April 26, 2020, remotely COVID-19

Third Sunday of Easter A

In the Breaking of the Bread

GOSPEL

Now on that same day two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “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?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  Luke 24:13-35

 

SERMON

The gospels for the Sundays of the Easter season highlight both the incredible challenge and the sheer joy borne of recognizing the presence of the risen Lord to us, His presence with us, and His presence in us. 

Yes, He is present to us –the risen Lord always stands before us calling us into the deepest experience of the present moment and into the awesome possibilities of a future with Him. 

Yes, He is present with us – the risen Lord delivers on His promise to be among us when we gather together for the breaking of the bread and for service in His name. 

Yes, He is present in us – like the disciples journeying on the road to Emmaus, we can have that experience of our hearts burning inside us through His risen presence within us, when we hear His Word and share the sacraments of His body and blood.   

As we observed last week, the stories of the resurrection appearances of Jesus do not avoid, what might be called, the recognition problem.  It is always front and center in these stories. It certainly is in this morning’s Gospel story.  We are told that, on that road to Emmaus, the disciples did not recognize the Stranger who joined them on the road, journeyed with them and accepted their invitation to dinner. 

As we examine the story more closely, it is clear that the disciples were completely absorbed by the terrible experience of the preceding days.  The days of the passion, crucifixion and gruesome murder of the One they thought might very well be the Messiah.  

They had had all their hopes, dreams and expectations dashed to the ground. They were left in the greatest pain.  They were sad and despondent. They were broken and crushed, by the horrible events that had taken place.  

They were in a place of desperation similar to the one in which we find ourselves these days, albeit for a different reason.  For us, it is the global pandemic that is threatening and taking lives, and undermining the structures upon which our way of life has depended.  

In the story, the disciples were absolutely astounded that this Stranger who joined them on the road seemed to be so disconnected from and even ignorant of it all.  I am sure not a few wonder these days, if the Lord is aware of what’s going on and if He cares about the disintegration of life as we know it. Except of course for those fools who want to see this pandemic as the most recent expression of the nature of a, sometimes, punishing God.  

And does not this questioning repeat itself again and again in our lives even before the experience of the pandemic?  Are we not often, so completely taken and so thoroughly absorbed by the pain, suffering, disappointment and tragedy that plays itself out in our lives? In these dark places do we not find it hard to attend to the immediacy of presence of God in that very place?  

Rather from this place, we cry out to the Stranger, usually not perceived to be on the road with us, but in the sky beyond us,  “Are you the only one around here who does not know and cannot see what’s going on?  And if you do know and can see what is going on, why in the hell are you not doing something about it?”  

We sometimes encounter those who insist that their experience of God in the magnificence of nature is enough to meet their needs.  That a walk in the forest, or on a beach, or watching a sunset, or a sunrise is sufficient for God to make His presence known to them.   

When I hear this I feel a real sadness.  For I believe that we suffer a great loss when we limit our experience of God to those venues that meet our ordinary expectations with regard to encounters with the Divine.  

If God is to be known, of course He is to be known in the magnificence of nature.  It is an easy stretch from a wondrous creation to a wondrous creator.   

But for some good reason Jesus did not command His disciples to take a walk in the forest when they wanted to encounter Him. For some good reason He, in fact, commanded them and commands us to come together to celebrate the Supper and to wash each other’s feet. 

Sharing the Eucharist is nothing less than absolutely essential to the experience of God, as God would have us experience Him, as opposed to how we might determine how God is to be best experienced.  

The Eucharist is an experience of God that is light years away from the experience of His magnificence in the awesomeness of creation.

Why do I say this?  Why do I understand the Eucharist not as something added to what is in itself sufficient, but something that is in itself absolutely necessary, because all else, in truth, is absolutely insufficient?   

To know God in nature is simply not enough.  It is certainly not enough as far as the God who reveals himself in Jesus is concerned.   He clearly wants to be known otherwise.  And He wants to be known otherwise for our sake, our wellbeing and our salvation.

As this morning’s Gospel unfolds, the presence of the risen Lord is made known in a very strategic moment.  The Risen Lord is revealed, not in the bread but rather in the BREAKING of the bread.  The Breaking, the Tearing Apart of the bread is key in God’s revelation of Himself and in His communion with us.  

In the Breaking what is exposed, what is revealed, what is made known is nothing less than the vulnerability of God. The breaking speaks to Christ’s pain, suffering and death. The breaking allows us to encounter Him in His self-offering.  The breaking makes manifest His sacrificial love for us, and His eternal commitment to sharing with us not only the best but also the worst in our lives.    

At the Last Supper Jesus did not just take bread and give it to His disciples.  Rather, He took bread and He broke it.  Likewise He took the cup and spoke of it, not just as His blood, but as His blood that is poured out.   

In the Emmaus moment we are brought again to the very same place that last week’s story of Thomas brought us. Jesus invited Thomas to take his finger and to touch the wound in His hand and to take his hand and to put it into the wound in His side.  Jesus invites Thomas to touch the vulnerability of God and to know God intimately in God’s weakness and even powerlessness.  And that is an experience of God that is, yes, light years away from delighting in the awesome wonder of the universe. 

Consider the Easter Candle.  It is the principle liturgical icon of the presence of the risen Jesus.  Attend to the candle and consider how it is decorated.  It is etched with a cross and pierced with five nails, each of which contains a grain of incense.  The symbolism is rich.                                                                                 

The sweet fragrance of God is to be found in the very wounds of the risen Christ. The Risen Lord always bears the marks of suffering and death in His risen flesh.

When we celebrate Eucharist, when we break the bread we know God in the way that God wants us to know Him – we know Him in His wounds.  And by extension, we know Him in the wounds of our own flesh and in the wounds of all human flesh.  It is here, before all else, that we are invited to recognize the presence of the Risen Christ.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats that ends the Gospel of Matthew, the Risen Jesus says to his disciples, “When I was hungry, you gave me to eat.  When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink, when I was naked, you clothed me, when I was sick and imprisoned you visited me, when I was a stranger you took me in and offered me a safe space”.

In response the disciples asked,  “When did we do this Lord?”                        

And Jesus said, “You did not recognize me, but when you did these things for each other and most especially when you did these things for the least among you, you did them for me”. 

Wherever a human body, mind or spirit aches, is broken, bleeds or suffers even unto death, God is to be found, known, recognized and, if we would receive the gift of Easter joy – God is to be loved in that holy place.

Our bishops and some of the clergy in our diocese have made a decision to suspend their celebration of the Eucharist until we can be together again physically, reasoning that if everyone cannot receive then, in solidarity with you, the priest, and the few who would gather to make this virtual Eucharist possible, should join the rest in this sacramental deprivation.  

Some clergy have substituted Morning Prayer as an option during a pandemic that requires social distancing.  I make no judgment about these decisions.  But I will share with you a different take I, and others, have on this. 

Morning Prayer is not the Eucharist and can never be a substitute for it.  Morning Prayer is our offering of praise and thanksgiving to God.  It is something that we author and something that we do.

When is comes to the Eucharist, all who share the priesthood by virtue of our baptism, and those ordained to the ministerial priesthood, are not the ones who effect and make happen what is happening in this sacred moment.  

We are but channels, for want of a better word, for the one and only Priest who can make what we do real and not a show. We simply join, attach ourselves to, and share in what was ever, and only ever will be, His action and His self-offering.  

Christ alone is both priest and victim.  He alone is both the one offering the sacrifice, and the sacrifice who is being offered.  He is the Shepherd and the Lamb.  When we are present to His sacrifice, when we attach ourselves in heart, mind and spirit, either physically or virtually, we are present to the life giving Lord and He is present to us in a most profound way and in a way that excels all others.  

Yes, we long for that day when we will all once again be able to receive in our bodies the Body and Blood of the Lord, as did the disciples at the last supper and the disciples at Emmaus.  But do not for one moment believe that our spiritual communion cannot spirit and soul-nourishing. 

I believe that it is as nourishing as was the communion of those who stood watching at the foot of the cross sharing the passion, suffering and death of the One who hung upon the altar of the cross.  When you Zoom in, know that you are at the foot of that same cross, that you are present to that sacrifice once offered, and that, today, you are being bathed in the water and nourished by the blood that flows from His pierced side, that we might be empowered to mount the cross with Him and be for each other as He is for us – both priest and victim.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna                                                                                                           April 26, 2020