Breaking Bread Together
Synopsis: The griefs and losses of people, in this time of coronavirus, are repeated and refracted around the globe. How do we respond by bringing the lens of faith to our hurting world? The two disciples traveling to the village of Emmaus encountered a stranger on the road and then recognized him as Jesus in the breaking of the bread. We also recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread in communion, pointing our watching world to the self-giving character of the gospel, to a joyful, serving community that reveals the reign of God as a safe harbor in the storms of life.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, which knows no boundaries, we’re walking a difficult path in our personal lives, in our families, in the life of our church, and in our country. The whole world is grappling with its consequences. We realize that we’ll soon need to begin relaxing our social distancing requirements but how can we do that safely? Beyond that, we don’t know what the new normal will be after this or how our future will be shaped by it.
Three years ago I preached a sermon titled “Following the Path of Life in a Time of Shadows” where I recalled another difficult chapter in the life of our country during the civil rights struggle. In the midst of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, white supremacists set fire to the house of a local civil rights leader. When the white firefighters arrived, they leaned against their firetruck and watched the house burn to the ground.
Martin Luther King Jr. came and stood beside the man whose house was burning. Both were helpless to do anything. The man asked King how he could stick to his nonviolent principles in the midst of such atrocities. King didn’t answer directly. Instead, speaking slowly as though it pained him to do so, he quoted from the letter to the Hebrews, “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved” (10:39). The same is true for us.
This is the third in a series of Easter resurrection stories. The first was to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at Jesus’ tomb. The second was to the fearful disciples behind locked doors in Jerusalem and then to Thomas. Now we join two discouraged followers of Jesus walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.
Pastor Ruth Everhart says that the coronavirus pandemic has been teaching her something the Easter story had never quite managed to teach her: “the limits of words and the limitlessness of faith.” She explains:
Since my own small losses and griefs matter to me, I attempt to name them, to give them voice. But when similar losses and griefs are repeated infinitely around the globe, they’re no longer small, no longer nameable. To read the news these days is to enter a sort of Fresnel lens where each loss is refracted through a series of mirrors, which magnifies and disperses it.
Two centuries ago, before the invention of radio beacons, lighthouses used enormous faceted lenses to concentrate and multiply the light from a single kerosene lamp. This light alerted ships to danger and saved lives. The words journalists use are acting like a Fresnel lens, conveying the shock of stories on repeat around the world, calling us to witness the wreckage already past and to be alert to the danger ahead...
What words can people of faith use this Easter season? The world is still in the grip of a novel virus, and the disruption stretches ahead for weeks if not months. My clergy friends are exhausted from trying to bring the lens of faith to a hurting world, from running into the limits of words. Already there’s much conversation about what ministry will look like “after.”
Like those first followers of Jesus, we’re caught up in something too big for us to comprehend. This situation impresses upon me the limits of words—which makes it increasingly hard to preach into a camera without seeing your faces. How long can I keep doing this? My thoughts go to the story of those two disciples on their walk to Emmaus. Is this how they felt?
I ponder the meaning of this stranger falling in step beside them and engaging them while they were talking about all that had happened. Why weren’t they able to recognize him as Jesus? All we have is the cryptic statement that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This fits the larger pattern of the story. In John’s Gospel, Mary mistook the risen Christ for a gardener.
They engaged the stranger in conversation as they walked seven long, weary miles to Emmaus. They’re astonished when he doesn’t know about what had happened in Jerusalem—how their beloved prophet, who they thought would redeem Israel, had been condemned and crucified. They then told him all about this man Jesus—his life of compassionate care and healing, his lifegiving words of wisdom, how he challenged injustice and gave himself freely for others.
The stranger then chastises them for not understanding and for hearts slow to believe that this suffering Messiah had been foretold by the Jewish prophets. Using scriptures, he explained all this to them. We don’t know what scriptures he used but we can imagine him pointing to passages like Isaiah 42 concerning the suffering servant who gives himself for all people.
When they reach Emmaus, the stranger walks ahead as if going on but the two disciples beg him to stay with them. Later, at supper, he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Notice the sacramental language of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving. This is my body broken for you.
It’s a material reenactment of Jesus’ suffering and death. Now their eyes are opened and they recognize him. It’s in the breaking of bread that we encounter and recognize Jesus and the cruciform nature of the gospel. It’s in our willingness to suffer and give ourselves that we find life. It’s in blessing that we are blessed. It’s in inviting all to the fellowship of our table that we are welcomed and received.
Ruth Everhart wonders if it’s time to do Easter differently. She asks, “What if we lingered in the stillness of the tomb?”
Yes, the Easter celebration has come and gone, and Christ is risen every day. Let us proclaim that. But let us also fall silent, admitting how little we can say in the face of global grief. Let the limits of our words give way to a wordless faith in the one who dared to lay in the tomb while his friends grieved.
Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we’re caught up in something entirely too large for us to comprehend. Like them, we’re surprised when this turns out differently than we could imagine. It’s in the breaking of bread that we recognize the cruciform nature of life and ministry, on a scope we had not conceived. And like them, we will rush back to the other disciples to share what was revealed to us in the breaking of the bread.
This is our little lamp that’s concentrated and magnified as through a Fresnel lens in lighthouses two centuries ago. It points our watching world to Jesus, to the self-giving character of the gospel, to a joyful, serving community that reveals the reign of God as a safe harbor in the storms of life.
 Ruth Everhart, “What language can I borrow?” The Christian Century (April 21, 2020).