This week's Emmaus text has prompted me to drag this out from the archives:
"In the Breaking of Bread"
Luke’s gospel was written toward the end of the first century. By that time, there were very few, if any, Christians remaining who had seen Jesus in the flesh. Instead, there were stories, and letters, and a few copies of the gospels, to teach the church what it means to be Christian.
Luke tells the stories of Jesus in a deliberate way so that in the telling, Christ is revealed to those who have not seen him. This happens in today’s passage in 3 ways:
• Telling the story and then, within the story,
Interpretation of Scripture
The breaking of bread
Today’s passage takes place on the “third” day after Jesus’ crucifixion, that Sunday afternoon when the 11 are in hiding, and other disciples, who have not heard anything but that the tomb was empty, have left Jerusalem, dejected.
“In the Breaking of Bread”
My husband likes to wonder about strange things. He asks questions like, “If you could have dinner with any 5 people (living or dead), who would you invite and what would you talk about? If you could ask any one person any 3 questions and know they’d answer you truthfully, who would you want to talk to and what would you ask?” And my personal (least) favorite: “if you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” I don’t think the way Ben does; I don’t wonder about these things often, and I don’t like to be put on the spot by them. And I don’t want to choose between cheese, chocolate and potatoes.
Ben, on the other hand, loves this little game. His answers tend to be kind of predictable. However many people his question involves, one is always Jesus. The question is usually about Einstein’s theory of relativity, and when it comes to food, his answer is always the same: pork chops. This is always followed by the same observation: “you know, I think it’s a shame Jesus never ate a pork chop. You reckon there will be pork chops in heaven?”...I expect there will be in Ben’s heaven, anyway. Mine better have chocolate… and cheese, and potatoes.
This week, we all have a big meal planned, where hopefully we will get to spend time with people we like and have some of our favorite things to eat. I mentioned a few weeks ago that my brother-in-law is a vegetarian, which has added a few items to our Thanksgiving table: we have our own old standbys: turkey, gravy, dressing, mashed potatoes with cheddar on top (my favorite), sweet potatoes with marshmallows, butter beans, corn, green bean casserole; and now we’ve added a few extra dishes: the infamous tofu turkey…the “Tofurkey” brand (hey, he likes it), vegetarian gravy and dressing, and macaroni and cheese.
Having Bryan at our table has changed our menu quite a bit. Before he and Emily got married, he ate Thanksgiving dinner with his family and then came to “hang out” with us. I noticed that he never ate much but I wrote it off to having already had a big meal…but that was before I really got to know Bryan. As I got to know him, over Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, in restaurants and at family weddings, I realized that there’s a lot of food we eat that Bryan can’t eat…dressing is made with chicken broth, gravy is made from meat, and the turkey is, well, turkey. So because we want to be hospitable to Bryan and reassure him that he’s a full-fledged part of our family, we make sure that Bryan’s always got something he really likes to eat, while we’re eating our own favorite foods.
Over the years, at all these family gatherings which are defined by food, I learned a lot more about Bryan than I could have any other way. I learned that he is so quiet and gentle that he would go hungry rather than tell us that he couldn’t eat what we were having. I learned that he really likes cheese (so we have that in common). And I’ve learned that he really loves my sister. As we’ve broken bread as a family, and included one another, we’ve grown to know and like each other more and more.
Each year at this time, as we give thanks for our many blessings, we truly are reminded how thankful we are to be a family, to know one another, and of course this year, we’ve got my niece Jamie to be thankful for, too. I can’t wait to get to know her over these special meals: will she eat tons of black olives, like her mom and I do? Will she like the mashed potatoes or the green bean casserole better? How will her personality be revealed in our time together? Meal times are special times of sharing, in every family, and the big holidays give us the chance to celebrate our family time together over special meals.
The Bible is full of stories about people meeting and revealing themselves over a meal. Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre offered hospitality to 3 strangers with a ridiculous message, when they realized it was a message from God: this old couple would have a child on whom the nation of Israel would be founded. Jesus told story after story about food, and how God’s word and kingdom were revealed in that table fellowship: eating with tax collectors helps demonstrate that grace is available to the repentant sinner; eating grain on the Sabbath helps us see that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath; feeding 5000 men, plus women and children, with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish shows that the kingdom of God is not characterized by scarcity but by generosity and abundance; prodigal children are welcomed home with feasts and celebration; and a piece of unleavened bread and a cup of wine become signs of crucifixion, resurrection, and eternal life.
In today’s story, Jesus appears to two disciples who have their minds on bad news. As far as Cleopas and the other disciple understand, Jesus, who they thought was the Messiah, died and was buried, and the tomb had been found empty that morning. There is some story about angelic messengers and a rumor that Jesus lives, but they are discouraged and hopeless and cannot envision how this might be. Without hope, they have left Jerusalem and are heading for home when they meet a stranger along the road, an apparently foolish stranger who doesn’t seem to know about all the fuss that’s taken place in Jerusalem since the Passover…but this stranger knows scripture, and speaks wisely and with authority about the prophets and the Messiah. When they all arrived in Emmaus, as good hospitable people, they invited him to share their meal and stay the night with them. It is then that the miracle occurs: their guest takes the role of host, blessing and breaking the bread, and revealing to the disciples in that moment who he is. Just as they recognized him, he vanished, leaving them to hurry back to Jerusalem and share the good news with their friends of how the risen Christ had been revealed to them in the breaking of the bread.
Have you ever noticed how Jesus used simple things to teach us: sheep, lost coins, mustard seeds, bread? In God’s Kingdom, the entrance exam is not the SATs; it’s a burning heart, strangely warmed with the knowledge that somehow, some kind of God-thing is happening…grace is having its way with us, and our life is being changed. The Kingdom of God is not seeking only people of Nobel Prize qualifications; instead, the qualification for God’s kingdom is being willing to have our eyes opened, to listen, to put ourselves in position to meet Christ and be changed, to be hospitable to the grace of God.
There’s that word again. Hospitable. Hospitality means something important in the Bible, and to the people of God. In the Law of Moses, the people of God were commanded to be hospitable to strangers, to make sure that the alien among them did not hunger, but had what he needed. Jesus in the story of the Good Samaritan taught that it doesn’t matter who we see in need…we are to treat them as a neighbor, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And when we do that, the stories of scripture teach us, sometimes we are in fact entertaining angels unaware…or in the very presence of God, in the middle of our own blindness and need.
This Thanksgiving, we have an opportunity to sit at table and to be truly hospitable to one another. I’ll be the first to admit that that’s not always easy at my mother’s house. We have the one cousin who drives us all nuts, my mother and my aunt each have their own ways of doing things (and of course they’re both always right and never in agreement), Ben and I have to drive for hours to get there, and we’re always tired…but this year, and every year, and every meal, we find ourselves learning something new about our family, and extending that “family” circle further and further. Every year, and every meal, we wonder who is sitting at our table, and what will we learn about one another in the breaking of bread?
None of this revelation and learning is quite a divine surprise. As the stranger walks beside Cleopas and his companion, he explains the scripture about the prophets to them, laying the groundwork for when they will know him. As the prodigal son returns home, he practices his confession, hoping that his father will understand. Abraham and Sarah sought to serve the Lord with faithfulness, although they could not understand how God’s promises would come true. The crowds sit at Jesus’ feet to feed spiritually, and receive a physical blessing as well. There is preparation going on in each of these stories of Godhood revealed in table fellowship: hearts are burning, God is present, and all that remains is for the God-presence to be revealed, in the breaking of bread and in our hospitality.
As the hospitable people of God, we are called not just to long for God’s presence in our own lives, in our own revelations of Christ with us, but to make room for others to have the same opportunity. We are called to create welcoming spaces in our church and Sunday School, in our lives and homes and youth group and in every encounter with another person, from the guy next to you at the gas pump to the person sitting next to you this morning. As much as we want our own hunger to be fed, as much as we want to know Christ ourselves and to feel like a part of God’s kingdom, as much as we long for that acceptance ourselves, so much and more should we offer it to others. That means accepting those who are different from us and their differences, welcoming those people we’re not really comfortable with, and offering them grace until the way has been prepared for the divine surprise, and we can somehow find a way to “break bread” in their lives that leads to an awareness of Christ.
Hospitality means that we have a calling in Christ to make sure that no one goes hungry…hungry at the dinner table, hungry for kindness and acceptance, hungry for the presence of God in their lives. We have, as those who know Christ, the joy, privilege, and obligation to share God’s grace with others…which means we must prepare ourselves first, as Christians growing in maturity, so that we have something genuine, deep, and meaningful to share. When we have been faithful to God’s grace in our lives, when we have prayed and studied, and learned, and grown, then we can offer the hospitality of the Kingdom of God to others.
We can offer the hospitality of table…the gift of reaching out to meet others’ physical needs. To wander from Luke into another gospel, we have the story of the separation of sheep from goats at the judgment, when some will say, “Lord, when did we see you in need?” and the reply will come, “You did not do it for others; you did not do it for me.” This is what we sometimes call the missionary imperative: the drive to meet the needs of others out of an awareness of God’s goodness to us. This is what we do with Christmas Shoeboxes and special offerings and our conference apportionments…and what we should do with generous hands and a willing heart at every opportunity: feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, offer to the captive, sick, and lonely the presence of God in our own presence. Hospitality of table reveals the presence of God in healing and grace offered to others.
We can also meet the emotional needs of others. We all have a need to be loved, accepted and valued. As United Methodists, we affirm that all people are of sacred worth to God, even when they are not living as we think they ought to. Because we believe that all people are God’s people, and precious in God’s sight, we are called to show kindness and mercy and humility before God and to all people. There’s a great commercial for some company, maybe an insurance company?, that shows how God’s people should live: one person does something kind for another, who does something kind for another, who does something kind for another…you get the picture. In treating one another with kindness, we acknowledge God’s love for us all…and that hospitable act can open doors for God’s love to be revealed as we treat one another with the hospitality of fellowship.
Lastly, we can offer the hospitality of Spirit, meeting one another’s spiritual needs. We do this in big and small ways: in prayer, in what John Wesley called “Christian conversation”, in small groups and in worship and in missions…we are called to truly be the Body of Christ, embracing those who need to be a part of the kingdom of God…that is, everyone. Christ’s presence and love are a gift to be revealed in us, when we can communicate that gift without prejudice or contradiction. What do we have to offer someone who needs God’s love, when we can’t even look at them without judgment or speak to them kindly without condescension? In order for us to hospitably offer someone the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, we have to be people in whom Christ can be seen. I read a phrase somewhere that has stuck with me: the Body of Christ (that is, you and me) is the sacrament of the presence of God. Sacrament in this sense has 2 meanings: mystery, and an ordinary thing made holy by the presence of God. Mysteriously, by God’s power, it is in “ordinary” us that God is revealed to the world. Ultimately, we are the face of God most people see first, and we all know how important first impressions are. Hospitality of Spirit is a gift to be shared when we, ourselves, can embody the presence of Christ for others.
So what’s the point? Only this: as we come to the table at Thanksgiving, in the presence of our friends and family, let us remember that in us, in our hospitality to one another, in our every day and every conversation, we reveal ourselves to others. As we break bread together, let us be truly thankful for God’s presence in our lives. May we live as those in whom Christ can be seen, known, and revealed. May our lives show Christ in the breaking of bread.