Holy Scripture can be mysterious and downright puzzling. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us, since Scripture’s theme – broadly speaking – is itself a mystery and a paradox. It is the mystery and the paradox that the infinite God, Creator of all that is, eternal and omnipotent, enters into a relationship with his creature, a creature who is finite, temporal, and ultimately helpless. It is the mystery and the paradox that this relation of God and creature is a relationship of yearning, sacrifice, and love on the part of God and all too often it devolves into a relationship of indifference, betrayal, and selfishness on the part of his creature, and yet God keeps loving and yearning. It is the mystery and the paradox that God uses his creature – a people and their history – to carry out his purposes and finally enters into his creation as a man to perfect his yearning, his sacrifice, and his love. That God turns evil into good and brings life out of death. There in broad brushstrokes is the theme and story of Holy Scripture, and certainly mystery and paradox are the very words to characterize it.
Mystery, paradox, but sometimes just plain old puzzles, and here is one of them. The Gospel of John, as we all know well, is full of references to the Eucharist. For instance, we begin – Jesus’ first sign – with water turning into wine at a marriage feast. Later, we hear Jesus telling the crowds who followed him, “I am the bread of life” (6:35). We hear him telling those who opposed him, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (6:51) And also, “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (6:55, 56) Those are some of the most obvious examples, but they are only a few of the many references to the Eucharist in the Gospel of St John. And yet – and here is the puzzle – unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in John there is no account of the institution of the Eucharist itself. At the last supper Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. There is no bread; there is no wine; there is no “Do this in remembrance of me.” And this is a puzzle. A puzzle which scholars have never satisfactorily explained.
We find a related puzzle – related as being the opposite – in the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They do very clearly and in detail record the institution of the Eucharist at Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, but other than that, there are no outright references or even vague allusions to bread and wine or body and blood, except the story, found only in Luke, which we heard for the Gospel today. And in this story – the journey to Emmaus and the meal there – in this story the reference to the Eucharist is so obvious as to jump off the page.
It was three days after the crucifixion, and a follower of Jesus, Cleopas, and another person were walking away from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They were downhearted and depressed, and also confused by a report of some of the women of a vision of angels at Jesus’ tomb. A stranger joined them and they discussed these things on the way. Reaching Emmaus, they invited him to stay the night, and at supper the stranger blessed the bread and broke it, and, as St Luke tells us, they recognized the stranger as Jesus. He was made “known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Lk 24:35) There can be no more obvious reference to the Eucharist than that, and one may well say that this story, coupled with Jesus’ command, “Do this,” has determined the shape of Christian worship from the very beginning and throughout the life of the Church. That is why you and I are here today: to know him and to be present with him in the breaking of the bread. It is an essential experience of those who call themselves Christians, knowing him in the breaking of the bread. It was referred to in the collect we prayed this morning, in some of the hymns we have sung and will sing at this Mass, and ardent sacramentalists like me go on about it again and again: knowing him, being present with him in the breaking of the bread.
But perhaps we have focused on this one phrase a bit too much, for there are other things going on in the story and without them the breaking of the bread is incomplete.
For on that journey, what did Jesus do? Luke tells us, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:27); how it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (Lk 24:26). The stranger, who is the risen Jesus, but whose identity is hidden, explains himself and his death in the terms of Holy Scripture. And an obvious implication of the Emmaus account is that, only thus instructed, only by understanding the Scriptures, were they prepared to “recognize him in the breaking of the bread.” And here, good people, is another determining influence, on the future shape of Christian worship and Christian life: word and sacrament. Knowing him in the word / words of Holy Scripture; knowing him and being present with him in the Sacrament, the breaking of the bread. The one is incomplete without the other. And isn’t this what we do today and at every Mass: we hear his Word and we celebrate the Sacrament. As one scholar tells us, commenting on the Gospel we just heard:
Scripture and sacrament, word and meal, are joined tightly together, here (in this account) as elsewhere. Take Scripture away, and the sacrament becomes a piece of magic. Take the sacrament away, and the Scripture becomes an intellectual or emotional exercise, detached from real life. Put them together, and you have the center of Christian living…” (N. T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, pp. 297, 298)
But there is in fact something else going on in the story we just heard. Something rather important. It began with a community which had been destroyed. Jesus, their master, the One they and many others had followed, had been executed, and Cleopas and his companion were leaving Jerusalem and leaving the other disciples. It was all over; they were going home. There was talk among them. They had been told of a vision of angels seen by women who visited the dead man’s tomb, but Cleopas and his friend did not believe it. Yet then – on the way – Jesus joined them. He explained the Scriptures. They recognized him at supper and, though it was night, the very reason they had stopped at Emmaus – this is the telling detail – though it was night they returned to Jerusalem to rejoin the disciples. They didn’t wait until morning. They didn’t tarry. It was all important that they should rejoin those who had been with Jesus.
We began with a community destroyed. The story ends with a community being restored and remade. A community created by the One who rose from the dead. A community of witness to the Risen Jesus and to the saving power of his Resurrection.
Sacrament, Scripture, Community – there, my brothers and sisters, you have a summary of Christian life. Sacrament, Scripture, Community – a holy pattern of life created by the One who rose from the dead. A gift of a new and transformed life to his people by Jesus Christ, their Lord.