+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. What fascinates me most about this story is the disciples’ lack of recognition up to the point of the meal they shared in Emmaus. We so often call the events we just heard about as “the road to Emmaus”, but we forget that the moment that made all the difference for Cleopas and the other disciple didn’t take place on the road at all, but at the dinner table. For one thing, I think it suggests that old cliché about the journey being more important than the destination isn’t as wise as we think it is (as is so often the case with clichés). Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, and sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes the reality is just a whole lot more complicated than something pithy you can put on an inspirational poster or refrigerator magnet.
But what about that long walk they all took together? It wasn’t pointless, or else it wouldn’t have made it into Luke’s account. On the way, our risen Lord was engaging in a ministry that defined his earthly life just as much as breaking bread with the disciples was; he was teaching the meaning of scripture, how the Law and the Prophets pointed to the coming reign of the Messiah. Later, the disciples would acknowledge that they felt their hearts “burning within” them during this conversation, yet the moment of recognition didn’t come until that more intimate act at dinner.
Perhaps the disiples’ delayed discovery surprises us, but it shouldn’t. We are exposed to compelling arguments and weighty evidence of some truth or another all the time, but without some kind of personal experience, the truth sometimes doesn’t sink in. We can hear facts and figures about something, but our hearts may not be moved if we don’t see it. We live in a society in which a large proportion of people can hear compelling arguments about some scientific or medical proposition, but refuse to believe the validity of said arguments until they see it first hand (even if the proposition at hand doesn’t lend itself to that kind of scrutiny). Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who think our current predicament with COVID-19 is a hoax, either because they are naturally incredulous or because they’re too credulous and they just get exposed to bad faith arguments from questionable sources. There are plenty of people who honest-to-goodness believe that the earth is flat and the moon landing was a hoax and the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 were “inside jobs”, too. So, I’m certainly not suggesting that our difficulty in accepting truths on the basis of persuasive evidence is a good thing; it just is. It’s a reality of our condition as we try to make sense of a world that doesn’t always immediately make sense to us.
We are now—as modern and post-modern people—more skeptical creatures than we’ve ever been (with regard to science and religion and politics and every other human endeavor), and that’s neither an altogether bad nor an altogether good thing. This is your problem not mine, of course, because my own worldview, as you know, is that of the so-called Medieval Synthesis of the 13th Century. (Unfortunately, preaching over the system of tubes we call the internets means I cannot be certain you all realized that was a joke, but here we are.)
Anyway, this high degree of modern and post-modern incredulity being the reality, we can learn a great deal from the disciples’ delayed recognition. If, as I would contend, we are even more prone to withhold judgment than people in Jesus’ day, that effects how we go about evangelism.
Now, there is a word we Episcopalians can be uncomfortable with—evangelism—and I think our discomfort is of precisely the same nature which causes others to be uncomfortable with the propagation of very different kinds of truth. Our discomfort may well stem from the very same post-modern rejection with absolute truth and the completely incoherent claim that what might be the truth for one need not be the truth for another.
If we truly believe that Christ is risen, we believe something stronger than the claim that “for me Christ is risen, but perhaps not to somebody who rejects my meta-narrative”. We believe Christ is risen. We’re making a claim which believe to be as true as “gravity exists” or “the earth orbits round the sun”. We’re not just using code language to point to some personal feeling. We’re making a claim about the truth of a fact, a fact which is not cotenable with every other religious claim that could be made. So important is this truth, so potentially life-changing and world-changing is this truth, that we should find it to be a truth whose universal acceptance would be a positive thing. Indeed, I believe it would be the most positive thing possible. I realize this puts me at odds with the pluralist spirit of our age and of much of the church, but there you have it.
Let me anticipate the objection one of my frequent interlocutors makes when I say things like this. I did not just say that if you’re not Christian you’re automatically going to hell. Never said that. I did, however, say that I believe the truth claims of creedal, orthodox Christianity, when they contradict some other view, provide the fact of the matter, render the other claim false, and I can wish everyone accepted that, even while I don’t treat anyone who disagrees as anything less than a human being who has inherent diginity.
I press this point so hard because I believe oour discomfort with it suggestion cripples our witness. A friend of mine once said that Episcopalian evangelism is like building the most beautiful, well-appointed boat ever constructed, taking it out into the middle of the ocean, and waiting for the fish to jump in. Needless to say, you’ll not catch many fish that way, but sadly I think the analogy rings truer than we’d like to admit.
But, considering the fact that the people we live among are more like those disciples on the road than we might have thought—considering the fact that we now have a couple generations of people who might not have read Heidegger or Derrida or Foucault, but who nonetheless share their rejection of modern logic and argumentation—our approach must be different, and Jesus is once again the model.
We’ll not convince many people that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” by setting forth propositional arguments. Listen, I’ve tried. We may, however, help others see the risen Christ when we break bread with them, that is, when we build relationships of love and mutuality with them. The good news of the Resurrection is not limited to what it means for us who have been baptized on the last day–the new heaven and new earth and inhabiting the City of God together as God had always intended. It is that, but the Resurrection also means that we’ve already been risen with Christ, and we, the Church, constitute his earthly body here and now. So, when we nurture the kinds of intimate relationships with others that are manifested most powerfully in Christ’s breaking of the bread, we open a window of insight into the Christ of whom we are a part. We permit those who do not yet believe to have opportunities for the same recognition experienced by the disciples.
Our earthly relationships are ideally reflections of the primary relationship God has with us. This is why the marriage rite makes clear that the love shared between husband and wife is a sign of the love “betwixt” Christ and his Church. This is why parents and godparents are so intimately involved in the rite of Baptism (and why, for example, I insist on having parents and godparents hold the child during a baptism rather than doing it myself: it’s not, contrary to some speculation, because I’m afraid of dropping an infant, but because parents and godparents will ideally serve as more important models of Christian love than some chap in funny dresses).
You see, our domestic community (that is, our household) as well as our ecclesial community (that is, our parish church) are primarily contexts in which we humans in very human ways try to reflect the love of God.
It is appropriate that we remember this today, as we are still being required to remain physically apart from each other. We are nonetheless able through other means–electronic, telephonic, and postal–to share our common life and the love of Christ with one another, praying for the day when we can literally break bread together again. How important, then, that we each do what we can to let our hearts burn within us as we remain on the eroad to an Emmaus that may turn out to be farther away than we had at first hoped.
In all events, we learn from this morning’s Gospel that the most compelling evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is not to be found in any scientific enquiry, but rather in the love we show and are shown. May we be brought to daily conversion, to slowly turning ourselves back toward God when we experience the love His people show toward us, and may we break bread with others (now from a distance and then face-to-face) in the hopes that they, too, catch a glimpse of the risen Christ.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.