Luke 24: 13-35
Acts 2: 42-47
There is a curious story told of Jesus in the recently translated Gospel of Judas. Near the end of the narrative, as the disciples are gathered at table and preparing to break bread, they offer thanks and ask for God's blessing. Judas tells us that upon witnessing this ritual Jesus' first response was to laugh. And it isn't just a chuckle. It's uproarious, a real belly-blaster. When they hear this the disciples are clearly offended and have a difficult time containing their anger. In his outburst Jesus was upbraiding them for their complete lack of understanding. Did they not know (as so many gnostics emphasized) that the creator of this world, Yahweh, was an imposter? After all this time, had they not learned that the bread they held in their hands, along with every other aspect of the material world, was not worthy of the true God's blessing? It was instead a stumbling block, a distraction preventing them from realizing their higher selves and achieving spiritual liberation.
Regardless of the excitement and sensationalism that the gnostic Gospel of Judas has generated over the last year, I think it is safe to say that we would not have lost much theologically had this manuscript remained obscured to history. Yes, it offers compelling questions about the life and teaching of Jesus, as well as new insights into the role that his presumed betrayer played in offering him up to the authorities. But honestly, the last thing we really need at this point in the life of the church is any suggestion that the material world – this good earth – is somehow at odds with an authentic spiritual existence. A subtle gnosticism has managed to creep into the body of Christ over the centuries, and it can be detected in the words and actions of Christians today. Many of us are not content it seems with simply accepting the value of what lies before us. We feel much more comfortable when we can be assured that the things of this world are somehow representative of "a higher truth" or contain a "deeper meaning." "A man's reach must exceed his grasp," as Browning wrote, "or else what is a heaven for?"
Last week we considered one of Jesus' more familiar resurrection appearances to two disciples walking the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). The men were crestfallen over the crucifixion just three days earlier of the one they believed would redeem all of Israel, and they were a little surprised that the chap who joined them had not even heard of the tragic event. Shortly after this the stranger began with Moses and all the prophets and "interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures" (24:27). But the disciples were kept from seeing that it was Jesus who accompanied them on their way. It was not until the three men were at table and the bread was broken that their eyes were opened. Only then did they behold, if for but a fleeting moment, the face of the risen Christ.
Some interpreters of this text are quick to point out that the emphasis here should be on the connection that the two disciples were able to make between their experience at Emmaus and the Eucharistic meal that took place on the final night of Jesus' life. The lesson to be learned is that the breaking of the communion bread, which happens in the presence of other believers, is where we encounter Christ most perfectly. We should then focus our attention in worship on the symbolism of the holy meal that is, through God's grace, placed before us, as well as on the elements that become, through the work of the Spirit, something more than what they appear to be. The bread and wine are not meant to nourish us physically, we are told, as much as they are meant to feed our souls.
And this is surely true. But I wonder if the point has been overstated. Is this all that we can take away from the text, or have we by accentuating the otherworldly nature of this meal committed our own form of gnostic heresy? Have we, in other words, sought some higher meaning to the events of this story to the exclusion of the actual stuff that lies so close at hand? Maybe this pericope is less about the Eucharist than it is about food, less about the broken body of Christ than about the bodily needs of believers. Perhaps sometimes, to take some liberty with Freud, a loaf of bread is just a loaf of bread.
A few clues in Luke's narrative – from the gospel and from the Acts of the Apostles – make me wonder if the church historically has been too quick to spiritualize what took place at Emmaus. First, it does not state in the resurrection story that these two disciples – only one of whom, Cleopas, is worthy of naming – were even present at the exclusive meal that took place in the upper room. If this is the case, then what was it in the stranger's actions that sparked the fire of memory within them so that even their hearts burned when they recalled his earlier words? Where else might they have seen Jesus share a meal in this way?
It is worthy of note that the only pre-resurrection miracle story that all four evangelists considered essential for inclusion in their gospels is the feeding of the five thousand, an occasion on which Jesus was able to meet the actual flesh and blood needs of those who came to hear him speak. This was an instance in which the breaking and distribution of bread was indeed a miraculous occurrence, one that would not soon be forgotten by those present. The leftovers alone could have fed a large family, and all this from a few loaves and fishes! Does it not seem more likely that the Emmaus disciples – Cleopas and what's-his-name – were present at this extraordinary event and it was this recollection, when added to the visual cue of bread broken by the stranger's hand, that brought Jesus' presence fully into view? If so, then are we going too far -- or, more appropriately, not far enough -- by reading only Eucharistic symbolism into the Emmaus narrative?
Second, when we eventually catch up with the disciples in Jerusalem we find them engaged in the kind of ministry that we would expect from followers of a Jewish messiah reputed to have fed multitudes. As Luke relates the story,
All who believed were together and held all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people (Acts 2:44-47).
In contrast to what we know about Jesus' attitude toward the stuff of this world in the Gospel of Judas, the apostles in Jerusalem are profoundly this-wordly. They are feeding people and sharing goods, all with an attitude of generosity and blessing. Isn't it interesting that with the advent of the Spirit at Pentecost Jesus' disciples are not drawn up out of this earthly sphere with hopes of attaining some transcendent truth. Rather, their feet are planted ever more firmly in the urban context of the holy city, and their attentions are directed toward meeting the very real and earthly needs of those who had suffered long under both Roman and Jewish injustices. Certainly the Spirit gave them the gift of tongues, but how remarkable that amidst such a miraculous phenomenon they never lost sight of their original calling: feed my sheep. Feed my sheep – not only with the body and blood of Christ, but also, if not especially, with simple bread and wine, the sacraments of fellowship and hospitality. Feed my lambs with the blessed staff of life.
It is difficult at Easter not to focus on the extraordinary accounts of Jesus' resurrection and ascension, but even in the midst of these intimations of the eternal we are reminded continuously of our need to stay grounded, to claim our place among the vulnerable and suffering men, women, and children whose very being Jesus came to share through the incarnation. It is surely this same broken humanity that persuades us at times to seek out truths beyond what we can grasp, and there is nothing wrong with this. The trouble arises when we feel the need to let go of this world entirely as we try to latch on to some spiritual reality that lies beyond it. It is then that we listen too intently to the voice of one who enters the sheepfold not through the Gate, but by some other way (John 10:1). But the great paradox of the early church lies in the fact that it was precisely God's heavenly Spirit that inspired the apostles to achieve a very earthly task: feeding the multitudes and preaching the gospel in response to the shepherd's call. There in the Temple precincts these followers of Jesus realized, no less than Cleopas and what's-his-name at Emmaus, that in breaking bread with strangers we might truly encounter, if for but a fleeting moment, the face of the risen Christ.
The church needs to keep this insight ever in mind, especially as it continues to pander to the needs of so many these days who prefer to think of themselves as "spiritual but not religious." While the human spirit is prone to fly off in search of cosmic vistas and nether realms, it is our religion – our disciplined endeavors in seeking always through God's grace to make the gospel incarnate through our actions – that keeps us perpetually grounded. And the need is no less urgent now than it was in the first century, as even a cursory glance at U.S. hunger statistics demonstrates.
Consider the work that lies before us:
• According to the USDA, an estimated 12.6 million children lived in food insecure households in 2006.
• 3.4 million older Americans – 9.4% of the elderly – live below the poverty line.
• A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that in 2002 more than 25% of working American families were classified as low income, with incomes at 200% of the federal poverty level. This translates into 9.2 million families.
• In 2006, nearly 37 million people (12.3%) were in poverty.
• Further statistics are available at America's Second Harvest.
The easy way out, of course, is to assure the homeless and the destitute that a better world awaits them in the by and by, that they should focus their attention as best they can on the "things of the spirit," and God bless. Those who know the shepherd's voice, however, are well aware that these careless words of hope have no place in the bread-blessing, body-affirming, creation-centered Gospel of Christ. Rather, they sound more like the lifeless tones featured throughout a text whose extreme otherworldliness was recognized early on as a voice entering not through the Gate, but by some other way: the gnostic Gospel of Judas.
Questions for Further Discussion
1. In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to "the voice of one who enters not through the Gate, but by some other way." What does this voice sound like to you? Where do you hear it or see it working most clearly in your context?
2. In what ways does your church model the work and commitments of the apostles in Jerusalem? What ever happened to "holding all things in common" or "selling possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all"? Did the apostles just go a little nutty for a while, only to regain their senses later?
3. Is there a healthy balance in the life of your congregation between faithful observance of the Eucharist and committed service to the hungry? How does each of these illumine the meaning and necessity of the other? How have you encountered the face of Christ in each?
4. Where do you see the greatest food insecurity needs in your community and how and by whom are these being addressed?
5. Does your church have a community garden? If so, are you "planting a row for the hungry"? Please see the link below.
Links of Interest
America's Second Harvest
Bread for the World
Plant a Row for the Hungry