In the Breaking of the Bread

In the Breaking of the Bread

As I read all of the places in the scripture concerning the resurrection, I count 18 different references. The first written reference to the resurrection is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

For I handed on to you what I had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised from the dead on the third day, and that he appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, then to all of the apostles. Last of all he appeared also to me.

We might note the appearance to more than 500 brothers and sisters, and the appearance to James, do not appear in any of the gospels. We can also note Paul does not mention the empty tomb.

The followers of Jesus started proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, because they experienced his living presence after he had been tortured to death and buried, not because they found an empty tomb. Even in the accounts that include an empty tomb, the disciples remain unconvinced until they encounter the Risen Christ. Our story today in Luke, about two disciples meeting the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus may be a more authentic reflection of the early church’s experience of the Risen Christ, than accounts about an empty tomb.

Let me propose six reasons the Road to Emmaus story seems authentic. Cleopas and his unnamed companion were leaving Jerusalem in a hurry. If your leader has been arrested and executed, you don’t want to hang around waiting for your turn on the cross. The tradition that the Risen Christ appeared to his followers in Galilee, or on the road out of Jerusalem is probably reliable. Once Jesus had been killed there was no reason to stick around waiting to be identified as one of his disciples. Remember how on the night of Jesus’ arrest Peter was accused of being one of Jesus’ followers, and how Peter denied even knowing Jesus in order to avoid arrest himself. The disciples were not waiting around Jerusalem in order to be witnesses of a resurrection they weren’t expecting. Like Cleopas and his unnamed companion, they were getting out of town fast.

I like the story on the Road to Emmaus because Cleopas and his companion were followers of Jesus who were not part of the Twelve. When Jesus came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he had a critical mass of followers with him that may have numbered 500 or more. Remember Paul’s reference to a resurrection appearance to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time. Jesus may have had an inner circle, but one of the things that made the resurrection convincing was it was not confined to the Twelve. The Risen Christ did not appear only to a privileged few. The resurrection was a much more egalitarian experience. A wider circle of followers were witnesses of the Risen Christ.

A curious detail in the Road to Emmaus story is the name of Cleopas is remembered, but his companion remains nameless. Why? John Dominic Crossan believes Cleopas’ unnamed traveling companion was a woman. The early Christian Community was much more radically egalitarian than the later church. Women held leadership positions of importance. In the Gospel of Thomas that was later suppressed, Mary Magdalene, was portrayed as the intellectual equal of the male followers of Jesus.

The authentic letters of Paul name a number of women who were leaders in the early Christian communities: Phoebe, who is described as a Deacon of the church, Priscilla, Junia, Julia, Olympus, and Lydia, the founder and benefactress of the church in Philippi. Women played a vital and crucial role in those early years. But as the church began accommodating to the male dominated hierarchical culture of the Mediterranean World, women were consigned to the background and many of their names were lost. After all a woman traveling with a man to whom she was not married would have been labeled a whore, and that might explain why Jesus was criticized for associating with tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes. There were many women in his entourage, and his ministry was bankrolled by Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the Steward of Herod, and another wealthy woman named Susanna. So, Cleopas’ unnamed traveling companion, may have been a vague memory of the more egalitarian early followers of Jesus, where women were prominent and important even disciples.

Another mark of authenticity of the Road to Emmaus story is that the two disciples did not recognize the Risen Christ. They walked with him and talked with him for several hours, and never recognized this stranger as Jesus. Mary Magdalene in the Garden looking for the body of Jesus mistakes the Risen Christ for the gardener, until he calls her name. The disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee see a stranger on shore, and do not recognize him until they have a miraculous catch of fish. When the disciples meet with the Risen Christ on a mountain top in Galilee the text says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” The risen Christ apparently was not always immediately recognizable. He wasn’t as plain as the nose on your face. And I think that is also our experience.

Jesus is alive in the world, he goes on before us, but we too often do not recognize him, because he comes to us in the disguise of the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the mentally ill, the elderly the prisoner, the poorly clothed, the substance abuser, the people we often want to avoid, because they are people in need. And so often the needy are messy. So we shy away and hope they will go away. Just think how often we fail to recognize the Christ among us. Cleopas and his companion had a hard time recognizing Christ in the guise of a stranger.

So how did Cleopas and his companion recognize the Risen Christ? They recognized the stranger as Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Now we have come to associate the breaking of the bread with communion that consists of a stale bread cube and a little sip of wine or grape juice. But in the early church and during the ministry of Jesus “the breaking of the bread,” was a full communal meal, a common table to which everyone was invited and everyone was fed. John Dominic Crossan tries to help us understand how radical was the inclusive table fellowship of Jesus.

Think, for a moment, if beggars came to your door, of the difference between giving them food to go, of inviting them into your kitchen for a meal, of bringing them into the dining room to eat in the evening with your family, or of having them come back on Saturday night for supper with a group of your friends.

. . . . What Jesus advocated was eating together without discriminations or separations. The social challenge of such equal or egalitarian table fellowship is radical. . . . Jesus practiced open table fellowship and therefore he was accused to being a gluten and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He made no socially appropriate distinctions and discriminations. And since women were present, especially unmarried women, who even joined in the discussion, the accusation was made that Jesus ate with whores, the standard epithet of denigration for any female who was outside of appropriate male control. . . .

Jesus envisioned a radically egalitarian society he called the Kingdom of God, that was represented by his practice of open table fellowship and symbolized by the breaking of the bread. When the stranger sat down with Cleopas and his female traveling companion and blessed and broke the bread, they knew this was Jesus.

Open Table Fellowship reminds me of a story, about a woman who invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, “Would you like to say the blessing dear?”

“I wouldn’t know what to say,” the little girl replied.

“Just say what you hear Mommy say,” the mother said.

The little girl bowed her head and prayed: “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?”

Christ calls for the community of faith that follows him to continue to advocate for a radically egalitarian community, that invites everyone to come to the table, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, everyone is welcome here at God’s table. The Kingdom of God is not somewhere in the sweet by and by, the Kingdom of God is here today as the Christ is known in the breaking of the bread.

The last mark of authenticity in the Road to Emmaus Story is the emotional realization of the two disciples, “did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” The encounter with the Christ is almost always an emotionally significant experience. In the words of John Wesley, “My heart was strangely warmed.” Or we might experience something like the great theologian Paul Tillich, “Sometimes a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than yourself, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.”

The tomb is empty. Jesus goes before us. Christ is on the road. The Kingdom of God is here and now as we embrace the radically egalitarian way of Jesus. Practice open table fellowship. Do not let the discriminations of the world chose who you will eat with. Come for soup and bread, where everyone is welcome, and everyone who comes to the table is fed. And there perhaps you will recognize the Christ in the breaking of the bread.

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