Today's Gospel reading, often called the "Road to Emmaus" has long been a very popular story in Christian life. Retreats, Weekends, and books are named after it. In Missoula, the first really good European style restaurant was opened by Community Covenant Church and called Emmaus Road. For me, it tells us something about the early church, something about us and Godde, and something about bread.
The most basic of Biblical commentaries tells us that by the time Luke wrote down this story he was hearing about Jesus, it had already been shaped by the early Christian community. In the Acts of the Apostles, also thought to have been written by Luke, we are told that the new converts devoted themselves to the teaching and fellowship of the Apostles, the breaking of the bread and the prayers. These ancient words are incorporated in our Baptismal vows. The breaking of the bread was a ritual established very early in the life of the infant church. The story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus is told in a sequence that relates that the unrecognized Risen Lord explained the scriptures to the two dejected travelers, and then broke bread with them. This is the same pattern that our liturgy follows to this day….we break open the Word of God for each other, and then we break the bread.
It is not hard for us to put ourselves in the place of the two weary ones who may have been fleeing Jerusalem. There were too many reminders of the terrible way their hope had been wrenched from them. The man they had believed would literally save Israel from all its troubles had been hung up like the scum of the earth, to die and be picked apart by birds of prey. A death of enormous uncleanness during high holy days.
We all have times when we don't recognize people we should know. It happens all the time, especially when some one appears out of context. A nurse from our specialist's office spots us in WalMart. Someone we worked with 20 years ago in another time and place encounters us at a political rally. It takes some action, some word, to trigger our memory and then in relief we can say, "Of course – it's Michael !" My husband has a knack for running into people he knew 30 years ago on a softball team, totally out of context like in the Salt Lake Airport, and having them say "Don ! How are you doing ?" Blank. One of the benefits of my recent illness is that I can say "My brain has been off line for a while now and you will have to help me with your name." He can't get away with that, he says……
So the two travelers have seen and felt their world turned upside down. It is a demonstration of how deeply they believe that Jesus is gone. Even though some of the women of the group have met the Risen Lord, and told of their experience, they are after all, only women. You know how it goes – overly emotional, irrational, prone to see and hear weird things…..women. So convinced are they that the dream is gone, redemption snatched away, that they don't recognize the one they are grieving. It isn't until he performs the simple act of breaking the bread, as someone always did at a Jewish table, that it all falls into place.
You know from having to listen to me preach that I believe strongly in the ongoing post-resurrection appearances. After the Ascension of Jesus, which we celebrate in a few weeks, I believe that Godde is present in thousands of acts, words, touches, sunrises, snatches of remembered songs and scriptures every day. But we don't recognize the presence of Godde if we are shuffling along the dusty road, devoid of hope. That isn't to say that hopelessness isn't part of the human condition. It is, and there are echoes of it in the Garden of Gethsemane. But if we can take time to be still, cease commiserating for a moment; to lift our head and listen, the voice of the Risen Lord can be heard. And then we recognize him in familiar acts of everyday life.
Now for a lament.
When bread was broken at the Jewish table, it may have been leavened or unleavened, but it was baked in a communal oven unless you were very wealthy and had your own. It is a waste of precious fuel to fire up an oven for a few loaves of private bread. You can close your eyes and imagine the smell of the village on a spring day when the loaves were almost ready to be taken out.
When we consecrate the bread and break it, it is Jesus, the Lamb of God, broken for us.
When we take the bread and eat it, Jesus is remembered – that is, brought to memory. And Jesus is re-membered - brought back together in the People of Godde. We are a sacramental church, and we believe that Jesus is present in the bread, to be broken, shared and gathered again in us.
During the liturgical reforms after Vatican II, many denominations examined the balance in their services between the Word and the Eucharist. Roman Catholic priests were given opportunities to focus more on their preaching, and on truly breaking open the Word of God. Many Protestant denominations where the 30 minute sermon prevailed, focused more energy into Communion and it was celebrated more often than before. One of the rallying cries of Catholic liturgical reformers was "It shouldn't be harder to believe that this is bread than it is to believe that it is Jesus". I didn't really catch on to that until the fateful day that Eucharist was celebrated with rounds of fresh unleavened whole wheat bread that still smelled of the oven. When it was blest, broken, and handed to each of us, the Communion Hymn was from the 34th Psalm. "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord". Fresh, sweet, earthy bread of course ground wheat, and it was possible to hear the words and taste their meaning. A whole new meaning. A meaning obscured if you have only known the little white pasty wafers. Or in the tradition I grew up in, little squares of Wonder Bread.
We will know Godde in the breaking of the bread – Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.