In the whole history of humans telling each other stories, there are certain themes or figures that turn up over and over again. One of the most fascinating, for me at least, is the theme of mistaken identity.
In one version of the mistaken identity story, a stranger appears as someone familiar or beloved. This is the doppelganger or changeling story. In another version of the mistaken identity story, a familiar or beloved person appears in a strange or unrecognized form.
Something in us loves stories of mistaken identity. At least we find it interesting enough that we keep telling over thousands of years, all over the world. They are uncanny. They make the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange.
We hear both versions of the mistaken identity story in the Scriptures. The devil, Jesus warns, has the power to appear as an angel of light. In another place he warns his friends that false messiahs, or as we’d call them later, “anti-Christs,” will appear, mimicking the words and actions of the true messiah. People will be tempted to follow the false version. In the New Testament, the devil is Christ’s doppelganger.
We also hear stories of the true person being hidden or mistaken for someone else. Joseph’s brothers beat him and leave him for dead in a well, but he survives and makes his way down to Egypt. When the brothers come down to Egypt many years later for food during a famine, and Joseph is a powerful man there, the brothers do not recognize him. On the morning of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for a gardener.
Long before the New Testament times and far away from ancient Israel the Greek poet Homer told the story of Odysseus. He comes home to his kingdom after ten years of war and ten years of terrible journeys, appearing as a wizened old beggar. His servants don’t recognize him. His son doesn’t recognize him. Even his wife, who has pined for him daily and risked her life to wait for his return does not recognize him. Only his dog recognizes him, knowing his master and hearing his voice.
In the Gospel story we hear today, Jesus appears to his disciples. But their eyes are prevented from recognizing him. Last week Thomas saw and believed, but this week even seeing is not enough. As God tells the prophet Isaiah, the people will see and see but not perceive; they will hear and hear but not understand.
Have you ever had an experience like that? A time when you could not recognize someone right in front of you? Or a time when you were convinced that a stranger was actually a long-lost friend, a family member, or a lover? These moments are uncanny because they tell us that our memories are not truthful and our perceptions are not reliable. They can make our own identity feel unstable.
Jesus appears to two disciples in today’s story as a stranger. As a stranger he hears the story of his betrayal and arrest, the failure of his messianic hope, and the empty tomb.
As a stranger he teaches them about the Messiah in the Scriptures.
As a stranger he is about to leave them for the night. But they plead with him: Stay with us. It is evening and the day is almost over.
Why do they do this?
In part they do this, I think, because he is not Jesus to them. He is just another fragile traveler in a dangerous world on a long night. They are showing him the basic human solidarity of hospitality, an obligation so profound in the ancient world that to break it would bring a curse on your head.
But in part, I think they do this because he is Jesus to them. They have heard something of Jesus in his words and their hearts have burned within them.
In the Word Jesus Christ comes to us as a stranger. He is puzzling, surprising, sometimes shocking in his sayings, his miracles, his terrible judgments. And in his Word he comes to us as a friend: loving, comforting, assuring, healing, forgiving our sins.
Our eyes are kept from recognizing him at times. Who is this savior who speaks with such severity, who does such implausible miracles?
And yet he walks with us in all these words. We hear them over and over. They change for us because we change. But under all of it we believe he is there.
The disciples sit to eat. And in the breaking of the bread, which Jesus does for them as if he is the host. In that moment their eyes are healed and he is suddenly revealed. And just as suddenly vanishes.
If Jesus may be either friend or stranger in his words, and was to those around him in his own day, Jesus and those around him were always most at home at the table together. If he shocked and astonished and frightened in his words, he brought together, he put at ease, he showed affection around the table. And the breaking of bread is where he does not just speak to us, but it turns out that in all those meals, around all those tables, with all those people he was preparing to give himself to us. It’s also where he disappears into us, leaving us behind as his Body in the world.
Christians have met Jesus and seen Jesus here, together, ever since. Through times of civic strife and violence, through error and conflict in the church, this is where we have gathered to see with our eyes and our hearts, wayward as they may be at every other time, the Christ who gives himself to us.
And we have continued here even as we cannot gather as a group. Two are enough, and have been for us for hundreds of years. But we will do that no longer. We should be fasting together if we cannot feast together and I will not do for myself and my household what I cannot do for anyone else. This is a hard thing for me because I have always fled back to the breaking of the bread. When the Word was perplexing or puzzling, when my own journey from one place to another on this road has been vexed or troublesome, this is where I’ve always been able to flee. But it is for all of us, not just those who can safely be here at this moment. So it falls to us to listen for Jesus in his words and to seek for him in those words, in each other, in this world that is under so great a threat for unequal and unjust responses to this crisis. In a world that is so desperate for healing.
This will be a time when we let our hearts burn within us. When we let our hearts burn for that justice, that vision of Christ: not simply here in church but in a world that can and must be reconciled. When we can gather again and break bread together again, we will do it with a new appreciation for what God has done for us, and what God may yet do for this suffering world. Amen.