Sunday, 4 May 2014

Easter 3: Known in the breaking of bread

Two people walking along a road are joined by third traveller in today’s Gospel reading.  They are soon deep in conversation. Emmaus, the village they are heading for is about 7 miles from Jerusalem, so there’s plenty of time to talk. The two disciples are on their way home from Jerusalem, dejected and confused. A few days before this Jesus, whom they had followed has been crucified. But - and this is the odd thing – stories about his resurrection have already begun to circulate and these two know about them. Yet they are still heading resolutely in the wrong direction, away from the place where new life and new hope is springing into being. It seems they are just exhausted with the whole business, worn out by the ups and downs of this saga. They’ve had enough; they can’t find the energy to hope any more, no matter how good the news might be.

We know that their fellow traveller is Jesus himself, but they apparently don’t, despite having been his disciples for some time, and that is something which has perplexed people ever since. Why didn’t they recognise Jesus?

Perhaps the sun was in their eyes, people suggest.
Perhaps neither of them wanted to make a fool of themselves by suggesting that it might be Jesus – after all, hadn’t they seen him die?
Perhaps he looked or sounded different in some way.

You can come up with all sorts of explanations for their failure to recognise him, but to be honest, this sort of debate really misses the point of the story. It isn’t about why they didn’t recognise Jesus, but why in the end they did. It’s about how we can all learn to see God at work too, God among us, Jesus walking beside us.

These disciples, we are told, eventually recognised him  “in the breaking of the bread,” in that ordinary act of blessing and sharing food. We’re not told how. It’s not explained. But perhaps that’s a good thing. It gives us room to ponder it for ourselves.

The Celtic Christians used to refer to their holy sites – sacred wells and other shrines - as “thin places” , places where somehow the divine shone through into everyday life, where you somehow caught a glimpse of God. This breaking of bread at Emmaus seems to be one of those “thin places” for these disciples. Light floods in and they suddenly see their whole encounter with this stranger in a new way. The words he’d spoken to them on the road – hadn’t they burned within them? Well, yes, though it was only in hindsight that they recognised this. The fact that he had walked with them all that way – in the wrong direction, away from Jerusalem where they really needed to be – that must have seemed significant too. Who else would have done that but Jesus, who had told them stories of lost sheep sought out by the shepherd , no matter how far off the beaten track the sheep had  strayed?

It was the breaking of break which finally enabled them to see through the barriers of their grief and exhaustion that God had been with them. They thought they had left Jesus firmly behind in Jerusalem. They thought they’d done with him, but every step they imagined they were putting between him and them, he had taken with them, and because of that the whole of life became for them a “thin place.” God was with them everywhere. And that included the wrong journeys and the half-understood conversations they got into.

The breaking of bread was to become a central part of Christian worship and experience, of course. It was already at the heart of the early Church’s worship when Luke wrote his Gospel, though it would have taken a very different form to the service we know. It would have been a full meal, for a start, not a small wafer and a sip of wine.
As the first Christians ate together they remembered the many times that they had eaten with Jesus, and they felt his presence with them once again. We tend to think primarily of the Last Supper as the model for Communion, but this “bread-breaking” at Emmaus is just as important, along with the feeding of the 5000 and the numerous meals we are told Christ shared with people he met – the good and the bad, tax-collectors, prostitutes, Pharisees. Jesus spends a lot of time eating and drinking with people, and talking about eating and drinking too, telling stories of feasts that are shared with all-comers. It’s no surprise that that a meal became the central act of Christian worship.
Gathering behind Westminster Abbey

In the great throng of 1994 ordinands
Yesterday I went for a walk that ended in a meal too. Not at Emmaus, but at St Paul’s Cathedral. The walk was a procession of witness from Westminster Abbey, and the whole thing was designed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in 1994. All those of us who were ordained in that first year, as I was in October 94, were invited to be part of this celebration, along with women who’d been ordained since then and all our supporters and friends. I’m not a great party person, but this was one party I didn’t want to miss, and a wonderfully joyful occasion it was too.

Outside St Paul's with my husband and no.1 supporter, Philip

One of the distinctive roles which priesthood involves is to celebrate Communion, blessing, breaking and sharing, on behalf of the people of God, the food which sustains us on our journey through life. This year marks for me 20 years of celebrating communion. I can vividly remember the first time I did this. I wondered how I would feel and what I would be thinking as I stood behind the altar. The first thing was a huge sense of home-coming – that I was doing what I was put here for – which was a relief, since at that time the idea of a woman priest was still quite strange to a lot of people. If it hadn’t felt right to me at that point I would have been quite worried. The second thing, though, was the sense that as I broke bread I was opening a door, and holding it open, so that whatever encounter people needed to have with God was made a little easier. That’s all. No magic. No trumpets. Just holding the door open. You – and God – do the rest.

The fact that that place of encounter is made of bread is significant. The thing about bread is that it is a staple food. Everyone needs it, or something like it. You don’t have to understand it or explain it for it to do what it needs to do. You just have to eat it; if you don’t you’ll starve. It is the stuff of life. Bread is real too. It’s not a theological idea or a philosophical opinion. And because of that, in a sense, it stands for everything else that is real too. The essence of reality is that it is what it is. It comes to us whether we like it or not. It’s not ours to control. It is a gift of the earth to us, a gift of God, created from the soil and the sunshine and the rain. We can play a part in its production, but we can’t make it happen.  All we can do is receive it.

When I take the bread at our Communion service into my hands to ask for God’s blessing on it, it is this reality that we are all dealing with that comes into my mind. Perhaps that’s one reason why it matters that women do this as well as men; it helps to make women’s realities present on the table as well as men’s. I find myself thinking as I take the bread: “Here it is God, all human life , all the things people have brought with them today, the hopes and the disappointments, the niggling fears, the stuff that annoys them, the things they’ve achieved, the people they love, and the people they hate too, all our pasts and presents and futures.” And as I break the bread I think– “Ok, God, and you are here too, in all that stuff. It cost you. It broke you on the cross, but even then you didn’t leave us. Feed us with the food we really need as we deal with all that stuff, reveal yourself to us in it so that we go home changed today, just a bit.”

And the strange thing is that when I do that, very often I start to see my reality in a new light, just as those disciples at Emmaus did. The roads I’ve taken that seem like complete wrong turnings – God was with me in them. The apparently irrelevant conversations I’ve had and the words I’ve read again and again from the Bible have fresh meaning.

Every Communion service is an invitation to see God in what is most real in all the rest of our lives – the bready stuff that makes up everyday experience. Every Communion service, in a way, is a little journey to Emmaus, a small pilgrimage. In our confession at the start of the service we acknowledge that we are all too often walking in the wrong direction, and hear the promise that God is walking with us, with forgiveness and healing the minute we realise that. There are words from the Bible to ponder, in which we can come to recognise the sound of God’s voice. And at the end there is the breaking of bread, as we bring our reality to God and find him within it.

“He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” What we do at the altar is meant to let the light shine into our lives so that we can see God’s presence not just there, but everywhere else too, in the things that are beyond our comprehension, in the detours and diversions, in the companions we travel with, and the strangers too, in the things we rejoice in and the things we regret, because if we can learn to see God in these things then we shall find we are feeding every day on the Bread of Heaven, the food we really need.


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