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Recognizing the Risen Lord: Part 1

            How did the first disciples of Jesus recognize him as the risen Lord?  The answer is by recognizing him as the crucified Christ.  The question is not an inconsequential detail of biblical trivia.  The devil is in the details and so, not infrequently, is the truth.  Nor is the answer so obvious that there is no need to mention it.  The profound is often hidden in the obvious.  Both question and answer lead us to the heart of the Christian faith and life.

            The question and the answer came to me while listening to our pastor preach from Luke 24:13-35.  On the day of his resurrection Jesus approaches two of his disciples who are walking to the town of Emmaus.  They do not recognize him and are appalled at his ignorance of the events surrounding the death of Jesus, the subject of their conversation.  The two disciples are bewildered by his death and the reports of his resurrection.  Jesus rebukes them sharply for not understanding the witness of the Scriptures to the necessity of the Christ’s suffering and subsequent entry into glory.  They invite Jesus to stay with them, and when he breaks the mealtime bread, they recognize him (v. 35).

            But why does Jesus’ breaking of the bread lead them to recognize who he is?  Luke appears to be making the theological point that one can only recognize the risen Lord by identifying him with the crucified Christ.  Without going into all the details, the wording of Luke 24:30 that Jesus “taking the bread, blessed it and then breaking the bread, gave it to them” is strongly reminiscent of two other passages in the Gospel of Luke central to the identity of Jesus Christ. 

            The first passage, Luke 9:16, describes this same action at the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, an event that is placed between Herod the tetrarch’s question concerning the identity of Jesus (vv. 7-9) and the same question asked by Jesus of his disciples (vv. 18-20).  After Peter gives the right answer, “The Christ of God,” Jesus begins to teach them of the necessity of his suffering, rejection, death and resurrection as the Son of Man (vv. 21-22).  It is important to note that interwoven throughout this chapter in Luke are references to the kingdom of God and the cruciform nature of Christian discipleship.

            The second similar passage (Luke 22:19) records Jesus’ words at the Last Supper.  Here he explicitly affirms that the bread is his body given for the disciples.  His identity is thus the one who will be sacrificed for them. Jesus then reiterates the necessity of his death as the Son of Man.  Once again, there are references to the kingdom of God and sections in the immediate context concerning teachings and events that point to the nature of Christian discipleship.

             The two disciples on the road to Emmaus recognize the risen Lord as the crucified Christ, when he breaks the bread (v. 35).  Furthermore, when the disciples have doubts about his identity as the risen Lord, Jesus bids them look at his hands and feet, which bear the marks of the crucifixion.  Once again, recognition of the risen Lord comes only after identifying him with the crucified Christ.

            The Swiss theologian Karl Barth describes this manner of recognizing the resurrected Lord as “the radical assertion that He was known as the One who had been among them before and was then crucified, dead and buried” (Church Dogmatics, IV:2: 144).   Even more strongly, Martin Luther argues, “Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross” (Heidelberg Disputation, “Proof of Theological Thesis 20”).

            The fact that the risen Lord is the crucified Christ is a truth so radical that it challenges human religion, reason and politics.  The recognition of this fact calls for God’s grace to change the human heart, a point to which we shall return in our next post.

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