“Be Known to us, Lord Jesus, in the Breaking of the Bread”
Homily Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
May 30, 2017
Text: Luke 24:13-35
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Please keep the gospel you just heard – the story of Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus – in your mind as I tell you three short stories from three different times and three different traditions.
The first is a Jewish story from 19th century Europe about an elderly, pious, beloved rabbi who was traveling far from his home village when he stopped at an inn to have a meal. The innkeeper saw this unimpressive, small, thin older man, not dressed particularly well, sat him in the back of his dining area, and treated him with minimal courtesy – gave him some old bread, thin soup, and tea.
A short while later, two other men arrive at the inn, and they recognize the rabbi. They call over the innkeeper and said to him, “Do you know who that man is? He’s Rabbi Eliezar, a man of great holiness, very learned, revered by all. You should show him honor, invite him up to the head table, feed him your finest food!”
The innkeeper was horrified at his mistake and rushed over to the rabbi’s table to apologize. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “I did not know who you are. Please – come with me, sit at the most prominent table, and I will bring you meat.” The rabbi replied, “Friend, I am the same man who came into your inn a short time ago, nothing has changed. Here you seated me, and here I will remain. It is the next man who comes to your inn who deserves honor.”
The second story comes from 20th century Russia, roughly from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. Of course Russia, at that point, was part of the Soviet Union, but despite their country’s professed atheism, Christians still took their faith very seriously. So seriously that there were a large number of “poustinikki” who were folks of all classes – nobility, peasants, everyone in between – both men and women – who would renounce all of their possessions and move into the woods, build a log hut, and devote their time to prayer and meditation. (“Poustinia” means “desert” in Russian, so “poustinikki” meant “desert dwellers,” spiritually, not literally).
It is tempting to call these people “hermits,” but you need to know that part of their new life was to live in a hut with an unlocked door. Many townspeople would take advantage of this and visit the local poustinik for prayer and counsel. The poustinik was also always available for whatever help anyone asked of him: if a farmer wanted help to bring hay into the barn before it rained, or needed a hand with the harvest, the poustinik was bound to drop whatever he was doing and immediately perform the requested service, no questions asked.
The Russian spiritual author Catherine de Hueck Dougherty said this about the local poustinik who lived in the woods near her childhood home and who her mother would visit for advice:
His was always a “welcome” face. His eyes seemed to sparkle with the joy of receiving a guest. He seemed to be a listening person. A person of few words, but his listening was deep and there was a feeling that he understood. In him, St. Francis’ prayer seemed to be incarnate: he consoled, he understood, and he loved. And he didn’t demand anything from anyone for himself.
Finally, third, we visit a Benedictine monastery. Saint Benedict founded his monasteries in the early years of the 6th century, a long time ago; of course they still exist today – our own West Park is a Benedictine monastery. To guide his communities St. Benedict wrote a famous rule – a manual or guidebook – that detailed how the monastery was to run in every detail, from prayer times, to how the monks were to dress, their work hours, when and what they were to eat, and so on.
Built into this “Rule of St. Benedict” are instructions on hospitality, on how guests are to be welcomed. Upon hearing a knock at the door, the porter is instructed to cry out “Thanks be to God that you have come!” or “Your blessing please!” then is instructed to “provide a prompt answer with all the warmth of love.” The abbot of the monastery – he was the one in charge – was then instructed to wash his guest’s feet, no matter who the guest was.
Now please keep those three stories in mind as we return to the gospel. All of our stories illuminate the central point of this resurrection story, that we, in our selfishness, our ignorance, and our endless compulsion to judge, consistently devalue other people, and in doing so we sadly miss out on encounters with God.
We tend to focus on Jesus in the gospels, but let’s take a closer look at the disciples that he met on the road to Emmaus. The gospel says that they were discussing among themselves Jesus’ crucifixion and burial – there’s the first indication that these disciples were on the wrong track: they were looking to themselves and each other to puzzle out something that they were in no way capable of figuring out on their own. When they should have been relying on their faith, on Jesus’ own words, on scripture – in other words, relying on God – instead they fell back into the useless activity of gossip.
Predictably this gets them nowhere – the gospel says that the disciples “stood still, and were looking sad.” This despite the fact that they report that the women of the group astounded them by reporting the empty tomb and the angels proclaiming the resurrection! But they were standing still, looking sad! When we rely on our own power for anything, we are guaranteed to get stuck. If we cannot by our own efforts give ourselves even one moment of life, then spinning our own wheels trying to figure out why events have transpired the way they have is sure to be fruitless, and certain to keep us from moving forward. We will always find ourselves sad and standing still.
We know this because of what Jesus says to these disciples. Instead of commiserating with them, holding their hands and saying, “oh how terrible, but spend some more time talking about it and maybe you’ll figure it out,” he gives them the verbal equivalent of a slap upside the head. Jesus says:
Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?
Jesus is clearly upbraiding them for looking for answers in all the wrong places. This seems to get the disciples moving again; they start walking down the road. Now, having been kick-started, they receive a long, personalized Bible study on the road to Emmaus. However, they still don’t recognize Jesus himself, and they still are not aware of the magnitude of the encounter they are having. So Jesus decides to find out how effective his teaching has been, and gives them a little test. When they reach Emmaus Jesus keeps walking as continuing down the road. But the disciples, now sensing that their companion was special, prevail upon him strongly to remain with them that night.
That’s all that Jesus needed – an invitation. That’s all Jesus ever needs – an invitation. He knows now that the disciples had finally gotten their minds off themselves, so now they were open to a divine encounter. The gospel says,
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
This is how Jesus always appears, to this day. When we offer ourselves, our hearts and souls, and whatever we have in hospitality, no matter how meager, that is when our eyes are opened, and we recognize Jesus. When our hands are outstretched to give to others, that is when our hands are open to receive the gift of Jesus himself.
The disciples at the beginning of this gospel are like the innkeeper who didn’t recognize the rabbi – they are selfish, judgmental; loathe to be even the littlest bit generous to someone who at first glance didn’t seem worthy of time, attention, or generosity. As the gospel moves on, the disciples open themselves to their companion, and like the poustinik who keeps the door to his hut unlatched, they are now open to encountering another, knowing that a stranger has something of value to offer, always. And finally, having recognized Jesus as he breaks the bread, the disciples are now ready to welcome anyone, sight unseen, crying out as the Benedictine porter does: “Thank God that you have come!”
Now if I take measure of my own behavior and attitude to those I meet by these standards, I fail miserably. My first reaction when someone knocks of my (locked) door or even if my phone rings is to say, “Now what?” We all need to work on dropping our defenses, opening our hearts and our hands so that we may receive the gift of the risen Lord. Easter is the perfect season for this – to pray to Jesus that we might meet him in the breaking of the bread, and in each other.
When we think we are protecting ourselves from others, we are really closing the door on Jesus. We have a God who loves us so much that he gave his only Son to die that we might live. We have a God who responds to every invitation to share our lives with us. And we have a God who promises to appear at our table in the breaking of the bread. Be open, my sisters and brothers, be open, that we might share in his resurrected life, and so appear as Jesus to others.
Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.