Unrecognizable/Unmistakable

When I was in college, the Campus Activities Board would use the giant chapel monitor to show The Princess Bride every year, and I think I watched it every time.

It was an evangelical college, and most of us came out of evangelical youth groups, which means that we came to college so familiar with The Princess Bride that we could chant large portions of the dialogue along with the actors on-screen. We knew all the ins and outs of the dramatic courtship of Westley and Buttercup.

If you’re familiar with the movie, then you’ll remember the plot: Westley the farmhand falls deeply in love with Buttercup, who takes a while to come around. Westley expresses his love through the phrase as you wish, and Buttercup slowly comes to understand that as you wish is Westley’s way of saying I love you.

But then, Westley must head off to sea. His boat is overtaken by the Dread Pirate Roberts, and nothing is heard from Westley again.

Hijinks occur, and Buttercup ends up in the custody of a masked stranger. On a steep hillside, she says that she has finally recognized the stranger for who he truly is: the Dread Pirate Roberts, who killed her beloved Westley.

Buttercup and the stranger have a tense conversation about her love, Westley, which culminates in Buttercup pushing the stranger down the hill. But as the man tumbles, he uses those three magic words: as you wish.

In that moment, Buttercup experiences an apocalypse. The truth is uncovered before her, and she realizes that the masked stranger is, in fact, her beloved Westley.

I won’t give away everything that happens after that, both because I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who has managed not to watch it and because it’s that moment of recognition that I want to focus on.

I want to talk about recognition because the women at the tomb recognized that something frightening and amazing had happened. They took their story back to the other disciples, who dismissed what they saw and heard as an idle tale.

I want to talk about recognition because Cleopas and his friend walked maybe 6 miles with Jesus without recognizing him, but then saw him clearly when they offered hospitality to the stranger and he made himself the host at their table.

I want to talk about recognition because all of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ contain, to be frank, a level of unrecognizable weirdness.

Jesus appears behind locked doors and disappears on a whim. Jesus has to eat food in front of the disciples to convince them that he’s real. Eventually, Jesus is taken up into the clouds as the disciples stand looking on.

Some people say Jesus was hard to recognize because he looked different after the resurrection, and maybe that’s so.

Remember, though, that it’s not as though people had an easy time figuring Jesus out in the first place. He preached his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, and his neighbors responded by saying, isn’t this just Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter?

They didn’t know what to do with him. They couldn’t see who he was.

And that theme didn’t quit when he left his hometown, went out into Samaria and Judea and to a cross between two sinners.

So how should these disciples know what to do with Jesus now that he’s supposed to be dead?

Cleopas and his friend are walking away from the wildest Passover of their lives. It started with the raucous parade that we now celebrate on Palm Sunday, then descended into a raid on the temple, public arguments with the Jewish temple leaders, and Jesus’ arrest, conviction at a kangaroo court, and public execution as a rebel, as a traitor.

This man Jesus had embodied their hopes and dreams, and while some women this morning were telling a wild tale about angels – you know how women are – it’s clear that the story is over.

The dream is done. Perhaps another Messiah will come along, someday, but the Messiahship of Jesus was a failure as bitter as the cheap wine he was offered while dying.

Then, a man appeared alongside them as they walked, joining in their conversation.

Now, the only thing I can assume here is that Cleopas and his friend were addled by grief, because everybody knows that the first rule of a failed insurrection is that you don’t talk about the failed insurrection.

And you particularly don’t tell random strangers on the road that you were part of the band of insurrectionists whose leader was recently crucified. Not if you prefer to remain off the cross, that is.

But here Cleopas is, treating this stranger like his new confidante. He says some of the saddest words in the whole Bible, while telling this story: we had hoped.

We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.

Jesus climbs up on his favorite hobby horse, which is one good way of recognizing a disguised person. I think that’s true of most of us, that you could disguise us like something out of a spy movie but we’d still be recognized by what we can’t help ranting about.

But here’s Jesus doing his whole usual spiel about how the prophets say that of course the Messiah is going to suffer, and Cleopas and his friend still don’t recognize him, still don’t think to themselves, “hey, this stranger’s rant sounds a lot like how Jesus used to go off about the prophets and how glory wasn’t what we thought it was.”

Ok, I know that it has been a week since Easter for us, but keep in mind here that this is happening on the same day that the women came back from the tomb with their unbelievable ghost story.

Cleopas and his friend stuck around long enough to hear it, but c’mon, right? It’s time to pack up and head home.

So it’s late, on Easter afternoon, and they’re as worn out as you’ve ever been from this wild week. Maybe that’s why they don’t recognize the prophet-obsessed stranger walking alongside them. Or maybe it’s that they’re walking west toward Emmaus in the late afternoon, and the sun is blinding their eyes.

Or maybe they’re just discouraged, and tired, and ready to be done with Messiahs. Jesus gives them the whole argument, from Amos to Zephaniah, but they still don’t understand.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 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.

The day is now nearly over, they said, but in God’s time, light was about to break open in the twilight.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…

There’s the tell. Jesus appeared, and they didn’t recognize him. Jesus went off on his same old lecture, and they didn’t recognize him. Jesus appeared to be walking on, and they didn’t recognize him but knew that they wanted him to stay.

But Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it, which wasn’t his role as a guest at the table but nevermind that for now.

Look. They’ve seen Jesus do this tens or hundreds of times, around all sorts of tables. Up until this point, Jesus has been unrecognizable, but there’s something about the way that he invites us into fellowship that is stunning and unmistakable.

I think this is a perfect culmination of Jesus’ story, starting as it did with sending his birth announcement to dirty shepherds, and being dogged all along by complaints that he was hanging out with all the wrong sorts of people, eating with drunkards and tax collectors and prostitutes.

Maybe it was all a story about a new kind of fellowship, one that doesn’t require a jacket and tie or even a clean police record. The Gospel is a party, and everyone is invited in.

The stranger takes the place of the host, at the table, and starts sharing the food with everyone- and that’s when they realize that he must be Jesus- and in that moment, Jesus disappears.

Isn’t that how it goes? A glimpse of glory, then it’s on to the next holy scavenger hunt.

But the difference between unrecognizable and unmistakable is often less than we think. When the unrecognizable is a mystery, and the unmistakable is a joy, then they really aren’t far apart at all.

So Cleopas and his friend off and scurry back to Jerusalem with their own wild tale of resurrection, just as the women did that morning.

We don’t hear from Cleopas again, after this- and if we hear of his anonymous friend again, the connection to this story isn’t made explicit. I think that’s perfect, really, because with no disrespect meant toward Cleopas and his friend, the absence of competing narratives makes it easy for us to imagine ourselves in this story.

It’s hot. You’re tired, and not just from walking. It’s a long walk, sure, but what really tires you is this sadness that you can feel clenched in your stomach and chilling your bones.

Friends: when we’ve seen the death of loved ones, the death of hopes and dreams, the death of relationships, when we’ve looked our own mortality in the face, then the only religion we can bother with is a resurrected religion.

Anything else is just a waste of time.

And then a stranger appears, speaking unrecognizable words of hope.

The stranger invites you to a table which quickly becomes holy, in the way that any shared table can be holy. And in that holy hospitable moment, you see something glorious and divine.

Back in 1909, London Yearly Meeting gave us this advice:

“It is not necessary that we should know all mysteries before we begin to follow Christ. To some of us much that is taught of His person and His work may not be clear, but so it was with the early disciples. They did not understand at first the mystic union with their Master to which the were called, but they followed Him, and as they followed, there was gradually unfolded to them the fullness of His love and life.

If we begin where they began, and follow as they followed, we shall end where they ended, in adoring love.”

Our life journeys take us through the whole of the Easter story- through the simple joy of Palm Sunday, through the anger and passion of Jesus’ days denouncing the powers-that-be, through the deep fellowship in the upper room and the deep betrayal in the garden, through the horror of Good Friday and the despair of Holy Saturday and the utterly confused hope of Easter Sunday.

And still Christ walks among us, unrecognizable and unmistakable at the same time.

We opened worship this morning with a responsive reading from First Peter. It ended in the present tense: you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

It’s present tense because salvation isn’t just a decision you made in the past, and it isn’t just your ticket into some glorious future kingdom. It may be both of those things, but it’s also what’s happening in the mess of your life right now.

The stranger, the Christ who walked with Cleopas and his friend in their moment of deepest grief, walks alongside us too. This unrecognizable mercy is present with us as an unmistakable grace that saves us here and now.