“Who’s the best-known Christian in the world today?”
Not so many years ago, a whole lot of us would have answered, “Billy Graham.” (At least, those of us who are Protestant.) But Billy’s gone now, and no single successor has emerged to claim the title.
No doubt Roman Catholics would say it’s Pope Francis – but they’d probably say that of anyone who sits on the Throne of Peter. Truth be told, the Christian world isn’t all that unified. It hasn’t been since the Great Schism of 1040, when the Roman Catholics broke with the Eastern Orthodox over an obscure theological point in the Nicene Creed. Whatever “well-known Christians” there may be are particular to our own denominational traditions.
Yet, there’s another sense of the phrase “well-known” – a sense that refers not to breadth of knowledge, but depth. This way of being well-known is not limited to religious celebrities, like the pope. It’s available to any honest seekers who open their hearts to a living relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s not about the number of people who know us, but how deeply we are known by our Lord.
Luke tells us how, as Jesus broke bread in the presence of two hungry travelers, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” That word “recognized” (the Greek epiginosko) can be translated “well-known.” Literally, it means that once their eyes are opened, they know Him well. But in fact, the risen Lord knows those weary wanderers on the Emmaus road before they know Him. He knows them through and through.
What a dramatic moment it is, that instant when their eyes are opened, and they recognize Him! Then, just as quickly, He vanishes out of their sight. Who are these two people – these two travelers – and how did they get there?
We only know the name of one of them, he was called Cleopas. The second one is anonymous, and some have speculated this other disciple may have been Cleopas’ wife, although no one can say for certain. Luke says the two of them are walking to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem – although, curiously, no archaeologist has ever been able to locate Emmaus on a map. That’s not to say the village never existed; it was just one of those blink-twice-and-you-miss-it kind of places. The bored teenagers of Emmaus probably hung out down at the well and complained how nothing ever happened in their little town. How wrong they were!
What happens in their village is an encounter between the risen Jesus and two disciples, people who love Him deeply, but who’ve reluctantly given up on ever seeing Him again.
Yet, even with all that strong emotion swirling about, the details of their meeting are hardly spectacular. Just compare the road to Emmaus with the road to Damascus – that place where Paul has his conversion experience.
Saul falls to the ground, blinded. His traveling companions are so bewildered they can’t even speak. The voice commands Saul to go the city and await instructions. He does just that. What choice does he have? Eventually, a Christian named Ananias shows up, lays hands on him, and miraculously heals him.
Now compare that road trip to the Emmaus excursion. The Emmaus road is nothing like the Damascus road. There’s no lightning in this story, no voice from the sky, no miracle cure – just a couple ordinary Joes (or a Joe and a Jane, as the case may be) walking down the road.
A stranger catches up with them. They walk on for a bit, and eventually small talk becomes big talk (as sometimes happens among fellow travelers). They discuss Jesus, who died, and – some say – has been raised. Funny how this stranger teaches them from the Hebrew Scriptures, in much the same way their teacher did, but they still don’t recognize Him.
They finally come to Emmaus. Cleopas and his companion ask their new friend to stay on and join them for dinner. He seems to be in a hurry to get someplace else. But then, abruptly, He agrees, and goes home with them. Just as the stranger is breaking bread, it suddenly dawns on the two of them who He is. But before they know it, He’s gone.
It’s only then that Cleopas and his companion remember how they’d felt along the road, as the stranger was teaching them … “Like our hearts were on fire!” They rush back to Jerusalem, only to discover that – through some inexplicable resurrection power – the stranger has just been there, too.
The dramatic heart of this story is, of course, the moment of recognition: “and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” In that single moment in time – as He stands there, the two halves of broken loaf balanced on his upturned palms – He becomes well-known to them.
Well-known. There’s another place in the New Testament where that Greek word, epiginosko, occurs. It’s in First Corinthians, Chapter 13, the famous “hymn to love” – the passage so many brides and grooms choose for their weddings.
First Corinthians 13:12 says: “then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” There’s that word again! The whole line could be translated literally, “then I will know well, even as I have been well-known.” It’s not about fame. It’s about recognition, that moment of looking into the eyes of another and seeing not just a reflection of ourselves, but of our neighbor’s immortal soul.
Given that this is National Talk Like Shakespeare Day, I offer an illustration from a beloved soliloquy from the Bard’s Hamlet. The title character holds in his hand the skull of a long-deceased friend and Hamlet muses: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well, Horatio.” Shakespeare’s writing in English rather than Greek, but the intent is the same. When Hamlet says of the court jester, Yorick, “I knew him well,” he captures the same sort of depth knowledge that transcends mere acquaintance. Hamlet’s monologue is so poignant because the jester Yorick was a man the troubled Danish prince deeply loved and admired.
Among the most dreaded fears in life – especially in life’s later years – is the prospect of no longer being well-known. We’re not talking about fame, but ordinary human knowing, the way we know our family and friends. Those who live to advanced years often see their circle of friends diminish in size until almost none are left. There are always the younger generations, of course – and those who truly age well learn how to befriend them – but it’s not the same. If there’s truly no one left who can nod with recognition at the same stories, who can hum along with the same pop tunes, then indeed there is a loss of knowing.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul reassures us that because God’s love in Christ is eternal, we will continue – in life or in death – to be beloved of God, to be well-known in that deepest sense.
Yet, how can we be certain, at the last, that Christ will recognize us? Another passage of Scripture provides the answer. It’s not an easy answer, but an answer it is. It’s a passage that leads us to take a long, hard look at the type of life we’ve been living.
In Matthew 25, Jesus’ parable of the last judgment – of the eternal judge separating the sheep from the goats – the disciples ask Him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”
Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The Greek verb, here, is different, but the implication is the same: Jesus promises to recognize us, to treat us as belonging to Him, if we’ve first given recognition and aid to the needy in our midst. If you know them well, Jesus is saying, then I promise to know you well.
So, how is it these two disciples come to know Jesus? Two ways, according to Luke. The first is as the three of them are walking down the road together, discussing the Scriptures. The recognition is still not total at that point, but evidently something’s beginning to stir within them as they talk with this stranger about God’s word. “Did not our hearts burn within us …?”
The second way the disciples come to know Jesus is as He breaks the bread after they’ve arrived in the village.
Luke’s community could not have failed to notice the symbolism. Two things – Word and sacrament – must be present for Cleopas and his companion to know Jesus, and for Him to deeply know them in return. They’re the two essential “marks of the church” – or proof of the church’s true existence – according to the Protestant Reformers. Wherever you have the Word truly proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered, according to John Calvin, there you have the true church of Jesus Christ. Through days of pandemic and its aftermath, we’re learning how Word and sacrament can be central to the church’s life, even over the Internet. Wouldn’t that have blown Calvin’s mind?
As it was in Calvin’s Geneva, it was also true in that tiny, flyspeck village called Emmaus. Whenever we open the Word together and study it, and whenever we gather around the Lord’s table to break bread – either literally or virtually – Christ can be counted upon to be present with us.
There’s a well-known story about the funeral of Charlemagne, holy Roman emperor and ruler of the Frankish people in the early Middle Ages. Not since the fall of Rome had one king unified so much of western Europe under his rule. Charlemagne governed most of present-day France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.
When this renowned emperor died, his soldiers bore his casket, in a mighty procession, from his castle to the great cathedral at Aix. There, the procession was met by the local bishop. He physically barred the cathedral door with his body.
“Who comes?” the bishop demanded, according to ancient custom.
“Charlemagne, Lord and King of the Holy Roman Empire,” proclaimed the emperor’s herald.
“Him I know not,” the bishop replied. “Who comes?”
The herald, a bit shaken, replied, “Charles the Great, a good and honest man of the earth.”
“Him I know not,” the bishop said again. “Who comes?”
Trying a third time, the herald responded, “Charles, a lowly sinner, who begs the gift of Christ.”
To which the bishop – Christ’s representative on earth – responded, “Enter! Receive Christ’s gift of life!”
Charlemagne, during his life, was certainly well-known. But in death, the only knowing that truly mattered was the fact that he was known by Jesus Christ.
There’s one other aspect of this story to consider. As Jesus and the two disciples complete their walk to Emmaus, Jesus makes as if to travel on. Verse 29 says, “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.”
“Stay with us” is the prayer of those two disciples who, at that point, don’t fully recognize their traveling companion – although perhaps a subconscious awareness is growing.
“Stay with us” is so often the prayer we want to pray to Jesus. We want Him to stay – here, with us, on familiar turf, where we can domesticate Him and control His every move. But that’s not the prayer we ought to be praying because Jesus never stays for long. Yes, He’s present in our lives in the broader sense, but he’s always on the move.
How much of our desire to experience church only in a familiar building – or others like it, across the globe – echoes those disciples’ plea, “Stay with us”? Maybe the Lord’s message to us is that he refuses to dwell in the sanctuary permanently, any more than he accepted the invitation of the good residents of Emmaus to stay with them. Our Lord has other roads to walk, other places he has to be. If Matthew 25 is any guide, those other places are wherever human griefs and hungers are most evident.
When we gather as God’s people – in person or virtually – there’s great value in remembering how, as He taught us on the road, “our hearts burned within us.” And how, as He broke bread, our eyes were opened, and we recognized Him.