Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter
Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” As Luke describes the scene, these two followers of Jesus had left Jerusalem and were headed for the town of Emmaus. Their teacher had been executed on the Friday, and having waited in the city through the Sabbath day, they were now on the road, perhaps headed toward home. They’ve not left so early in the morning that they’d missed hearing the stories that Mary Magdalene and the other women had conveyed to the disciples—“some women of our group astounded us,” they say, with their talk of an angel and an empty tomb—but they are still headed away from the city.
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And then they’re joined by this stranger, who holds a sort of traveling bible study session with them, and when they arrive in Emmaus they invite this stranger to stay on with them: “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” It is at the very least an act of hospitality typical of that culture—it was not safe to travel at night—but maybe they also really wanted that conversation to continue. And so when they sat down to eat their dinner together, the stranger “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened,” Luke tells us, “and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.” Right away they are up and back on the road, ignoring the dangers of night travel. They have to share this story with those who had remained in Jerusalem; that the risen Christ was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” It is perhaps one of the most evocative phrases in the whole of the New Testament.
There is a lot of talk of food in the gospel accounts, which suggests that Jesus had a particular fondness for the sharing of food and drink. Bread and fish for thousands, and bread and grilled fish with the disciples on a beach; supper at the homes of Zacchaeus the tax collector and Simon the Pharisee; a meal with Mary, Martha and Lazarus; food given to a little girl brought back from death to life; water into wine at a wedding banquet; and all those parables he tells with feasts and food and fatted calves. And of course, there is that final Seder supper he shares with his disciples the night of his arrest, in which he takes the familiar Passover bread and wine and re-narrates them, giving the ancient story-meal a whole new meaning.
These stories and meals are not incidental, nor are they disconnected. Each in its own way is an image to which we are called to attend, though as Robert Capon once said to me, “Images don’t mean anything; they point.” One meal, one act of shared food and drink, points forward to the next, and to the next, and the next, and so when we come to this moment in Emmaus it is almost as if everything that has happened before is held in that four-fold act of taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and sharing it. And he was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
“Do this in remembrance of me,” he’d said to them at the last supper, and the word we translate as “remembrance” is the Greek word anamnesis, which is a word more nuanced than our English version. It means to re-member, or to again make present—to draw the past into the present—and there is a very real sense in which whenever the Christian community assembles to do this thing together we find ourselves closer to that upper room than we are to the city that buzzes outside of these walls. Two thousand years become for a moment just a blink of an eye, the separation of time irrelevant. Christ is still and again made known to us in the breaking of bread.
I want to read to you a bit of an extended section from Sara Miles’ book, Take this Bread. Miles is a fascinating and complex character, with a rather extraordinary story of discovering communion at St Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco; a church at least as fascinating and complex as is Miles herself.
Early one winter morning… I walked into St Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian—or, as I thought of it less politely, a religious nut. But on other long walks, I’d passed the beautiful wooden building, with its shingled steeples and plain windows, and this time I went in, on an impulse, with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity.
So, aside from an assumption that religious people tend to be religious nuts, it is with no faith background whatsoever that Miles goes through the doors of what she thinks a lovely building. When she entered and discovered that a worship service was about to begin, you wonder why she didn’t just turn around and walk back out the door… she could admire the architecture another time. But that wasn’t the decision she made, and so she continues,
I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyone’s eye… There was no organ, no choir, no pulpit: just the unadorned voices of people, and long silences framed by the ringing of deep Tibetan bowls. I sang, too. It crossed my mind that this was ridiculous.
We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting.
I particularly relished reading that description, because it made me wonder how a complete outsider to any Christian practice might experience what we do here at saint benedict’s table. They sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang… I do hope that such an outsider might also be able to say that, “it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting”.
And then came the St Gregory’s very simple equivalent to our own invitation to come to the table:
‘Jesus invites everyone to his table,’ the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.
And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
“I still can’t explain my first communion,” she continues. “It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced… The disconnect between what I thought was happening… and what I knew was happening… utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.”
I should tell you that in time Sara Miles did manage to stop those tears, and that she very quickly and forcefully jumped into the very midst of that church community’s life. In fact, she currently serves on the church staff team as Director of Ministry. And that all started when she walked into the church just to admire its structure.
I think that N.T. Wright is fundamentally correct in his observation that in this passage from Luke, “Scripture and sacrament, word and meal, are joined tightly together…” Before he breaks bread with them, Jesus explores scripture with them: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Wright is accurate in stressing the continuing importance of this pairing of word and meal. “Take scripture away,” he writes, “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.”
Still, I am persuaded that particularly in our own time and cultural context, sometimes it is the invitation to come and receive that little piece of bread and sip from that cup of wine that alerts people to a deeper hunger, a deeper longing, which will then draw them into the deep word. As was true for Sara Miles, until she stood in that communion circle, she didn’t even know there was a Jesus to meet; she didn’t know she had tears “outrageous and terrifying” to shed.
May we be saved from ever taking such things for granted. Come, for Jesus would meet you here.