One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor in a larger church is that a lot of people know you, but you don’t always recognize them. Many times at, say, the grocery store, I will see someone whose face looks familiar, like I know they’ve attended our church, but I don’t know their name. Or sometimes a name is proposed (“Do you know this person?) and I’ll say, “Um, I think so…”
A couple of weeks ago I was at that preaching conference at Calvin College where I was sitting next to a professor from Duke named Luke Powery. I remembered the name “Powery” from a video series I used in another church where the presenter looked a lot like the same man sitting next to me. Wanting to strike up a conversation and express my appreciation, I said to him, “I really loved that video series you did. It was great.”
And he said. “Oh, that wasn’t me—it was my brother, Emerson.” D’OH! “A common mistake,” he said. I wanted to crawl under the table…
We have a hard time remembering people with whom we’re not intimately familiar. The disciples, on the other hand, had spent three years with Jesus and yet there are times when they didn’t seem to recognize him, particularly after his resurrection.
On resurrection day, for example, Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus at first, thinking he was the gardener. Earlier in the Gospels, when Jesus encountered his disciples walking on the lake, they thought they were seeing a ghost instead of their leader. In the prologue to his Gospel, John says that “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11-12).
And then there’s this story from our Gospel lesson in Luke 24—another story about disciples who are grieving over the one who’s standing right in front of them. It seems improbable, but they are clueless about his identity at first. And if it was tough for them, then the question for us is how do we recognize Jesus when we’ve never actually seen him in person? Well, I want to argue that the text seems to give us some clues to how we can recognize the risen Christ who is still among us until the day when we see him face to face—a face we will never forget.
Jesus appears to his disciples first as a stranger, then as a guest and finally as a host, offering critical guidance to any of us who want to do a better job of recognizing him and welcoming and including his people in the life of the church.
First, Jesus is seen as a stranger. As Cleopas and an unnamed disciple (I like to call him “Steve”) are traveling to the village of Emmaus on Easter afternoon, the risen Jesus comes near and walks with them. But their eyes are kept from recognizing him. Jesus asks about the events they’re discussing, and one of them says, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” (v. 18).
Jesus is initially depicted as a stranger, giving his disciples the challenge of showing hospitality. They practice philoxenia, which literally means “love of the stranger.” Philoxenia is one of the Greek words used in the New Testament for hospitality. This approach stands in stark contrast to the attitude so prevalent in society today — xenophobia, “fear of the stranger.”
Actually, we’re taught to be xenophobic from the time we’re kids. We all know about “stranger danger,” and while its wise to teach our children to be cautious, fear of the stranger can get extrapolated on a macro level. It can cause countries to build giant walls to keep out strangers; it can demonize people who don’t look and sound like us; it can view those who dress or speak differently with suspicion.
But the Bible is clear about the need to welcome strangers into our midst. In Genesis, for example, we see Abraham welcoming three strangers into his tent who actually turn out to be messengers from God. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of this: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” In other places, the Bible reminds us of the responsibility God’s people have to open our lives to those who are unfamiliar. In Leviticus 19, for example, God reminds the Israelites to welcome the stranger, the alien, the immigrant into their midst and treat them like citizens because they themselves were once strangers and aliens in the land of Egypt.
Of all people, Christians should be the first to welcome the stranger in our midst, wherever they come from. We can learn from them, as these two disciples learn from Jesus about how the story of Scripture had come together in him. One of my professors at Asbury Seminary, Christine Pohl, has done some amazing work on Christian hospitality and I love this quote from her:
“If, when we open the door, we are oriented toward seeking Jesus in the [stranger], then we welcome that persona with some sense that God is already at work in his or her life. This can fundamentally change our perspective and our sense of the dimensions of the relationship. We are more sensitive to what the guest is bringing us, to what God might be saying through her or him”
But let’s break it down even further. How do we welcome the strangers in our midst as a congregation, remembering that we were all strangers here once? For every person here there was a first time. Well, we welcome the stranger every time we speak to strangers in the Great Room after worship, instead of chatting only with our friends. We do it every time we make an effort to get to know a person from a different race, culture, nationality or background. We do it every time we refuse to stereotype people and instead get to know them as individuals. Who knows? We may be entertaining angels unawares—or even the risen Christ himself!
This is philoxenia — love of the stranger. When we practice it, we discover that strangers really aren’t so strange.
Fortunately, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus rise to this challenge. As they come near the village that is their destination, Jesus walks ahead as if he is going on. But the disciples urge him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over” (v. 29). So Jesus goes in to stay with them, and he becomes their guest. They welcome and include him in their lives, and invite him to stay with them.
Jesus wants us to take good care of the guests who come to us. He challenges us to feed the hungry and welcome outcasts as he did throughout his ministry. Since we, the members of the church, are the physical body of Christ in the world today, we’re supposed to be his hands and continue his work. We show his presence in the world every time we practice hospitality in his name, whether we’re feeding the hungry through a food pantry or welcoming a guest to a service of worship.
Guests are important to Jesus, which is why he played that role on the road to Emmaus. He wanted to challenge his followers to see him as a guest and take good care of him.
There’s a scene in the gospel of Matthew that stresses the importance of this kind of care. In the final judgment of the nations in Matthew 25, Jesus announces that he frequently appears to us as a guest. Specifically, he comes in the form of people who are in need of food, drink and a warm welcome. He says to his followers, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (vv. 34-35).
The followers of Jesus hear these words, but they’re confused. They don’t remember seeing Jesus and helping him, so they ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry … thirsty … a stranger?” Jesus answers them simply, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (vv. 37-40).
Jesus comes to us as a guest, even today. When we help a person in need, we’re really helping Jesus. When we treat new people in our midst not as visitors, who we expect to come and go, but as guests to be welcomed and included, we’re actually welcoming Jesus. And this happens not only in church, but on the street, in school and in the workplace. As an ancient poem called “The Gaelic Rune of Hospitality” says so well:
I saw a stranger yestreen;
I put food in the eating place,
Drink in the drinking place …
Often, often, often
Goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.
But notice what happens next on the road to Emmaus. Jesus, the stranger, becomes a guest of the disciples when he accepts their invitation to stay. But then he quickly changes roles. When he’s sitting at the table with them, he becomes their host — he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. Then their eyes are opened and they recognize him — and he vanishes from their sight (vv. 30-31). Like Abraham and Sarah, who practiced hospitality by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15), the disciples discover that, when they welcome a stranger, they welcome the Lord.
The role of Jesus changes from stranger to guest to host when he sits at the table and breaks the bread (v. 30). This transition continues to happen today, when the risen Christ nourishes us through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As the bread is broken, we’re invited to open our hearts to the presence of Christ. He’s comes to feed us, and to fill us with his power and his presence.
It’s critically important for us to permit Jesus to be our host; to eat his bread, drink his cup and allow his body and blood to become part of our body and blood; to accept the forgiveness he offers and to allow ourselves to be strengthened and inspired.
Sometimes, it’s easier for us to help others than to receive help. We would rather be a host than let someone else be a host. But, at the Lord’s Supper, permit Jesus to be your host. Open yourself to what he wants to give you. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, your eyes will be opened and you’ll recognize him.
The passage ends with the two disciples racing back to Jerusalem to share the news of their experience with the other disciples. They tell them what happened on the road, and how Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (v. 35).
We break the bread of communion here in an environment where everyone from the charter member to the first-time guest is welcome. We believe that Jesus is present in our midst in the stranger, in the guest, and as the host of the meal. I think about that every time I officiate at the table and it checks me up. Are we being the kind of church where the stranger finds welcome and protection? Are we treating people as guests and not as intruders? Are we demonstrating in everything that we say and do that this is a place where Jesus is the ultimate host? Those are questions we need to all be asking ourselves if we’re going to be his church.
When we practice Christian hospitality, we become part of a mighty spiritual movement — one that can overcome divisions in a terribly polarized world. It all begins when Jesus breaks the bread, our eyes are opened and we recognize him.
Source: Homiletics, March-April 2014