The desire to feel superior to other people is one of the most basic, and base, of all human temptations. What we call racism is one expression of this, as is sexism; another is cultural chauvinism. The ancient Greeks, for instance, considered anyone who didn’t speak Greek inferior. We see prejudice related to economic and social class. Perhaps the most insidious form, however, is what C. S. Lewis dubbed “chronological snobbery”: the belief that our age is wiser and more enlightened than those that came before, and that we are better people just for living now rather than in some earlier time.
This attitude is deployed by many modern folk against the word of God, and particularly against the accounts of the Resurrection. You will hear it snidely suggested that people 2000 years ago were ignorant and gullible folks who believed in miracles because they were too dumb to know better, but that modern science has proven that miracles don’t happen. The assumption seems to be that the people of Jesus’ day would have found it much easier to believe he rose from the dead than we do, and thus that it wouldn’t have been hard to fool them. This assumption is completely ludicrous.
The fact of it is, the ancient world knew death far better than our clinical modern age, because they lived with it much more closely than we do; people didn’t die out of sight in big antiseptic buildings, they died in their homes, right in the middle of their communities—and when they died, they stayed dead. There were no resuscitations, and there was no life support; people didn’t wake up from comas, because if they didn’t eat and drink on their own, there was no way to keep them alive. Resurrection? They knew better. Dead was dead, and that was that.
We see this in Luke 24. No one sees the empty tomb and assumes that Jesus is alive again. The women see it and are at a loss for an explanation, until the angels show up and tell them Jesus has risen from the dead; they go back and tell the disciples, and most of the disciples dismiss them as a bunch of hysterical women.
And then we get this story that begins in verse 13, of two of the disciples walking back from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. They’re talking about everything that has happened, trying to make sense of all of it—without much success—when Jesus comes up from behind. And here’s the reason this story has always fascinated me: they don’t recognize him. In fact, Luke tells us, they were kept from recognizing him.
Why? And kept by whom? The second question is easier to answer: this is probably what we call a divine passive, a way the Old Testament writers developed of saying that God did something without using the name of God, and thus avoiding any risk of using his name in vain. But why would God keep them from recognizing Jesus?
I can’t say for sure, but I think Luke suggests a reason. I think God kept them from recognizing Jesus because they weren’t ready to see him—it was because of the blindness of their hearts. He had to open their minds and hearts to understand him before their eyes could be opened to see him. And so, rather than declaring himself at the beginning, he leaves their eyes blind and begins to teach them from the word of God, showing them all the ways in which the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to him and prepared the way for his coming.
Why were their hearts blind? Because they were too much of the world. They had hoped Jesus was the Messiah, the one who would redeem Israel, but like everyone else, they understood that in worldly terms; and more than that, their faith was limited by the world’s horizon. Luke tells us that when Peter heard the news, he ran to the tomb and looked in, and went home amazed at what had happened; we know from John’s gospel that he went with Peter, that he also looked in the tomb, and that he came away believing the women’s report. But all Cleopas and his friend seem to have taken away from their stories is “they went to the tomb and it was empty, but they didn’t see Jesus.” Whether Jesus is in the tomb or not, they still believe he’s dead, because that’s the way the world works; that’s how things go, and the word of a few overly excitable women isn’t enough to convince them otherwise.
The reality here is the same that we talked about as we worked through the letters in Revelation: idolatry leaves us spiritually blind, deaf, and dumb. The nations worship things made by human hands, things which cannot see or hear, which cannot speak, or walk, or feel, and all who put their trust in those things become like them. If our attention is focused on this world and the things of this world, then we fail to understand that our God is in the heavens, and he does all that he pleases; we end up with a shrunken faith, confined and circumscribed by the limited possibilities of this world as we know it.
We end up, as you might say, with just another world religion. I don’t want to beat up on the word “religion” or pose some sort of false antithesis between religion and faith, but at the same time, Christianity is not religion the way anything else is. It isn’t about making our way to God or making the best of this world; those things definitely are religion, but they are not the gospel. It isn’t about being morally good people or finding fulfillment in life; those are good things, but they are not the gospel. It isn’t about making our country strong or building healthy families; those are certainly desirable things that tend to come when the church is strong, but they are not the gospel. They are not enough. They can give you a goal and a purpose through the ordinary times, but when you come up against the brute fact of death, they are silent.
Any religion that depends on life going well is going to fail you when you need it most; any religion that is primarily about making you happy is insufficient. Any faith you can accept without straining your sense of the possible, any faith that makes sense to you because it plays by the rules of this world, is ultimately no faith at all. I find it rather ironic when I see a church named “Emmaus” or “Emmaus Road,” not because I don’t understand, but because a lot of people have an Emmaus Road faith—it goes no farther than Cleopas’ faith did. It’s easy to see Christ when he looks like we expect, and when he does what we want him to do; but too often, when he departs from that, we can’t see him. Too often, if we’re honest, our churches don’t teach us to.
Which is a crying shame, because we have been given a mighty word to declare to the nations, a word to bring hope to the hopeless and deliverance to the captives, a word to make the blind see and the lame walk, a word even to raise the dead: we have been given to proclaim a God who is in the heavens and who does all that he pleases. All that he pleases, even beyond the limits of our feeble possibilities. We have been given the word that there is no failure that is final, no grief that cannot be healed, no enemy that cannot be overcome, no shame that cannot be restored, no sinner who cannot find forgiveness, because God has overcome every enemy and broken down every obstacle. We have been given the good news that in this world of sorrow and failure and pain and death, sorrow does not have the last word, and failure does not have the last word, and pain does not have the last word, and even death does not have the last word, because God has spoken the last word, and that word is: resurrection.
The task of the church is to clear out our ears so we can hear that, and to be the servants of God to one another to help each other learn to see—to see Christ, not as someone who lived a long time ago and said some interesting stuff, but as the one who is risen and is here among us now. The ministry of the church is to proclaim, over and over, at the top of our lungs, to all who come and anyone who will listen, that there is a resurrection. Christ is risen from the dead, and with him we are risen from the dead—we are no longer merely human, and we are no longer slaves to ourselves and our sin: sin has been defeated, and death itself has been put to death. Our lives are no longer up to us, and we do not have to figure out our own way through this world, because wherever we go, Jesus goes with us—even when we don’t recognize him. We only need to open our ears to hear him speaking to us, and let him open our eyes, that we may see.