April 26, 2020 – Easter 3A
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 23:35.)
For the third Sunday in a row, we hear a story about Easter Day—the day when Jesus was raised from the dead. The first two were from John’s gospel account, and they convey a very different kind of Easter than the one that Luke tells us about today.
You remember John’s version. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away. She ran and found Peter and the other disciple, who raced to the tomb and saw that Jesus’ body was missing. After they had left, Mary bent down to look into the tomb and saw a vision of angels who asked why she was weeping. When she stood up and turned around, she saw Jesus but thought he was the gardener. Then, in moment of deep personal connection, Jesus spoke Mary’s name, and, in that instant, the fullness of the Easter miracle was conveyed to her by the one who spoke her name. That’s the story we heard two weeks ago on Easter Day.
Last Sunday, we heard the second half of John’s Easter story. Later that same day, despite what they had seen and heard, the disciples were hiding behind locked doors because they were afraid of the religious authorities. The risen Jesus, able to pass through those locked doors, came among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Before any of them was able to panic at the sight of what could have been mistaken for a ghost, Jesus announced himself to them. John tells us that he showed them his hands and his side as proof that the crucified one had been raised from the dead. That gospel lesson then picks up a week later, when, unlike the first time, Thomas was with the disciples behind those locked doors. Again, Jesus passed through the walls, announced his presence by offering them his peace, and presented his hands and his side as proof for any who would doubt the miracle of the resurrection. As the encounter ends, we hear Jesus say to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
This week, Luke tells us the same basic story—the moment when Jesus revealed himself to his followers and made the truth of Easter real in their hearts—but, unlike John, Luke seems determined to share that moment not as a deeply personal revelation or a dramatic presentation of the evidence but as a fleeting moment that vanishes as quickly as it is discovered and that could have been missed altogether had the disciples not been paying attention.
In Luke’s gospel account, the miracle of Easter takes time to unfold. As with the other three accounts, it is the women who came to the tomb and found it empty, but unlike those other versions, Luke’s Jesus did not reveal himself to the women. Instead, they encountered only the angels, who explained that Jesus had been raised from the dead, just as he had told them before he died. After this, they went and found the male disciples and told them what they had seen and heard, but the eleven dismissed their words as an idle tale. Peter ran to see it for himself, and, although Luke tells us that he was amazed, his gospel account makes it clear that the mere sight of the empty tomb was not enough for Peter or the other men to believe. After all, if Jesus really were alive, why didn’t he come and find the disciples? Why didn’t he show himself to them and put all their doubts to rest?
That’s because, for Luke, the miracle of Easter doesn’t reveal itself by walking through walls or speaking your name, nor is it confirmed by seeing the mark of the nails or the wound in his side. Instead, it takes a seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus and a simple evening meal before the truth becomes clear.
In Luke’s telling of the Easter story, it feels like the gospel writer goes out of his way to demonstrate all the possible vehicles of revelation that didn’t work. An empty tomb, a missing body, a vision of angels, the remembrance of Jesus’ prediction—none of that made the truth real. When Jesus came alongside the disciples who were walking down the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognize him. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these last few days?” they ask him, but Luke wants us to see that they are the ones who do not know what has really happened.
When Jesus called them fools and showed them how slow they had been to believe all that the prophets had declared, still they did not know him. When he opened the scriptures to them, revealing how Moses and the prophets had shown that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die before entering into his glory, their hearts burned within them, but still they did not see who was speaking to them. When they urged him strongly to stay with them that night because the day was almost over, they did not know whom they were inviting to be their guest. But, when he sat down at the table with them, took a loaf of bread, offered a traditional blessing, broke it into pieces, and gave it to them, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.
The Eucharistic image of that moment is as clear to us as it was to them. The two disciples got up and ran the seven miles back to Jerusalem to find the eleven and their companions and tell them what had happened. When they did, they explained not only what had taken place on the road but also how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. That was a central part of their testimony—not simply that they had seen Jesus but that the risen Jesus had been revealed to them—had been disclosed to them—in the breaking of the bread.
We know that Luke had in mind the act of worship that has become central to the Christian tradition, but what did he understand by the breaking of the bread? What symbolic gesture would those two disciples have recognized when Jesus picked up a loaf and broke it open for them? And, fifty years later, when this story had become an integral part of the Easter narrative, in what ways had that Eucharistic gesture become pregnant with meaning so that the early Christians could discern within it the manifestation of the resurrected Jesus?
When we peer back through two thousand years of tradition and behold Jesus’ actions at that dinner table, we cannot help but see him perform the prescribed four-fold Eucharistic action of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread. But surely that isn’t why those two disciples recognized Jesus in their midst. In that moment, just three days after Jesus had first told his apostles to share the bread and cup in his name, they couldn’t have recognized him in that liturgical gesture. And, even fifty years later, decades after the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine had become a weekly act for the Christian community, when Luke was sharing this story as the moment when the risen Lord was revealed to his disciples, it was not a medieval understanding of Christ’s presence in the consecrated elements of bread and wine that made him real to Jesus’ followers. Instead, it was the very thing that first held the Christian community together that made him known—a simple, ordinary meal that had been made extraordinary because Jesus himself had once shared it with them.
As Luke understood it, the risen Jesus came to his disciples not in a grand performance or in a ritualized celebration but in something as plain and common as passing a basket of fresh, hot rolls down the table. It wasn’t by saying their name. It wasn’t by appearing in dramatic fashion. It wasn’t by offering the proof of his wounded hands and side. It wasn’t by explaining the scriptures to them. For Cleopas and the other disciple, Jesus was made known to them in something that they would have done whether Jesus was sitting with them at the table or not. What transformed that ordinary act into an encounter with the risen Jesus is the same thing that made the breaking of bread the central act of Christian worship—Jesus is present when simple things become sacred.
In this time of physical distancing, when we are not able to come to church and break bread together, we must look for Jesus’ presence where the disciples first found it—not in a service of Holy Communion but in a simple evening meal. I don’t mean that breaking bread at the dinner table is the same thing as sharing the Eucharist, but I do mean that, if we’re waiting on the doors of our churches to be opened before we start looking for the presence of Christ in our midst, we will have missed the one who is sitting at the table with us. If this season teaches us to look for Jesus in ordinary moments that are made holy by his presence in them, then, when we are able to come back together, we will have rediscovered the most important truth about the Eucharistic feast. Then, all of this waiting and longing will not have been for nothing.