The gospel reading we heard a few minutes ago is certainly my favourite resurrection story and possibly my favourite story from the gospels. Always, when preachers get the opportunity to preach on their favourite passages the hardest part is deciding what not to say. So while I won’t be saying half of what I’d like to say about this story, I hope I have chosen what’s most appropriate for us here this evening.
In a number of the resurrection stories, those who encountered Jesus didn’t recognise him. This is one of those stories. And I think that maybe what that means is that their experience of the risen Christ was not hugely different from ours. That like ours, their experience was real, but somewhat ambiguous; profound, and yet easily misunderstood.
So this evening I want to address the question of why that is so, and to ask of this story whether there is anything we can do about it.
How is it that you can have the risen Christ with you, walking and talking with you, and yet you can be unaware of it? You just don’t recognise him.
Well I think the answer may be found in the universal human phenomena known as “not being able to see the wood for the trees.” That is that when we see too much of something we end up not noticing it at all. We become completely oblivious to it. It just kind of merges into the background of normality. And in our age, even more than in the first century, we are so conditioned by dazzling marketing that is constantly upping the ante on spectacular ways of grabbing your attention, things that just merge into the background of normality have precious little chance of being noticed at all.
The risen Christ is with us always. He walks with us on every road. He is with us at the heights of joy and celebration and he is with us in the pits of terror and despair. His Spirit is in the very air that we breathe. His presence is the glue that holds the cosmos together. If God’s Spirit was withdrawn, everything that is would disintegrate back into dust and chaos. There is absolutely nowhere you can go and nothing you can do without being in the living presence of the risen Christ.
But that’s the problem isn’t it. That which is always and everywhere present quickly slips beyond our awareness and just becomes the taken-for-granted background that we ignore as we live our lives. And so Christ walks with us on the road or sits with us at the table and we fail to recognise him.
What then can we do? How can we re-attune our awareness so that we become increasingly, and perhaps eventually constantly, conscious of Christ’s presence with us? Well this story offers us a message of hope here.
There are two stages of awakening in this story. Firstly as the scriptures are read and discussed, they feel their hearts burning within them. Something is stirring them up, knocking at the door of the consciousness, trying to break through to them. On this occasion it’s not enough. But then comes stage two. Jesus takes bread, blesses God for it and breaks it with them. And their eyes are opened. They recognise the Christ at the table with them. Suddenly they know and understand – God is all and in all.
When Christ is present always, everywhere and in everything, the only way we are going to reawaken our awareness to see, is by taking particular times and particular places and particular things and deliberately concentrating our attention to perceive God. You see, in theory, because God is everywhere, there is no need to come here to a church to worship God. And because God is always with us, there is no need to set aside particular times to worship. But the reality is that for most of us, if we don’t set aside special times and places to give our attention to God, we will just be oblivious to God’s presence. But the hope is, and the testimony of many people is, that if you regularly take time to focus your attention on the presence of the risen Christ in particular scriptures and particular bread, at a particular table, in a particular church at a particular time, then you have a good chance of growing towards the level of consciousness that will allow you to recognise the presence of the risen Christ in all bread, in all matter, in all people, at all tables in all places.
Have you noticed how our liturgy follows the contours of this story? We gather together bringing with us the fears and desolations of our worlds, the dashed hopes and shattered dreams. The Word is opened to us and our hearts begin to burn. We are invited to gather together round a table. God is blessed and the bread is broken. We see Christ, offering himself to us. And we are sent out in joy to share the news with others – Christ is risen.
And yet even then, the ambiguity of our experience is reflected in the story. They recognise the Christ, and then suddenly he disappears from their sight, from their awareness. And the same thing happens again and again for us. Christ dances at the edge of our consciousness, of our perception. Sometimes we see, and often only for a brief moment and then our perception fails us again. But in that moment of connection, we are empowered, transfigured, bounced another step towards wholeness. And reminded that we will need to break bread again, over and over, because our eyes are not yet able to see always and everywhere. But they will, for Christ is risen!