Manassas Church of the Brethren
April 22, 2012
There is so much going on in this passage at the end of the gospel of Luke. Jesus appears to the disciples, but they don’t recognize him. The disciples invite this stranger home with them, offering hospitality even without recognition. Even when they do recognize him, Jesus has to explain to them – again – what it is that’s just happened before their eyes. Jesus appears, vanishes, and appears again.
But I think the strangest thing in this story is that the disciples finally recognized their friend “in the breaking of the bread.” What in the world does that mean?
But first, let’s back up a little. How is it that the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus – the guy they’d been called to follow, the man who had led them all over the place, the friend who had performed miracles and preached against the rabbis and raised people from the dead and even prophesied his own death…and resurrection. Jesus TOLD his disciples that he’d come back, and still they didn’t recognize him.
It seems like the resurrected Jesus looked a lot different than the pre-crucifixion Jesus. Something was not the same. He couldn’t have been too sparkly and divine looking – that would have cast suspicion and the disciples would never have invited him into their conversation and into their homes. Maybe being in the tomb changed his appearance. Maybe the disciples were just too shocked, too sad, too deep in the depths of grief that they just didn’t notice that it was him. One of our youth suggested that maybe Jesus was actually a zombie when he joined the disciples here on the road to Emmaus, and while it makes as much sense to me as any of the other explanations, I’m pretty sure zombies can’t speak, so that effectively rules out that solution.
Who knows why the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus? Whatever the difference was, whatever the reason is, they didn’t. They saw him as a random guy on the road, a fellow traveler on his way to somewhere else and – here’s the kicker – they INVITED him HOME with them to EAT.
They had just met a fellow traveler on the road, didn’t know him from Adam, and invited him home with them. “It’s getting late,” they said, “just come on home to our house.”
Isn’t this, radical hospitality, what Jesus had been teaching them all along – that even strangers were worthy of inclusion, worthy of care, worthy of nourishment? How many times did Jesus interact with someone unclean, or forgotten or beneath him, and how many times did the disciples ask why he was doing that? They finally, it seems, figured it out. In this moment of grief and confusion, they fall back on what has become instinct and invite an unknown stranger into their home.
And that’s when it happens – Jesus comes home with them and sits down to eat the meal they prepare for him. He breaks the bread (takes it, blesses it, and breaks it) and their eyes are open and they see God, sitting right there in front of them, eating their food and laughing at their jokes. He was made known to them, the text says, in the breaking of the bread.
Donna Bolt was reading about the Love Feast a few weeks ago, and she came into the office one day asking this question. “What was it about the way Jesus broke bread that made the disciples recognize him? Did he do it some special way? Did he have some signature bread-breaking technique?”
There are certainly plenty of ways to break bread together, plenty of special ways and plenty of signature techniques. In the Church of the Brethren, one of our main rituals is the Love Feast – a re-enactment of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Love Feast is my favorite part of church, by far, and I love Love Feast stories.
At my home church in Roanoke, there’s an old, old story – a legend, really – about Uncle Willy and the Love Feast. Uncle Willy was a deacon, and the deacons were always in charge of setting up for Love Feast. Uncle Willy was especially intense about the Love Feast preparations, or so the story goes. The tables needed to be set up in the proper formation. The beef had to be cooked for just the right number of hours. And the place settings needed to be exactly uniform from one seat to another. Uncle Willy was so serious about getting the meal set up exactly right each time that he broke out a ruler and measured the inches between each plate on the table, each glass, each plate of beef and bowl of sop. If it was going to be a real Love Feast, Uncle Willy said, everything had to be just right and exactly as it was the last time and the time before that, and the time before that. In order for the service to be real, he seemed to think, everything had to be perfect and just the same as it had been before. If tradition was broken, the Love Feast wasn’t real.
So, maybe when Jesus broke bread after that Emmaus walk, he did it in such a way that his disciples immediately recognized him. Maybe he DID have a particular way of blessing a meal, breaking the bread, sharing with his friends. Maybe.
In fact, the way Luke talks about this meal in this chapter is very, very similar to the way he talks about other meals with Jesus. Here, Jesus “took the bread, blessed it, and broke it.” That same phrase describes how Jesus served his disciples at the Last Supper, and that same phrase describes Jesus turning a few loaves and a few fish into enough to feed thousands of people. Jesus “took the bread, blessed it, and broke it,” and hungry people were fed, disciples were given a powerful memory, and grieving friends suddenly recognize their Lord in their own midst. It must have been a special gesture.
I heard another story this week about a pie, specifically a coconut cream pie that a particular woman down in Shenandoah district made every year for their Hunger Auction. Her pie was apparently sought after, and bids would go higher and higher as people tried hard to be the proud owner of this particular woman’s pie. Apparently, the last year she made the pie – she was 104, then – it sold at auction for $1,200. Maybe some of you knew this woman. I didn’t, but I know this story. And that tells me that her pie – specifically that last one – was more than just a pie. Someone paid $1,200 for a PIE. It was, of course, for a good cause. But it seems to me that it was also a way to honor a very special woman and her faithfulness.
Sometimes, a pie is not just a pie.
Sometimes, it’s really a memory or a connection or an act of faith.
Sometimes, bread is not just bread, and sometimes eating together is not just about the food.
The disciples knew Jesus in the breaking of the bread because he’d done it before. They remembered this: sharing food, offering hospitality, building relationship, living in abundance. They remembered that, and they recognized him.
But here’s the thing: they only got the opportunity because they were willing to invite a stranger home with them and share their dinner. They only got the chance to see Jesus (he was headed another way – they begged him to come home with them) because they were willing to break free from their patterns and share their resources.
The author Sara Miles writes about her unusual conversion experience in her book, Take This Bread. She was a skeptical, secular atheist journalist living in San Francisco and grieving the recent loss of her father when she stumbled into St. Gregory’s Episcopal church. Before she really knew what was happening, she was dancing toward the altar and taking communion. She describes it this way:
“We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. ‘Jesus invites everyone to his table,’ the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda. It had some dishes on it, and a pottery goblet.
And then we gathered around that table. And there was more singing and standing, and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying “the body of Christ,” and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying “the blood of Christ,” and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”
Miles was completely unknown to the people at St. Gregory’s. She literally walked into their communion service off the street. But that taste of God led her into a transformation. She kept coming to church because she wanted to taste the bread and the wine again – she wanted to meet Jesus again and again. And that desire led her to join the congregation, and to begin feeding other people. She started a food pantry that combined worship and eating together, and the food pantry grew, and now, twelve years later, serves 1,200 families and gives away ten tons of food each week.
She was a stranger who got welcomed in, and she met Jesus there in the breaking of the bread…
The thing about eating together is that it’s really very simple. We can try forever to get the particular measurements for the table setting, or the right ingredients for a famous pie, or the proper rules for a communion service, but those things aren’t the point. The point is what happens when we sit down together at a table, share our resources, and share our lives. The point is that all are welcome, that we open our homes and our tables to everyone – even the stranger passing by as we walk down the road, and even – maybe especially - in the very midst of our own grief and confusion and uncertainty.
Because if Luke is saying what it seems he’s saying…if Jesus means what he seems to mean, that’s the only way we can recognize Christ – Christ who is already everywhere and always here with us, walking and talking and sitting down to eat with us. We open our homes and open our hearts and hopefully our eyes will be opened, and we, too, will know Christ in the breaking of the bread.