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Monday, April 1, 2013

Cross-Story-Sacrament


Luke 24.13-32

I.
            It is the Sunday after Jesus’ execution.  A disciple of Jesus named Cleopas is walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about 7 miles, with a companion who is probably his wife, Mary.  They are, as we might imagine, traumatized over the brutal killing of their teacher.  It was only the previous Thursday evening that Jesus was alive and doing a Passover seder for his inner circle.  But, like most of the disciples, they woke up Friday morning to discover Jesus already on trial for his life.  He was crucified and dead before they could even try to do anything about it.  Then earlier that day they heard from some women disciples who went to Jesus’ tomb and instead of finding his body they were met by figures they identified as angels, who said Jesus was alive.
            It was a lot to talk about.  The church has also been in sustained conversation for 2000 years about “these things that have taken place.”  We have been discussing, debating, theorizing, and reflecting on the cross and resurrection of Jesus, all this time, coming up with a variety of doctrines, hypotheses, and stories, trying to wrap our minds around what is, ultimately, a great mystery….  We can discuss and converse and reflect among ourselves all we want, and still not come up with any satisfactory answers. 
            A stranger appears on the road as they are walking, a stranger who at first appears to be remarkably clueless about the events of the past few days.  So the two walkers explain to him what happened.
            Then this stranger launches into an extended theological discourse, beginning with: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  So the man does know what has been happening, and he even purports to know what it all means.  And he proceeds to interpret the Scriptures, beginning with Moses, which is to say, the Torah, and the prophets, about the Messiah.
            My guess is that the man, whom we know to be the risen Jesus, brings in Exodus 12, about the Passover Lamb, whose blood was spread in the doorways of the Israelites, to ward away the angel of death during the exodus from Egypt.  He surely mentioned some of the readings from last night, like the Flood and Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.  I think he also added passages are usually read on Good Friday: the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, and maybe Psalm 22, which Jesus himself quotes on the cross in Mark’s gospel.  He probably draws as well on Leviticus 16, the ritual for the Day of Atonement in which the blood of a goat dedicated to the Lord was used to reconcile God to the people, while another goat bore their sins away into the desert.

II.
            Now, nowhere in the Old Testament does it explicitly say, in so many words: “the coming Messiah must suffer and die, and then enter his glory.”  But Jesus would have pointed out story after story in which God’s deliverance and redemption overcome our bondage and suffering. 
            The truth is that God always manages to transform our evil into goodness.  God’s light always banishes our darkness.  God’s life finally overcomes the power of death.  Justice and life and freedom and love always triumph.  It just doesn’t always happen in what we think is the right time and place. 
            Mahatma Gandhi said (in the movie at least) that when he despairs, he remembers that the way of truth and love has always won.  Martin Luther King said that the arc of history is long but it always bends towards justice.  The message here is: “It gets better!”  They were not naïve optimists; both of these men were assassinated.  Yet they witnessed to a truth that is bigger than they were.  The apostle Paul saw that this truth is embodied in Jesus Christ, and he expresses this in his magnificent conclusion to Romans 8: Nothing, not even death, is able to separate us from God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.
            Jesus is walking with these two disciples, having passed through the barrier of death itself.  And he is frustrated a bit because these disciples don’t get it.  They don’t recognize him because the last thing their minds are expecting is to see Jesus alive.  They are dwelling on the crime of Jesus’ execution; they receive the news of the empty tomb with puzzlement.  They are looking at this situation from the perspective of what they have lost, suffered, feared, and what frustrates and depresses them.
            We can read the Bible from this perspective.  We can concentrate on the floods and plagues and slavery and exile and illness and war, thereby concluding that God is an angry monster lusting for blood, finally, according to some, only appeased by the blood of his own son.  This is to look at the Bible, and at our own history and experience, as a dismal catalogue of destruction, disease, and death, swirling down the drain to extinction.  All the positive stuff only happens after we die or at the end of time.
            Or we can read it from the perspective of resurrection, letting our understanding be formed by the words of the stranger who doubtless lifts up the redemptive, transforming, saving, resolution to all these horrible situations.  Saying, look: God is always rescuing us.  No matter how bad it gets, God pulls us out, and new life emerges.  This is even more powerful because we know who the stranger is: the Crucified One who has conquered death by death, and now lives eternally.

III.     
            The trio on the road finally approach Emmaus, where the couple is heading.  The stranger keeps walking on, intending to go farther, but they strongly urge him to stay with them for dinner, as it is getting late.  So he does.
            When they sit down at the table to eat the stranger takes a sheet of the matzah (it is still Passover).  He blesses it: Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu, melech ha olam, la motzi lechem min ha aretz.  He snaps it in two, and gives the pieces to them.
            Luke says: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”
            It is when he breaks the bread that they recognize him.  Something about his cracking apart the pieces of matzah also breaks open their consciousness.  They are suddenly able to see a reality they were unable to see before.  Even earlier, when he was metaphorically “breaking open the bread of life” for them, by teaching them from the Scriptures, they didn’t quite get it.  It is only now, when they have this visual, auditory, tactile, even olfactory experience are they able to know Christ’s presence. 
            In John’s gospel, Jesus refers to himself and his teachings as the Bread of Life.  So here we have the confluence or the weaving together of the Scriptures, the Sacrament, and Jesus’ own giving of himself on the cross, and these have to be taken and known together.  Jesus’ death on the cross is not just an inevitable murder, a sad and horrible historical event uniting him to oppressed and suffering people of all times and places.  It is that, to be sure.  But it is also more than that.  That is the level the disciples were still on when they began this walk home to Emmaus.  But they can’t stay at this level, the level of loss, and pain, and fear, and defeated resignation, and dead, unredeemed, historical fact. 
            And neither can we.  If we do, the powers of evil that killed Jesus win again.  They have their violent way with the world forever.  And humanity continues to ping-pong from misery to disaster to disease and finally to death, in a descending spiral until we destroy ourselves and this planet.  Which is the path humanity continues to choose.
            When we reduce the story of Jesus to one of the inevitable death of a good person at the hands of an evil regime, it only hardens our heart, toughens us for a continued battle, and further empowers the forces of fear, anger, and hatred.  If Jesus’ death stays a tragedy, it leads us nowhere.  And we trudge home to start our lives over, waiting for something new to happen, because this Jesus thing wasn’t it.

IV.
            But an encounter with the risen Lord is an awakening of hope in the human heart.  We begin to imagine that it doesn’t have to be this way.  The world does not have to be a spiral of violence and injustice, into oblivion.
            The effect of an encounter with the risen Lord, even if we don’t know that is who we are encountering, is to open us to other possibilities, other answers than the traditional “life sucks, then you die” we learn all too early, or to responses other than the reaction of violence and greed, gluttony and fear, anger and control.
            The breaking of Jesus’ body drives us to break open the “bread of life” which is the Scriptures.  And there, under the risen Lord’s influence, and through his interpretive lens, we find that, while we human beings have lived in a way so contrary to creation’s plan that we continually draw down upon ourselves the destructive consequences, that is never the end.
            God, the God who gave the whole place a beginning, is always making new beginnings.  God is always speaking life and order and goodness and blessing into our chaotic maelstrom of death.  No matter how bad it gets, God always rescues the people and delivers them to a new place, a place better than the one they left.
            So, with this insight, we can get a handle on this cognitively.  We can understand better the actual trajectory of history.  We have reason to hope now, because we see that not only does it not have to be this way, but it really isn’t “this way” at all.  History is not the entropic collapse of life into death, but the triumphal ascent of life into the light of God.  “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
            At this point the disciples may feel better, but they haven’t changed.  The saving presence of the living Lord is still invisible to them.  He’s given them something to think about.  But they are not changed yet.  They have heard the good news, and they are considering it.  But it hasn’t touched them in a visceral way yet.
            It’s still an intellectual experience.  It’s about ideas and interpretations, seeing the Scriptures in a new way, even seeing history and our lives in a new way.  And that’s all good.  But they don’t yet see the living presence of the King with them and within them.

V.
            From the beginning of Christianity, worship has involved the two movements that Jesus invokes here: Word and Sacrament.  On the road he retells the story; in the house he enacts the story by taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread.  It was something all his disciples saw him do countless times.    
            So also, when we worship we share the story, then, in obedience of him, we enact the story in a symbolic meal in which we eat bread representing the Lord’s body and drink the cup representing his blood.  It is that action, in which we are actually doing something and not just thinking about it, that seals the Word and stamps it into us at our deepest place.  We are not just doing anything but we are eating and drinking, we are literally taking nourishment into our bodies.  What we take in becomes what we are.
            When Jesus breaks the bread, he also shatters whatever barrier was still keeping these disciples from seeing.  And through that broken bread, the light floods into their hearts, and into their world.  And they finally recognize their teacher and anonymous companion as the risen Lord Jesus.
            The breaking of the bread is the small action that enables a whole new world to be realized in our hearts and in our lives.  When we eat the bread we are literally changed, as we are when we eat anything of course.  But in this case, because of the stories behind it, and the words we say over it, and the hope with which we receive it, when we eat this bread we are eating God, we are becoming divine. 
            The bread cracks in his hands, and the disciples suddenly recognize who was with them all along.  Jesus doesn’t change.  They change.  The whole way they see the world changes.  Now it is a world blessed and inhabited by God, in Jesus Christ.
            May our celebration today, when we break the bread, open our eyes.  May we realize God’s saving presence all around us. May we see the face of Christ in our sisters and brothers today.  And may we live in the joy of discipleship this day and every day.
             

           

           

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