The Rev. Steven Paulikas
April 26, 2020
Facebook Live Recording
We needed to hear the story of Jesus and the disciples on the Road to Emmaus this morning. It’s one of the classic stories for Eastertide, and it contains so much that shapes our Christian faith and hope. Among many other things, it is the story of God being with us when our eyes are shut and when our eyes are wide open; it is a story told for a time such as the one in which we find ourselves today.
Jesus appears to two of his disciples after his crucifixion as they are walking along the road. It’s not like one of those big, flashy entrances the angels make. It’s low-key and informal, more of like a “hey, guys.” It’s at this point that the Gospel says something subtle, but important: “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” There’s something poetic in that, right? “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” not “they didn’t recognize him” or “they didn’t see him.” In this case, the organ of recognition is the eyes, and those eyes aren’t working well enough to recognize Jesus. Which is weird. At this point in the story, Jesus is present everywhere in his absence. His death and resurrection are all that anyone is talking about—it’s certainly all that these particular two guys are talking about. They are living and breathing the events that occurred concerning Jesus. And yet—when he actually appears to them, their eyes don’t even recognize him!
This is the eyes wide shut point of the story. It’s here where the preacher is supposed to point out how foolish these disciples are. Jesus is right in front of their eyes, but those same eyes can’t see him. How embarrassing! Lucky for them, Jesus stays with them. He goes to their house for dinner. They sit down to eat; he takes bread, breaks it, and gives it to them—and it’s in that moment that their eyes are opened and they recognize him. The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Now this is the part of the story where the preacher is supposed to point out that it was in this feast that their eyes truly were opened, finally. Jesus is present with us at our Eucharistic feast, present in his body as well as his spirit. And at this point, the preacher would gesture to the altar and invite the faithful to have their eyes opened to Christ as we gather at the holy table with him.
This is the way the preacher might have preached on this Sunday in a different time and a different place. But Eastertide 2020 in New York City is teaching us something very different from the conventional wisdom. I think I understand something new about this story now. You see, I don’t think it’s embarrassing at all that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus with their eyes. Jesus is there with us whether we see him or not; he has perfect vision, and if God had wanted us to have the same, God would have given us his eyes. It’s okay not to see God in the time of trial. Sometimes your eyes are wide shut. But if you want to see him, you can. Again, it’s the eyes that are the organs of recognition. You can still see Jesus in the breaking of the bread—even if you can’t taste that bread with your own mouth. Sometimes the eyes can see, and sometimes they cannot. It’s fine either way. God is with us.
Let me go back to the disciples on the road again, the eyes wide shut moment of the story. We know exactly what it’s like to be like them. We are surrounded by news and chatter about the most important thing that’s happening at all times. I can’t turn on the radio or read the news without hearing something about the virus. You can’t start a conversation with someone without asking how they are doing. The news is everywhere; we are living inside of it. And yet, there’s a way in which all this information, all this attention, this obsession—it can sometimes crowd out the strange holiness of this moment. Of course, there’s no denying the suffering we are enduring. Members of this parish have lost family members or are sick themselves. This church exists under the shadow of the hundreds of patients at New York Presbyterian-Brooklyn Methodist Hospital across the street. So many have lost their jobs or are dealing with the stress of isolation.
And yet…and yet Jesus is with us. He is our companion in the loneliness. He is our comfort in sorrow. He is our hope in despair and confusion. Jesus did not come into the world to be a playmate in the good times. He is the light that came to lighten the darkness. He is the improbably savior, the one foretold that no one could predict.
We are living inside the reality of this virus. It is for a time like this that Jesus came into the world. We may not recognize him with our eyes at this very moment, but that doesn’t mean he’s not here. We may not see him all the time, but that’s okay. It’s just a part of his grace to be present even when we aren’t aware of his presence. If nothing else, not seeing him now will make us appreciate him all the more once our eyes are finally opened.
So what do we do if we truly do want to have our eyes opened? Scripture says the eyes of the disciples were opened in the breaking of the bread. Again, in a different time, the preacher would simply gesture to the holy altar and remind the congregation that their eyes are being opened in the celebration of the Eucharist, the feast in which we all partake. I am so sorry that we cannot all share this feast together. It is heartbreaking. There is a wide and vigorous discussion in the church as to what form of liturgy is best suited to this time when we are separated by everything except the Internet. Many churches have switched to online liturgies that don’t involve the Eucharist. After all, what’s the point of celebrating if no one but the two or so people can partake?
But there is a way for you to partake, and it’s spelled out right here in today’s Gospel story. The site of recognition is the eyes, not the mouth. Of course watching the Eucharist is not the same as consuming the bread and the wine. But we continue to celebrate this sacrament in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is constantly finding ways to open our eyes to God’s presence in our midst, wherever that may be. In our long discussions about how best to serve our parish at this time, Fr. Spencer and I acknowledge that there is no perfect solution to this problem. But we also decided to continue to break the bread in order to keep a holy vigil, as an acknowledgement that the day will come soon and very soon when we will all be reunited.
In the meantime, feast on Christ with your eyes. Put yourself in the place of the disciples, who first recognized him when they saw him breaking the bread. We cannot control God’s grace, and just because you may once have experienced that grace in eating the bread doesn’t mean God isn’t speaking to you right now, right where you are. Perhaps God is opening your eyes, feeding you not by taste, but by sight. Stranger things have happened. The disciples recognized Jesus simply by seeing the breaking of the bread—and you can too.
We are odd creatures who often miss the thing that is in plain view. Let God open your eyes, even in this time—especially in this time. God is at work around us. God is at work through us. God is walking with you just as Jesus walked with the disciples. God is at table with you in your breaking of the bread. God is everywhere. Let your eyes be opened to God’s presence.
One of my favorite poets, Theodore Roetheke, wrote a poem that begins like this:
In a dark time, the eye begins to see.
This is a dark time. When your eye cannot see, know that Christ is still by your side. The eye will begin to see, eventually—in the breaking of the bread, in the grace that surrounds us, in all that is holy and good and of God, who is our sight. Amen.