When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. (Luke 24.30-31)
A Fleeting Figure
Unlike the mortal Jesus, attentive Companion and Leader of His followers, the glorified Christ exhibits notably different behavior in the interim between the Resurrection and Ascension. The Gospels portray the Risen Christ as a fleeting Figure Who comes and goes at will, visiting briefly with the disciples before vanishing into thin air. We don’t know if our impression is reliable, however, since Christ’s activities during this period go oddly undocumented. Excluding personal visions after the Ascension, the number of post-graveside sightings total six or seven—depending on whether one counts Paul’s mention of 500 who see the Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15.6) as a singular event or reference to the Galilee reunion reported in Matthew and later editions of Mark.
Only John seems to acknowledge spotty information about where Christ is, what Christ says and does, and with whom, may strike readers as curiously unsettling. In a lunge at covering the bases, he includes a disclaimer: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20.30-31) If we take John at his word, Christ’s earthly sojourn prior to Ascension is a busy time spent with the disciples, performing “many other signs.” Yet the admission he’s left out most of this final chapter merely heightens our sense that the mortal Jesus and glorified Christ are decidedly different in nature, as well as in how each relates to the disciples.
That New Testament writers don’t elaborate further on distinctions between the human Jesus and Risen Christ would unnerve us no end—were it not for John’s statement. The most detail-obsessed Gospel writer informs us more detail and examples of Christ’s pre-Ascension activity aren’t useful. He explains, “I’m telling you enough to believe [“to continue to believe” is a better translation] Jesus’s resurrection confirms He is The Living Christ. Faith in this alone, without scads of corroborating evidence, is how you receive life in His name.” By design, John and the other writers under-report what transpires from Easter to Ascension and emphasize Christ’s elusive behavior. The blanks are put there on purpose to facilitate faith in the absence of extensive testimony and evidentiary proof. We’re supposed to live with unanswered questions, because that’s how faith works.
When we closely observe the disciples’ interactions with the Risen Christ, however, we’re stunned by how often they don’t realize Whom they’re seeing. At the tomb, Mary Magdalene first mistakes Christ for a gardener. For the longest time, two disciples traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus after the Resurrection have no idea their fellow Traveler is Christ. Thomas looks at Christ face-to-face, yet neither recognizes the Risen Lord nor trusts what he sees without tangible experience. Seven disciples who go fishing initially are unaware a Stranger they spot on the beach is Christ. How is it possible so many see Christ and draw blanks? The disciples’ inability to identify Christ becomes the Gospels’ closing theme. And when we put that together with John’s explanation, the theme becomes obvious. Sight doesn’t enable belief; belief enables sight. That’s the difference the writers want to stress. In the end, every moment Jesus lives—from manger to tomb—points toward Christ’s power to heal our dependency on visual perception. After Easter, the story shifts from what’s different about Christ to what’s different about us because of Christ.
The mistaken-identity stories turn on the same pivot: Christ is ultimately revealed in profoundly intimate words or gestures. When Mary hears Christ speak her name, she believes and sees. When Thomas is invited to touch Christ’s wounds, he believes and sees. When the fishing disciples take Christ’s advice, move to the opposite side of the boat, and haul in more fish than their nets can hold, they believe and see. Yet the most vivid example of these moments occurs with two previously unknown disciples—Cleopas and his companion. In the wake of an all-too-real crucifixion and rumored resurrection, they return home to Emmaus. When Christ catches up to them, they’re sorting through recent events and pretty much resigned that following Jesus was good while it lasted, but there’s no future in hanging around now that He’s gone. Christ answers their misgivings by reviewing prophecies of the Messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection.
This is Theology 101 for any disciple—basic curriculum Jesus covers in depth numerous times. It starts coming back, even though they’re still oblivious that Christ is helping them. As they near Emmaus, they entreat their new Friend to stay with them and continue their conversation. Christ does something they recall Jesus doing many times, most recently at His final dinner with the disciples: “He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” (Luke 24.30-31) The gesture arouses faith that sees what rumors and theology can’t reveal. Once their Friend’s true identity is known, Christ vanishes. The two disciples’ faith is restored and they immediately rejoin the others.
If our faith is contingent on visibly recognizing Christ’s presence in our world and lives—having answers to all the questions and filling in all the blanks—we’ll never find wherewithal to believe. Visual perception can’t detect Christ for one reason: to dispel misplaced confidence in what we naturally see. We perceive Christ in word and gesture—the whisper of our names, invitation to touch an extended hand, counsel to abandon fruitless efforts and alter our ways, and the offer of food for our souls. Responding to what Christ says and does enables us to recognize Who Christ is. In every believer’s life there are times when what we observe hobbles our ability to identify Christ. That’s why we closely attend to profoundly intimate words and gestures that come only from Christ. Then belief happens. Then we see with open eyes.
Recognizing the Risen Christ happens when faith happens. Sight doesn’t enable belief. Belief enables sight.