very now and then, someone will ask me why it is that our church community celebrates communion every week. Behind that question there will often be an assumption that to do something so regularly risks making it routine, and routines can become predictable and even a bit dull. Shouldn’t communion be more special than that? If it was to be celebrated monthly or maybe even quarterly—as was the case in the church traditions of my own upbringing—then couldn’t we take it as more of a special event, and prepare ourselves accordingly? That’s not an unfair question of course, and the church traditions and communities that have taken that approach have their own good and faithful reasons for doing so.
But you know, I think that this gospel story of two followers encountering the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus speaks pretty powerfully to a pattern of worship that week by week immerses us in scripture and invites us to the communion table.
It is that first Easter day, and two of Jesus’ followers are on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. These aren’t particularly big-name followers—Luke tells us one is named Cleopas, while the other is actually left nameless—just a couple of the people who had been a part of the movement. They’d been in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion, had presumably observed the Saturday Sabbath there, and now on the Sunday are on the road, probably heading back home. As they walked along, they are joined by a third traveler, who proceeds to ask them what it is that they’re discussing so seriously. Luke alerts the reader to the fact that this third traveler is in fact Jesus himself, but that the other two were unable to recognize him. “They stood still, looking sad,” Luke tells us, and then he continues:
[O]ne of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ [Jesus] asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
Haven’t you heard? Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter-rabbi who had filled us all with such hope, was put to death. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Broken-hearted, these two are headed home to pick up the pieces of their old predictable lives and to stop dreaming of an imagined better future.
Except that there is this little glimmer of hope. Some of the women from the Jesus movement had gone to visit the tomb that very morning, and had come back talking about angels and new life. It wasn’t enough of a glimmer to keep these two from heading out for Emmaus, but it was something.
“Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’” And the stranger launches into what amounts to a bible study of the whole of the Hebrew scriptural tradition, from Moses through the prophets. I think we’re talking a big, broad brush kind of survey here: how often in that tradition are God’s purposes carried out by what looks like utter loss? Sure, you’ve got the triumphant King David (who is also a first class disaster in all sorts of ways), but often as not the key figures are barren women, shysters (here, think of Jacob…), prostitutes, tongue-tied fearful prophets, and back-country nobodies. God’s chosen are the Jews, and Israel is God’s nation, right? And it is a nation that begins life as a bunch of escaped slaves, spends a couple of hundred years as a loosely organized tribal league, has a very brief window of success with a mostly problematic monarchy, ends up crushed and exiled, and after its rebuilding spends more time living under the thumb of the enemy than it does free.
Remember what the two travelers had said to their new companion? That Jesus had been a mighty prophet who had been put to death? “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” As N.T. Wright points out, the force of their traveling scripture study was to make a subtle yet crucial change in that statement. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” is about to become “And that’s how he did redeem Israel.”
Did they fully get that from the way in which the stranger opened up the scriptures for them? Not quite. They were, however, pretty keen to hear more and so they pressed him to stay on with them in Emmaus. And that’s where the story gets really interesting. They sat down for their meal, and the stranger took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to me. Does that order—take, bless, break, give—sound at all familiar? It is precisely the wording used for the sharing of the bread at the last supper, and in fact the very same sequence used in the stories of the feeding of the multitudes.
Click. It now falls into place. Their eyes are opened, yet as soon as they recognize that it is Jesus who has been keeping company with them, he is gone from their sight. It is here that Luke, the masterful story teller, gives us a most wonderful line: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
And right away, the two of them are up on their feet and rushing back to Jerusalem. Without hesitation, they’re ready to make the seven-mile walk (run?) back to find the others, and to tell them what has happened. By the time they get back and find the disciples, word is already out that Jesus has appeared to Simon Peter, and that the stories told by the women about angels and an empty tomb were not idle dreams. And then Luke gives us yet another wonderful line: “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
I love the way in which Luke has woven together word and sacrament in his relating to us of this story. I love the way in which this encounter seems to call for both a serious attention to the scriptures and an engagement with a powerful sacramental symbol. “Scripture and sacrament, word and meal, are joined tightly together, here as elsewhere,” comments N.T. Wright.
Take scripture away, and the sacrament becomes a piece of magic. Take the sacrament away, and scripture becomes an intellectual or emotional exercise, detached from real life. Put them together, and you have the centre of Christian living as Luke understood it. (N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone)
That he made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread is utterly true, and should be a reality that grips our spiritual imagination. But they could only get to the place where they could see his presence in that act because all day they’d kept company with him and done that scripture work with him and invited him to sit down to eat that meal with them. The sacramental action without the interpreting word (or sectioned off from the word as a kind of dutiful postscript, as it sometimes felt to me on communion Sundays growing up) is a problem. Which is why, when we gather here on a Sunday evening, we read and reflect on scripture and we break the bread and share the cup. But first we come into stillness, open to the truth that we are in the presence of the risen Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being. In that sense, we keep company with Jesus, and in his light we can begin to see light.
Tonight, Lord, make yourself known to us in the breaking of the bread. Amen.