Luke 24: 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.
As I was getting ready to go see my spiritual director this week, I was rehearsing in my head some answers to the question she often asks me: “Where have you seen Jesus lately?”
What would you say? How might you answer that question?
One answer I thought of: It’s May: the sunshine and the warmth of this season, the flowers and the blossoms, the gardens and the growth that are starting now, that speaks to me of Jesus, even, the Risen Jesus. And that would be true. But then it struck me, “Wasn’t Jesus here just as much in February, when it was cold, dark, cloudy and rainy? Or does Jesus ditch Oregon in the winter for Arizona or Hawaii, to get a break from all our “liquid sunshine?” No, just because I didn’t feel his presence, his peace and his joy as much during the cold, cloudy, rainy days of February, doesn’t mean that he wasn’t here. Often, I’m not feeling much of anything during the darkest, coldest, sloppiest days of February, no fault of Jesus.
Another answer: Something I posted on Facebook recently got over 50 likes and some hearts, thumbs ups and smiley faces, wouldntcha know! Jesus was in all that affirmation and appreciation. True. But doesn’t he also have to challenge and correct us sometimes? If he ever needed to say, “You’re outta line, Matt; that was snarky and not constructive, not even remotely edifying,” not only would he be in his rights, it wouldn’t be the first time. After all, he started his first ever Sunday School Bible lesson on the road to Emmaus with the words, “You foolish people, so slow of heart to believe.” Ouch.
Now, why should seeing Jesus be so hard, when he never leaves us, but is always and everywhere with us, in us and among us? Like it was hard for the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus to recognize him? For one thing, we are told that, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Could that mean, as several people have suggested to me this week, that they were so deep into their grief, shock and trauma over Jesus’ death, that they just could not see anything that they never in their wildest dreams expected to see? Even though Jesus had told them that he would rise again on the third day after his death?
How often have I, or we, done the same thing? If it’s because of the numbness of shock or grief, I’m not blaming anyone for that. But sometimes, don’t we get so deeply invested into our limited way of understanding how the world works, for good or bad, that we just can’t see anything different? Even if it’s as plain as the nose on our faces, and just as close to our eyes?
Or Could it be because they were not just in the presence of Jesus, but in the presence of the Risen, Resurrected Jesus? Same Jesus, but in a different stage and state which their minds could not yet grasp? The stage and state of Resurrection, not just resuscitation, like Lazarus was resuscitated? Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb and he came forth in the same body and shape that he was carried in, except warmer, with better color, breathing and able to walk under his own power. And the grave cloths were still wrapped around him.
Lazarus underwent a resuscitation, Jesus, a resurrection. Resurrection is what awaits us, too, not a mere resuscitation. Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily, physical resurrection, a body which can also eat and speak and breathe and bear scars, but also a body that seems to have passed through its grave cloths, a body that can suddenly materialize in a room behind a locked door with his disciples, and then suddenly disappear, like he did in today’s story. A Resurrection body which can be in a Garden on the edge of Jerusalem one moment talking to Mary, and then, next thing you know, half way to Emmaus, talking with Cleopas and his buddy.
Paul, writing to his Corinthian friends, calls this mysterious resurrection body “a spiritual body.” And that means……uh, uh…. I don’t know for sure what it means. I think it means a body totally one with the spirit, unlike the way it seems now, with our spirits and our bodies sometimes awkwardly at odds with each other. Just like heaven and earth will be one again in the New Jerusalem. A new, immortal body, part and parcel with the new heaven and earth in which we will live forever.
People sometimes ask me, “In that next life, will we know and recognize each other for who we are?” To which I might sing the chorus of the old hymn, “We shall know each other better when the mist has rolled away.” The mist of our mortality, and of our this-worldly, pre-resurrection perceptions. Until then, how could people not be around the Risen, resurrected Jesus, as the French proverb says, as perceptive “as cows watching a train pass?”
With Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.” But I trust that one day I shall be able to explain it to us better, fully, and answer all our questions about our resurrection destiny and identity. But that will only be on the same day that I won’t need to explain it to anyone, because that will be our reality as well, and we all “shall know as we are known.” “When the mist has rolled away.”
So again, why couldn’t Cleopas and his buddy recognize Jesus while on the road together? Probably for the same reasons that I so often overlook Jesus, when he is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and knows us better than we know ourselves?
The next question: Why did Cleopas and his buddy only recognize Jesus as he blessed, broke and shared bread with them? What’s the connection between bread and seeing Jesus? There seems to be some connection. These words in verse 30: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them,” sound worshipful and liturgical, as well as historical. Why’s that?
Bread is super important throughout Jesus’ life and ministry. Someone has said that if we can read the Gospels without getting hungry, we’re not paying attention. Lots of people eat with Jesus lots of times in the Gospels: disreputable people, like tax collectors, and very respectable people, like priests, scribes and Bible teachers. The main item on the menu always seems to be bread, often with a serving of fish on the side.
Here are two ways we can think about why Jesus would reveal himself in the breaking and sharing of bread: One is about bread in relationship to justice, peace-making and sharing among Jesus’ disciples and with a world of poverty and injustice; a second way has to do with bread in relation to Christian worship, especially that part of worship that we call “Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper.” The two are not that far apart, really: Breaking bread with the poor and breaking bread during worship.
When the early church first met as small groups in homes, a potluck meal was usually part of worship. There would prayers and a Bible reading, singing and some reflection during the gathering, and a meal together. That meal would often start with saying the words of institution, “On the night that the Lord Jesus was betrayed, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples….” and so forth. Baptized members of the church would share this ceremonial bread “in remembrance of” Christ, because they had learned the deep devotional meaning of that bread, and had agreed to it, and testified to it, in baptism. After those words, everyone got to share whatever food everyone had brought, baptized or not, believer or not. If you were rich and had food security, then you hopefully brought a lot of food. If you were poor, you brought what you could, or nothing. But you knew that at least, during worship, you’d get one secure and sufficient meal that week.
This ancient Christian love feast was all the more remarkable because it brought together, around one table, and one loaf, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, even men and women, folks who, in mainstream society, would never share the same loaf, nor the same table.
That’s why they called it a “love feast.” Not just because everyone there loved each other, hopefully, not just because they loved Jesus, but because they showed that love in a way as practical as potatoes: in the sharing of bread. Then the love feast would end with words of institution around the sharing of the cup, again, for those who had said, “Yes, I believe that Christ’s blood was shed for the forgiveness of my sins,” and had shown it in baptism. But again, no one was excluded from sharing or eating or drinking anything during the whole meal itself. That’s how sharing bread was not apart from worship, but a part of worship. Bread was something liturgical and worshipful, as well as practical and peace-making.
Later, when Christian congregations got bigger and started to have their own sanctuaries, like in the third, fourth and fifth centuries, they didn’t continue having love feasts like what I just described during worship. But when they did have communion, worshipers might still bring something by way of money, or some durable food items, to share with their poor brothers and sisters. The deacons would then see to the distribution of this mutual aid offering to the needy during the week that followed. That’s another way in which the early church kept the connection between blessing, breaking and sharing bread as worship, and blessing, breaking and sharing bread as justice and peace-making.
When Becky and I lived in Burkina Faso some 30 years ago, many of the Christians there were subsistence farmers without much cash. So, what do you do for an offering? Christians sometimes brought sacks of corn, rice or millet for the offering. Or even an occasional live chicken. The elders would then see to their distribution to whoever in the church or neighborhood needed it. What made that “blessing, breaking and sharing of bread” all the more special is that the church where we worshiped was inter-tribal, made up of people whose parents or grandparents might have killed each other because of the history between their tribes. Now they are worshiping and sharing bread with each other in their own local forms.
I see the Risen, Resurrected Jesus active, powerful and present in all that breaking and sharing of bread, in worship and in care for the poor. I believe that’s where he still wants to be seen.
Now I add one more question to what’s in the bulletin: So what’s the point? What difference does it make that Jesus makes himself known through the breaking and sharing of bread?
For fifteen hundred years we Christians have scratched our heads, wondered, debated, and even fought and killed each other, over how Jesus still is made known in the breaking of the Bread. Is it that, when someone says the words of institution, the bread and the wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus, as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters believe? Or, as other churches teach, does the communion service simply memorialize Christ’s self-sacrificial love on our behalf and remind us of it?
I appreciate the Roman Catholic openness to the presence of Jesus in the communion service, but I can’t quite bring myself to identify the bread itself with Jesus. As for the opposite, treating the bread of communion as just a symbol to remind us of Christ’s sacrificial and atoning death, I’m not satisfied with that, either. If we need such a reminder, why bother with the bread and the cup, when you could just watch a movie, like “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” or read the Passion stories in the Gospels? No, there must be something more to the bread than a mere reminder. So, I’m somewhere in the middle between those two ends of the spectrum. If I sound a bit confused about that, I plead guilty.
But maybe that whole argument misses the point. Maybe it’s something we can’t entirely figure out this side of Resurrection. So, how about we ask, instead, where and when do we see Jesus in the blessing, the breaking and the sharing of the bread, rather than just in the bread itself? Because that’s when Cleopas and his buddy recognized Jesus-not in the bread itself, but in his blessing, breaking and sharing of the bread. The place to see the Risen, Resurrected Jesus present and powerful among us still is in the blessing, breaking and sharing of bread both in worship, and in the kind of justice, peacemaking and mutual aid that sees to it that no one goes hungry, that there are no poor among us, and that, like the Israelites collecting manna in the desert, “no one has too much, and no one has too little.”
That means that what God has brought together, in worship AND in justice, peace-making and practical, mutual, loving aid for others and each other, we must not tear asunder. Nor must we pit them against each other, like so many churches and Christians do today. In fact, I suspect that separating those two categories, worship from peace-making, piety from peace-making probably didn’t even cross the minds of the first Christians. That’s more a recent Western world thing.
That doesn’t go just for bread that we eat. How about the breaking and sharing of time that we give in visiting the sick and the shut-ins, time shared helping immigrant friends and neighbors learn English or get citizenship, or time and gas given getting food from warehouses and trucks to food shelters and people in need? That’s where the world often sees Jesus first, if he is also to be seen in our worship. For those are things not only that we might do for Jesus and others; they’re things that Jesus does through us and for us. Maybe that’s what I’ll tell my spiritual director, the next time she asks me, “Where have you seen Jesus of late?” In the ministries, services and relationships like those I just mentioned.
I know of churches today in which people make offerings to their mutual aid fund, or to a food shelf, or to bring in food items for a food shelf, whenever they also have a communion service. And sometimes churches still have an occasional First Century type love feast, a potluck meal beginning with the bread of communion, and ending with the wine of communion, for those who have assented to its meaning. But still, no one leaves the meal hungry, baptized or not.
For our next communion service, on Pentecost Sunday, should we think about some kind of mutual aid practice like what I just mentioned, as part of it? Bring food items for The Canby Center or the Jubilee Food Pantry? Or an offering for Zion’s mutual aid ministry?
One last thing: this relates to the ministry of Christian Faith Formation for which we are meeting and considering Marlene Bogard next week. Christian Faith Formation is not just about knowing facts and ideas about Jesus; it’s about knowing Jesus, by trusting him, following him, and becoming like him. Think of Christian Faith Formation as Christ-Facial-Recognition, learning to see the One who is ever seeing and watching us; getting to know the One who knows us better than we know ourselves; becoming ever more attentive, aware and receptive to the One who walks with us even on our roads of deepest and darkest sadness and confusion. That’s not just for children and youth. It’s a lifelong journey, whatever our age, with our travel companions of every age, stage and generation of life.
So, can we see Jesus, like Cleopas and his buddy finally did? And can others see Jesus in us? As we share bread with the world and each other in all its many different forms? The more we can say, Yes, to that, the more we are being formed into the faith of Christ. Or the face of Christ. For Jesus is the Bread of Life.