes bread, breaks it, and blesses it (Luke 24.30-31).
Ordinary seeing comes into it, but it is secondary to the recognition that joins this breaking and blessing to the actions of Jesus at the meal they had shared a few days previously (Luke 22.19). At the very moment of seeing, Jesus vanishes, and the two men are once more left pondering their experiences and wondering how they could have missed the knowledge that was growing as they walked: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?” (Luke 24.32).
Word and sign, feeding and blessing, have come together in this extraordinary scene, as Luke steers his readers towards an understanding of what it means to be part of a community whose most vivid shared reality is the breaking of bread. For this first generation of believers, it is there that they should expect to see Jesus. “Stay with us” (Luke 24.29) changes from an invitation to make an overnight stop to a prayer of invitation to take up a permanent place in the human heart.
Luke returns to the heart, as Peter continues his Pentecost speech in Jerusalem. He, too, is reinterpreting scripture. His audience must also learn to see Jesus differently: as the Lord whom David hails as worthy to sit at the right hand of God (Acts 2.34-35, Psalm 110.1).
Peter does not stop with the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. He repeats the accusation of responsibility for Jesus’s death (Acts 2.23), only this time it is direct and personal — not “this man”, but “this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2.36).
Suddenly, the crowds around him make the unavoidable connection. The Messiah had been in their midst, and they had shouted for his death. In coming finally to see this, they had seen the unacceptable side of themselves. “They were cut to the heart” (Acts 2.37).
Their anguished condemnation of themselves is also the place where true conversion of the heart can begin. Peter, in urging them to “repent and be baptised” (Acts 2.38-39), sets out the pattern of hope on which the Church will be founded. God’s promise of salvation is for all, confirmed in this sign of baptism, and celebrated each time the baptised meet to break bread (Acts 2.43-47).
Dr Bridget Nichols is a freelance scholar.