Tuesday, May 6, 2014

In The Breaking Of The Bread

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 24:13-35:

In our Easter celebration I said that to really understand the Easter moment is to not really think about what happened in its details, but instead to simply experience that proclamation of hope, that momentous moment when everything was changed, to let it flow over us like water.  This morning’s passage is a continuation of that Easter message.  Even though we are now two weeks past Easter, we must remember that we are still in what is known as Eastertide because Easter is actually celebrated for 50 days, but today’s passage takes place on Easter morning, as these two men are leaving Jerusalem in order to go to Emmaus.  But let me back up for just a moment to remind us all of Luke’s version of the Easter story.  On Easter morning, Mary, and several other women, went to the tomb with spices they had prepared for the body, but when they get there the body is not there, and then two men appear to them, and while they are not called angels that is what we might call them, and then tell them that Jesus is not there, that he has been raised from the dead, and so the women all run off to tell the disciples, and, in Luke’s words, “all the rest,”  what they had seen.  Not believing the women, Peter ran to the tomb and he too saw that it was empty.

In the ancient world there were several groups of people who were not allowed to testify in court because it was said that their testimony was not believable, that is they were liars by nature.  One of those groups was shepherds, and this Luke having shepherds making a proclamation about the birth of Jesus is unique, and anyone want to make a guess about another group of people who were not allowed to testify?  That’s right, women, and so the women also making the first proclamation that Jesus is risen is also a very unique characteristic of the Christian story, and probably one of the reasons why Peter doesn’t believe what they have to say and so he needs proof for himself, much like Thomas did in the passage we heard last week.  After all this has happened, then we are told at the beginning of today’s passage that “two of them,” presumably two who are included in that portion of all the rest who were told about the resurrection, are going to a village called Emmaus.

The story of the walk to Emmaus is the longest and most fully developed of all the Easter accounts we find in the gospels, and yet we really don’t know anything about these men. We are told that one of them is named Cleopas, but the other man remains unnamed, and this is the only story we have from them.  While it appears that they had something to do with the followers of Jesus, we have not heard about Cleopas before and he never appears again.  These are just two ordinary men traveling to some ordinary town, and we really don’t even know much about it.  Emmaus is not a town we know of as existing in Palestine during this time, except from this story.  We don’t know where it was and we don’t even know how far away from Jerusalem it was.  While the passage we heard today says 7 miles, there are discrepancies in the Greek manuscripts we have giving different distances, including some that say it was 19 miles away.  Our best manuscripts say 7, and the fact that they travel there and back all in one day has led scholars to use the 7 mile distance in their translations.  But again that is to get bogged down in the details rather than in what the story is actually trying to convey to us today.

The men encounter Jesus, although they don’t know yet that it is in fact Jesus, and when Jesus asks them what they are talking about, they stop and they stand still.  And then Cleopas begins to talk, and he sort of reminds me of those people whom all of us know who the less they know about something, the more likely they are to be the one who wants to talk as if they know everything.  And that’s what it appears is happening here, because we have much more conversation about what Cleopas says, then we have about what Jesus says.  In addition, Cleopas’ statements clearly show that he doesn’t understand who the Messiah was.  Although he says that Jesus was a prophet mighty in deed and word, his understanding of the Messiah was the traditional one held that he would be a political and military leader who would overthrow the Romans and return Israel back to its rightful place in the world.  The cross and Easter do not figure into that image of the Messiah.  And then, as happens only to rarely, those who talk as if they know everything, are corrected by someone who claims not to know much, but in fact knows a lot more than they seem to, and Jesus begins to explain all of scripture, we are told, beginning with Moses and interpreting everything to explain who the Messiah truly is.  What this story tells us is that the Christological explanation of Jesus, that is that Jesus was the Christ, which is the Greek word for Messiah, begins not with the disciples after Easter but that it begins with Jesus himself.

As they approach the town, and the men prepare to stop for the night, it appears that Jesus is going to keep going, but instead the men invite Jesus to come and stay with them.  “They urge him strongly,” is what the passage actually says.  This is the call to hospitality for the stranger, an important message found throughout scripture, and it is an act of vulnerability for these men, and for all who welcome the stranger.  And as it turns out for them, although they don’t yet know it, this is the invitation to invite Christ not only into their home but into their lives.  Christ does not force himself into their life.  He does not force the two men to be hospitable.  He does not force himself into their home.  There is one story where Jesus does that, some of you might remember, the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, in which Jesus calls him down from the tree where he has climbed to see Jesus pass by, and Jesus tells him that he must stay at his house that night.  Now I suppose it’s possible that Zacchaeus could have refused welcoming Jesus into his home, which he doesn’t, but even more importantly he could have refused to welcome Jesus into his heart, but that is where Zacchaeus’ hospitality comes in because he welcomes Jesus, and Jesus’ message, into his life and heart and promises that he will give half of his possessions away to the poor and will give restitution to those whom he has cheated.

Christ is present in our lives long before we know he is present and he is calling to us.  As Methodists we call this prevenient grace, the grace that comes before, that is that like Cleopas, God is walking with us before we even recognize that God is there, and then we move to justifying grace, which is when we recognize not only that God’s grace is available for us and extended to us, but that we are going to accept that grace and accept Jesus into our lives.  It takes two actions.  The first, and most important is God extending grace towards us, and the second is us accepting that Grace, of saying to Christ come into my life. Jesus does not force himself upon others or us.  Faith is a response from us to what God has already offered to us. That is what happens with the two men on the walk to Emmaus, and then once Jesus is in their home there is a radical change, because instead of them playing host to the stranger, it turns out that the stranger plays host to them, and when Jesus takes the bread there is a sequence of events that should be very familiar to us, as Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and then gives it to the men. This pattern is the same one we use whenever we receive communion, based on what Jesus did on his last night, but it is also the same pattern Jesus used in the feeding of the 5,000, and when the bread is broken and given to them their eyes are opened and they encounter the risen Christ.  It is in the breaking of the bread that Christ becomes known.  Bread plays a significant role throughout scripture.  Most of the most important stories we have from scripture involve bread, and even the place from where the Messiah was to come, Bethlehem, means “house of bread.”

In the other scripture passage we heard on Easter morning from the book of Acts, Peter recounts the story of Jesus and of his appearance and said that he appeared “not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”  How is it that we then are to encounter the risen Christ?  It’s through the breaking of the bread and the taking of the cup.  It is through the table and the celebration of communion that Christ becomes present for us.  I was asked recently why I don’t do altar calls, and there are several reasons why I don’t do them the way people normally think of them based on history of how and why altar calls were created as well as the theology behind them, but the simple fact is we do an altar call every single month and it takes place when we come forward to receive communion, to encounter the risen Christ and to say “yes, Jesus, I want to be in relation with you."

It is also because we encounter the risen Christ at the table that the United Methodist Church practices an open communion table, so that everyone is invited, even those who might not be baptized.  This makes us unique in the Christian community, but we do this because John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was not only denied communion on several occasions, and thus denied the opportunity to participate with the risen Christ, but also because Wesley believed that communion could be a converting sacrament.  That is, in participating in the Eucharist, people, like Cleopas, could recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread and accept Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Christ may have been walking with that person on their path, talking with them, explaining the scriptures, all the while being unrecognized, until the bread was broken.  And if that was how God could convert people, Wesley believed, who was he to stand in God’s way?  Who was he to place limits on how and where God could offer someone grace?  How could he try and tell God what was acceptable or not?

We are an Easter people.  Communion is linked to the cross, but communion becomes a reality and is only given meaning in the light of Easter morning, because that is when the full revelation of who Jesus is as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, is made known, and then his death and resurrection are revealed to us in this meal.  Every time we gather at the table we have the opportunity to encounter the risen Christ, does that mean we always will?  No, because sometimes our eyes are closed, instead we need to be prepared to welcome Christ into our lives, to be intentional in our actions and then allow Christ to become host to us so that when we take the bread which has been broken for us, that our eyes might be opened to the reality and we might leave this place to tell others what we have encountered here.

As the road to Emmaus has shown us, through scripture and sacrament, Christ and his meaning are open for us if we are willing to open ourselves.  Christ engages us and walks with us on our own journeys to Emmaus, wherever our Emmaus may be, whether we recognize him there or not, because what we should see in this story is that the men could be any one of us and anywhere we might be going could be our Emmaus.  Christ is present for each and every one of us in scripture, in communion and in our everyday lives if we are willing open our ears, our eyes, our minds and our hearts to welcome him in.  Thanks be to God sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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