Encounter on the Emmaus road
13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him.
17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.
18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”
19 He said to them, “What things?”
They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. 20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive.24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”
25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.
28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. 29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”
33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together.34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” 35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.
Thoughts on the passage:
Last Sunday I completed the Twin Cities Marathon in approximately 4 hours and 45 minutes, good enough for about 5,000th place out of about 7,000 runners. I failed in my goal of beating my older brother’s best time of 4:20, a fact that he still reminds me of. Despite this, I was still given a medal. Throughout the week, almost everyone I have talked to would define what I did as a success, to them I am a winner.
We have some strong ideas about the importance of winning in our country. We take pride in our accomplishments. We love competitions and we love to celebrate the people who succeed. When it comes to who they are going to allow to be in the NFL Hall of Fame, how much a person won is important. The ability to win championships is held in higher regard than statistics and personal achievements. We reward winners.
Christianity is not about winning. In fact, it is almost the exact opposite. Christian is a religion of losers. The tension between our expectations of success and how God views the world are at the forefront of what defines our faith. Our symbol is of a cross, a reminder that Jesus died, in a humiliating way, for us. One of Jesus’ core teachings would be that the first would be last and the last would be first. Over and over he chose to meet not with the popular or privileged but with the outcast, the downtrodden, the sinners, the losers.
Woven into our communion liturgy is the phrase “heavenly banquet.” Built into our understanding of communion is this idea that we are sharing now in a feast that will be mirrored in Heaven, that a reward and celebration await us in the next life. Banquets are all about celebration. They are a symbol of winning. Banquets are used to highlight success. Yet, what does it take to get invited to this heavenly banquet? Is it a reward for hard work? Are we invited because of what we did? No, none of us have earned our place at God’s table. None of us have done something to merit the invitation. Instead, we are invited because of who God is. Communion is the symbol of God’s unconditional love for all of us.
In our story today, we see two of Christ’s followers who are struggling to believe in the resurrection or any sort of hope for the future. As they walk along the road, they encounter Jesus. They talk with him. They hear his teachings. They confide their fears and sorrows in him. None of this is enough for them to recognize him. The moment they know him is in the breaking of the bread. It is in that repetition of the Last Supper that they can believe.
We are never told what it is about that act that triggers it for them. Maybe it was just a simple visual trigger in seeing Jesus repeat an action he did just a few days ago in a deeply emotional last meal with his disciples. Maybe it was a reminder of his words then that he would come back that they finally had the courage to believe. Maybe in the breaking of the bread they were reminded of the intimate love and connection that Christ had for them. We do not know why. All we know is that in that moment, they could recognize Christ.
We have been trying to recapture that moment in the church for 2000 years. The words of institution, the liturgy of communion that we use each time we do it harkens back to the teachings of Paul as he sought to pass on the communion tradition to the early churches. Over the years, our understanding of this event have evolved and changed as we seek to understand what a recent United Methodist study called “this holy mystery.”
Everyone has a slightly different belief as to what happens with communion. The Catholics believe in transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. By contrast, Lutherans are taught to believe in consubstantiation. This is the idea that that the body and blood of Christ are present with, or alongside, the elements. The United Methodist Church’s historical doctrinal standards teach us that communion, along with baptism, is a sacrament, and a means of grace by which God works invisibly in us. The bread and juice are representations and reminders of Christ’s love and sacrifice but are not physical embodiments of the body and blood of Christ.
Perhaps the most important teaching of the United Methodist Church as far as I am concerned is the idea of open communion. We believe that anyone and everyone is welcomed at the table. We do not set a bar for who can come. Instead we invite all to come and experience the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup and the reminder of Christ’s grace that is offered to us.
By the general standard of winning, I did not win on last Sunday, and yet when you cross the finish line you are treated like a winner. It is not a perfect analogy because there is something I did to earn this treatment, but I still think it fits the welcome that we celebrate at communion. We are welcomed at the table. We are invited to join in the banquet celebration. That invitation is not based on our merits or our actions. It is not because of who we are that we are invited. Rather, it is because of God, and God’s love of us that we are invited. We are welcomed to share in the bread and the cup because God wants us to know and experience God’s love and grace. We are losers in the eyes of the world, but we are winners in God’s eyes. By the measure of our actions we are sinners and failures, and yet God loves us, and Christ welcomes us as sisters and brothers.
When we break the bread each month, we remember how Christ was broken for us. When we share in the cup each month we remember how God welcomes each one of us. The acts of communion are a way of embodying the story of our faith, that all are welcomed, that all are loved, and that all are celebrated. All of this is thanks to the love and sacrifice of Jesus who died our death and rose of our sake that we might know God’s awesome power.
Thanks be to God. Amen
Questions to Ponder:
What are some of your first memories of communion?
What comes to your mind when you think about what it means to be a winner?
How do we avoid the trap of judging ourselves and others by our actions when God uses a totally different metric?
How do you experience God in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup?
Gracious and wondrous God, just as you appeared to disciples so long ago, appear to us once more in the breaking of the bread. Help us to see your love when we share in a meal together. Help us to remember your grace when we share the cup of salvation. May we experience your presence, not just in these simple gifts of the grape and the grain, but each and every day as your Spirit blesses us and goes with us in all that we do. Amen