Ordinary Means of Grace: The Presence of the Risen Christ
Text: Luke 24:28-43
Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” And He went in to stay with them. Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight.
And they said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” So they rose up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” And they told about the things that had happened on the road, and how He was known to them in the breaking of bread.
Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them,“Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence.
I grew up in a part of the country that is very-heavily churched. The state of Mississippi is perhaps the center of the Bible Belt. There are churches on every corner, and we had our own manner of Christian speaking growing up. I learned a number of memorable Christian expressions and even clichés. Some of these were better than others. I’ve forgotten many of them. But others have stuck with me, and I’ve tried to make sense of them over the years, to decide if they are really good or bad teaching tools. One of the most famous sayings I heard growing up was this one—“The difference between Heaven and Hell is about 18 inches, the space between your head and your heart.” Have you ever heard that before? What pastors meant when they said this was that you need to have a real personal relationship with Jesus. It isn’t just enough to know ideas, to know about Jesus. We can’t just go through the motions and count on our family and church membership, along with any and all rules and requirements to save our souls. No, we have to know Jesus. You need to see Him, experience Him, and even encounter Him.
That’s all a pretty familiar sentiment. You’ve no doubt heard it before many times, even if wasn’t in those words. But what does it actually mean? How do we know or encounter Jesus today? Well, from what we see in our scripture text today, this doesn’t mean a physical encounter. As it turns out, you can actually walk alongside Jesus and share a meal with Him before you really see or recognize Him. The disciples didn’t even quite “know” Jesus when He appeared to them again. They had to have their eyes opened by His grace. I’d like to show you from our Scripture passage that something like that is true. We do need to experience Jesus today. We need God to open our eyes by His grace.
However, this teaching can be abused in such a way to take away any of the normal, ordinary ways that you would ever know Christ. When I grew up, this was certainly the case. This teaching was meant to say that knowing Christ should always be a spontaneous action that happens to you quite apart from your control or anyone else. I’d like to show that that’s also not what happens in the Bible. While it is true that an act of grace is necessary to open the disciples’ eyes, there are two instruments, tool, or means by which God does this: the reading of Scripture and the celebration of a meal together, the breaking of bread. What I’d like to argue this morning is that you and I do need to know Christ. We need a real, personal, living relationship with Him that is more than just head knowledge. But I’d like to also show you that Christ promises to reveal Himself to you in certain places. He promises to be there, and you can trust His promise. These places are the reading of His Word and the celebration of His sacraments in the context of the gathered people of God. When we come together to read the Bible and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Jesus promises to reveal Himself to you and make Himself known.
The Disciples Don’t Recognize the Resurrected Christ
Well, let’s go back to that Emmaus Road. This is a continuation from the Scripture text from last week. There were two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but they don’t recognize Him. Why not? Look at Luke 24: 16. “Their eyes were restrained so that they did not know Him.” This is important because Christ has not taken on a different body. He’s got His body. That’s the point of the resurrection, after all. He’s not a spirit, as we heard in the text. Nevertheless, His own disciples do not know Him.
This is an important point. Our perception is impaired or handicapped. It doesn’t work like it should. This is because of sin. We believe that until the Lord opens our eyes, through an act of His grace, we cannot see Christ truly. The great illustration of this is the conversion of the Apostle Paul. He was Saul at the time, and Jesus appeared in a blinding light which took away Saul’s sight. Paul receives his sight back after being sent to a commissioned teacher. Acts 9:18 is very interesting, and I wish more was said about it. It says, “immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.” Of course, he was literally blinded. But isn’t that word interesting, scales? I, along with many commentators, believe that that is symbolism, and it’s on purpose. What are scales reminiscent of? –the serpent. And there are sections of Scripture where bad guys have scales. The most famous is the story of David and Goliath. Go back and read 1 Sam. 17:5. Goliath is wearing armor, and in the Hebrew it says that He has scales. Goliath is covered in scales. The picture is that of a war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. In the case of the Apostle Paul, he is transformed from the seed of the serpent to the seed of the woman. His scales fall off, and he can see.
Now, I don’t think the apostles in Luke 24 are in exactly the same position. I don’t think they are being transformed from death to life. But they are partially blind. They can’t see what is right in front of them. And this happens to us as well. Before we are converted by the Holy Spirit, we are spiritually blind. We cannot “see” Christ until God opens our eyes. But we can also be partially blind to God in Christ as believers. This happens when we are weak in faith and refuse to see Christ where He chooses to appear, when He appears in ways we are not expecting.
Luke at Luke 24:31. We see the same kind of language used for the apostles. “Their eyes were opened and they knew Him…” Isn’t this incredible? Even the apostles can be spiritually blind for a time. Verse 37 continues, “But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit.” Why did they think this way? It’s quite ordinary, really. Jesus had died. They had witnessed Jesus die on the cross, and He was buried. The apostles were thinking naturally, normally. After all, dead people don’t come back. When they see Him, they assume He must be a ghost.
And so Jesus said to them:
“Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. (Luke 24:38-39)
So we know that Jesus had a body. He had a physical body. Jesus’ resurrection means that the body that went into the tomb came back. But the apostles couldn’t see it at first, and when they did, they didn’t know what to think about it. Christ had to reveal Himself to them, and then He had to explain what had happened.
Christ is Made Known Through His Word and Fellowship
Now here’s the million dollar question. How does Jesus make Himself known? Yes, He does do an act of grace that “turns on the light,” so to speak. But He doesn’t just stop there. This isn’t the Matrix. Jesus doesn’t put a disk into your brain so that you just automatically know Kung Fu. That isn’t how it works. Jesus opens their eyes, but then He explains to them from the Scriptures. Starting at Moses and all the prophets, He explains to them the things concerning Himself. This is how He is known.
Look at verse 32. The men are reflecting upon the walk with Jesus, and they say, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” So you see that their heart is burning. This is an affection, a spiritual and internal movement. But it isn’t in isolation. It doesn’t just happen out of the blue. It happens when Jesus speaks and teaches the Scriptures.
The second way that Jesus reveals Himself is when He eats with the apostles. There are two different eatings:
Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. (Luke 24:30-31)
This is what they call “the breaking of bread” in verse 35. “And they told about the things that had happened on the road, and how He was known to them in the breaking of bread.” So, Jesus is known in the meal, particularly in the breaking of bread.
Now, is this a Lord’s Supper meal right here? Probably not. But, it certainly parallels one, and it even uses the same language. Jesus took bread, blessed it, and broke it. This is what we say at the Lord’s Supper, and the Apostle Paul uses pretty much this same expression when he explains the Lord’s Supper. He says this in 1 Corinthians 11, “ For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it…” (1 Cor. 11:23-24). So “took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave…” This is a common way of speaking of the Lord’ Supper. So I don’t think the meals in Luke 24 are Lord’s Supper meals, but I think they are pointers to the Lord’s Supper. They are meal rituals which parallel and prepare us to expect the Lord’ Supper.
Then there’s a second meal when Jesus eats with the rest of the apostles:
But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence. (Luke 24:41-43)
This is important because it shows that Jesus is in a body. He is eating. Will we eat in heaven? Yes. We will even eat in the new heavens and new earth. What will it look like? We don’t know. It will probably be different, but there is some level of continuity. Jesus eats quite a bit after the resurrection. This happens in John’s gospel too. There’s something important about eating with the resurrected Christ.
And notice, this is connected again with allowing or helping the apostles to know Christ. They still “did not believe for joy.” They are trying to figure out what has happened. Jesus sees that they are in a state of confusion, and He decides to eat with them. So again, we see that there are two ways Christ chooses to make Himself known to them, through His word and by eating a meal with them.
Christ is Primarily Known to us Through His Word and Sacrament
Now I lay this all out to you because this is one of the positions of Reformed Protestant Christianity. You should have a personal, spiritual relationship with God in Christ. And this should even be in your heart. Absolutely. But that always needs to be connected to the ordinary means of grace—the reading of the Scriptures and the celebration of the sacrament with God’s people. This isn’t an either/or—do you want formal or spontaneous. The challenge is to use the ordinary to train your heart so that you can develop a good spiritual religious life.
This is different from what is taught by many other Christians. In my upbringing, which I’m thankful for in many ways, I was taught differently, and I struggled with this doctrine. It was a common thing growing up to be taught, usually in camps or retreats, that we should go off, by ourselves, and just meditate and think, usually out in the woods or by the lake. That was when God was going to come to us. If you’re doing that with your Bible and with a desire to get back together with the rest of God’s people in worship, then that can be very good, but if that means that the “real” place where you meet God is by yourself, in nature, and totally spontaneously, then it’s very wrong. It’s false. We should not expect God to just pop up in our lives at random. The reason that we shouldn’t expect this is because He gave us means of grace. He gave us what He wanted us to do. And so, it isn’t faith to put that stuff away. It isn’t believing what God has said. God has promised to show up by these means.
Can God do it in other ways? Absolutely. He can make an appearance in an extraordinary fashion. But what has He promised to do normally, regularly? I would maintain that He has promised to meet us with His word and with His sacrament. And so my application to you this morning is quite simple, quite direct. Look for Jesus where He has promised to be. That’s how you should come to know Him personally. This doesn’t mean that He’s mediated or controlled by denominations or church officers. He’s not. All we should be doing is pointing you to His word and sharing the sacraments with you. But Christ promises to be here, in His word and sacrament.
So, read your bibles. That seems like a very unimpressive application. But it’s essential. Read your bibles and make sense of them. Put the pieces together. Where is Christ in the story? And also, expect Christ to speak to you through the Bible. Then, secondly, come to church and participate in the sacraments, expecting Christ to make Himself known to you there. Believe.
It’s unfortunate that the Lord’s Supper is such a source of controversy in different denominations. They debate, “Is Christ turning the bread and wine into His body and blood? Or is He adding His body and blood alongside the bread and wine? Or is He using the bread and wine to take you spiritually to the body and blood? Or is it none of the above?” People argue about that. Sometimes we have to do that, I understand. But it’s a real mistake if that’s the first thing you want to do. Jesus says “This is My body given for you. Take and eat.” Don’t stop and fight about it. Take it. Eat it. Believe. That’s what He wants. But a lot of folks can find a way to not do what they are commanded by Christ because of their theology. Isn’t that a great example of Pharisaism, polishing the tombs of the prophets while contradicting what they taught? Christ says “This is for you. I’m here. Believe.” And that’s what we want you to do as well.
In conclusion then, Christ is risen. He is alive. He is present with us. And He is present with us through the means He has given us. Know Him. Experience Him. Encounter Him. But look for Him where He promises to be. Trust God’s promises, one of which is that “I will be with you always, even to the end of the ages.” Accept the ordinary, the ordinary means of grace. See Christ where He may be found, and He will reveal Himself to you.
Let us pray.