Third Sunday of Easter. rcl yr a, 2020
St. John’s in Quarantine
ACTS 2:14A, 36-41; PSALM 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 PETER 1:17-23; LUKE 24:13-35
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons
There’s something I didn’t realize, until this week, about our Gospel reading. We call this reading “The Road to Emmaus,” but the story itself is about a little bit more than that. In fact, the attention given to this reading, most of the time, isn’t given to what happens on the actual Road to Emmaus, but what happens after.
The action that is usually most interesting doesn’t take place on the road. It takes place in the village, and at the table.
There’s good reason for this. The story is unique, in that it describes the first Eucharist as we would come to know it. Yes, there was table fellowship with Jesus where he entertained and ate with tax collectors, pharisees, and the poor and the rejected. And there’s also the Last Supper.
But this is the first among a small number of post-resurrection stories of table-sharing, of disciples eating together in the presence of Jesus; and, it gives some interesting details we don’t see in other stories of sharing meals. The “fourfold action” of taking bread, blessing bread, breaking bread, and giving bread is the foundational structure that gives the backbone to most eucharistic liturgies. And certainly the last line of our passage—that “Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” is recognizably eucharistic to us. Just as those disciples came to know Jesus in a new way after his resurrection, through table fellowship and the sharing of bread, we too come to know Jesus in the eucharist, and in sharing bread with one another.
So it’s an important episode for the life of the church—it tells us something about the earliest church’s understanding of communion, and helps us understand what we are doing when we have communion.
But. None of those interesting things take place on the road to Emmaus. Instead, what takes place on the road, sounds more like an expression of loss, and of absence, rather than the presence and joyous recognition of Jesus we find at the table.
On the road, something very different is happening. The disciples were visited by a stranger, and when the stranger asks the disciples what it was they were talking about, “they stood still, looking sad.”
Given the opportunity to speak about what had happened to them in the last few days, they told this stranger about their crucified Lord, in terms of loss and disappointment. “But we had hoped,” they said. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
They spoke about their confusion. “Some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and they did not find his body there.”
And—to be fair to what Luke has written—they were foolish, too. “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared,” says the stranger. Despite all the explanation given by the stranger about the prophets, and what the suffering the Messiah was called to experience, the disciples still couldn’t figure it out.
Their messiah was dead, despite their hope; the women were telling a clear story, but they were still confused; and despite having all things explained, they were still foolish.
According to Luke, it was Jesus who had come alongside those disciples on that road. It’s just they didn’t know it, they didn’t know how to recognise him yet. They would only be able to do that later, and only once they had celebrated together at the table.
And so this is where we are: not sitting at the table together, taking, blessing, breaking, and giving bread to one another. My hunch is that we are not much like the disciples at table, but more like the disciples on the road. We are on the road to Emmaus, perhaps feeling hopeless, perhaps feeling confused, perhaps even being a little bit foolish about what Jesus has already accomplished for us, even though we don’t quite yet have the eyes to see it.
But my hunch is also that it’s likely we are growing in faith, but that we just don’t know, in this very moment, all the ways we are growing in faith, partly because we find it hard, in this very moment, to see that God is indeed with us, and that God in Christ has already accomplished great things for us.
And so it’s in many ways perfectly appropriate to find ourselves feeling more like the Psalmist: that “The cords of death [entangle] me; the grip of the grave [takes] hold of me; [and] I [come] to grief and sorrow.” Or to say that “my spirit languishes within me,” that “I have no place to flee to, and no one cares for me,” that all we want is to be brought “out of prison.”
This would be something close to the feelings of that earliest of churches, of those disciples on that road, feeling the loss of the cross while not yet knowing just how God in Christ is already at work among them, forming them in new understanding, and in new ways of being in community with one another.
And perhaps again, the Psalmist can be most helpful, asking us to pray against our own hearts, inviting us to say, too: “I cry out to you, O Lord; You are my refuge, [you are] my portion in the land of the living. Listen to my cry for help, for I have been brought very low.” But, nevertheless, “I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him. O Lord, I pray you, save my life. For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling. I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.”
May we be given the eyes to see just this: that even in this time of distress, that the Lord is with us, already having accomplished great things for us, and is now already growing our faith.
And that if we can’t see it now, may we be given soon the opportunity for us to break bread together again, that then we might be given the eyes to see just the way he is, indeed, already accompanying us through this, right now, and in this very moment, on this long and difficult road.