Prayer of the Day: O God, your Son makes himself known to all his disciples in the breaking of bread. Open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in his redeeming work, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24:21.
“But we had hoped….” There are so many tragic endings to this sentence. We had hoped this treatment would finally arrest Mom’s cancer. We had hoped that this time the pregnancy would take. We had hoped that rehab would finally put our son on the path to recovery from addiction. Our gospel places us in the company of two people whose hopes for Jesus, for Israel and for the future of creation have been dashed. Though the scriptures do not tell us why these two disciples were going to Emmaus, I strongly suspect that they were on their way back home. In any event, it is obvious from their remarks that they had given up on Jesus. They were done with the reign of God Jesus proclaimed and ready to put the whole sad affair behind them.
I strongly suspect that, for Lutheran preachers anyway, the emphasis on our gospel reading will fall upon verse 35 wherein the two disciples, returning from their walk to Emmaus, tell those remaining in Jerusalem how Jesus revealed himself to them in the “breaking of the bread.” We Lutherans are pretty emphatic about the “real” presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine. And that for good reason. For Martin Luther, the true presence of Jesus in Holy Communion was an inescapable corollary of justification by faith. The availability in the sacrament of forgiveness for sin and the promise of eternal life depends not on the worthiness, faith or understanding of the recipient, but on God’s promise to be present in a redemptive way. Faith is not a requirement for the efficacy of the sacrament. To the contrary, the sacrament generates and sustains faith.
These days, however, we are not breaking bread together as a gathered community. Our posture is more that of the disciples on the road with their dashed hopes than the disciples at the table recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread. That isn’t a comfortable place for Lutheran believers like me. This discomfort has led many of my colleagues to seek ways of celebrating Holy Communion “virtually” on line, live or by way of prerecorded liturgies. I don’t want to engage in arguments over the legitimacy of these efforts. But I have to wonder whether they do not reflect, at least in part, a diminished understanding of the real presence of Jesus. Jesus was no less present to the disciples on the road where they failed to recognize him than he was at the table where they did. The sacrament is not a commodity we need to get our hands on in order for Jesus to be present for us. It is rather a gift through which that saving presence is mediated in a way that nourishes and strengthens the community of believers.
“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Luke 24:15.
It is not my intent to minimize or discount the importance of the sacraments for the life of the church. But I think we need to be reminded that, even as we are prevented at this time from seeking Jesus through these means of grace, Jesus never stops seeking us. He meets us on the road, even when we are separated from the rest of the community, even when we have given up and are moving away from him. Jesus seeks us even when we are not looking from him. Can we recognize this time of separation from our sanctuaries as an opportunity to encounter Jesus on the road? Can we see this time of “fasting” from Holy Communion as an opportunity to sharpen our awareness of Jesus’ presence in our day to day lives? Is this a time for discovering holiness in places where it has always been, but our eyes have been kept from recognizing it? It may be that Jesus is walking with us even now-and we just haven’t seen him yet.
Here is a poem by Elizabeth Bajjalieh who met God “on the road.”
I Met God on a Train Last Week
As the night sky rose like fire
And the iron angels
Stuck staccato like twigs on the ground
Propped up, reaching out to the masses
And I was on the train
With a man I’d never met
And his brother, wailing to the side
My heart was a rock
Falling through my chest
And they spoke to me
With malt liquor
Singing from their tongues
And of loss
And he spoke of Hope
And he told me
To hold on
As bittersweet pills
Dissolve in the pit of my gut
He told me
To hold on
These were not the words
I was ready to hear
From slurred strangers on the train
But to speak of God
With a man
Who preached from a pulpit
Of worn plastic CTA seats
Is the closest
I have ever been
To a revelation
And iron angels
Source: Friends journal, January 27, 2020. (c. 2020 by Elizabeth Bajjalieh) Elizabeth Bajjaleih is the Interim Advocacy Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee. She is a graduate of Loyola University in Chicago and has a long history of social service, including advocacy for LJBTQ rights and promotion of peaceful and just resolutions to conflicts in the middle east. She currently lives in Palatine, Illinois.