In the Breaking of the Bread
I am one of those people who are terrible with names. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll meet someone, or they’ll come up and say hi, and I’ll be as gracious as I can be but be thinking the whole time, “Where do I know this person from?” It’s frustrating. Especially when you do what I do for a living. It requires extraordinary effort for me to remember names. I have even experienced the embarrassing phenomenon of being in mid-conversation with someone and realizing that they are, in fact, someone other than the person I thought I had begun the conversation with. “Oh, that’s where I know him from!” I’ll think to myself. Then I scan backward and pray that I hadn’t called this person by some other name than the name I am now fairly certain is theirs.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
April 16, 2023
Maybe the two disciples on the road to Emmaus have the same defect I do. Maybe they were walking along talking to Jesus on the road, listening to him explain the Law and the Prophets, and they were thinking, “Where do I know him from?” Maybe it was in the middle of the meal that they suddenly had an epiphany.
One of my favorite Jesus movies is a movie called The Miracle Maker. It’s a claymation story of the life of Jesus. It’s actually quite good—one of the few Jesus movies that doesn’t brand Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. The treatment of the road to Emmaus story was well done. In the film, Jesus always has a habit of raising the bread high over his head whenever he blesses it. At the meal in Emmaus, when Jesus takes the bread, he raises it high over his head, and at once, the two disciples realize who he is. “That’s where we know him from!” you can imagine them saying.
It’s something of a mystery as to why Jesus is not recognized. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene does not recognize Jesus at first, either, but imagines him to be the gardener. And yet, we know that Jesus is recognizable: his hands and feet bear the marks of the nails, his side bears the wound of the spear. And yet something prevents the disciples from recognizing him at first.
III.BREAKING OF THE BREAD
Neither Luke nor John provides much explanation for this apart from Luke’s “their eyes were kept from recognizing him”—a passive voice construction that usually implies God is behind the activity. But however it is that the disciples are unable to recognize him, Luke is clear about how it is that Jesus is known. Jesus “had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
But something makes me suspect that the way Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread goes to more than whether he held the bread high over his head or not while blessing it. Perhaps first, we need to ask what it means to say “in the breaking of the bread”.
The most obvious answer perhaps is in the Communion. We can see the connection between the meal at Emmaus and the Last Supper. At Emmaus, Jesus’ actions are described as a four-part process: “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” It is the exact same four-part sequence that we read about in the telling of the Last Supper:
Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:19-20).
It is language that is preserved to this day in our communion liturgy as we recount the story of the Lord’s Supper.
It is appropriate, of course, that “in the breaking of the bread” should apply to the communion. Since the very beginning, we have been proclaiming that Christ is present in the bread and wine of the communion. That we know Christ in the Eucharistic meal. Not all Christians have agreed on the manner in which we encounter Christ in the communion. Catholics believe that the unseen “substance” of the bread and wine transubstantiates into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. (Protestants often think that Catholics think the bread and wine actually turn into flesh and blood in the stomach or some such thing—Catholics don’t think that; it’s a lot more complicated). Some Protestants—Baptists and Presbyterians among them—believe that the Eucharist is a memorial meal only and that Christ is present in memory. Lutherans believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist because the risen Christ is present everywhere. Methodists… well, Methodists do what Methodists do best: we say, ‘we don’t know how Christ is present, but we believe that he is.’ Charles Wesley, brother of John and prolific hymn writer writes in one of his hymns
O the depth of love divine, the unfathomable grace!
Who can say how bread and wine God into us conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts,
how the wine transmits his blood,
Fills the faithful people’s hearts with all the life of God.
Sure and real is the grace, the manner be unknown;
Only meet us in thy ways and perfect us in one.
Let us taste the heavenly powers,
Lord, we ask for nothing more.
Thine to bless ‘tis only ours to wonder and adore.
(O the Depth of Love Divine, UMH #627)
In the breaking of the bread of communion, Christ is made known to us.
And yet, there is more to it.
For the communion is not simply something that Jesus invented that last night in Jerusalem with his disciples. The Last Supper was a Passover meal—a seder, a re-enactment of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.
Christ borrowed not only the rituals of the seder but the meaning as well. That means that when the Church celebrates communion, it observes the Passover in its own way. A number of our churches have been taking Passover seders and Christianizing them for use on Holy Thursday. There is no need to do that since we already have a Christianized Seder: it’s called the Eucharist.
When we celebrate communion, we are not only reenacting an ancient rite of the Church; we are again proclaiming solidarity with the Jewish people as we witness together for human freedom from oppression. Christ is known not only in the meal, then, but what the meal stands for as well—a commitment to freedom, human rights, and God’s deliverance from tyranny. In the breaking of the bread of liberation and human dignity, Christ is made known to us.
B. Fellowship and Community
There are, of course, times that we break bread that have nothing to do with the sacrament of Holy Communion. Christian congregations eat together a lot. And that eating creates a sense of community. In fact, in order to eat with someone, you have to be in some degree of relationship with that person. It reminds us that breaking bread creates community. And that, in turn, reminds us that Christ is known to us in community. It’s why Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together…there I am in the midst of them” and not “Where one of you….” Christianity is a communal enterprise. A shared experience. A faith that is meant to bind us to one another in fellowship and community. Far too many Christians think Christianity is an individual enterprise. Luke reminds us that it is in the communal fellowship of the Church, that breaks bread together that Christ is known.
One of the most interesting things about the Emmaus story is that when Jesus and the disciples get to Emmaus, “he walked ahead as if he were going on.” Jesus does not impose himself on his traveling companions. The strongly urge him to join them for dinner. In ancient Middle Eastern culture, a guest was expected to refuse an initial offer of hospitality until the hosts strongly urged the invitation, as Jesus’ hosts do here.
It is a reminder that Jesus is known to us when we show hospitality. When we invite others in and are welcoming, we are welcoming Christ. Breaking bread with strangers, inviting them into our community life and making them strangers. It is often a reminder that a polite invitation will not do: we need to make our offers of hospitality clear and unmistakable. In the breaking of the bread of hospitality and mutual concern, Christ is made known to us.
“In the breaking of the bread” has one last, but by no means least, interpretation to it. There is one other place in scripture where the four-fold formula is encountered:
And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. Luke 9:16
The feeding of the five thousand. It is worth noting that this story is an injunction to Christians to feed the hungry to address the problems of hunger in our world. We looked at how when the disciples came to Jesus and talked about the crowds needing to be fed, he said, “You give them something to eat.” And now Luke drives the point home. Not only is tending to the needs of the hungry a Christian duty, but it is also a way in which we know Christ. In the breaking of the bread of mercy and compassion, of justice and service, Christ is made known to us.
IV. CONCLUSION: HOW CHRIST IS KNOWN
We did not have the happy privilege of being at the Empty Tomb, or in the Upper Room when Jesus appeared to the disciples, or among those to whom he appeared following his Resurrection. We are left with second-hand reports. The testimony and witness of others. Given all that, and given all the brokenness of the world, it can be hard to see Christ—or perhaps I should say, to recognize Christ in our midst.
And yet, Luke tells us how it is that we—removed by countless generations—can yet know the risen Christ. Christ is made known in the breaking of the bread—in the communion, in fellowship and community, in hospitality and mutual caring, and in feeding the hungry. Perhaps we are still in the phase where we see all these things, and we are yet thinking, “Where do I know this person from?” God gives us the grace to open our eyes and to recognize him in our midst.
13 ¶ Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 ¶ As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
 NIB, Vol. IX, p. 480