Our gospel reading is one of the most profound of the resurrection stories in the gospels. It goes from failed expectation and sadness to burning hearts to a revelation to a fever pitch of excitement with the exclamation ‘The Lord is Risen indeed!’
Two followers of Jesus are walking on a road going to a village called Emmaus. They are sad, disappointed, confused and cannot stop talking about Jesus and his horrible and untimely death. Who are these followers? One is named Cleopas and the other is unnamed. Eusebius identifies the unnamed follower as Luke the evangelist himself and Cleopas as the brother of Joseph, hence Jesus’ (step) uncle. Whether this tradition is accurate or not, these two followers know the Scriptures and have walked intimately with Christ.
I won’t recount the whole story again. The two were unable to recognize Jesus because of their grief and because they were ‘kept from recognizing him,’ whatever that means. What was it that turned them from grief stricken, disillusioned, skeptics to faith-filled believers with burning hearts? It was Christ, revealing himself in a simple but powerful way.
Christ revealed himself through two things—the Scripture and the breaking of the bread. It is interesting that in the book of Acts, which was also written by Luke, the church was a powerful community that was unified and also ‘devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the breaking of the bread.’ The same pattern, the same actions that for the early church made people long to be a part of them.
Things haven’t changed and they shouldn’t. Jesus, the risen Lord, still reveals himself to us through the Scriptures, and in the breaking of the bread.
Let’s take those consecutively. In the age of special effects, the Internet and glossy images, the Scripture seems to many in our world as a boring tome. ‘What does Leviticus and King Hezekiah have do with me?’ Someone might say. Yet Scripture is sometimes referred to as a ‘roaring lion’ that invades our hearts and challenges our preconceived notions of the world. With the travelers, Jesus pours the Scripture into them, revealing his fingerprints throughout the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. The invading lion is Jesus, the Word himself. Sometimes his words are gentle and comforting, other times they are intrusive and direct. Henri Nouwen describes Jesus’ explanation of the Scriptures to the travelers on the road this way, ‘This was not a soothing conversation. The stranger [Jesus] was strong, direct, unsentimental. There were no easy consolations. It even seemed that he pierced their complaints with a truth they might not have preferred to know…the stranger was not the least bit afraid to break through their defenses and to call them far beyond their narrowness of mind and heart.’ Even so, their hearts were set on fire. Even to discover that the messiah first had to endure suffering before he was given glory. Even to discover that the messiah’s followers would also have to follow the same path.
This is what Christ does to us as we find him in Scripture. His opening words when he began to preach was ‘repent!’ Christ confronts us, lovingly, for us and for our salvation. Through the Scripture he forms us, makes us what he wants us to be, and changes us, so much so that our hearts burn within us.
The book of Hebrews describes the Bible like a double edged sword that is so sharp and precise that it can cut in places where nothing else can. Christ through his Word cuts sharply and precisely to heal us.
Lastly, Jesus reveals himself in the ‘breaking of the bread.’ The travelers recognized Jesus when he broke the bread and blessed it. While this meal may not have been Eucharistic, all who read Luke’s account cannot help but think of the Sacrament as Christ distributes bread to Cleopas and his friend.
At Epiphany we take the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist very seriously. One of the reasons we kneel or bow to the altar and the Aumbry (or Tabernacle) is because we believe the presence of Christ is in the Eucharist in a very mysterious, yet tangible way. We believe that Jesus comes to us under the form of bread and wine, yet he is present in a real way. Remember, every Sunday, you are approaching the very Presence of Jesus. It is a healing Presence. Commune with him, let him reveal himself to you in a new and powerful way. Open your eyes and hearts to behold him.
There is another meaning, though, to the breaking of the bread in our gospel. While Luke is alluding to the Eucharist, he also means to show that Jesus reveals himself in commonplace yet intimate settings. Eating at the table with his friends was an ordinary, everyday thing to do, yet in an ordinary event an extraordinary thing happened: their eyes were open. In the book of Luke table fellowship is extremely important. You remember that Jesus did much of his teaching around meals. Meals in the ancient world were a sign of intimacy and family. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus was seen clearly when he participated in what was most intimate.
We remember going home to mom or grandma’s and eating the home cooking. For me every time I eat my mom’s enchiladas, I feel a sense of home because it reminds me of home.
Jesus was able to open the eyes of these two men through the bread and wine. He was able to change them through something familiar
I keep going back, though, to the burning hearts phrase. ‘Did not our hearts burn within us?’
When is the last time your heart burned? Our faith is not a bore but an opportunity to live on the edge.
Jesus is in the life-changing business. He is able to make bread and wine his Body and Blood. He is able to turn a bloody cross into a glorious resurrection. He is able to turn death into victory. If he can do all of these things, he can make sense of our lives. He can make our cold hearts burn. He can redeem our sin and brokenness. He can restore relationships. He can heal, forgive and change us. The reason why? Because he is risen. ‘Because he lives, I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fears are gone. Because I know, I know, he holds the future. And life is worth the living just because he lives.’ So goes the song I used to sing as a child.
There are times and places where God breaks in, to give us a glimpse of himself. Where our hearts burn. Where he makes the ordinary extraordinary.
St. Patrick’s Day kind of came and went since it was during holy week. Remember Patrick evangelized the early Celts who became Christians.
The ancient Celtic Christians, who are the spiritual ancestors of us Anglicans talked about what they called ‘thin places.’ These are holy places or
incidents where heaven and earth meet each other. Where the material and the spiritual come together. Retreat leader and author Sylvia Maddox says this,
‘There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God…In a thin place there is an immediacy of experience where words of faith become words of life. In this hallowed space and time heaven and earth for a moment are one.’
While Christ is revealed through Word and Sacrament, he also meets us in the everyday. Our worship is a thin place. We have had liturgies, especially in the last 4 or 5 months that I have strongly sensed the Spirit of God, where this aisle and this altar have for me been a ‘thin’ place, where I have felt my heart burn. For me, church and retreat settings are more than likely to be ‘thin places.’
You might be different. You might have a prayer corner at home or a place in the mountains that is a ‘thin place’ for you. You might not think of any place as a ‘thin place’ but they are there if we could just discern them.
I’d have to say that at our Easter vigil we encountered a thin place. All of us who were witnesses of the baptisms and the passion of the baptized, we can say our hearts were burning.
When is the last time your heart burned and pizza was not involved? Our faith is not a dispassionate bore. I heard Stan Perea say recently that 30,000 Americans leave church every Sunday and never come back. He said, ‘they are not being chased out, they are being bored out!’
Our faith is not a bore but an opportunity to live on the edge…
Do you know what the most popular class at Harvard in the last two decades of the 20th century was? “The moral example and teachings of Jesus.” This was one of the few courses at Harvard that was not aimed at discrediting Christianity, but one that asked what Jesus would do with the moral conundrums of the day. Students were genuinely looking for a Jesus that no one presented to them at church. A Jesus who was relevant to their lives. 800 students signed up for it per year.
There is a hunger. There is a harvest. There are those who want to see Jesus. There are those who want their hearts to burn for something other than the daily dose of work and entertainment.
Does your heart burn with the presence of Christ? The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Does your heart burn in telling others about Jesus? Our faith is not a bore but an opportunity to live on the edge…
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, stay with us, for the night is at hand and the day is far spent; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.