Eating together as enacted promise (Luke 24) #2

2. Christ is known through his word

In a world in which Christ is incognito, how is he known? I want to suggest the passage provides two answers. First, Christ is known through his word. What does the Risen Christ do on that first Easter Day? He does a Bible study. Look at verses 25-27. And then again at verses 44-47.

In Luke 16 Jesus tells the story of a beggar called Lazarus who lives at the gate of a rich man. When they die Lazarus goes to heaven with Abraham while the rich man goes to hell. The rich man wants Abraham to send Lazarus with water to cool his pain. When he is refused, he makes a second request. He asks Lazarus to be sent to his brothers to warn of God’s judgment. Abraham replies: ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’ (16:31). In other words, God’s word is enough. God’s word is all we need. Nothing else will persuade us if God’s word does not persuade us – not even apparitions of the dead. When we get to Luke 24 we read of someone who has come back from the dead – just as the rich man requested (16:30). But what he does is proclaim the word of God.

It was ever thus. Describing the encounter at Sinai, Moses says: ‘You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.’ (Deuteronomy 4:11-12) Interestingly, I can’t find a painting of the Emmaus story that include the Scriptures. There are no images of the word.

How do we make Christ known? Through the Bible. It may not sound very trendy, but it is God’s way. God rules through his word and he extends that rule through his word.

3. Christ is known around the table
Look at verse 30-32. Christ is known around the table. There are resonances in these words to the Lord’s Supper though these two disciples were probably not present at the Supper. There are resonances, too, the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus is known at the breaking of bread, at the meal table, sharing food with friends and enemies. The first image of church that comes into my head is always a meal table with bread and wine. Christ is known in community.

This is my experience. I have plenty of moments when Christian community wears me out, winds me up, drives me crazy. But I also have moments when I look at my brothers and sisters and know the presence of the risen Christ. There are moments when you see him incognito among the rag-tag people sat in my front room – and it seems like he is gone again. You see it in our diversity – a diversity that has no explanation except the work of God. You see it when someone ‘gets it’. You see it when hearts are melted. You see in the love people show to one another.

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Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch), The Emmaus Disciples, 1622

This painting, painted four years after the one by Velázquez, uses a technique known as ‘chiaroscuro’ which involve strong light-dark effects with sharp shadows produced by a minimal source of light (in this case, the two candles). It creates a strong impression of intimacy. This is the future of Christianity. The future of Christianity is not a return to the dominance of Christendom. The future lies with small, intimate communities of light. Often they will be unseen by history. But like yeast they are what transforms neighbourhoods and cities. Luther developed the idea of a theology of the cross in contrast to a theology of glory. We need, too, an ecclesiology of the cross in contrast to an ecclesiology of glory.

In winter in Sheffield the evenings are dark. And as you walk our cold, dark streets with houses close to the pavement you can see into people’s homes. I often wonder what passers-by make of our church gatherings when they look in. It creates for me a lovely image of mission. We live in a cold and dark world. But when people look in through the window they see a community of joy, love, friendship – a place of light and warmth and welcome. This is what the church must be in our dark, cold, loveless world: a place of light at street level.

Look at verses 22-24. The women testify to the resurrection, but their testimony is discounted. ‘Some of our companions’ check out their story ‘but him they did not see’. The women see Jesus, but the companions do not see Jesus. Jesus is known among the marginal – the people’s whose testimony is readily discounted. See 1 Corinthians 1:25-31.
‘We had hoped,’ the disciples say, ‘he would restore Israel.’ They had a political hope for power, influence and glory – a desire that is still alive in the church.

But post-Christendom we face a different reality. Christ is known at the margins of the world. As we say in Total Church:

The church today is growing among the shanty towns of Africa, and the favelas and barrios of Latin America. When we look at church throughout the world, God is choosing the weak and lowly to shame the power and wealth of the West. It seems that God’s response to the imperialism of global capitalism is to raise up a mighty church in the very places this new empire marginalizes and exploits.

It is a world in which Christ’s kingdom is incognito. It is known around the meal table in small, apparently insignificant, marginal communities. This is where the kingdom grows unseen. Don’t be afraid of obscurity, marginality, insignificance. This is where Christ is known – among the scum of the earth.

4. Return to the city

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Caravaggio (Italian), Supper at Emmaus, 1601-02

This picture of Christ is unusual in that Christ is beardless. It represents the disciples’ failure to recognise him at first. The picture is natural, bold and dramatic. The man on the left of the picture is in the act of pushing his chair away in astonishment. But there is also a sense in he is pushing his chair out towards us. The tear on his elbow draws attention to this. It is as if he is pushing his chair back to create space for us to move into the picture. Jesus’ arms are extended, notionally in blessing, but in fact inviting us forward. And the disciple on the right hand side has his arms fully extended in the most dramatic of postures. The lines, including the shading across the back wall, all converge in a way that beckons us into the picture. And as if that was not enough, a basket of fruit is teetering on the edge of the table, demanding that we leap into the picture to catch it. Caravaggio is trying to lure us into the scene as an active participant. Christ’s outstretched arm is inviting each us to sit with him at the table.

The encounter with Christ is a call to action, to involvement, to participation. You cannot remain a passive observer. For these two disciples it means a radical change of plan: they literally retrace their steps by returning to the city.

Think how significant that is. They do what they had urged the Christ not to do – they take to the road at night with all the dangers that involves. But more than that, in the morning they were the ex-followers of an executed traitor fleeing from arrest. In the evening they return to the city. In the morning they ex-followers of a failed revolutionary, returning in disappointment to ordinary life. In the evening they return to the city. They return to mission, a mission with threat and danger attached. But they return because now everything has changed.

Ultimately it is a mission that will take them to the ends of the earth (see verse 47.)

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The Disciples of Emmaus (MAFA, Cameroon)

In 1973 a group of Christians from the Mafa, a people group in north Cameroon, started a project to produce an African representation of the gospel. New Testament scenes were adapted to be played by the village people. The drama sketches are photographed and drawn. From these the ‘Jesus Mafa’ paintings were executed by a French artist.

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He Qi, Supper at Emmaus (embroidery)

He Qi was an artist during Mao’s regime. But one day he found a copy of Raphael’s Madonna. At night he tried to replicate it, finding himself drawn into the story. ‘I was very moved by the softness of the Virgin’s smile,’ he said. ‘Everywhere around me people claimed to be seeking truth but had their knives out.’ Raphael’s painting alone did not convert him, but it did start the process. During the day he painted Mao, at night he painted Jesus. He is committed to changing the ‘foreign image’ of Christianity in China by portraying the gospel stories using traditional Chinese painting techniques. Here are two attempts to translate the story of Christ into the vocabulary of a particular local culture.

There is a profound sense in which the message of secularism and the message of the cross is the same – the world has been forsaken by God, he is dead and we must live in the world without him. The difference is that this is where the message of secularism ends, but it is where the message of the cross begins. The scientific revolution, the Enlightenment and modernity all lead to this terrible conclusion: God is dead and we live in the world without him. All that can follow is the non-truth, the relativism, of postmodernity. Take Christ out and you are just left with the rag at the centre of Velázquez’s painting.

But if this is where the message of secularism ends, it is where the message of the cross begins. God has died, the world is forsaken by God, it is without God. But ‘on the third day he rose again’. Christ died, but now he has risen. Forsaken by God, he took upon himself the curse of humanity to redeem the world. Now raised as Lord, he lays claim to all of life. The reason we are sent out in mission is that all authority has been given to the Son. The world was without God, but now in Christ the whole world is claimed in his name.

Nietzsche writes: ‘“Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers … God is dead … And we have killed him.”‘ After this the madman comes and says: ‘“I have come too early,” he said then: “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men … and yet they have done it themselves.”[1] Stephen Williams comments: ‘Fresh from the biblical narrative, one can find fault with only one sentiment, but an important one. Far from the fact that the madman has come early and the deed is on its way, the story has come late and the deed is long since accomplished.’[2]


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, III.125

[2] Stephen Williams, Revelation and Reconciliation: A Window on Modernity (CUP, 1995), p. 106.

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