‘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 recognised him; and he vanished from their sight.’ (24:30-31)
What was it about Jesus taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to these two travellers to Emmaus that opened their eyes so that, at last, after a couple of hours of walking and talking together, they finally recognised him? Though it must have been rather galling, I think, that just as they finally put a name and identity to the person whose explanation of scripture had made their hearts burn within them, he upped and vanished!
I don’t have any problem believing that Jesus could walk up to Cleopas and his unnamed companion (I wonder if it was his wife) without them recognising him. I know how often I struggle to recognise someone if I see them out of context. I once failed to notice or recognise a church member as we sat opposite each other in a dentist’s waiting room. The church was in a different town and this was a different sort setting. I just wasn’t expecting to see them. How much more so, then, for these two; never expecting to meet Jesus in the flesh, because their understanding was that Jesus’s flesh – his body – was dead and buried.
It was something about the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread that opened their eyes to the identity of this stranger and companion on the road. Now lots of people do one or more of these actions – taking, blessing, breaking, giving – not just Jesus. So maybe it was something about this combination of actions, all happening in one go. Perhaps it was something about Jesus’s style in performing them – it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
What was it then that led these two people to recognise Jesus because of these particular actions? Was it because they were at the last Supper? Maybe the unnamed disciple who was walking to Emmaus was a man and was also one of that temperamental group of twelve disciples who joined Jesus for the meal we call “The Last Supper”. Or maybe one or both of them were servants serving that meal. Or perhaps, whilst disciples, they were not members of the core group, but were part of the second tier of followers going around with Jesus, and so they got to peek into the room just as it all happened? I suggest these possibilities because in all four Gospel accounts of the Last Supper Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and gives, just like he was now doing at Emmaus.
And the same is true in Saint Paul’s account of the tradition he received about the Last Supper; his words in 1 Corinthians 12 are the ones that are often quoted or referenced as part of what we often call Holy Communion or The Lord’s Supper: ‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks [or blessed it], he broke it and said, “this is my body that is for you,”’ thus giving it to them.
If these two Emmaus travellers were inside or peering into the upstairs room in Jerusalem on Maundy Thursday, this action of Jesus – taking, blessing, breaking, giving – was that distinctive combination whereby the stranger at this table revealed himself – betrayed himself you might almost say – as the Jesus they had thought was dead but was now very much alive and in their midst. Just imagine their shock.
Or maybe it was not the Last Supper that they were remembering, or perhaps not only the Last Supper. There was another event, or events, where larger crowds got to see Jesus taking these characteristic actions: ‘Taking the five loaves and two fish, he [Jesus] looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds’: the feeding of the five thousand. (14:19).
There are actually six gospel accounts of Jesus feeding crowds of people; maybe six accounts of the one event, or perhaps descriptions of two separate occasions. And what do you know, all six accounts include these four elements of performance; took, blessed, broke, gave. I wonder if these two at Emmaus had been part of a Galilee crowd on an occasion like that?
At Emmaus, though, it’s the risen Jesus Christ who takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread to the two disciples. The hands that take the bread on this occasion are the same hands that took the bread to feed the crowd, and to share that last meal with his disciples. This tells me that the life and ministry of Jesus can’t be prised apart from the experience of meeting the resurrected Jesus. Jesus’s teaching and ministry are both consistent with what happened to Jesus at the cross and what God achieved at the cross.
These common actions in different situations – taking, blessing, breaking and giving – are more than just an interesting coincidence. They are more than simply our means of knowing how the Emmaus travellers came to recognise the risen Lord Jesus. They also tell us something important about life and ministry, about death and resurrection, and their place in the plans of God for the salvation of the world. This characteristic set of actions, shared both before and after the death and resurrection of Jesus, reminds us that we can’t divide up the Gospel to suit ourselves. We can’t cherry-pick the bits of God’s good-news-story that most appeal to us.
Many of us have favourite parts of the Gospel, and that’s fine, that’s human, just as long as it does not lead us quietly drop other bits of the Gospel all together. For some Christians the core of the Gospel is found in the teaching, the ministry of Jesus in his time upon earth. For them he is the supreme teacher, setting out the path we should follow in our lives. Frankly, they don’t feel too comfortable with all this talk about the cross as the means of our salvation; our way of being reconciled with a God who is just and who can’t abide our failings and wrongdoings.
For some other Christians, though, the cross is the central reality of their faith. Through the death of Jesus upon the cross all has been made right between God and the world, and Christ’s resurrection is the sign and first occasion of the renewed life that now awaits all believers. For them, what Jesus got up to in the thirty or so years before his death and resurrection is only a secondary feature in the story of our salvation.
Well, I agree with everything both those groups affirm: the importance of Jesus’s teaching and the centrality of the cross to the gospel. I disagree with both of them in what they try to lay aside or put into the background of the Gospel story. And this occasion at Emmaus supports me in doing that. It reminds us that it was the things that Jesus said and did which brought him to the cross in the first place. The cross, by itself, does not have much to say to us about how we should lead our lives today. For that to happen there needs to a link between what Jesus said and did in his ministry and his going to the cross.
Then, to look at it the other way around. We can’t stop the story with Jesus’s actions and teachings in his ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem. Here, in Luke 24, with its account of this meeting on the way to Emmaus, it’s the after-the-cross risen, resurrected Christ we are dealing with. He is still teaching about the significance of the scriptures, including the Messiah should suffer … and then enter into his glory, (24:26), and he is still in the business of taking, blessing, breaking and giving the bread.
It’s only appropriate, then, that every time we gather at a communion table, we celebrate Jesus’s life on earth, including his teaching. It’s only appropriate that we do so alongside celebrating his death and resurrection, with all of what that says about God’s salvation for the world. We are all invited to join with the two Emmaus disciples, with the Twelve (and others?) at the meal in the upstairs room, and with the hungry crowds in Galilee.
At communions, bread is taken, blessed, broken and given. All of us receive from Jesus, whether we are looking back to his ministry in Galilee, among crowds; his meal with close friends and disciples in Jerusalem, in the shadow of the cross; or doing so in the light of the resurrection, along with two disciples on a journey. And in eating and drinking together we not only step back into past events but bringing the life-giving effects of Jesus’s life, ministry, death and resurrection into the present.
Yes, this meal sustains us because in re-performing Jesus’s actions of taking, blessing, breaking and giving – and in the receiving and eating – we are drawn back to Jesus, being reminded of how he brings life. He brings life through the teachings and actions of his ministry in Galilee, including when he is among great crowds. He brings life through his death on the cross – a profound shedding of blood, but in a purposeful, life-giving way, not in a needless suffering, or through some unneeded, unhealthy attraction or addiction to pain or violence. And he brings us resurrection life when, like the two on the road to Emmaus, we discover that for him death has not been the end, and so nor need it be for us either.