I’ve been asked to preach not this Sunday (April 18) but next Sunday (April 25), so this reflection will be brief so that I can spend more time on the texts that I’ll actually be preaching soon.
This week’s texts are another set in which people don’t recognize Jesus after the Resurrection. I had a conversation with a friend at Athens Christian after I taught my adult Sunday school class about why those stories are so prominent in those sections of the New Testament, and I’m going to try to reproduce my answers to him here (in a form that’s more like my writing style than like my spoken style, just to be clear).
First, I do want to commend the sort of close reading that notes this common thread in the New Testament texts. Other than the man who sees people as trees before finally clearing things up, there aren’t any mistaken-identity stories that I can think of before the Resurrection. (I’m certain that someone will think of one and post it in the comments section of this post, and I welcome that.) But Luke-Acts and John agree that, after the Resurrection, people are incapable of recognizing Jesus until something happens, though in each case that something is a bit different.
When I think about this phenomenon, I have to make note that, although some sort of visible alteration is a possibility, the “reveal” moment almost never comes in these stories when some new sensory datum comes into the picture. The Emmaus journeyers had already spoken with the risen Jesus, as had Mary when she mistook Jesus for the gardener. In the final chapter of John Jesus had already called to the disciples (and called them “Children,” no less), and in Paul’s case, he’s already in the midst of the blazing light, the most obvious sensory experience in the story and enough of a shock to draw the noun kyrios from him even though he’s not sure how YHWH is manifesting God’s self just yet. Instead, each of these stories lets the clueless characters in when some sort of secondary phenomenon occurs: in some cases Jesus calls the disciple by name, and in another the Eucharistic meal becomes the moment of clarity. As the disciples are on the sea in John, Jesus’ call to cast the net otherwise, an echo of a story in Luke rather than something antecedent in John, but something that the disciples nonetheless recognize as the command of their kyrios. In Saul’s case, of course, Jesus just comes out and says his name.
It’s possible that, of all the details of Jesus’ post-resurrection life and post-ascension activity, these were the only ones that folks remembered, that out of everything that happened for those days when he appeared to so many they could only remember mistaken identity tales. I’ll grant that theory’s possibility but not its probability: I’m more inclined to see the written New Testament’s’ focus on these things as pastoral moves. As the years pass and the original disciples, those who walked with Jesus, one by one die, no doubt the people commissioned to carry on and to proclaim a gospel of a victory they’ve heard about but not seen become anxious about doing so. After all, those who were on Palestinian roads with the Nazarene Messiah would be able to recognize the one who called them friend, but what of those who only have the friends’ stories?
These mistaken-identity stories, I’m convinced, present one set of answers to those anxieties. When one wonders whether a voice is from Jesus or from a devil (or, I suspect more frequently, from one’s own ego), look to the Eucharist. Listen for those who are commissioned to know the flock by name. Follow those calls that are consistent with the ways of the Prophets. Listen to the voices of the persecuted. These are not foolproof by any means, but if these stories are true stories (and they are true stories), neither was seeing the raised-again Jesus in the world of time and space foolproof.
Instead of certainty, instead of a constant worry that one will miss Jesus or follow not-Jesus, the New Testament texts give us these comic tales of those who had far less reason to miss the point, missing the point. And every one gets a second chance.
Praise be for forgiveness–for blindness when we should see, for weakness when we have the strength, for brevity for the worst reasons.