Could it be possible that Jesus is really with us, but we fail to see it? It wouldn't be the first time. Luke's gospel provides us with a wonderful story, which illustrates for us a profound truth. This from the NIV:
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.
He asked them, What are you discussing together as you walk along?"
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, "Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?"
"What things?" he asked.
"About Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn't find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see."
He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" Luke 24:13-32
Jesus was hidden from these two disciples, and only revealed to them well after their encounter with Him. He was revealed to them in two ways: initially when He taught them the Scriptures, and finally when He broke the bread and gave it to them. They did not at first recognize Him, nor even after He taught them the Scriptures, but their hearts were burning inside them. In other words, they intuitively knew something was different about this guy. There was something profound about all He said, but they didn't know what it was. They could not quite put a finger on it.
What about us today? Do we think Jesus is not with us, but in fact He is with us in disguise? Or do we falsely believe that He is with us? We do not know what He looks like, and we know that He is no longer on earth in bodily form. But He tells us in the Great Commission that He will always be with us; its a promise given to disciples of Christ. So if we are truly disciples of Jesus, He is with us. But how is He with us, if not in bodily form? A simple answer would be the Holy Spirit; that is to say, He is with us in spirit, that His Spirit is in us. While that is true if we are truly His, I believe there's a lot more to be said about Jesus being with us and around us.
In Matthew 25 Jesus gives us the parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep and the goats represent the righteous and the wicked on judgement day. And when He says to them "you did this for Me" or "you did not do this for Me", they reply, "when did we (not) do x, y and z?" He says that whatever they did do, or did not do, for the least of His brothers, they did or did not do for Him. So in effect, He was in disguise as a poor man, a hungry man, homeless, prisoner, etc. There we have a clear example of Jesus being with us and among us, and our opportunity to do for Him some service or kindness; and often we fail to recognize Him or the opportunity.
How else might Jesus be with us and we fail to see it? I think there's a clue in the story itself. The disciples remark that their hearts were burning inside them when He was explaining the Scripture. Have you ever had that moment when something profound is being revealed to you? Or when you discover the truth of something that seems too good to be true, but you know that it is true? I've had that feeling. To say that my "heart was burning" inside me, would certainly be accurate. This is the affect that God's word has on a believer, when one comes to understand His word. The final piece to this puzzle is so obvious, its at the beginning of John's gospel. He plainly states that the Word was in the beginning, with God and was God Himself. He then clarifies who the Word is, when he later says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word among us... Tell me, was the Word among the two disciples heading to Emmaus? And to speak of the flesh, which at that time was disguised, would be to miss the point. Jesus does not have to be the pretty bearded man with long hair. In fact, we don't know what Jesus actually looked like. If we portray Him in a painting, it is sure to be wrong. But what we do know, is what Jesus said. In other words, we can see and hear the words of Jesus, just like these two disciples. They were shown an image of Jesus that was not accurate - and so too are we - but their hearts burned inside them when He taught them the Scriptures. I pray the same may be said of us.
Finally, Jesus is revealed to them when He breaks the bread and gives it to them. Jesus calls Himself the "bread of life" and the "bread of God" in the sixth chapter of John. The bread that He breaks and gives to them in our story, I believe, is symbolic of this. It is no coincidence that they finally see Him only after receiving the bread. This bread is symbolic of many things; firstly, Jesus Himself. It is also symbolic of God's word, and the Holy Spirit, along with the ability to understand God's word. Understanding is the inner eye; just as Jesus speaks of the teachers of the law, how they read the Scriptures but want to kill the Messiah the Scriptures foretell. He speaks to them in parables so that "though seeing, they do not see". And if the bread symbolizes eternal life, then we will see Jesus in person, and finally know the appearance of Jesus, after we have obtained our immortal bodies/eternal life.
Being fooled by impostors
Conversely, we can take this story as a warning. If its possible to be walking with Jesus without recognizing Him, it may be possible to be walking with an impostor, thinking we really are walking with Jesus. Jesus warns us in Matthew 24 to beware of false christs, and says that many will come. We can easily refer this to people who claim to be some kind of messiah or savior. I know of one who has made his claim in the last decade or so, who lives somewhere in Russia and has some thousands of followers. That's all the detail necessary, lest we give a false christ more fame. But the more common false christ, I believe, are those religious traditions and doctrines that are falsely called Christian. Jesus gives us a warning in Luke 13, when He talks about entering through the narrow door. He says that many will be left outside the kingdom, begging Him to enter, but He will say, "I do not know you." They reply, "We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets." Again He says that He does not know them. Think about it. Are we to suppose that these many were all followers of some cult leader who claimed to be Christ? Its far more likely that these were regular mainline church attenders. We're talking about the many, not the fringes of society. There are plenty of churches, plenty of church doctrines and traditions, and plenty of church preachers, who are false christs, and who falsely claim to be Christian. Again, we are not recognizing Jesus, if we are fooled by the counterfeit christs. The only way to recognize a counterfeit is to know the real.
My challenge for you is to seek to know Jesus. Not to go seeking Him through any human agency. Not to suppose that your worship leader, pastor or youth leader are necessarily revealing Jesus to you. But to go directly to the source. To look at what Jesus actually said. To discern Jesus by the words and the wisdom written/spoken. To want to feel your heart burning inside you, which will only happen when you're hearing directly from Jesus Himself.