Trudy died suddenly when she was 66. She was working behind a grocery-store deli counter when her heart abruptly, painfully stopped beating. He granddaughter—my daughter Meredith—was just shy of three years old.
Even though they had spent time together, Meredith understandably has no recollection of her paternal grandmother. And yet I recognize my mother in Meredith almost every day.
Facial recognition usually plays an important role in our day-to-day ability to identify other people. Apps now mimic our neurological abilities, making it possible for your mobile phone or your tablet to unlock itself for you when it registers that it’s really you. So you may assume that Meredith resembles my mother.
But Meredith shares no facial features with her grandmother. Those who know my wife Joy often say that Meredith favors her mother. Nevertheless, Meredith regularly brings Trudy to mind for me.
For instance, Meredith’s quirky sense of humor, her childlike affection for our cat Iggy, her unwavering kindness, and her cheerful grit bring my mom to life right before my eyes. I hear echoes of my mother’s spirit in the way that Meredith carries herself in this world. I do not see Trudy’s face, but I recognize her.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, your face is, well, just your face. You may be male or female. Old or young. You may trace your heritage to Asia or Africa or Europe. But if you genuinely want to follow Jesus, you hope that other people can feel the echo of his spirit in how you carry yourself in this world.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus put it this way: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) When we love, Jesus is making himself known through us.
Luke’s Gospel offers a corollary to this in the story of the road to Emmaus. Yes, people should recognize Jesus in his disciples. But a crucial part of being a disciple is the ability to recognize Jesus in even the least Jesus-y people you meet. To love hard-to-love people.
Three days after the crucifixion, a couple of disciples have abandoned Jerusalem and headed to an obscure nearby village. They’ve heard rumors about the empty tomb, but they can’t bring themselves to believe it. Eventually a stranger joins them on the road. They strike up a conversation. And this guy gives them a rousing scriptural lesson about the Messiah’s suffering and resurrection.
Once they arrive in Emmaus, the disciples asked the stranger to stay for supper. He took the bread, blessed it, and broke it. And at that moment their eyes were opened. They recognized the risen Jesus in the stranger.
The point familiar to many of us is that we recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. For those of us fasting from the Eucharist in the midst of the pandemic, it’s a tender and perhaps painful reminder of a feast we sorely miss. But Jesus has taught these two disciples—and he is teaching us—an additional lesson.
To follow Jesus does involve seeking to make Jesus known to others by how we navigate this planet. But Jesus is also showing us that he dwells in everyone, even and especially in those we register as strangers. Jesus urges his disciples to seek him in the stranger. Every stranger. Even the unlikely and off-putting ones.
A friend of mine once served a congregation in a rural area known to harbor a large number of meth labs. The addiction rates in the surrounding area were staggering. With some frequency tweakers would disrupt her worship services.
One Sunday a man barged through the door in the middle of the liturgy. In a meth-fueled rage he stalked around the worship space ranting incoherently. My friend calmly asked him to sit and join the worship. He stormed back out the door, slamming it behind him.
Later my friend told me that she offered this prayer silently. “Lord, I know you love something about this guy. But you’re going to have to show it to me, because I am not seeing it!”
Let’s be honest. Seeing Christ in the stranger—especially in the hard-to-love stranger—can be a challenge. It can be easy to judge someone or to write them off. But Jesus urges us to do this instead: Look for a familiar face. His face. Especially in the most unlikely people.