Eastertide: Discerning the Presence of Christ

You can also read Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4 of this series.

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. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”
 (Luke 24:29-31)

Have you ever had a conversation that felt so good you didn’t want it to end? Maybe it was that first date with the person who later became your husband or wife when you kept saying, “What? You too?!” Maybe it happened over coffee with a new friend whom you eventually recognized as a kindred spirit; everywhere you went in conversation, the other person was able to meet you there.  And as your time together came to a close, you parted reluctantly, longing for more of whatever it was that had just taken place.

They Urged Him Strongly to Stay

If you have ever had an experience like that, you know exactly what the disciples on the road to Emmaus felt as they approached the exit to their village and it was time to part ways. The conversation they had been having with Jesus was so different in tone, quality and content from what they were used to that they did not want it to end. They longed for more of the freedom to share how they really felt without being judged or fixed. They hungered for the kind of deep listening Jesus was so skilled at—the kind that created space for hard questions and shared silence when emotions ran deep. 

Even though the conversation with Jesus had been challenging, to say the least, they wanted more of his paradigm-shifting perspective rather than continuing to settle for mere platitudes. Perhaps the conversation felt strangely familiar even though they couldn’t quite pinpoint why.

But now it was getting dark and even though it would have been dangerous to be out on the road alone, Jesus pretended to go on—probably because he didn’t want to impose on them. However, beyond obligatory politeness, “they urged him strongly to stay.” Jesus gave in to their friendly persuasion and that’s when things really started to get interesting!

The Kingdom of God Comes at Dinner

The word stay is used twice in Luke 24:29 and reminds us that the discipline of staying together is quite significant to the outcome of this story. At the beginning, the two disciples chose to stay with each other and walk together, which opened them to the presence of Christ. Here at the end of the story, all three companions choose to stay together, which opened up the possibility for further encounter, deeper levels of recognition and true discernment—possibilities that would have been missed if they had left each other too soon.

This aspect of the story is worthy of note because it is so countercultural for us today. We live in a global society that is so transient, hardly anyone stays anywhere for very long. People routinely leave family and friends behind in order to follow a job. Couples choose not to stay married when the going gets tough. People leave their churches when they disagree with the pastor or a new, better version of church gets started down the street or across town. Congregations leave denominations when they disagree with policies and practices; denominations splinter and new denominations form when the chasm seems too deep and too wide to be bridged.

And yet in this story, staying together made all the difference. It gave them the opportunity to do something very ordinary together—to share a meal—and that meal became the context in which the most significant and revelatory moments of the whole journey took place. Jesus’ choice to stay and share a meal with these disciples seems, at the very least, to be an expression of his desire to renew fellowship with them after all they had been through. But there was whole lot more.

The Emmaus meal was highly reminiscent of the Last Supper, when Jesus broke bread and shared wine with his disciples for the last time before his crucifixion. Whether these particular disciples were at that final meal or not, they were probably aware of Jesus’ statement that he would not eat the Passover meal or drink from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes (Luke 22:15-18). Whether they realized it or not, this meal was the fulfillment of that statement right there in their midst: the kingdom of God had come in Christ!

The Great Reversal

If we observe carefully, we might also notice that an odd reversal takes place during this meal. Even though the disciples had invited Jesus into their home as their guest, by the time they sat down for dinner, Jesus was acting more like the host! He was the one who picked up the bread, blessed it, broke it and served it—something the host would typically have done as an act of welcome and hospitality—exercising one’s prerogative to be in control of what goes on in one’s own home. How rude! we might be thinking. What in the world is going on?

The shift Jesus made from being the guest to being the host represents a significant turning point on the road between the now and the not-yet. It is the shift from the illusion that we are in control of our relationship with Christ and our spiritual journey to an absolute awareness that Jesus is the one guiding, controlling and sustaining our journey. Early in the Emmaus Road experience, Jesus was deferential and took his cues from the disciples. Taking the role of a stranger, he appeared to be tagging along, following their lead, engaging them in conversation at the level they were comfortable with. He let them set the limits, boundaries and pacing of the conversation and went only as far as they were ready and willing to go.

But when he took the bread in his own hand, blessed it, broke it and started passing it around, there was no doubt who was in charge. With this act, he reclaimed his rightful place as their teacher, their Messiah, their risen Lord. As they received the bread from his hand, they were receiving him back into their lives as Lord and Savior. It was at that precise moment that their eyes were opened and they were finally able to recognize Jesus for who he was. 

When the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary 

Just think—if these three companions had not stayed together, they would have missed the culminating moment of the whole journey! One of the great themes in the Emmaus story is that in the ordinary moments of our lives, Jesus is simply delighted to show up and join right in. As we become more practiced at recognizing him—on the way home after a long, hard weekend, during an ordinary conversation between friends, in the midst of mourning our losses, as we prepare food and share a meal together—our vision of the present moment is transformed, and we ourselves are deeply changed. 

This is the heart of transforming community—learning to recognize the presence of Christ in all of life, especially in those moments when you least expect it.  In our Christian tradition we call it  discernment—“finding God in all things in order that we might love and serve God in all.” (St. Ignatius of Loyola)

While discernment might sound like a mystical experience available only to the gifted few, the walk to Emmaus illustrates that it is more foundational than that; in fact, it is central to our life together in Christ. This increasing capacity to recognize and respond to the presence of Christ—both in the ordinary moments and also in the larger decisions of our lives—is exactly what Cleopas and the unnamed disciple were experiencing as they journeyed together with Jesus.

And Then Their Eyes Were Opened

If you think about it, the entire Emmaus Road experience was really an exercise in discerning Christ’s presence—on the road, in conversation, in Scripture, during the meal. The issue never was whether Christ was present in all these moments, for he surely was! The issue was whether the disciples had the capacity to recognize him, and that was something that developed by God’s grace, over time, as they shared the journey. Their capacity for discernment actually progressed throughout the story: first they saw him as a stranger, then as a traveling companion, then as a teacher, then as a guest, then as a host, and finally as their Messiah and resurrected Lord.

As it turns out, the physical journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus was nothing compared to the spiritual journey from “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16) to “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (24:31). There were obstacles to discerning Christ’s presence on their road between the now and not-yet, as there are for all of us, and one of the primary functions of transforming community is to support one another in noticing and eliminating those obstacles.  In such supportive company, we might ask our ourselves:

  • Am I so consumed with grief over my losses that I am not able to discern Christ walking alongside me in the pain?
  • Have I become so disillusioned by some of my life experiences that I’ve given up and given in to cynicism?
  • Is my vision so myopic—so focused on the details of my life and making everything so relentlessly personal—that I cannot see things from a larger perspective of what God might be up to?
  • Is there any way in which I might be like the disciples who were “foolish . . . and slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25) all that had been revealed to them?
  • Am I so taken with my human wisdom or the wisdom of this world that I cannot recognize the wisdom that comes from God—which often includes the necessary rhythms of suffering and death, burial/waiting and resurrection?
  • Am I so focused on myself and my own agenda that I forget to ask, What is God up to, and how can I join God in it?
  • What else keeps me from discerning Christ’s presence?

As spiritual companions we can become practiced at gently asking questions that help remove the obstacles from one another’s line of vision.

Dark Nights and Bright Mornings

There are also times when Jesus seems absent because he chooses to be. Right after the disciples’ eyes were opened and they recognized him, he promptly disappeared! These sudden disappearances are common in the post-resurrection narratives. When Jesus appeared to Mary at the garden tomb, at first she thought he was the gardener; when she finally recognized him, he told her not to touch him and then disappeared. What is that about?

As excruciating as it must have been to lose Jesus again so quickly right when they thought they were getting him back, there was good reason for it. Jesus wanted them to know he was alive, but he also wanted them to learn to relate to him in a new way. Rather than knowing him as an earthly friend and teacher, he wanted them to engage him on a spiritual level. Rather than clinging to past experiences of physical presence, they would need to cultivate faith that goes beyond sight. They were now going to need to recognize and trust that he was always with them, only now his presence was mediated through the Holy Spirit. This would not be easy.

From Faith to Pure Faith

These post-resurrection disappearances seem to correspond to the spiritual experience of the dark night of the soul, that time in the spiritual life when a person no longer experiences the nearness of God in all the familiar ways. Classic spiritual writers such as John of the Cross and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing describe the dark night as God “going behind the cloud.” This is not to be cruel but to help us cultivate a more mature faith that is not so dependent on signs and wonders, feelings and experiences. 

In this dark night we are stripped of our dependency on intellectual and emotional experiences of God, because they are no longer given. We are called upon to exercise pure faith in God in the absence of the kind of “knowing” and “feeling” that characterized earlier parts of our journey; we discover that we cannot force God’s hand or make things happen just because we want them to. This is a time of profound letting go and surrender as we give up the last vestiges of our illusion of self-control and self-will on the way to transforming union with God.

It is of utmost importance that spiritual companions in transforming community learn how to recognize this part of the journey for themselves and each other. That way they can encourage one another to say yes to the deeper journey of faith, rather than trying to “fix” things that cannot and ought not be fixed because God is actually doing a deep work. “As the disciples had to learn not to cling to their past experiences of Jesus, similarly, in the dark night, the Christian needs to open up to a new way of being in God by letting go of false notions and even sweet spiritual experiences. Though the dark night is experienced as being empty on the level of our senses, it is actually a blessing because one’s faith is being purified.”1

The Fellowship of the Burning Hearts

Even though Jesus’ disappearance must have left the disciples with a deep sense of loss and emptiness, they gained something very important. They had now recognized this experience of their hearts burning within them as Jesus accompanied them on their journey, and they would always be able to recognize it. They were learning how to know Jesus not just by his physical presence but by the impact his presence had on their hearts. Not only that, they had the incredible blessing of spiritual companionship as they were able to speak about their experience openly with each other, affirming that their encounter with Jesus had been real and life-changing. 

Now their communion with Jesus on the road and around the table was calling forth a new kind of community among them that was not so much about grief and loss but about recognizing Christ’s presence and activity in and among them. Their community would never be the same again!

1Ekman P. Tam, “The Road to Emmaus: A Biblical Rationale for Spiritual Direction,” Presence, June 2008, p.63.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2021. This article is adapted from Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community (InterVarsity Press, 2014.)

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Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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I so needed to read this today in ways that I can’t even fully grasp myself. And I will re-read it probably more than once. It is answering some questions deep in my soul. Thank you so much, Ruth.

God be with you, Sandra, on your road…on your journey.

What a powerful story and writing! The great takeaway for me is:

“The conversation they had been having with Jesus was so different in tone, quality and content from what they were used to that they did not want it to end. They longed for more of the freedom to share how they really felt without being judged or fixed. They hungered for the kind of deep listening Jesus was so skilled at—the kind that created space for hard questions and shared silence when emotions ran deep.” 

A beautiful template for shepherding, mentoring, and life coaching. Thanks for sharing your beautiful insights!

Thank you for this!! I’m sharing it with my group – “TLC” – Transformational Living Community. There are nine of us who have shared our journeys for for twelve or more years. Your writings have blessed us many times.

Oh my, Ruth, what rich, profound, soul-stirring insight! It brings this passage to life in fresh ways and I am deeply grateful.

Aww…you are so welcome!

What a beautiful and profound reflection for Ascension Day! Grateful for the ongoing ministry of the Transforming Center.

Thanks, Scott! So good to hear from you!

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