You See, But You Do Not Observe

By Zac Koons

In one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, called “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Sherlock at one point expresses frustration at his partner, Dr. John Watson’s all -too -predictable incompetence in the face of the mystery they’re trying to solve. Watson’s routine failures to recognize clues when they’re right in front of his face is somewhat of a trope in these stories, but in this instance Sherlock offers his own diagnosis of the doctor with this lovely phrase: “You see, but you do not observe.”

Such is the situation on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and his friend are walking down the road, trying to solve the central mystery of their lives, which turns out to be the central mystery of our lives too; that is, they’re trying to sort out the significance of “all these things” that had just happened in Jerusalem. And in the face of this, they take up the role of Dr. John Watson. They are utterly bewildered, confused, and mystified, even when the most important clue — indeed, the very answer to the mystery they’re trying to solve — is right in front of their face. They see, but they do not observe.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like John Watson in the face of life’s mysteries. If the clarity and answers that seem so readily available to others, you feel for whatever reason that they elude your grasp. I wonder if you ever feel alone in this world.

Maybe, like Cleopas and his friend, you’re confused about Jesus. Maybe, like them, you heard he was the one who was going to redeem Israel, but you’re not sure how or what that has to do with you. Maybe, like them, this Easter season you’ve heard others talk about how this Jesus has been raised from the dead but you’re just not sure you buy it.

Maybe God’s felt distant, or absent, or indifferent your whole life and you’re mystified by those who report otherwise. I’m sure most of this doesn’t apply to most of you. Maybe I’m just preaching to myself, again. But in case there’s one or two others of you, I’’ll keep going, because what follows in the rest of the story of the road to Emmaus is good news for any of us who have ever found ourselves in John Watson’s shoes.

What follows is a story about the clues God leaves behind for the doubters. And I don’t just mean the Eucharist. I fear we Episcopalians are too tempted to use this story as a way of looking down on our other not -so -liturgically inclined brothers and sisters. We can’t skip to the end.

The travelers on the Emmaus Road go through a journey of transformation in this story; they undergo a process that brings them from mystery into clarity. And St. Luke, by sharing this story with us, leaves us a trail of clues, of crumbs, if you will, that lead us to that revelatory Eucharistic moment. St. Luke invites you and meI into this journey of transformation.

So I want to share with you what I see as the clues, the bread crumbs, in this story—not as a guaranteed solution to all our doubts, but in hopes that what was helpful to Cleopas and his companion who were confused about God might also be helpful to us. I count four.

The first clue God leaves the Emmaus Road travelers which he also leaves for us is companions. Cleopas was not walking to Emmaus alone. He had a friend, and together they were trying to process everything that had just happened in Jerusalem. Which is to say, even before Jesus was present on the scene, and even if Jesus is dead and the whole Jesus movement is over, it is still Jesus that brought these two friends together in the first place. This might seem simple and obvious, but it’s vital nonetheless: we can’t do live the Christian life alone. I wonder who God’s placed in your life as a real or potential companion.

The side-by-side posture of walking down the road is, I think, a helpful metaphor for just the kinds of holy friendships God desires for us. I don’t know about you, but the majority of the most important conversations I’ve had in my life have either been on walks or road trips. Side-by-side is a posture for mutual curiosity and discovery, a space for wondering and non-coerced vulnerability — quite different from the direct, pressure- and expectation-filled confrontations of face-to-face. A helpful question to ask ourselves might be: In which of my friendships do I find myself discovering new things about myself, God, or the world?

The second clue God leaves for us is strangers. Yes, we need companions, but we also need strangers. Had Cleopas and his companion not been open to sharing the road, they never would have met Jesus. And so we too must be open to the possibility that God is as, if not more, likely to meet us in somebody we wouldn’t naturally choose as a companion.

As one of the greatest Christian rock bands of all time, the Newsboys, and also the writer of the Bbook of Hebrews puts it: With God it’s always possible that we’re entertaining angels unaware. Strangers are helpful because they can disrupt the patterns of our doubt, and expose harmful or idolatrous habits in our lives which that we take for granted. For followers of Jesus, the stranger is always by default a potential gift, always first a potential means by which we learn more about ourselves and our God.

As Dr. Scott Moore said at Theology Live last week, Christians are called to more than tolerance towards those different from us;, we must practice hospitality. But I wonder whether hospitality is still not a strong enough word, because hospitality still assumes that we are the ones helping them. If it’s true that God meets us in the stranger, we actually need the stranger more than they need us. Which is to say, for Christians, diversity is a selfish virtue.

Several years ago a friend of mine, someone discerning a call to ordained ministry, was in a season of deep and serious doubt. He thought about dropping out of the call process. But a wise discernment committee counseled him to spend some time volunteering as a chaplain at the local prison before dropping out. He did, and it saved his faith. His faith was saved because he chose to see in the stranger first a potential gift instead of a potential threat.

The third clue God leaves for us doubters is the Bible. Jesus, still unrecognized, opens the Bible with Cleopas and his companion and reads to them. At a basic level, we should say this about the Bible: In a world that has billions of books, Christians are quite fortunate that they’ve been given the book. Christians have pretty much always agreed that the Bible is our primary source of authority for what is and is not true. I often hear people lament that they just don’t feel like God speaks to them anymore. But God does speak, every week, in the reading of Scripture. That’s why we say “the word of the Lord.” Every time you read the Bible, Jesus comes to talk with you.

Which is not to say, again, that the Bible can’t be difficult and confusing sometimes, but Jesus on the road to Emmaus helps us on that front too: The text says, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” He says, look, when in doubt, you can always just think of the Bible as a book about me. What does that mean?

Well, first, it means that the whole plot -line of the Old Testament, the history of Israel and even the story of Ccreation, is leading up to Jesus. We often call this prophecy. As Paul puts it in Romans, “Christ is the goal of the Law.” But it’s not limited to that. The Old Testament isn’t just pointing to Jesus –— after all, Jesus tells these travelers that it’s actually about him. Which is to say,

Jesus is as much a character in the Old Testament as he is in the Gospels. For example, St. John starts his gGospel by telling us that Jesus is the Word that God spoke when he created all things in Genesis; and that same Word of the Lord comes to the prophets and gives them words to speak. Paul even tells us that Jesus was the rock that gave Israel water when they wandered in the desert (1 Cor. 10).

Jesus might be closest to the surface of the Old Testament in the Psalms. Remember that Jesus’ last words in the Gospel of Luke are from Psalm 31 (“Into your hands I commend my spirit”). In Matthew and Mark, Jesus cries out from Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). The gGospels are training us in how to read, not just these Psalms, but all of them: because Israel was part of the body of Christ just as much as we are, Israel’s prayers are the prayers of Jesus.

What if we read today’s Psalm (no. 116) as if it’s spoken by Jesus? “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.” I can imagine Jesus saying that. And the Psalmist goes onadds: “You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” God delivered Jesus from death; I can imagine Jesus saying that too. Then “I walk before the LORD in the land of the living.”

If we read today’s Psalm as something about Jesus, we get the crucifixion, Rresurrection, and the Aascension. In short, if the Bible ever feels confusing to you, when in doubt, ask yourself, I wonder how this passage is really about Jesus?. Or better yet, imagine Jesus as the one reading it to you.

Then, the fourth and final clue Jesus leaves the doubters is the breaking of the bread. Invoking, as he does, the liturgical formula of “take, bless, break, and give” it’s hard to imagine St. Luke has anything in mind here other than the Eucharist — the Church’s central feast and act of worship. But this is important: In the breaking of bread and the passing of the cup, Jesus offers not a standalone magic trick guaranteed to give you the spiritual warm fuzzies time and again, but a gift that brings all the other gifts together. Which is to say — and I suspect y’all are growing tired of me saying this by now — you should go to Church.

Church is where companions, strangers, word, and sacrament all come together. This is why the breaking of the bread is the revelatory moment for the travelers on the Emmaus Road, because it’s here that we realize Jesus has been talking about what happens in Church the whole time. This is where we gather with others — some of them companions, some of them strangers. And this is where Jesus speaks to us in the Scriptures. And this is where we receive Ccommunion, where we meet Christ himself, where we are taken, broken, blessed, and given back to the world.

Companions, strangers, Scripture, and sacrament. Church. These are clues, the gifts, God offers to those of us who doubt, who feel alone, who feel for whatever reason the answers and clarity expressed by others are not available to us. And the extraordinary thing is that these gifts are free. They’re right in front of us. The trick is to recognize and receive them as gifts. The trick is not only to see, but to observe.

As soon as Cleopas and his companion recognize Jesus, he disappears before their eyes, and they turn to one another and say, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road and opening the Scriptures to us?” This rings true to me. In my own life, God’s presence has been elusive. I often notice God’s presence in my life only retrospectively, once it’s in the rear-view mirror. But what this story helps me see, the comforting word it offers me, is that that this doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t there the whole time. It doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t always, already working in and around your life to get your attention.

Which is to say, ifIf in retrospect we can say things like “Weren’t our hearts burning within us the whole time,” think about how Jesus feels. His heart must be about to explode. Because he’s so very often right in front of our eyes. And he knows that he is the answer to life’s greatest mystery. And he’s constantly trying to get our attention, because the heart of God burns for you.

What if our problem is not that there’s not enough God, but that there’s too much?

What if God is here right now?

The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.


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