Stories about bread take us deep into the heart of the most basic human need. And we find God there. In the bread we break, the Risen Christ makes us bread for the world.
During the season of Easter – the weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday – we take some time to look for and notice Resurrection: We look for Resurrection in the stories that the Gospels tell of how the women and the other disciples first experienced the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. We look for Resurrection in the stories that the Book of Acts tells of those first days of life together – Resurrection at work in the life we live in community. And, along the way, during the season of Easter, we also look for Resurrection alive in us, at work in our world – God’s power of life stronger than every power, stronger even than death.
This morning’s Scripture gives us a glimpse of Resurrection in The Bread We Break. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus recognize the Risen Christ – not in words, or even a conversation; not in teaching; but in the breaking of bread. It’s when Jesus breaks bread – that their hearts are warmed, and their eyes are opened.
We meet these two disciples as they make their way to the village of Emmaus. It’s still Easter Sunday – late in the day – and like most of the disciples we meet on that first Easter Sunday, they are dazed and bewildered. They walk together, on the way to Emmaus, talking about all the things that have happened, trying to piece it all together.
As they walk, Jesus himself comes alongside them, and begins to walk with them, and he asks, “So, what are you talking about?”
And we have this first moment: The Scripture says that they stood still. They stopped cold. There’s a line in a Nanci Griffith song, where she sings: “You always stood me still.” The moment of being stopped in our tracks. Speechless. Breathless. What a question to ask. Jesus’s question stood them still.
And they respond, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know what has happened in these days?!?!” Now there’s some irony. They ask Jesus: Are you the only one who doesn’t know?
But Jesus lets them tell the story:
“Here’s what we’re talking about. We followed this Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet, powerful both in word and deed. But then he was arrested and tried and crucified.
“But we had hoped.... We had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel.” Now there’s some heartbreak. But we had hoped. All their hope – their hope for liberation, their hope for freedom from Empire, freedom from corrupt and oppressive systems, freedom from poverty and pain – all their hope had been nailed to that cross.
“But we had hoped.”
They go on: “And now, our women have amazed us. They went to the tomb, but his body wasn’t there, just angels – so they say – saying that Jesus was alive. Some of the others then went to the tomb, but they didn’t see Jesus.”
Jesus listens to all this, and then Jesus says – but don’t you see – don’t you see that this is what the prophets said. And, then this one they think a stranger, this one whom they think to be the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know, he begins to explain to them – everything – from Moses and all the prophets – all that the Scripture has said, now come to life in these days. They walk, and Jesus talks. Explaining everything.
As they finally approach the village of Emmaus, Jesus starts to take his leave of them, but it’s late, so they urge him to stay with them. They still don’t know who he is, but they invite him to be their guest.
And they sit at table, and Jesus takes bread, and gives thanks, and breaks it, and begins to give it to them – and oooohhhh – ooohh – of course – their eyes are opened – and they see him – the Risen Christ.
And then he’s gone. They say to each other, “Have not our hearts been burning, when he opened the Scriptures to us?” They go and find the others, and they confirm, “Our Lord is Risen!” And then they tell the story of how they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
This is a story of a journey, on a weary and bewildering road.
This is a story of hospitality, as the disciples invite Jesus to stay with them, and as Jesus then hosts them at table.
And, this is a story of bread – as Jesus breaks bread (as Jesus does) – and they see – in the breaking of the bread – they see the Risen Christ.
Bread is a central part of the whole of the story we tell in Scripture – the story of God’s creating, sustaining, saving action in the world. From beginning to end – bread is almost always there. Think about it – just the stories that we’ve talked about in the past year or so.
When the people are just out of Egypt, wandering in the wilderness – they hunger, on the verge of perishing – God provides manna – bread for the journey – every morning – just enough for the day, and then the next morning, just enough for that day – every day – for 40 years – until their journey is complete.
The Hebrew Scriptures abound with stories of miraculous provision – bread enough, just when it’s needed. There’s the story of Elijah and the widow in the midst of famine – Elijah asks her to go get him some bread – she responds, “I don’t have any bread. It’s a famine. I have just enough oil and flour to make some last bread for my son and me. And then, we’re ready to die.” But Elijah, the prophet, says go make the bread – and she makes some bread – and the bread never runs out.
The Gospels are full of stories of miraculous provision. Jesus feeds the 4,000 or the 5,000, depending on the story. At one point in Luke, the crowds have gathered, listening to Jesus teach. It’s late in the day. The disciples come to Jesus and ask him to send everyone home because there’s nothing to eat, and the crowds are hungry. And Jesus responds and says, “You give them something to eat.” And, with Jesus, they feed 5,000.
Again and again, we tell these stories. The people are hungry – someone is hungry – and God provides bread. One of my Gospel teachers, Professor Ann Wire, points out that this isn’t unique to Hebrew or Christian scriptures. These stories of miraculous provision – like stories of miraculous healing – are a type of story that we tell. Stories that were told across cultures in the Ancient Near East. Again and again. The stories have the same basic structure:
1. There is a need.
2. The need is voiced.
3. The need is met.
The structure is the same. Professor Wire says that what’s interesting – where we find the meaning is in how the story is then told. We find meaning in the specifics.
When the story is about bread – in the Ancient Near East – we are talking about life and death. In the world of the Bible – the world of Luke – most folks lived a bare subsistence living. The powers of their day – Empire and local collaborators – had pushed the people off their land. They labored each day – for just enough for that day. Hence, the prayer for “our daily bread.” When there was no bread, life was in peril. We can delve into the layers of meaning, but at their most essential level – stories about bread – are always about real bread and real hunger – real bodies and real lives. Stories about bread take us deep into the heart of the most basic human need. And we find God there.
On the road to Emmaus, when these disciples stumble along, clueless as to the stranger who is teaching them on the way, they finally recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread – because the breaking of bread was central to who Jesus was and is. Throughout the gospels Jesus is providing and breaking bread. Particularly in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is almost always gathering at table with folks for a shared meal – as one writer has said, Jesus is either going to, sitting at, or coming from a meal. As Eric Barreto puts it, “Jesus is most Jesus when he is at the table, at a meal infused with meaning because of the people gathered [in their deep need] around the food.”
Bread is central to who Jesus is – it’s central to who we are. It’s not only at the heart of one of our sacraments – it’s a central commitment of this congregation in our life of serving together.
In two thousand years, we haven’t fixed hunger. In our world, 822 million people experience hunger every day. By “hunger” we mean that folks “do not get enough calories, essential nutrients, or both, [needed for survival].” As Bread for the World explains, “People who [hunger] have an ongoing problem with getting food to eat. They have a primary need — how to feed themselves and their children today and tomorrow. They have little energy for anything else.”
Poverty is the main cause of hunger in the United States and in the world. In developing countries, that hunger and that poverty are perpetuated and made even worse by global systems – like national indebtedness; lack of infrastructure; unstable markets; agriculture that is controlled by multinational corporations driven more by profit than by local farmers or concern for hunger and food scarcity; and, increasingly, by climate emergency.
For some time now, hunger action – responding to the deep need of hunger – has been a core ministry of this church. Globally, this congregation has supported Bread for the World, as they advocate and work for systemic change to eliminate hunger, giving to Bread for the World and some years joining their Offering of Letters to lawmakers (both of which you can do on the Bread for the World website). Locally, the congregation has partnered with others to provide meals through the REST shelter. And every month – during pandemic, every week – we take up the Centsability Offering – our Presbytery’s shared effort to alleviate hunger and food scarcity locally.
Bread to meet the deep need of hunger – this is a commitment this congregation lives out. As Jo Gross says of hunger-action ministries she has helped lead, “Our position has always been to embody the message rather than only to preach it with words.”
In this season of our life – in the world and in our community, we’re talking a good bit about how we re-emerge from sheltering and from pandemic – how we re-emerge – embracing what we’ve learned – and re-embracing commitments we’ve long held. For the past few weeks, we’ve talked about that particularly in our life of worship – as so many have worked so hard to launch our new hybrid worship – with a fusion of being community online and in-person.
While we continue that important work in our life of worship, we will also need to think about how we do that in our life of service as well. In our commitment to hunger action – What have we learned during pandemic about what we can do together? During the past year, we’ve not only sustained the Centsability offering but increased our giving. With what we’ve learned about how we can connect online – and with new opportunities to be in person – what more can we do? What new thing may be emerging even now? All this excitement and energy for new opportunities to be in-person together – how do we channel that into one of our signature commitments: Together We Serve?
In this story on the road to Emmaus, the disciples experience the Risen Christ – they see and recognize the Risen Christ – in this moment: “When he was at the table with them, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.” That sounds a lot like Communion. But first, we should notice that, in this Scripture, this is an ordinary meal. As one writer puts it “Jesus breaks bread with them – an ordinary loaf in an ordinary meal in an ordinary house.” We experience the Risen Christ in the bread we break at our daily tables – in the ordinary moments of every day – in our daily bread – God meeting our deepest need.
And, this is so much a part of our identity in Christ, that we’ve incorporated it into a sacrament – the experience of the Risen Christ in the bread we break – every time we celebrate communion.
In the bread we break, we remember that Jesus
meets us in our deepest need,
nourishes us for the journey,
gathers us – gathers all the broken pieces,
pours out the life of Christ into us,
and makes us into one body, the body of Christ.
In the bread we break, the Risen Christ makes us bread for the world.
© 2021 Scott Clark