Many of us can remember a time when our culture enjoyed a rich tradition of story telling. It was a simpler time, before there were televisions in every home. Many families spent the evenings together, telling stories. These were casual gatherings in some comfortable place, perhaps the kitchen table. The function of these family gatherings was to bring the day to an orderly and peaceful close; to put a gentle punctuation mark on the end of the day. The stories our elders told were sometimes stirring, sometimes frightening. Most of them had at least a little of the fantastic about them, but they never failed to entertain.
Only as we grew older did we come to understand that this nightly pastime served a higher purpose than mere entertainment. In the telling and hearing of our stories, we gained a keen awareness of who we were. At the same time and in very subtle fashion, were also given some notion of what, and who, we were supposed to become.
Our stories gave us clues about where we fit in our community, in the region we lived in, in the nation, and, ultimately, in the cosmos. Our stories told us what it meant to have the names we had inherited, the meanings attached to the places where we lived, and the sort of persons who had shared those names and those places before us. It is very difficult not to have a strong sense of history, at least of one's own, when it is recited in almost liturgical fashion, night after night, year after year.
Even those stories involving hunting and fishing, stories requiring us to suspend disbelief, carried within them something of who we were. Our elders recited our history for us in order to pass along what they had learned, from their elders and from their own experiences.
The resurrection appearance reported in today's Gospel reading is a story intended for those of us who were not in the inner circle. This resurrection appearance involves ordinary Christians like us. People who were part of the ministry, but who played minor roles and who were not always mentioned by name in the dispatches.
The two people involved in this report are so obscure that we know nearly nothing about either of them. Indeed, one of them is not even named. These are ordinary foot-soldiers in Jesus' camp. That fact should make each of us feel right at home.
What we do know about them is that they were disciples-students and followers of Jesus. We know that they were on their way to the town of Emmaus. We know that the subject of Jesus' death dominated their conversation and that they were deeply discouraged.
As they walked along, they were joined by a stranger. That was nothing out of the ordinary. Strangers often attached themselves to groups; safety in travel was no small matter. The stranger took some pains to be included in their conversation. He asked what they were talking about. The two disciples were incredulous. They could not believe that anyone could have been in Jerusalem over the past several days, and yet fail to know what had happened. And they said so.
The resurrected, but unrecognized, Jesus played straight man. He asked the appropriate questions and the two disciples spilled out to him the deep burden of their hearts. This was not idle conversation. These people were in pain. They recited their story of Jesus as they had come to know him. They recounted the dreams they had started to dream. They rehearsed dreams that had seemed so real, so possible because of their life with Jesus. Easily, the most poignant line in their recitation is, "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." We had hoped...
Nothing hurts quite so much as shattered hopes. Nothing is quite so painful as a beautiful dream of something long-desired that ends suddenly and is unfulfilled. Nothing is quite so bitter as the acrid taste of stark reality that a dying dream leaves behind. These people were suffering from just such a loss.
In response to their distress, Jesus told them a story. In fact, he told them a great many stories. Before he was done, Jesus had reviewed for them the scriptural foundation on which their hope for a Messiah had been built. None of the stories were new to these disciples. They had heard them since they were old enough to hear-and they heard them clearly this time. They heard them, but they didn't fully hear them. They heard them, but they did not recognize the power behind the words they were hearing. Because they did not hear fully, the stranger who was talking with them remained a stranger. Indeed, he remained a stranger to them until they sat down for the evening meal.
At the table, even though the stranger was the invited guest, he took the role of host. He took the bread and said the blessing. We are not certain what words Jesus used to bless the bread, but we believe the disciples heard, "This is my Body which is given for you." It was in that moment, the moment of the blessing of the bread, the moment of the blessing that changed the very meaning of bread forever, that mere hearing was replaced with recognition. The disciples realized that they had been in the presence of their Risen Lord through most of that long afternoon.
We are told they had reached their destination for the day and that night had fallen. We know that travel at night was a dangerous undertaking in that place and time. We also know that those two disciples abandoned their evening meal and the safety of their lodging and lost no time in returning to Jerusalem. The indications are that they ran to Jerusalem. They ran because they had news that was too good to wait. Never mind the danger. The Lord is risen, and the rest of the community needs to hear about it.
This resurrection story is for all of us, the rank and file of the followers of Jesus Christ. It gives us a clear signal that the Risen Lord is with us. It also gives us a clue to the sort of response we ought to make.
We meet the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread. We meet the Risen Lord in his Body, the Church. The sacraments of the broken bread and the Church as the Body of Christ are windows through which we may glimpse the Divine. The power of these sacraments lies at the heart of who we are as the Body of Christ, the Church.
Easter is the sacrament of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is the ultimate sacrament that assures us that separation from God, and from each other, is not a permanent condition. We can claim this assurance for ourselves.
We are engaged in the same sort of journey as those two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
We seek our Risen Lord-in the Community of the Faithful, the Church. When we gather as the Church, we hear the Word of God, we bless and break the bread, and the presence and power of the Risen Christ is mediated to us. By means of Word and Sacrament, we are permitted a glimpse into the divine. For our sake, Divine Love transforms ordinary bread and wine into holy food and drink. For our sake, that same Divine Love transforms broken human beings in to redeemed Children of God. We break the bread in celebration and our dedication to the Risen Christ is strengthened. We recognize the Risen Christ in each other as we celebrate our life in community.
As the community of the faithful, we are strengthened and fed for our journey. We are strengthened so that we may tell our story to a world that desperately needs to hear it. We are fed so that we may share the bread broken for us, with a world that is waiting to be fed.