Sunday, October 2, 2011

Christ Was Made Known...

For World Communion Sunday, I'm dispensing with the Lectionary and revisiting a Scripture I preached on in May, shortly after Alabama was devastated by a series of strong tornadoes. The message of restored hope rings true in every place and time, in every situation.

Thanks to David Lose and Paul Tillich for inspiration.

Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Of all of the accounts we have of Jesus meeting his disciples after his Resurrection, this one is among my favorite. Think of it: These two are members of a ragtag group of people who pinned all their hopes on an itinerant Rabbi from a Galilean backwater, a man who not only spoke the oracles of God, but who could perform mighty miracles, things never before seen! Perhaps Cleopas and his friend – whoever he, or she, was – had eaten the bread and fish when Jesus fed the five thousand. Perhaps they had gasped in amazement when lepers were cleansed. Perhaps they’d reeled in shock when Lazarus walked out of the tomb. Perhaps they’d hidden a smile when Jesus put the Pharisees in their place, and had actually read what he wrote in the dirt while the angry crowd waited to stone the woman caught in adultery.

Perhaps, but all of that was ancient history now. Because they’d stood at a distance, watching Peter and John crouched at the fire, and heard the rooster crow as Peter ran away, they’d been in the crushing crowd, terrified to speak out as everyone around them screamed “Crucify! Crucify!” They’d followed at a distance as Jesus fell under the weight of his cross, and a man was forced to carry it for him, and they’d watched from a safe distance as he breathed his last.

And now, they were on their way to Emmaus. They were on their way away from Jerusalem, away from the place where Jesus had died, away from the place where all hope had died on a cross. Frederick Buechner speaks of Emmaus as a place they go – a place we go – or, better put, a place to run to when we have lost hope or don't know what to do. Emmaus is a place of escape, of forgetting, of giving up, of deadening our senses and our minds and maybe our hearts, too.

And Jesus met them there, on that road.

I can’t imagine that Clopas and his fellow traveler would have been very chatty, even with one another. They had both been there, had seen it, what was there to discuss? That crazy story some of the women had told about the tomb being empty? Balderdash. I suspect they were talking about what they had lost. As the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’…”

And as they were talking, a stranger moved up and matched pace with them.

“So what you guys talking about?”

They stopped cold in the road, downcast. “So you’re, like, the only guy in the entire city that doesn’t know what’s been going on?”

“Going on with what?”

They were gape mouthed. “Dude, seriously? You haven’t heard about Jesus of Nazareth? Guy was a prophet, a for real prophet, strong words and solid deeds before God and everybody.”

Clopas and his companion begin filling this stranger in on all the details, interrupting one another, their sentences tumbling over one another. “The Temple bigwigs set him up and handed him over to the government to get him killed.”

Clopas  breaks in, “We had hoped He was the one who was going to set everything right, redeem Israel and all that. But they killed him three days ago, and this morning, some of the women went to the tomb and came back saying his body was gone, and this stuff about visions of angels. The guys checked it out, and sure enough, he was gone, and we don’t know what to think anymore.”

Did you hear the words? “We had hoped… but…”

Clopas and his companion had lost hope – and hope, however great or small it may be, is a vital life force. We cannot survive long without it. So this stranger set about the task of restoring hope for these two forlorn disciples, wearing their grief and confusion like a soggy blanket. And this stranger began talking, began, bit by bit, laying out the Scriptures, bit by bit putting the pieces of the puzzle together, bit by bit lifting the mantle of despair from their shoulders.

And bit by bit the road to Emmaus became not an escape route, but the path home.

And as the shadows lengthen, Clopas and his companion reach the tiny town of Emmaus. The stranger would have gone on, but that would have been unthinkable! The roads at night were dangerous, with bandits, wild animals, and who knows what-all.

So the stranger sits with them. And the stranger breaks bread with them.

And Jesus is made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Amazing, isn’t it? The eyes of these disciples are opened. They recognize not just the person of Jesus but the presence of the Lord, the God whose powerful word called light from darkness and gives life to the dead.

And then…

And then he is gone, and without a second thought to the bandits or the wild animals or the who-knows-what, they venture back up the road, forsaking the escape route, rushing to Jerusalem to tell what they've seen. The hope they had lost now burns brightly in their hearts! They can't help it – news this good just can't keep.

Can you find yourself in this story?

We’re all in there, you know, and which role we play depends. Sometimes we are the weary traveler, back breaking with the grief we carry, desperately running away from the pain. Sometimes all our hope is gone. And at other times, we are the stranger – yes, sometimes we are the nameless, unrecognized fellow-traveler who helps another to see through anger or confusion or grief or pain or addiction or mental illness… or self-centeredness, or bigotry, or wealth, or codependence, or greed… to the hope and eternal life that is found only in the risen Christ.

Sometimes, and in a variety of ways, it is our hands which break the bread, when Christ is made known in the breaking of the bread.

In the first chapter of the book of Revelation, we learn that all of us – you and I – who inhabit the Kingdom of God have been made priests by Jesus Christ, blessed and burdened with the responsibility of making Christ known to the world around us – whatever that means in our particular and unique context.

The story is told about Rabbi Mendel, who wanted to know what heaven and hell looked like. The prophet Elijah took him, and led him into a large room where a big fire was burning and where there was a large table with a huge pot of steaming soup on it, and people sat holding spoons that were longer than their arms, and because the people could not eat with these spoons, they sat around the table and starved. Rabbi Mendel found this room and what he saw there so terrible that he quickly ran outside…. Then Elijah took Rabbi Mendel to heaven and into another large room where a big fire was burning and where there was a large table with a big pot of steaming soup on it. And around the table sat people with the same spoons, but they did not have to starve because they were feeding each other.

This is World Communion Sunday, and for those of us whose faith tradition follows Reformed Theology, the idea that churches all across the planet are breaking bread in effective unison speaks to the fact that the Table of Christ is vast – and though the cup takes different shapes, and some are filled with grape juice and some are filled with wine, and perhaps in some of the poorest areas there is water, there is one Cup. Though in some churches there is a loaf of bread, and in other churches traditional wafers, and in some places there are crackers or matzo or tiny squares of white bread, there is one Loaf. The Table is vast, where Christ is made known in the breaking of the bread, and the gifts of Christ are offered without limit, poured lavishly upon God’s people!

Poured… if God’s people will come.

“Come, all of you who are thirsty. Come and drink the water I offer to you. You who do not have any money, come. Buy and eat the grain I give you. Come and buy wine and milk. You will not have to pay anything for it.”

And this takes us, full circle, back to our place on that road to Emmaus, that escape route – an escape route we are called to make into a path home for all of those who are weary and heavy laden, whatever the burden they bear. We are to proclaim the Gospel of hope to a hopeless world.

Is it as simple as offering a hearing ear? Are we called upon to feed a hungry person, or provide clean water for a village across the ocean, or perhaps clothe someone? Will we be inconvenienced with a hospital visit, or challenged to spend time in the prison chapel or visitation yard? Will our comfort zones be violated by inviting a stranger in to our lives?

How will we bring hope?

The Table is set, and Christ is made known to us today, in the breaking of the bread.

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