Two disciples, one named Cleopas, journeyed to Emmaus. Although we don’t know why they were taking this trip, they know that Jesus had been executed, buried, and according to some reports, had been raised from the dead.
Could they be fleeing the city, fearing they might suffer Jesus’ fate? Were they ready, with Jesus dead, to give up the whole Jesus enterprise? Or, were they heading home to await further instructions?
No one seems to know where Emmaus is located, but maybe we don’t need to know where it was. As Frederick Buechner puts it:
Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the noblest ideas that men have had -- ideas about love and freedom and justice -- have always in time been twisted out of shape by selfish men for selfish ends. Emmaus is where we go, where these two went, to try to forget Jesus and the great failure of his life. [Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, p. 85.]
They may have been fleeing failure, but it was on this road that their lives would be changed when they encountered Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread.
These two disciples were talking about the events that transpired over the weekend, trying to make sense of things. Even though they’d heard reports of the empty tomb, like Thomas, in the Gospel of John, they needed more proof. But it wasn’t just a sense of doubt that they were dealing with. They were experiencing a sense of loss, a sense of absence. You might say that they were walking in darkness, their dreams shattered by a cross.
As they were walking, a stranger joins them. It’s Jesus, but they don’t recognize him. He asks them why they’re so sad, and they answered:
You mean you don't know what happened in Jerusalem over the past few days. Are you the only person around here who doesn't know that Jesus, the one we considered a great prophet of God, was crucified?
They hoped he would redeem Israel, but we were mistaken.
It seems that Good Friday had damaged their faith. They weren’t ready for Easter’s glories. As they walked down the road, the stranger began to preach a sermon. He explained the Scriptures to them, showing how the Messiah would suffer, but then enter the realm of Glory. He interpreted the Scriptures, from Moses to the Prophets, showing them how the Messiah fulfilled the Scriptures. But, they still weren’t ready to understand – more was needed.
When they arrived at the village, according to Luke, Jesus “walked ahead as if he were going on.” But the two disciples, seeing that it was getting late, urged him – begged him – to stay with them. And he agreed.
As they sat down to eat, the Stranger took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them. Do you see a pattern here? Is this not what Jesus did on the night of his betrayal as he shared a final meal with his disciples? Is it not what we do each Sunday when we gather at the Table of the Lord?
As he broke the bread, their eyes were opened. Finally, they recognized him, and as they recognized him, he vanished from their sight. As they pondered what had just happened, they said to each other – “Were not our hearts burning within us while was talking to us on the road?”
When do our hearts burn within us? When do we feel the presence of God in our midst? John Wesley reported just such a moment in his journal.
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Wesley may have gone unwillingly to the Bible Study – but in that moment, reading Luther’s Preface to the Book of Romans, his heart was “strangely warmed.” He experienced a sense of assurance, that his sins were gone and was saved from the law of sin and death. There is a pattern in this story of the Emmaus Road encounter. First there is the teaching from the Scriptures and then the sharing of a meal at the Table of the Lord. We call this sharing in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
As we ponder this pattern, we also see that while the two disciples set the table, it was Jesus who served as the host at the meal of revelation. In sharing this meal, their eyes were opened, and their hearts were warmed, even in the midst of their despair.
Do you ever feel the absence of God? Are there times when you feel like you’re walking in darkness? Do you wonder if you will ever truly experience the presence of Jesus? In other words, do you understand where Cleopas and his friend were coming from when they sat down at the Table with the Stranger?
What Luke tells us, is that it is in this act of hospitality that we find the beginnings of a Eucharistic theology. Theologian Molly Marshall writes:
The promise of this text is that Jesus will meet his beloved “in the breaking of the bread.” The hospitality of the traveling companions becomes the doorway to grace. The willingness of the stranger to enter their space suggests trust and hope – and Jesus more than repays their convivial overture. [Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, p. 422].
When se set the Table and gather around it, we open the doorway to receive God’s grace. This is risky, however, because, as Molly Marshall tells us, the identity of the Guest is not yet known and “the tables might be turned.” And they are turned – in this story – because the Stranger becomes the host. It is the Stranger who gives thanks and shares the bread with his two companions. In other words – you never know who you will meet when you sit down to dine with strangers.
When I was in Nashville, I was invited to share a meal at Monell’s Restaurant. When you go to Monell’s you will likely dine with strangers, but by the time you’re finished with the meal – you’re no longer strangers.
When we gather at the Table, we often come as strangers. We’re strangers to each other, but the host knows our identity. And in the end, after we break the bread, the blinders come off, and we recognize our host. It is at that moment that everything begins to make sense. We begin to recognize that we’re not alone – despite that sense of divine absence. The Scriptures speak of two realities. There are some who come seeking God. They experience a deep hunger for the presence of God. As the Psalmist puts it:
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Ps. 42:1-2).
But others of us come to the Table, like Wesley – unwillingly – or like the two disciples, fleeing from a source of despair. The good news, is that even when we try to flee, God continues to seek after us. As the Psalmist puts it: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).
As we come to the table, there is the possibility that we will experience a revelation of God, because the Table of the Lord is more than a memorial of a death on a cross. It is the living reminder that Easter triumphed over Good Friday, life over death. In breaking bread and drinking of the cup we share in a life given for us, and we proclaim the life-giving benefits of God’s presence with us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
There is a term for this. It’s called “real presence.” Though you won’t literally find Jesus in the bread or the cup, when you come to the table and share in these symbols of life, the promise is that he is with us – until the end of the age.
I’ll admit it I don’t always feel that presence. However, I find hope and strength in the promise that no matter what I feel at the moment, Jesus is here at the Table. Even when I go through the motions, distracted by the concerns of the day, taking in just juice and a piece of bread, Jesus is still here with me. And Luke continues:
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the Bread. (Luke 24:33-35)
Sacramental Revelations, in Word and in Supper, can warm our hearts and empower our witness to the Good News of God’s grace and love for the world.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 4, 2014