Monday, 28 April 2014

“Two loaves, two tables, one meal”: a sermon (Luke 24:13-35)

It was a Sunday afternoon. Cleopas and his friend … We don’t know the friend’s name. His - or her - name is lost to history.... Cleopas and his friend made the journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They were depressed. Jesus had been executed on Friday. Now, they had to pick up the pieces of their lives. They dragged themselves slowly along the road.
On their way to Emmaus, they encountered this stranger.   At first the stranger didn’t seem to know anything that had happened in the last few days.  Then, later, he seemed able to explain it all, putting it all into some intelligible context.  But Cleopas and his friend were still depressed.

They reached Emmaus, not a terribly big place.  It was getting towards nightfall.  The stranger seemed to want to travel further, but Cleopas and his friend persuaded the stranger to spend the evening at their lodgings. 

As they gathered around the table to share their meal, the stranger took the loaf of bread, said the blessing, and broke the bread and offered it to the travellers.  Two things happened, almost simultaneously.

Cleopas and his friend recognised that the stranger was Jesus.

Jesus vanished from their sight.

Through the night, they ran back to Jerusalem over the same road they had dragged themselves along that afternoon.  They encountered the remaining members of that core group that had travelled closely with Jesus over the past few years.  They, too, had received the message that Jesus was alive.

It happened for them during the breaking of the bread.

A few nights before, Jesus also broke the bread.  In the Upper Room, as he celebrated the Passover with his disciples, he associated that ancient feast of liberation with his own act of self-giving.  He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it. 

So there were two loaves and two tables.
  • The loaf and the table of the Upper Room spoke of Christ’s self-giving.
  • The loaf and the table of Emmaus spoke of Christ’s victory.
At each table, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and shared it.

For us, and for all Christ’s people, we gather regularly to take, bless, break, and share the bread in Christ’s name.

Do we gather at the table of the Upper Room, and share Christ’s loaf of self-giving?

Do we gather at the table of Emmaus, and share Christ’s loaf of victory?

While there were two loaves, and two tables, there is one meal.  Whenever we gather to share that meal that Christians have called, under many names,
  • Holy Communion,
  • the Lord’s Supper,
  • the Holy Eucharist, or
  • the Mass,
we gather around both tables and share both loaves.

We gather around the table of the Upper Room and share Christ’s loaf of self-giving.

We also gather around the table of Emmaus and share Christ’s loaf of victory.

In many ways, it is useful to have this passage to preach upon on a Sunday when we are not celebrating Holy Communion.   The fact that we - and many other congregations - do not celebrate Holy Communion every week is very unfortunate.  There is something seriously missing in a church service that does not include a celebration of Holy Communion.  It seems seriously incomplete, less than whole.  It seems like half a service.  It feels like a meal going from soup straight to coffee, but without the main course or dessert; or like a play where the curtain call takes place after the first act, and the second act is omitted. 

And, in practice, what we find is that, in churches with a practice of celebrating communion each week, worshippers are far more regular in attending.  In churches with a weekly Communion, there is a sense of having missed something important if you miss church.  With Cleopas and his friend, even though Jesus opened the scriptures to them, it was only as he broke the bread that they knew they were in his presence.  I feel this sense of Christ’s presence is sadly absent in churches in churches with a less frequent communion celebration. 
  • If the highlight of the weekly service is a sermon by the minister (with which you’re always free either to agree or to disagree -- or even to sleep through), even regular worshippers are willing to miss the occasional service for whatever reason, however trivial. 
  • If the highlight of the service is an encounter with the risen Christ in Holy Communion, worshippers feel less willing to miss church for any reason, however significant.

The unfortunate fact that we - and many other congregations - do not celebrate Holy Communion every week is due, I believe, to the loss of the sense of Emmaus in our celebrations of Holy Communion.  In services of Holy Communion, so much emphasis has typically been placed on remembering Christ’s self-giving that we forget to celebrate Christ’s Easter victory. 

At times, the Christian Church has allowed its services of Holy Communion to become a bit morbid, particularly within the Protestant strand of Christian faith and practice.  And this is the main reason, I believe, why our Communion services have been as infrequent as they have been.  Instead, our celebrations of Holy Communion should always include:
  • at least as much Emmaus as Upper Room – preferably more,
  • at least as much victory as sacrifice – preferably more,
  • at least as much Easter as Good Friday – preferably much more.

So, for example, we should have happy music – celebration music – as the Communion elements are distributed, rather than the sad and sombre Good Friday-like music - funeral-like music - that many churches use at communion.  For example, it should be something joyful like “Now thank we all our God” rather than something funereal like “Abide with me”. 

As well, we need to note that the central act of our worship and spirituality - the single most distinctively Christian thing we do - involves the sharing of food.  This is very significant.  It says to the broader community - to the world in general - just who we are.  When we are most clearly being ourselves, the Christian Church is a community that shares food. 

It extends from the Church’s central act of worship to its network of welfare and justice agencies ... winding its way through a broad range of occasions at which food and drink are shared.  When Christ’s people gather deliberately to be Christ’s people, the sharing of food is rarely far away.

When we are most clearly being ourselves, the Christian Church is a community that shares food. 

And it all began on the evening of that first Easter Day, on the occasion of the first Christian Communion service, that evening in Emmaus when Cleopas and his friend had that blinding moment of absolute clarity at the dinner table...  when they saw the stranger break bread and they recognised the risen Christ.

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