Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Third Sunday of Easter

On this Sunday, we gather to know the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Today's Gospel is the story of the road to Emmaus, in which two disciples fail to recognize Jesus walking along with them until he breaks bread with them at the evening meal. As I said two weeks ago, it's an incredible story, with lots of meaning. Here's what I offered at St. Thomas's today:

St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Vernon
The Third Sunday of Easter 2008 (BCP)
Acts 2:14a, 36-47; Ps 116:10-17; I Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

In the name of Him whom we know in the breaking of the bread. Amen.

It’s hard to believe that it’s April already! Now, maybe the weather we’ve been having is completely ordinary for this time of year, but it has seemed a bit cold to me. You who are longtime residents of this area will have to tell me if this is all to be expected, or if it’s out of the ordinary. But it was really nice to have a fire going last Thursday, let me tell you. I just haven’t gotten to know what the weather patterns are like yet. I won’t understand them instantly – it will take time and simply living here for a while yet.

If you read my blog at all, you may know that one of things I like to do is play Fantasy Baseball. I’m not much of a baseball player for real - about the only thing I’m good for is pinch running. But I enjoy Fantasy Baseball a lot. I was first introduced to it years ago by some college buddies who were really into it. What you essentially do is pretend you are a baseball team owner. You have a roster to fill – pitchers, catcher, infield, outfield, and you can select from any real major-league baseball player you like. You don’t have to pick them from the same team. Then, over the course of the real season, you accumulate the actual statistics that the players you own earn as well. So since I own NY Yankees pitcher Mike Messina, when Mike does well, so do I. We compete in a league of eleven other teams and compare our statistics to each other, for bragging rights. Last year I finished fourth out of 12 in my best league, and so far after one week of regular play I’m in 8th place out of 12.

You can imagine that, with over 800 players in both leagues, that there’s quite a lot of information about all the players. You can go to any sports website on the Internet or look in the newspaper, to see that. The keys to winning Fantasy Baseball have a lot to do with learning who the better players are. That takes time and patience and a good familiarity with the stats and what they mean. Coming to recognize that Atlanta starter Tim Hudson is a more desirable pitcher than, say, Mets middle reliever Andy Heilman isn’t something that happens instantly.

And of course, we’re in the middle of a process that that is taking a lot longer than a single season of Major League Baseball. What’s dominating the talk shows now, and will be for months to come yet? The Presidential election news. Perhaps you, like me, have been enthralled with the both the coverage and the race itself. February and March have certainly been exciting – for the Democrats for sure, but even the Republican nomination wasn’t exactly dull there. The office of the Presidency is so important that running for it is a full-time job for at least two years or more, and many of us take very seriously the duty to get to know the candidates - to recognize the one we will select to be the next President. That doesn’t happen instantly – there’s so much information on TV and the newspaper and the internet to wade through. It takes time and patience, and nowadays, a lot of judicious discernment about what to listen to and what not.

In this age of you-can-have-it-all-now, there are lots of things worth doing that take patience and perhaps repetition. Some things just don’t come right away, no matter what the ads on TV may promise. And so it’s perhaps a bit surprising at the instant gratification that we heard in today’s Gospel from Luke.

This is one of my favorite resurrection stories. It’s the appointed Gospel for the evening celebration of the Eucharist on Easter Day. It takes place in the afternoon and evening of the first day of the week, the day of Resurrection itself. Two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a town about seven miles away. They’re talking with one another about the events of the past week, and probably consoling each other as well. It’s possible they are two of the seventy disciples that Jesus sent out earlier. In any case, as they’re walking along and discussing things, a stranger whom they don’t recognize comes up, apparently on the way to Emmaus as well. He asks what’s going on, and they tell him, although wondering a bit how he could not know what’s been going on.

And the irony of the story is, they don’t recognize the fellow traveler as Jesus! The scripture says their eyes were kept from recognizing him, almost, perhaps, as if it were deliberate. Maybe, but maybe not. It’s clear from other resurrection accounts that lots of people didn’t recognize Jesus when they first saw him on that Easter day. So it’s entirely possible that two disciples who were perhaps in the second rank – they weren’t among the Twelve, after all – might also have not figured out who the resurrected Jesus really was. In any case, this stranger clearly does know what’s going on after all. He proceeds to explain to them from the Scriptures all about how it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and be killed and then rise again. By this time they’re near their destination, and the two disciples prevail on Jesus to stay with them, for evening was at hand and the day was past. So he does. At supper with them, he acts as host, and takes bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. That’s the moment they finally recognized him, and then he apparently vanished.

For those two disciples, it wasn’t until Jesus broke bread with them that their eyes were opened and they realized who it was with them. Breaking bread in community was, from very early on, the primary thing that the earliest believers did together. Luke records in today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles that “Day by day, as they spent much time in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” What happened that evening in Emmaus is nothing less than the forerunner of our Eucharist. In a few moments we, too, will break bread together. We too will know the Lord Jesus when we do so. In fact, we do more than that. We first gather to hear the Word in Scripture, just like Cleopas and his friend did on the road, and then, just as they did, we gather around a real Table to eat and drink of the Body and Blood of Jesus. This is the communion of the Body of Christ, and we are all one body, even though we are many, because we all share the one bread.

It was easy for those disciples sitting at table to recognize Jesus, because he was there in a real and physical way and was recognizable as a person. It’s not always so easy for us, two thousand years on. We know and trust in our senses that Jesus is truly present with us in this moment, but because we’re human, that trust can take time to build. Time and patience. Can you remember the first time you were told what was happening at the Altar? Perhaps it was with bread, perhaps it was with hosts, perhaps grape juice, perhaps wine. Whatever and however and whenever it was, were you instantly able to discern the Risen Lord right there? Did your heart, as did the hearts of the disciples on the road, burn within you at that very instant?

I think for most of us, and definitely for myself, the honest answer would have to be no. I remember getting that it was bread and that we were sharing the same meal that Jesus and his disciples did. But I had only the vaguest inkling that it was something more than mere bread. That took time, and learning, and repetition, and patience before I began to come to that understanding. Unlike for Cleopas and his friend, it was not instantaneous for me. And perhaps it hasn’t been for you either. Knowing the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread is perhaps the closest we will ever come in this life to being with Him. Some of our brothers and sisters in faith place great stock in the moment of conversion, when one almost physically feels the Lord Jesus enter one’s heart and soul and body. I do not doubt for a moment that’s true. I tend to think that conversion happens continually. The Lord Jesus enters each one of us anew every time we come to the Table to break bread together. But we Christians are humans, too, and we’re slow and stubborn and we’re distracted by the bread and wine of the world. So sometimes when we come for the true Bread of heaven, it doesn’t always sink in what’s really going on.

And my friends, that’s OK. What we participate in each Sunday will work its conversion on each of us, whether we are aware of it or not. Jesus, I expect, knew this full well, and that’s one reason why he gave us the Eucharist in the first place. Jesus knew that faith is not necessarily immediate. It comes over time, and we need reinforcement and support and repetition for it to take hold. It’s no coincidence that in one of our Eucharistic prayers, we ask “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” Strength and renewal are things that have to be resupplied – they fade over time. And so we catholic Christians celebrate the Eucharist as often as we do not because God needs it, but because we do!

We come together Sunday by Sunday to learn the Holy Scriptures and to break bread in just the same way as our two friends on the road did. We are their spiritual descendants. We haven’t had the luxury of seeing the risen Lord in the flesh. But in a way we are more fortunate – we see Him every Sunday in the breaking of the bread.

Some things in life are truly instantaneous. Instant coffee. Sending an email. Turning on a light. But other things, like learning weather patterns, discovering who the good baseball players are, or participating in our democratic processes, are not. Our friends on the road had an advantage we do not: they saw the Lord Jesus alive right in front of them. It takes us a bit longer sometimes. Our own eyes, though no fault of our own, are frequently kept from recognizing him when he’s right in front of us. I invite and encourage all of you, all of us, to break bread frequently in Christ’s name, for that is how we know him best.




Doorman-Priest said...

And so much better than the version I couldn't quite hear on Sunday.

RFSJ said...

Thanks! Is that because the preacher mumbled, or do you think because perhaps your ears weren't open at the moment? Happens to me, and I'm usually the preacher! I need to listen to my own sermons better, sometimes.


Doorman-Priest said...

No, its 'coz the preacher was lazy.