A NEW WAY OF SEEING
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
These verses conclude the Road to Emmaus narrative. It is one of my favorites. It marks the moment when two of the disciples finally realized what Jesus had been teaching. Though they had been with Jesus for three years, it remained obvious that they could not quite escape their old way of seeing to see what Jesus was actually about.
This is a familiar and ordinary problem that routinely interferes with relationships. When I was sixteen, my pastor, Perry Monroe told this story. I don’t remember the rest of the sermon but for some reason this story has stayed with me. Perry described sitting at the breakfast bar in his kitchen in the first weeks of his marriage. It was a warm pleasant way for the newlyweds to start each day. Each morning after breakfast, Betty (Perry’s wife) would unobtrusively put a package, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string next to Perry’s chair. This went on for several days until Betty angrily confronted him with the words: “Why won’t you take out the garbage? I wrap it for you each morning and you just leave it on the floor.” It turns out this had been the practice in her parental home for years. When her new husband did not follow suit, she was hurt and angry. She could not see that his experience did not match hers. And until she did so, she could only imagine her husband was, for reasons unknown, dismissive and uncaring. This was my first awareness that people of good will could experience exactly the same circumstance in opposite ways. Reconciliation requires giving up what was right from each point of view. It depended upon recognizing how each of them could see the same things differently. That is a different way of seeing.
No matter how obvious it seems to us, we cannot safely assume that our experience applies to another person. It is counter intuitive to interrupt those assumptions because it is natural to assume our experiences are transferable. The disciples had every reason to believe they knew what Jesus meant. No matter how many times Jesus sought to teach otherwise, it remained very difficult for them to grasp that he was describing something outside of their expectations and outside of their knowledge. Repeatedly, we read that their response to Jesus was ‘You can’t possibly mean that. What you really mean is…” I would venture to say all of us have made this fundamental error in listening. Instead of curiosity, we try to tell people what is ‘right’ or worse, ‘what they really mean. This passage describes the ‘aha’ moment in which these disciples suddenly experienced what Jesus was about.
What did they see? And why did Jesus vanish when their eyes were opened?
The disciples were dispirited. Their leader was dead and they were at risk. For them, it was time to leave Jerusalem and start over. They had had high hopes but it would be pretty silly to depend upon a ‘messiah’ who had just been crucified. The narrator tells us Jesus walked with them ‘but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.’ We do not expect to see dead people walking because we view life through our own experience. Living means breathing. Living means having a beating heart. What could be more obvious? But that definition is too limiting. No matter how well we live, we will stop breathing. We will die. But Jesus talked about life outside of these biological realities. Anyone who has reached the other side of terrible grief, knows how hard it is to imagine life without the person you loved. We hold on to what we have known. The disciples held on to what they knew so tightly that they could not recognize Jesus when he was right in front of them. When they gave up believing the ways they knew Jesus in life were the only ways they could enjoy his presence, they could see him in every part of life. In the disciples’ case, the moment they saw the breaking of bread, they saw the living Lord. They no longer needed to see his bodily form to know his love. They were transformed.
Though written dramatically, this is a surprisingly ordinary experience. In FIRL, Betty Cousar reported it had happened to her last week. Last week would have marked her 66th wedding anniversary. Since her husband died she had tried to maintain some of the familiar rituals she and Charlie had shared. No matter how hard she tried, it was never quite the same. This year, she decided to give those up. To her surprise she discovered a new freedom. She could remember the gifts of her marriage better when she no longer clung to the experiences she could not reproduce. It is one of the paradoxes of grieving that we can find new life when we let go (I did not say forget) of the old. It is a very Christian concept.
Jesus taught that what matters in life is how we treat each other; how we live in community; how we show regard,…Anyone who has been in a serious relationship knows that it is inconvenient to love someone. When we are mindful of another, we try to be responsive to them—whether or not we agree—whether or not it is personally inconvenient. Love does not insist on its own way. Within our abilities we seek to enhance the person we love. I call it proactive cherishing. It requires focus and work. It does not come naturally.
It is a huge faith claim to choose to orient yourself to seeing life as the activity of loving. It is in direct contrast to those who would say get what you can while you can because you won’t live long. Choosing to orient your life around love is a fundamental value choice and reflects a very different way of seeing what gives life. Loving matters more than words and more than understanding. Notice that this new way of seeing did not occur through instruction. The instruction only made sense AFTER the new way of seeing.
My mother is having more and more difficulty processing information. She can appear to understand but more often than not we discover that she does grasp what is being said. She does not understand that the rule that she may not leave the house unaccompanied is for her safety and not bossy people restricting her. It is no small task to seek to be kind when words don’t work. It doesn’t work to explain—though we try. It doesn’t work to be exasperated in tone or in heavy sighs. She reads us like a book. It certainly does not work to get angry. I don’t really know how to love someone who is lost and disoriented in another world. In real life, to seek a ‘more excellent way’ means biting our tongues. It means giving up patterns of connection that are more familiar. As often as not we fail and as my father said this morning, there are many times his tongue is sore (from biting it so much).
One last note about the passage I think is important. When the disciples suddenly saw differently, they changed direction. They went back to Jerusalem. That is amazing in itself but just as amazing, when they got there, they discovered that what had happened to them had happened to Simon in Jerusalem. They realized that the living Lord was everywhere. What must have been a weird insight into life was not unique to them, it was part of a larger truth. In real life, we often discover that the most personal is the most universal. Experiences in our lives that we keep hidden are the very things which form deep connections when they are shared.
Jesus transforms our vision. He shows us what life is and where to look for it. Loving transcends our biology and is found in the ordinary interactions of our lives. When we see that, we will be transformed. Follow Him. Let it be so.