The disciples get a bad rap for not recognizing Jesus. I’ve heard sermons about how we should not be like Thomas – we should not doubt (John 20:24-29). We should not need physical evidence. I’ve heard sermons about how we should not be like those men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35). They could not see Jesus when he was in their midst. They didn’t believe the Scriptures would be fulfilled. These are examples of doubt. We should be pillars of faith.
“Many Christians, as well as members of other religious groups, feel anxiety, guilt and despair about what they call ‘loss of faith.’ But serious doubt is confirmation of faith. It indicates the seriousness of the concern, its unconditional character . . . The criterion according to which they should judge themselves is the seriousness and ultimacy of their concern about the content of both their faith and their doubt.”
But I don’t think the road to Emmaus is a story about faith and doubt. I think it’s a story about friends and strangers.
The disciples don’t recognize Jesus. They don’t recognize their friend.
This speaks to me as someone who lives with depression. Depression runs a number on one’s normal character. It takes something from you. Yes, it takes sleep and appetite and happiness. At least, these are some of my symptoms. But it takes more than that. It takes energy to do basic things. It takes vigor to accomplish necessary tasks. It changes how you see the world. It takes a piece of your soul. Spare moments surrender to lethargy. Pessimism is par. You try not to slip into desperation.
Who is this sad person who can’t do anything?
Depression makes you someone else. Someone other than who you know yourself to be. A shadow of another self. A self that made friends, and could speak in complete sentences. Yes, there are times when I barely recognize myself.
For some people, this is a season in time connected to a particular event. For others, it is part of the rhythm of life. Whether it happens once or multiple times, it transforms you. You can’t get to the person you want to be. Depression can be like death.
Depressed people live close to death. Andrew Solomon says depression is like despair and grief to a higher degree. For those who have been suicidal, death is a dance partner. We know its moves better that we should.
I’m not saying that Jesus was depressed. I’m trying to say this: Pain changes you. Whether the risen Jesus had a transfigured body, or a disabled one – as Nancy Eiseland argues – the risen Jesus was not the same Jesus who was crucified. When you know death so intimately and find by some miracle that you are still alive, nothing about you is the same as before. Of course, the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus.
What impresses me about the disciples is that they walked with a man they didn’t recognize. He was a stranger, and they walked seven miles with him. He was a stranger, and they had a conversation with him. He was a stranger, and they invited him to a meal. I like these people who are willing to journey with a stranger. I like people who will walk with someone they don’t recognize.
This is what I need most from my friends. When I’m this other depressed person, I need them to walk with me. I need them to talk with me. I need them to invite me to a meal. Because this is what brings me into new life. Ordinary companionship. It doesn’t surprise me at all that that was when they recognized Jesus: during the breaking of bread.