June 2001

The Eucharist and the identity of Jesus

Luke Timothy Johnson

Why did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus not recognise Jesus? Luke Timothy Johnson, who is Professor of New Testament at the Chandler School of Theology, Emory University, Georgia, USA, shows how they came to recognition when they began to remember 'those characteristic gestures of Jesus in the Gospel that reveal his identity'.

The Gospels do not encourage the objective form of knowing that allows distance and detachment, but demand that deeply subjective form of learning that requires risk and intimacy. The point of reading the Gospels is not to know about Jesus but rather to learn Jesus as does a disciple, that is, to be transformed into the very identity we discover in our reading. The faithful reading of the Gospels does not ask, ‘What really happened?’ but asks instead, ‘Who is this who speaks and acts now in my life? How can I learn him in my present from this witness and interpretation of his past as read by those who first experienced him also as present to them after his death?’

When truth of this sort is sought, there is no end of learning. The most powerful argument to be made for the divine inspiration of the Gospels is that there is no end of learning for those who read them. Although the Gospels yield their surface stories readily to the most casual visitor, they keep giving endlessly to those who inhabit them.

It is in this conviction that I turn to one of the best known and loved Gospel stories, the passage in Luke that tells of the encounter between two disciples and the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, as a starting point for thinking about the identity of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist (Luke 24:13-35). Jesus appears as a stranger to Cleopas and another disciple as they make that afternoon walk from Jerusalem, speaks with them on the road about the events concerning himself, interprets Moses and all the prophets in light of his death and resurrection, breaks bread with them, and then vanishes. For many, it is the most beautiful of resurrection stories, the more powerfully evocative for the simplicity and apparent artlessness of its narration. For some of us, the story is even more overlaid with resonance because of the practice of prayer: the plaintive plea in the divine office, mane nobiscum domine, quoniam advesperascit, ‘stay with us Lord, for it has become evening’, is drawn from the words of the disciples as they invite Jesus to share their meal, and gains even more poignancy as those who still remember the Latin move into the evening of their lives.

Breaking of the bread

I focus on the single line concluding the passage: ‘They related what had happened on the road, and how they recognised him in the breaking of the bread’ (Luke 24:35). More literally, we can translate, ‘how he became known to them in the breaking of the bread’. This summary statement echoes and points the reader back to the climax of the story: ‘While he was reclining at table with them, Jesus took bread. He broke it and blessed it. He gave it to them. They recognised him.’ Here, Luke uses the verb epiginoskein, ‘to come to a recognition’. We are to understand this, then, as a recognition story, a narrative about learning Jesus.

To grasp the significance of this recognition, we need to ponder two puzzles. The first is why they should not have known that they were with Jesus all along. The second is why their recognition came at the moment when he broke bread and blessed it and gave it to them.

Think for a moment how odd it is that these two people in particular should encounter Jesus on their journey and yet fail to know him. Luke explicitly identifies them, after all, as being from ‘among them’ (24:13). When they speak of Jesus (to Jesus!) they associate themselves not with the chief priests and leaders who had put him to death, but with Jesus’ followers: they regarded him as a ‘prophet mighty in deed and in speech’ (24:20), and declare that ‘we had hoped that he was the very one who was going to liberate Israel’ (24:21). These are not the observers of the events in Jerusalem, but participants. We are to understand them as among those who had followed Jesus from Galilee and at his crucifixion, ‘stood a long way off’ (23:49). These were followers of Jesus, moreover, who had heard news of his resurrection, if in a confused form. They know of the visit of the women to the tomb and their report of a missing body and that they had seen messengers (or angels) there (24:23). They were followers, they were devoted, they had heard of his resurrection. But they were nevertheless in a state of despair. We had hoped, they say, not, ‘we are hoping’.

Divine action

Why should such as these not recognise ‘Jesus himself’ (as the narrator calls him in 24:15) when he joins them in their conversation? We could speculate about the physical appearance of Jesus, or the psychological condition of the disciples. Luke simply tells us, ‘they were prevented from recognising him’. The Greek reads literally, ‘their eyes were held in order that they might not recognise him’. Two things about this construction are striking. The first is that this was not something in their control; the passive voice suggests a divine action. The second is the purposefulness of the prevention, as though the narrator wanted us to see that something was lacking in them that only their further experience would repair.

Our second puzzle is why they should suddenly recognise Jesus in the act of breaking, blessing, and sharing bread. Are not these gestures that accompany every meal in Judaism? Why should they remind them particularly of Jesus? At this point, we should pay some attention to the story just preceding this one, Luke’s version of the empty-tomb story (24:1-11). It is quite different in several respects from the accounts in Matthew and Mark. Most distinctive is the message of the men to the women. They are not told to go and tell the disciples that Jesus goes before them to Galilee. Instead, they are turned backward to the memory of Galilee. They are told, ‘Remember how he spoke to you while he was still in Galilee. He said, "the Son of Man must be handed over into the hand of people who are sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise."’ And Luke tells us that the women remembered his words (Luke 24:7-8).

For Luke, it seems, the recognition of Jesus as the risen one (‘why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here but has been raised’, Luke 24:5-6) is intimately connected to the memory of the words that he spoke. Does Luke in our passage suggest something similar about Jesus’ actions, so that the recognition of his presence as the living one might also demand the memory of his character as revealed in his bodily gestures during his life?

The freedom of Jesus

Taking our lead from Luke, then, we can also ‘remember Galilee’, by observing Jesus in Luke’s own narrative, paying particular attention to what Jesus does, seeking to discover how the disciples came to recognise him in the breaking of the bread. As I follow Jesus through Luke’s narrative, observing him as a character moving among other characters, I am struck most of all by his remarkable freedom. This sounds paradoxical, for Jesus also appears to be someone whose destiny is determined both by a script provided by Scripture and by the will of powers over which he has no control. Even in the course of his ministry, Jesus seems to make few real choices. He mostly seems to respond to what presents itself to him.

But perhaps here is exactly where we find his freedom. Jesus is so defined by his faithful obedience to God that he is free to be available to whatever presents itself. Nowhere in ancient literature do we find an equally accessible character. Jesus is approached by everyone, friend and enemy, lowly and powerful, and most of all by the needy, who seem to know intuitively that he can be so approached. And Jesus receives them all. He is immediately present to them all. Jesus is never distracted. Nowhere — except for those moments when he retreats for prayer — does Jesus give the slightest sense that there is something more important to do than what he is then doing.

Because he refuses to be defined by any finite plan or project, he is not enslaved by any finite plan or project. Because he is defined by the God who transcends all, because his project is only to respond to the project of God who chooses — who knows why? — to work out that project moment by moment, Jesus is free to be available to all others in their projects and plans, without being defined by them, either. In his being present to every moment given to him by God — with every moment’s pleasure and every moment’s pain — Jesus is perfectly faithful and fully free.

And by his freedom, he liberates those he encounters. Just as it is remarkable how accessible Jesus is, it is equally remarkable that Jesus does not enter intrusively into the lives of those he encounters. He visits their houses but does not become part of their family. He remains in a very real sense the stranger, even as he gains astonishing intimacy. He is present to them, it appears, in order that they might be more truly present to themselves. The story of Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) is the perfect example. He is ‘at home’ with them, fully aware and attentive. Yet we can feel him leaving even as he arrives. And his presence serves to reveal the truth of their presence to each other (in all its complexity) and thereby to reveal the possibility of a fuller presence to each other because of the (almost accidental) presence of the one who is leaving even as he sits there.

Ancient writers were correct in understanding Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as self-referential (see Origen, Homilies on Luke 34). The Samaritan who risks everything to help the stricken Jewish traveller, who binds his wounds, pays for his lodging, promises to return to settle any further debt, then leaves, to continue his own journey. The injured man is healed because of the touch of the stranger. But the stranger enters the injured man’s life only to restore it, not to replace it with his own patronage.

Physical gestures

Catching a glimpse of the freedom of Jesus that liberates is not irrelevant to our search for what Jesus does with his hands. His physical gestures express the freedom that liberates. Notice how Jesus is accessible to the touch of others: the people afflicted with unclean spirits throng around him and touch him (Luke 6:19), and they are freed of their affliction; the sinful woman touches Jesus in an intimate and public fashion as an expression of her love, and much is forgiven her because she loves much (7:36-50). The woman who had suffered for years with bleeding touches him with faith, and she is healed (8:44-46). They touch Jesus, and they are changed.

But Jesus also touches. When at the beginning of his ministry, the sick crowd about them, ‘he placed his hands on each one of them’ (4:40). When approached by a man with leprosy, he ‘reached out his hand and touched him’ (5:13). Coming upon the woman of Nain who was mourning her recently dead son, Jesus touches the bier on which the young man is placed, and when the young man comes back to life, Jesus ‘gave him to his mother’ (7:15). When called to the bedside of the little girl who has died, Jesus takes her hands and commands her to rise, and when she gets up, commands that she be given something to eat (8:54-55). Jesus heals the epileptic child when his disciples are not able, and then ‘gave him to his father’ (9:42). Jesus takes hold of a little child and places him beside himself to teach his disciples about greatness in the kingdom (9:47), just as he receives the little children when his disciples try to turn them away, and declares that the kingdom is made up of such as them (18:15-17). Jesus places his hands on the woman in the synagogue and liberates her to stand upright (13:13). When he is at table in the house of a Pharisee and a man with dropsy appears, Jesus takes hold of the man and heals him and then releases him (14:4). Finally, in the last free act of his career, at the moment of his arrest leading to his death, Jesus touches the man whose ear Peter has sliced off, and heals him (22:51).

What does Jesus do with his hands in Luke’s Gospel? He does not seize, he does not control, he does not force. He reaches out and touches that which is broken and makes it well. Through his touch he restores people who are alienated by demonic possession, impurity, disease, and even death, to themselves and to the possibility of human community. Twice, in the case of children either dead or on the verge of death, we read that Jesus ‘gives them’ to their parents. In that touch, in that gesture of giving, I think, one can recognise the essential character of Jesus.

Sharing meals

Luke’s Gospel also shows Jesus frequently at meals. Once more we can see his accessibility.

He shares meals with tax-collectors and sinners (5:27-39) and in fact has a reputation for preferring such table-fellowship (7:34; 15:1-2). But he also shares meals with the religiously righteous Pharisees who consistently oppose him — even in the context of the meal (11:37-54; 14:1). It is at such a meal in the house of the Pharisee Simon, that Jesus is shown such extravagant hospitality by the sinful woman (7:36-50).

Three meals in particular, however, help us understand why the disciples on the road to Emmaus were able to recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread. The first is hardly a meal at all. It happens as Jesus is travelling on the Sabbath with his followers early in his ministry (6:1-5). They are hungry. They pass through grain fields. It is the Sabbath. The disciples gather a snack as they move through the fields. When the Pharisees attack Jesus for breaking Sabbath, Jesus responds by appealing to the example of David and his companions. Luke’s choice of words is intriguing: ‘Have you not even read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, took the presentation loaves that only the priests were allowed to eat, ate them, and gave some to his companions. The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ (6:4-5). We could spend much time thinking about this passage in light of Jesus’ astonishing freedom with regard to himself and his companions, with regard to the Sabbath and the interpretation of Scripture. But the story wonderfully captures the sense of Jesus’ freedom as directed by the occasion God presents, specifically, the very human necessity to eat when hungry and the legitimacy of meeting that basic need despite religious constraints. And most striking is the language Luke chooses: he has David ‘take the loaves’ and ‘eat’ and ‘give to his companions’.

Feeding the five thousand

The second meal involving his disciples is the open-air feeding of the five thousand in a deserted place (9:11-17). In Luke, the story occurs in the context of Jesus’ project of sending out and instructing his disciples as agents of his mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing. When they return with the good news of their success, Luke deliberately notes the continuity between Jesus’ work and theirs by relating how Jesus welcomed the great crowd that had followed him, spoke to them concerning the kingdom of God, and those having need of healing he cured (9:11). Jesus then feeds the crowd because they are hungry and because they are in a deserted place. Luke clearly intends his readers to see that this great meal, enabled by Jesus’ miraculous power to multiply five loaves of bread and two fishes into a meal that has left-overs that can be collected in twelve baskets (9:17), is continuous with Jesus’ self-emptying service to the people in his teaching and healing. It is another way in which his hands touch them. But now, he involves the twelve in the feeding, just as he had associated them with his teaching and healing. So Jesus takes the five loaves of bread and two fish. He looks up to heaven. He blesses and breaks them. And then, ‘he gave them to the disciples to serve the crowd’ (9:16). The common meal expresses the reality of the common life. The common life is defined by the teaching of the kingdom and the restoration of the people. Authority within the community consists in teaching and healing. These realities are symbolised by the meal in which those who teach and heal also wait on tables and serve food to those they teach and heal.

The third meal shared by Jesus and his disciples in Luke’s narrative is the Passover meal before his betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution (22:14-23). Already powerful in its own right as the celebration of God’s liberation of the people in the Exodus, and as Jesus’ farewell meal, sealed with his prophetic utterance, ‘I will not eat it until the time when it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God’, the scene takes on even deeper meaning when read as the climax of Jesus’ time among the people as one who touched and healed and fed the multitude. Now, when Jesus takes bread and gives thanks, and breaks it and gives it to them — the same words in the same sequence as in the feeding of the multitude — his interpretive words make plain that his hands express his essential body language: ‘This is my body, which is being given for you.’ And when he hands them the wine, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is being poured out for you’ (22:19-20). Just as the bread and fishes at the feeding symbolised Jesus’ ministry of service in teaching and healing, so the bread and wine symbolise the death that perfectly and finally expresses his identity as God’s gift of love in service to humanity. His body — that is, his very self — is being given for them. It was given through ministry, it shortly will be given as he is ‘handed over’ to the death he had so frequently predicted. His blood — that is, his very life — is being poured out for them.

Vision of authority

Two further aspects of Luke’s depiction of the Last Supper are of particular importance to our reflection, not least because they are distinctive to his Gospel. The first is the instruction on authority among the disciples that follows his self-donative gesture at the meal. In response to their competitive argument about who is the greatest among them — at this moment! — Jesus presents a new vision of authority. It is not to consist in domination over others, but is to be expressed by littleness and service: ‘The greater among you is to become as the younger. And the one who governs is to be as one who serves.’ This radical vision of authority is now spelled out, so characteristically, in terms of the dynamics of a meal: ‘For who is greater, the one who reclines at table, or the one who serves at table?’ The answer is obvious to anyone in the Hellenistic world or in our world of five-star restaurants, and Jesus supplies it: ‘Is it not the one who reclines at table?’ This is the way of the world. But what is the way of Jesus? He continues, ‘But I am in your midst as the one who serves at table’ (Luke 23:24-27).

The lesson could not be plainer: those who continue Jesus’ authority in the kingdom must do so through such radical and self-emptying service. Just as surely as Judas’ betrayal of his discipleship was expressed at the meal, when Jesus says, ‘Look, the hand of the one betraying me is with me on the table’ (23:21), is the betrayal of the other disciples’ authority expressed through their rivalrous contentions at the meal. The common meal will henceforth be a place that reveals the identity of Jesus and the integrity of those who serve him. The identity of Jesus is expressed through self-giving service to others; the integrity of leadership is revealed through servanthood.

Luke has one final distinctive note to this account. After Luke has Jesus declare over the bread, ‘This is my body which is being given for you,’ he adds the words, ‘Keep doing this as a remembrance of me’ (22:19). As it happens, Paul also remembers Jesus’ words in this same form, when he reminds the Corinthians of Jesus’ last meal: ‘This is my body, the one for you. Keep on doing this in my remembrance’ (1 Cor 11:24). Both Paul and Luke have ‘keep doing touto’, that is, ‘this thing’. But what does Jesus mean by ‘this thing’? Does it mean the ritual of breaking bread in his name? Yes, surely that. But surely also more than that. Surely Jesus means by ‘this thing’ all that his gesture of breaking bread as his body and pouring out wine as his blood signifies as the gift of his life given in service to humanity. Keeping on doing this thing means, therefore, not only celebrating a ritual but above all living according to this pattern. This gesture, with this meaning, reveals the identity of Jesus in the Church. And this is, as Jesus says, the ‘remembrance of me’.

Meals in context

We have come full circle back to our starting passage. We have noted that the women at the tomb were told to ‘remember’ what Jesus had said, and, applying that advice to his actions as well, we have sought to remember those characteristic gestures of Jesus in the Gospel that reveal his identity. In his acts of healing and in the meals he shared with others, we have found such gestures, and now are able to understand how the disciples walking to Emmaus, whose eyes were held from recognition, were jolted into memory when they saw Jesus break bread before them, heard him bless God, and felt his touch as he handed the bread to them. But as in the other passages we have thought about, the action of the meal was given context by the other ways Jesus was present with them on their journey. He joined them on their walk as a stranger. He listened to their story of early hope, recent despair, and ambiguous rumour. And then, as always, Jesus placed himself at their service. As he had always done before, now he does with an unparalleled explicitness. First, he jolts them with a rebuke. They are without understanding. And the reason is that their hearts are slow to believe. The problem, in other words, is not their minds but their affections, their will. They do not want to acknowledge what Jesus had told them time and again, that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into glory. But if they could not grasp the very essence of what it meant when Jesus broke bread as his body and poured out wine as his blood, if they could not admit into their hearts the mystery of suffering that is the identity of the one God sent to bear the world’s sins, then how could they recognise the face of the resurrected one in any of its guises?

So as the resurrected one who has himself passed through that terrible suffering, Jesus teaches them once more, now more powerfully and unforgettably: ‘beginning from Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the scriptures’ (24:27). It is the resurrected Lord who teaches them how to read both Scripture and their experience of Jesus himself. They understand what it means for him to be the suffering Messiah because they read him in the light of the twice-rejected Moses and the suffering servant Isaiah and the righteous suffering one of the Psalms. And they come to understand the true meaning of the law and the prophets because of what they have experienced of God’s work in Jesus.


Having taught them, Jesus is ready to move again into the evening shadow, but Luke the narrator is no more ready to have him depart than are the disciples who beg him to remain with them, and then, in the breaking of the bread, recognise him for who he truly is. And with that recognition, Jesus does disappear. His presence has been to make their presence to each other more real and powerful than it could be before. So the disciples now say to each other, ‘Were our hearts not burning within us as he spoke to us on the road, as he opened the scripture to us?’ Now that they recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread, they are able also to rightly interpret their earlier experience: in the stranger who opened their hearts to the Scripture they also encountered Jesus. They know this: because their hearts burned within them. They are transformed by the presence of Jesus and the opening of the Scripture. And their response? They return to the others, share their good news with them, and hear in turn the story of how Jesus had appeared to Simon. In such separate experiences and shared stories, the Church comes into existence. Through such encounters with saints and strangers, through such openings of Scripture, and through such breakings of bread, the Church remains in existence as the body of the risen Messiah.

We cannot read passages like this one too often or too slowly, for in reading the story of the first disciples, we read and come to understand our own story as well. We are called to acknowledge the ways in which we lack understanding and are slow to believe in the presence of the risen one. We are challenged because of our reluctance to face the suffering that lies at the heart of the good news and therefore in our personal transformation. We are rebuked for the ways in which we seek not to serve but to be served. We are reminded that as for us so also for the very first believers, the Church was a fragile web of experience and story and Scripture. We are encouraged to open our eyes to the strangers who might join us unrecognised on our journey, to open our eyes to the Scriptures that shape our world and, always, to the breaking of the bread in which the identity of our dear saviour is revealed.

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