By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 24:13-35
Britt's and my first ministry assignment was to a 3-church, inner-city charge in Erie, PA. At one of those churches was an older man who was quite accustomed to making all of the church's decisions. Our first spring, we gathered with some key church leaders to plan the Lenten and Easter season. All was going well until Britt and I made reference to Easter communion. At that moment, the gentleman became visibly angry. "You can't have communion on Easter," he said. "Communion is about death and that's sad. That will ruin Easter." And shortly thereafter he stormed out of the meeting.
United Methodist Bishop Robert Morgan tells about an experience he had early in his ministry. One day a teenager in his church asked him why the Lord's Supper was often referred to as The Last Supper. Rev. Morgan responded that it was Jesus' final meal with his disciples before his death. Then, he asked the young woman what she thought and she replied, "I believe that it was called the Last Supper because it was the last of several 'supper events' in the life of Jesus.” That’s a wise young lady.
This morning's scripture from Luke is one of those supper stories. In fact, Luke, to an even greater degree than the other gospel writers, highlights Jesus' supper events as times of hospitality, reconciliation and celebration. Meals, the communal “breaking of bread,” was an enormously important thing in the ancient world… and still is in many cultures today. Our American custom of eating, by oneself, food wrapped up in Styrofoam and dropped in a paper sack, makes us pretty culturally unique because food has long meant and symbolized much more in many places around the world. In many cultures across history, eating is as much a social event as it is a culinary event.
This morning's scripture from Luke is both a meal story and a resurrection appearance story. All of our gospels contain stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples in the time between his resurrection and his ascension, his return to heaven. Those stories served to address a very understandable concern for the early church – how would later generations come to trust in Jesus, to trust in who he was, without having first-hand, physical interaction and experiences with Jesus? Was it even possible for Christians to experience Jesus’ presence after he’d been crucified, resurrected and returned to heaven? It’s an important question.
As this morning’s story from Luke begins, two disciples of Jesus are walking along, journeying from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus. As they walk along, they’re joined by a fellow-traveler. They have been deeply engrossed in discussion; a discussion charged with emotion. So, the one who joins them inquires about the content of their discussion. The two followers are not at all bashful or reserved about sharing their conversation with this apparent stranger. They tell him that they are mourning the death of Jesus… who was more than a friend to them, but one in whom they’d placed great hope; hope for the redemption of Israel. They are grief-stricken and discouraged and they make no attempt to hide their feelings. These two travelers are journeying together and Jesus has mysteriously entered into their midst. Yet oddly enough, they are – at least at this point – unaware of Jesus’ identity. Still, their cluelessness does not negate the fact: Jesus is right there with them.
As our story continues, notice what happens next. After the two disciples have emotionally unloaded on Jesus, he begins to teach them about scripture. Specifically, he begins to teach them about scripture in relation to himself. Jesus assures them that what has taken place shouldn’t be interpreted as disappointing or discouraging. In fact, much to the contrary: what has taken place has been a fulfillment of scripture.
Now, eventually, the two disciples arrive at their destination. Jesus makes it appear as if he's going to be traveling on. But, the day is drawing to a close and, in a culture where hospitality plays such a significant role it shouldn’t surprise us that they plead with Jesus to spend the night with them. Jesus accepts their invitation, an invitation that will result, ultimately, in the unveiling of his identity. The story contains a bit of irony and humor as we can imagine these disciples saying, with a touch of indignation: “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s been going on?” They are flabbergasted that Jesus could be so clueless while we, as readers of the gospel, know that they are the ones who are clueless. Jesus knows them; but they don’t recognize him. He knows what they've been discussing, he knows what they've been feeling, he even knows what they've been thinking. And his coming into the midst of them is designed to transform and convert their words, their thoughts and their feelings.
Now, the description of what Jesus does at the dinner table ought to sound familiar to us. It’s the same sequence of actions Jesus performed when he celebrated Passover with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. It is the same sequence of actions that I recite each time we celebrate Holy Communion in worship. Every time we take communion, I say, “Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take and eat, this is my body given for you.’” Luke tells us in chapter 22 of that meal Jesus ate with his disciples in commemoration of Passover. Luke tells us how Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
And now, these disciples in Emmaus – although they don’t yet realize it – are also sitting down to a supper with their Lord. And, likewise, here in Emmaus Jesus serves as host; he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to his disciples. And it is at that very moment that they realize who Jesus is. Jesus is revealed to them in the breaking of the bread.
Friends; this story of the disciples in Emmaus is a story designed to show us how and under what kinds of circumstances the followers of Christ continue to experience his presence after his death and resurrection. It is a story of how Jesus continues to be revealed to us through the Word of Scripture and the breaking of bread, within the context of Christian fellowship and worship.
When I first arrived here to Trinity almost three years ago, one of the things many of you discussed with me was a desire for us to have more opportunities to break bread with one another. My first Lent here at Trinity involved a sermon series called “Table Talk.” After those Lenten worship services, we headed to the Friendship Room in the basement to eat together and talk about that morning’s scripture and how it was and could continue to be experienced in our lives. So notice what happens in this morning’s gospel story:
First, the followers of Jesus are spending time together. After Jesus’ death, they didn’t just go off in their own directions. These two followers are journeying together, talking as they go. Now admittedly, anyone with a lick of common sense in the ancient world wouldn’t have traveled alone. They had no cell phones or GPS. It wasn’t very safe to travel alone. But the point remains the same. In all of our gospels, following his crucifixion, the disciples of Jesus continue to hang out together. They come together on a regular basis. And the book of Acts tells us what they do when they come together: they share their belongings, they minister to the poor, they worship together, they pray together and they eat together. In fact, in the early church, Holy Communion involved a whole lot more than a tiny morsel of bread and a little sip of juice. The bread and the cup were both consumed within the context of a full, community meal.
But getting back to our Emmaus disciples… After they recognize Jesus at the table as he breaks the bread, they return – immediately, despite the late hour of the day – they immediately return to Jerusalem to share their experience of the risen Christ with other disciples. Friends, Church is not a spectator sport. If your only experience of church is coming here on Sunday morning and sitting quietly in worship and then going on your way, your attendance is counted, but you have not experienced Church because Church is more than a vertical experience of me and Jesus; Church is also a horizontal experience of you and me and everyone around us. We are intended to share the good news of our encounters with and experiences of Jesus with one another. That is what it means to be the Church. We come together with one another to share our experiences of Jesus with one another… just as the Christians in the early Church did.
Again, back to those Emmaus disciples… They’re walking and talking and Jesus joins them and when he asks what they’ve been discussing, they share their conversation and are honest about their discouragement and disappointment. And that is another part of what it means to authentically be the Church. Sometimes we are discouraged; sometimes we fail to see what is right under our noses because we’re human and we have certain preconceived notions about how God ought to be at work in the world and in our lives. “We had hoped…” these disciples say. But, they had pinned their hopes on some erroneous assumptions. They didn’t get what they were expecting. In fact, the actions of God took them completely by surprise. And that happens to us too. Sometimes we have preconceived notions about God and what God will do and how God will behave. But sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes we experience God in a completely unexpected way and, when that happens, we need to share that experience with others. Sacred revelation, friends, isn’t just what is printed on the pages of this book. Sacred revelation is still happening today in our lives and we need to take notice of it and we need to share it with one another because I’ll learn more about Jesus when you share your experiences with me and you’ll learn more about Jesus when I share my experiences with you. Isn’t that great? I think it is.
Friends, hopefully many of you are aware that Trinity is launching some new initiatives over the next several months to try to build stronger relationships with our community. And those initiatives all have something to do with food. We’re planting a Community Garden. But, we’re not just going to grow vegetables. We’re going to plan cookouts on the lawn: to grill and eat and fellowship; to break bread with our neighbors. We’re going to begin a Family to Family initiative; having monthly gatherings with families that need some extra support: financially, emotionally, spiritually. And each time we gather, we’ll share a meal together. Because there is something amazing that happens when we sit down at a table together and invite the presence of Christ to sit with us. When we break bread, Jesus is in our midst. And we will need you to join us at those cookouts and those meals because that is church. I hope that none of you will be tempted to say, “Oh, I don’t really need to go to that. It’s not worship; it’s not a mission project; it’s not a committee meeting (thank goodness); it’s not… church.” But here’s the thing: it is Church. That is Church. When we come together to break bread; to demonstrate simple hospitality; to celebrate the fellowship we’re blessed to share. When we come together around the table not to preach at people but to authentically share our experiences of Jesus with them and invite to share their experiences with us; that is Church. And we can do that even if we’re having an off day; even if our day – or our life – isn’t going the way we expected; even if God isn’t turning up in the ways we expected. Even if we don’t recognize his presence – even if the people with whom we are breaking bread don’t noticed his presence; that doesn’t negate the fact: Jesus is here with us. Friends: whether it happens in this sanctuary, downstairs in the Fellowship Hall or even outside on our front lawn, Jesus can still make himself known to us in the breaking of the bread.
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