Easter 3, April 26, 2020
Be present, be present, O Jesus, our great high Priest, as you were present with your disciples, and be known to us the breaking of bread; who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
This table grace hangs framed on the wall near the table where I gather with my family for the evening meal. I’ve had it for many years, written out in calligraphy by a friend who was at seminary with me. Now it means more to me than ever, at this time of confinement and social distancing. We might well ask, where is Jesus now?
It is the Easter season. He is not in the empty tomb. He is not in the empty church either. We want to know his presence with us, but we cannot celebrate the Eucharist as a gathered community. The stories and the experiences of Christians tell us the good news that Jesus comes to us wherever we are right now. He meets us in our sorrows. On our solitary roads. And he meets us at our table when we make a place for him.
The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus from Luke chapter 24 begins in grief. It is still Easter day, but two of Jesus’ followers have left Jerusalem and have headed back to a nearby village. They have heard that the women at the tomb saw a vision of angels. They listened to the report of other disciples that the tomb was empty. But it is too much to process after having witnessed the crucifixion of their teacher. They need to go home and self-isolate in their confusion and pain. After so much happening in their world, they need to withdraw. The saddest part of the passage comes when they meet a stranger on the road, who asks them what has happened. As they begin to relate the details, one of them admits poignantly, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel”. They had hoped for a different ending, a happy ending, but now the story is over and they are going home to sit in the ashes of their world.
But this is not the end of the story, the stranger tells them. There is more. And through his words, he reveals the meaning of his suffering and glory. It is not until he is invited into their home and sits at table with them, however, that they understand who has truly been with them all this time. In the table fellowship there are echoes of Jesus feeding the 5,000, of the Last Supper, and of what will become the basis for the sacrament we call the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Christ’s presence is manifest in the breaking of the bread.
These are mirrored in the four actions of Jesus: taking, blessing, breaking, and giving. But the disciples do not recognize him until they respond by accepting the bread from his hand. Then their eyes are opened to his presence with them, even as he physically leaves the scene. They no longer need his corporeal being; they hold the body of Christ in their hands and, more importantly, in their hearts. Because they have opened a place for the Lord, He has been able to come among them.
I wonder what it would be like if we intentionally set a place for Jesus at our table tonight? Maybe we could do it tangibly, with a napkin and glass and cutlery. Or perhaps we could do it spiritually, with the invitation of Christ’s presence in our table grace and our imagination of God’s listening and conversation with us, as the food and drink are shared. In Jewish tradition, there is a place for Elijah at the Passover meal. Elijah is the prophet who is said to come as the unknown guest in order to herald the Messiah. In the ceremonial offering of cups of wine in the Seder meal, God’s four expressions of redemption are remembered: taking out of suffering, delivering from bondage, redeeming with blessing, and gathering as a nation. Another four-fold action. But the last, or 5th cup, which remains undrunk, is for Elijah, in expectation of what is to come. That cup after supper, which is what Jesus raised to bless in the institution of communion, is the tangible sign of God’s kingdom come among us. As the door is opened to invite Elijah in to bring good news, God is able to enter in to the home.
God keeps offering opportunities to be invited in to supper with us so that his presence can be revealed. During the holy month of Ramadan, Moslems fast from dawn to dusk and then break their fast with a meal called Iftar, literally “the break of a fast”. After traditionally eating dates and drinking the first glass of water, a large meal is shared amongst families and friends. This year, Ramadan will be just as different and foreign-feeling as Easter day was for Christians. And yet, the prayer for all is that we may come to know God/Allah/Adonai more fully in the breaking of the bread. I think that many may do what we are discovering: how to hold virtual suppers by gathering remotely at the same time, perhaps with the same foods at the meal. In that connection, may God be one of the guests.
In the Latin song, Ubi Caritas, we sing that where charity and love are present, God is here among us. Although some of us long for the day when we can all be under the same roof again, there is room for the risen Christ to meet us where we are. The Eucharist is still being offered around the world as a sacrament of healing and connection, even when most are needing to feed on it spiritually rather than receiving the bread and the wine. It is not the physical elements that conjure up God’s presence. Rather, when our hearts are open to receive the presence of Christ, God will be with us. Our high priest, who gave himself for the healing of our world, comes regardless of what we can offer him for supper.
In some of our homes today, that bread may be anxiety and the drink may be tears. Christ is still with us to share and to console. For many of us, our hearts are full of both compassion for the griefs of others and frustration at being able to do less than we want to help. Christ is still with us as we offer what we are able in prayer and service. But especially for the ones who walk dark roads and whose eyes have not yet glimpsed the stranger alongside, Christ is with us. May the strength of the risen One encourage us to reach out to share what we have encountered at the table.
Let us pray:
Stay with us, Lord, for the day is far spent and we have not yet recognized your face in each of our brothers and sisters.
Stay with us, Lord, for the day is far spent and we have not yet shared your bread in grace with each of our brothers and sisters.
Stay with us, Lord, for the day is far spent and we have not yet listened to your Word in the words of our brothers and sisters.
Stay with us, Lord, because our very night becomes day when you are there. Amen.*
*”Who do you say that I am?”, Seoul, 1989, Worship Book of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.