The disciples are despairing. They are scattered and confused. For they have witnessed the death of their great hope, their teacher, their friend. And in tonight’s story, we hear that two have decided to walk away from the scene of violence, away from Jerusalem, away from the body of Jesus. As they walk, they talk. Jesus comes alongside them. They don’t recognise him. But something in the man leads them to tell him about their discouragement, and the dashing of their hopes. They had been following a man they thought would overthrow the oppressors and restore Israel. Instead, he was crucified, and Israel remains under Roman control.
The stranger rebukes them for their lack of understanding. He explains that the Messiah, the Christ, had to suffer and die; had to take on the violence willingly, in order to transform the world. And then he interprets the Scriptures in relation to himself.
They realise that all of their expectations and hopes have been based on a misunderstanding: an idea of liberation that is not God’s. But something in what he says must seem right, must open up a world for them that is expansive, and gracious, and free, for their hearts begin to burn within them.
They invite this stranger to eat with them. At the table, he reminds them of another ordinary, yet very special, meal. For he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it out. Then they recognise him—and immediately, he disappears.
The disciples are galvanised. Even though it’s growing dark, that very same hour they get up and rush back to Jerusalem, back to the site of all their confusion and despair, back to the place of violence: and there, they tell the story.
Why do we gather each week? Why do we do the same things over and over: confess our sins, listen to the Scriptures, interpret them, and pray and eat together? What’s the point? Surely we can read about Jesus, and pray, and be Christians, all alone and on our own time? Surely we can encounter the Christ in everyday life, and notice, and give thanks?
Perhaps it is possible; but in practice, this is not how God’s people do things. Each of us is shaped by values and attitudes and ways of being which are not God’s ways. For we live and work and play in a culture that is not God’s culture. For all our best efforts, simply by being alive and participating in this society, we internalise the violence of patriarchy, the economics of capitalism, the contradictions of democracy, and many other assumptions about the world.
And all of us are busy. We live in the age of resurrection; we live in the superabundant presence of Christ, when every single thing is saturated by His Spirit—even so, most of us, most of the time, don’t notice the presence and don’t live into God’s culture. It takes discipline, commitment, and community to open our eyes; it takes tried and true practices to help us become aware of our culture, and to choose God’s culture, in all that we do.
How, then, do we learn to recognise Christ’s presence, the presence which guides us into God’s culture and guarantees abundant life? Tonight’s story shows us the way. Luke begins with disciples who have gathered together: but they have gathered in confusion and despair. They have turned their backs on Jerusalem. Perhaps they are feeling angry, confused, or sceptical about the faith they had placed in Jesus. Perhaps they have lost courage or hope. But they tell the stranger about it: and this sounds a lot like confession.
Next, the stranger recounts and explains the Scriptures to them. He does it in a way which unsettles and disrupts their previous assumptions. It transforms their understanding and their worldview; it stirs them up and begins to open their eyes. This sounds a lot like good preaching.
The disciples invite the stranger to eat with them. At the table, the stranger blesses, breaks, and shares bread, and in that moment the disciples recognise Christ. And this sounds a lot like the Eucharist.
They are so electrified by this encounter that they risk wolves and robbers—the predators of night—and rush back to the site of their despair, and tell everyone about everything that just happened. This sounds a lot like the sending out, and Jesus’ command to witness.
According to Luke, then, it is in gathering together, naming doubts and fears, wrestling with the Scriptures, and breaking bread, that disciples recognise Christ. And when they recognise him, disciples share the news with others. In other words, we encounter the Christ through the movements of a first-century, and a twenty-first century, worship service.
Let’s be clear what I’m not saying. I am not saying that I, or any preacher or presider, embody Christ. What I am saying is that, when we gather together around Word and Table, Christ is in our midst, and the Spirit works to communicate beyond any human rite or action to open our eyes to the presence and set our hearts burning within us. It may be in the preaching or the prayers, the bread or the silence, the mistakes or the questions of a child: somehow, somewhere, each time we gather around Word and Table, we will catch a glimpse of Christ. And this glimpse will sustain us, and orient us back to God’s culture, even as it helps us to recognise Christ in other ways, and other places, and other times.
For followers of Jesus, then, the worship service has always been and continues to be the primary practice which helps us recognise Christ’s presence and internalise God’s culture; and through our gathering and scattering, gathering and scattering, we take this awareness and this culture into all of life, letting them shape our decisions, practices, conversations, and encounters as we witness to the good of the Jesus-centred life.
So this is it, folks: Gather with other disciples. Name your lack of faith, your doubts, and your fears. Listen to the Scriptures, and wrestle with them through the lens of Jesus. Break bread, share wine, and eat and drink together. Notice when your heart is set on fire. Go out, and tell others about the experience. Repeat.
Many other things will flow from this practice: but gathering together around Word and Table is at the heart of Christian formation, and is the foundation of the Christian life. It’s as ordinary and mysterious, as simple and difficult, as that. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Luke 24:13-35 by Alison Sampson, 30 April 2017 (A34). Image shows Emmaus by Emmanuel Garibay (2010).