Sermon: On not being terrified of eating and drinking with Jesus

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter 3, 23 April 2023

Luke 24:13-35

You may have noticed that I read a lot of books. A six-year-old neighbour popped their head into my flat this week and was stunned by the sheer number of books I own. Among the stranger books that I enjoy reading are novels by a nineteenth-century anti-feminist English author, Charlotte M. Yonge. Miss Yonge is one of the most bigoted religious authors I have ever read; apparently for her the only true Church was the Church of England; to her Catholics and ‘Dissenters,’ Methodists and Congregationalists among others, were equally misguided. Despite this, I find reading her family stories relaxing, and I have just finished one that was first published in 1854 titled The Castle Builders, or, The Deferred Confirmation. It begins with two sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls who have been approved as ready for Confirmation. But they are terrified of it, because when they are confirmed they will become eligible to receive Communion. As the younger says:

The priest “said if we were fit for Confirmation we were fit for the Sacrament,” said Kate; “but I can’t quite see how that can be. We promised all these things by our Godfathers and Godmothers, and are bound to do them now, so it does not seem so much to promise them for ourselves; but the other – it is a great deal too awful!”[1]

For almost 300 pages the two continue to avoid their Confirmation until it takes place on the book’s second-last page, and the second-last paragraph of the book says:

Sunday is come, and again Emmeline and Katherine kneel on that step, and now it is beside their sister, while their brother and uncle admit them to the partaking of that Meat and Drink indeed, which can preserve their souls to everlasting life.[2]

Miss Yonge has written an entire and entertaining book out of two teenagers being afraid of participating in the Eucharist. I would find that more amusing if my heritage were not Scottish Presbyterian, and I had not heard from my grandmother about Elders visiting church members to determine whether they were worthy to participate in the quarterly Communion, and giving them tokens to indicate their eligibility.

Black and white photo of the head and neck of a white woman looking towards the left of the viewer in an oval frame.

Charlotte M. Yonge

In the Uniting Church, we have deliberately decided to treat Communion differently. One of the reasons that we do not ask children to wait until Confirmation or until they are of suitable years for a ‘First Communion’ is because we believe Communion is like a family meal to which everyone in the family, of whatever age, is welcome. This is because eating with the community was such an important part of Jesus’ life. One accusation consistently made against Jesus during his lifetime was that he was a glutton and a drunkard. We know that he was always feasting with the people around him, rather than fasting as the truly religious were meant to. His answer when once questioned about this was that ‘the wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast’. (Mark 2:19) So it is no surprise that food so often appears in resurrection stories like the one we hear today. When the bridegroom the wedding guests had mourned as dead is revealed to be alive, of course they feast.

We do not know who the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were. We are only given the name of one of them, Cleopas, and we have not heard of him before nor do we hear of him again. These are not members of the Eleven, just ordinary followers of Jesus, devastated by his death. They had hoped that Jesus would be the one to liberate Israel, as had been promised. But Jesus had been crucified and all those hopes had been dashed.

As the disciples walk, Jesus joins them, but they do not yet know who he is. They had heard about the empty tomb from the women, but that story had only astounded them, leaving them with confusion rather than faith. Now, even though Jesus himself is accompanying them, they remain blind. We do not know what it was that kept their eyes from recognising who it was who had joined them, but we should not be too surprised. The same thing can happen to us. We may believe that Jesus walks with us, as he walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and yet we may be unable to see or experience him, our eyes closed by doubt and despair, preoccupation and suspicion, our immediate needs, or the noise of the world around us.

Jesus reveals himself to these disciples, and they journey from despair to recognition, through what Luke’s readers and we ourselves can recognise is a standard church service. In the Book of Acts Luke tells us that after the day of Pentecost the disciples and the first converts ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42). This is what Christians still do when we gather, and this is what we see happening here on the road to Emmaus. First, there is teaching. Jesus interprets to the disciples everything said about him in the Scriptures. As they listen to him, the disciples’ hearts burn within them, but they don’t immediately share this with each other. It is not through the Scriptures and teaching alone that they and we discover Christ.

The disciples then invite Jesus to share a meal with them, the ‘fellowship’ that Luke describes in Acts, and at the meal Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them, ‘the breaking of bread and the prayers’. Jesus celebrates the Eucharist with these disciples, as he still does with us today. The guest becomes the Host and shares himself in the breaking of the bread. According to Luke, we recognise Jesus’ presence in our lives when we share as a community in Word and Sacrament, in teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Today’s story is about two of Jesus’ many disciples, but it does not end with them. After Jesus vanishes, the two race back to Jerusalem to share their news with the others, and find that Jesus has appeared to Peter as well. The community that scattered in fear after Jesus’ death is now being recreated as its various members come together to share their individual stories. The women tell the tale of the empty tomb; Simon Peter shares the story of his encounter with the risen Jesus; now Cleopas and the other disciple bring their own experience and add it to that of the rest of the community. Coming to faith happens in community. It is together that we discover who Jesus is; it is as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together that we encounter our Host.

When we celebrate Holy Communion together, we are not just looking back to the meals Jesus shared while on earth, and we are not simply feasting with him ourselves. The holy meal also prompts us to look forwards and outwards. The Eucharist is celebrated with bread and wine, simple goods of this earth that remind us of God’s gifts to us in creation. They also raise for us immediate questions of justice, because however symbolic the ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ may have become, even when they are wafers and thimblefuls of grape juice, they represent real food. At the beginning of the church’s life Holy Communion took place at a real meal eaten to satisfy real hunger, in which the bread and wine were not merely symbols, but the staples needed for life. One of the worst things in the world today is that some people still die from a lack of food, while the health of others is put at risk because we have too much. Every time we eat the bread and drink the wine, we should be reminded of the world’s desperate need for redistribution.

Communion reminds us of the need to share not only food but also the other necessities of life. The connection between sharing bread and sharing other goods seems to have been taken for granted by the early church. Martin Luther described early Communions as ‘so properly used … that they even gathered food and material goods in the church, and there … distributed among those who were in need,’[3] and while he was probably exaggerating to make a point there does seem to have been a strong connection between the celebration of Communion and charity. Justin Martyr explained that Christians, in contrast to the contemporary pagans, worshipped God not by burning as offerings the things God gave for sustenance, but by using them for themselves and for the needy. Bringing forward goods for the poor at the same time as the Eucharistic offering seems to have lasted until at least the late fourth century, connecting the sharing of communion with sharing with those in need.

The story we hear today tells us that the disciples could recognise Jesus in Word and Sacrament because of their openness to an alien. They describe him as ‘a stranger in Jerusalem’, and yet they are willing to talk to him. When they arrive at their village, this stranger walks ahead of them as if to continue his journey. But they urge him: ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ They offer hospitality to a stranger, and through that hospitality their eyes are opened, and they see Christ in the stranger they have welcomed. They could have ignored the stranger who questioned them; they could have let him continue his journey. They did neither, and found themselves in the company of the resurrected Jesus. It is an obvious hint for the church, which is invited to see God in the face of every stranger welcomed, housed, and fed. It is another reminder of the importance of community in the life of faith, and the connection between being fed by God and feeding the hungry.

Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once wrote of the Eucharist that: ‘The breaking of bread is both the point of departure and the destination of the Christian community.’[4] By sharing Communion together, we celebrate the redemption Christ has won and God’s victory over all forms of injustice. Nourished by Communion, we are then called to minister to the whole world, sharing the good news of God and feeding the hungry. As we gather around the Lord’s Table we pray that we might become ‘one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry in the world’. We ask God to help us to become the people God created us to be. One of the reasons I enjoy the novels of Charlotte M. Yonge, despite her bigotry, is that she takes seriously the responsibility we have to grow into those people, even if she believed that could only happen by being a confirmed and communicant member of the Church of England.

Each month we imitate these disciples on the road to Emmaus. We gather around the Table at which our Lord is the Host, knowing that we are welcome there, and then we leave the table to share God’s welcome with the world. Fed by both metaphorical and literal food, we go out to share both metaphorical and literal food. We receive what we are, and we become what we receive – the Body of Christ. We rejoice as we are regularly reminded that Christ is here: in our hearts; in our lives; and in our midst. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Charlotte M. Yonge, The Castle Builders (London: A. D. Innes & Co., 1896), p. 3.

[2] Charlotte M. Yonge, The Castle Builders (London: A. D. Innes & Co., 1896), p. 291.

[3] Quoted in Edward R. Pirozzi, ‘Toward Locating the Separation of Charity from Communion in the Ancient Western Church.’ Worship 71 (1997), p. 335.

[4] G. Gutierrez, ‘The task and content of liberation of theology’ in Christopher Rowland, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 37.

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1 Response to Sermon: On not being terrified of eating and drinking with Jesus

  1. Pingback: Sermon: Life in abundance | Rev Doc Geek

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