1 Peter 1:17-23
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
I am really bad at both putting names to faces, and at simply remembering names. I may recognise a face and think “where have I seen that person before?” – you don’t want to be watching a film with me where I’m sure I know that actor from somewhere else…where was it? I’ve been teaching the same four classes of children at a school for three years now – and I still don’t know all their names. I’m ashamed to admit that there are people here in church whose names I have forgotten. Alternatively, I just don’t recognise someone who knows me. I suspect that often it’s because I am meeting that person out of context. I remember being in the centre of London one time, and a man I didn’t recognise said a very friendly hello to me, and asked how I was; I sort of recognised this person, but had no real idea who it was, so I made polite conversation and moved on. It was only at a parents’ evening a few days later that I realised it had been the father of one of the children in my class. I recognised him as little Freddie’s dad as soon as he walked into the classroom, because that’s where I expected to see him – but not in the centre of London.
I wonder if it’s for this reason that today’s Gospel story of the two travellers on the road to Emmaus, and also the story of Mary in the garden on Easter morning, are my two favourite stories of the Resurrection of Christ. Is something to do with the fact that in both stories the protagonists don’t recognise Jesus, despite knowing him really well. It’s because they don’t expect to see him there, out of context, that they don’t recognise him.
Even with the angels telling her that Jesus is risen, Mary doesn’t recognise her beloved master when she meets him in the garden. Even with all the words spoken, all the scriptures explained to them, as they walked along the road, Cleopas and his companion still don’t recognise the stranger who was speaking to them. The way he spoke, the way he walked, the words he used, nothing made them think “Hang on, I know that voice! I recognise that person!” It wasn’t until they sat in a familiar place, and took part in a familiar routine, and heard the words spoken just a few days ago when Jesus shared his last meal with them, that they realised. They saw the Christ for who he was.
I think we have a clue to why there was a lack of recognition in those words “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” Cleopas, his companion, maybe the other disciples too, had not understood – even then, after everything Jesus had said and done – they hadn’t really understood what Jesus was about. There had been high hopes of a Messiah who would free Israel from the oppression of the Romans, who would bring the people victory, who would make Israel great again. This is what they had read and understood the Scriptures to be telling them, so it must be true. But this is not what God’s kingdom is about. This is not the Messiah that Jesus was. So they didn’t recognise him. As one commentator writes: If Jesus was the Messiah, he wasn’t very good at it. He had not behaved as he was expected to behave, and so people did not recognise him for who he was.
And we can sit back in our pews, and settle ourselves, and smile forgivingly at these poor people who misunderstood everything and be comfortable in the fact that of course we know the truth about God, and who God is, don’t we?
But therein lies the problem. Because if we look back at the history of the Church, full of people who knew about God and understood what God desires of us, we see the Inquisition, and the Crusades, and the pogroms against the Jewish people, and the vilification of Muslims, and the support of Nazi Germany, and silence over genocides, and oppression, and injustice…are we not in danger of exactly the same thing? Are we not in danger of having our own view of who or what God is, and how God behaves, that we do not recognise Jesus as he is, in our neighbour, in the Muslim refugee, in the poor, the oppressed, the lonely…?
As I was researching this sermon, I came across a story which really annoyed me. It was a pastor who told it, saying that, as a young man, he was standing, lost, and confused outside Stuttgart station, unsure of where he had to go, and unable to speak German. A gentleman approached him, asked if he needed help, and showed him to the taxi rank. The man then proceeded to get in the taxi, to ensure the young man reached the correct destination and to pay for the taxi ride. The pastor finished by saying When that gentleman treated me, a complete stranger, so generously, I remember thinking; this man has to be a Christian.
But why? Why did he have to be a Christian? Why not a Jew, a Sikh, an atheist? Why did he immediately think that only a Christian could do such a generous thing? I believe that this pastor has a view of God that tells him only Christians can do the work of God. And if we subscribe to this view, then I believe we are in danger of missing seeing God and of serving God in the world.
I have used this metaphor before, but it is one that rings true for me: so many of us (including myself) want to put God in a box, so that we can say “God is this…and this…but God is not this…” Those who said We had thought Jesus was the one to redeem Israel, had put their Messiah into a particular box of what they thought it was about. They did not think that the Messiah was going to die crucified. So, they didn’t see Jesus for who he really was, and they didn’t recognise the Risen Christ..
Do our restricted, neatly-boxed-up views of what God is, of who God’s people are, keep us from truly recognising how God is working in the world today? And from recognising how we should be working for God? Are we like that young man, restricted to the thought that only Christians can be truly good people, deserving of God’s love? And if we do think that, how does it impact on our daily lives and relationships?
I also find it interesting that in so many of the Gospel stories of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection we have Jesus arriving, being recognised, and then moving on, leaving as mysteriously as he had arrived. He doesn’t linger, he rarely stays to chat. There is a purpose, there is an urgency. The resurrected Christ is now moving beyond the boundaries that humanity put upon him, and he calls us to do the same. God is not static, imprisoned by yesterday’s revelations and the church’s creeds and scriptures. God is alive and on the move, doing new things and sharing new insights with other pilgrims on the journey.
We too are asked to do this: we are asked to preach the living, liberating, life giving love of God that is for all. And this can be uncomfortable, as we have to let go of our preconceived notions of who Jesus is, and who God is, and what that realisation asks of us. We have to let go of everything we think we know about God and be prepared for the wildness of the untamed Holy Spirit to take hold of our lives. The Resurrection of Christ, and what that means for the world, demands we come out of our comfort zones and it calls us to the open road, spiritually, ethically, and sometimes physically.
It also calls us to forget what you think you know about what God wants for this Church, for you. That will only keep you from recognising the true Christ and what he wants. Let’s not be those who say: We had hoped…for a priest who preaches well…a priest who can support themselves…more money in our account…more people in the congregation…for a job that pays me a good salary…for something easy to do to serve God…not to have to share my faith too often…to sit quietly at home ignoring what God wants me to do…
Instead let us be like those disciples who returned to Jerusalem, with hearts burning with love as they recognised the Jesus who had come to them: the Jesus who asks us to love as he does, to serve as he does, to be open to everyone as he is. As Peter reminds us in Acts: God’s love is a promise for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him. And it is not for us to decide who God calls to himself, it is not for us to tell God which box he should stay in, and who he saves, or who he loves. Our job is to recognise Christ in one another and to love one another deeply from the heart.
And not only to recognise Christ in the people we know, but we need to be ready to recognise Christ out of context. To see him in the people, in the situations and places where we would not expect to see him. Because it is when we let go of our “We had hoped”s and our “We expected”s that God’s Spirit can truly start to set our souls alight as we recognise the true Christ.