It was late afternoon and evening of the first Easter. Two followers of Jesus were walking a slow and sorrowing seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. By our usual view of things, they were not famous or important people. The one is identified as Cleopas, and we know nothing more about him nor do we learn more of him later in the Scriptures; the other is not even named. But they had loved Jesus very much and had followed him earnestly in their own relatively insignificant way. Now Jesus was gone, and they were desperately lonely, afraid and unsure of themselves and of the future.
So they walked a forsaken, dusty road, reminiscing and questioning. Most of their questions could be summed up in the one word, “Why?” Why had this Man whom they had come to call Master and who had spoken so confidently of God, and love, and overcoming the world let himself be overcome by the hate of the high priests and the stupidity of the Romans and the clamoring of the crowd?
Why at His trial, he who had argued in the temple, confounded the scribes with his simple eloquence, and fearlessly driven the money changers from the Court of the Gentiles, why did he stand meek and almost speechless, making no defense?
Why had he who had performed such mighty works as making the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the dead to rise let himself be nailed to a cross and crucified as a common criminal? Why had he not met the challenge of the high priest and come down from the cross?
They recalled those happier days when Jesus was among them, teaching and healing. They pondered with pain the events that unfolded before them the past few days. They asked themselves the meaning of all that had happened, and found no answer.
Suddenly a Stranger joined in their walk and their talk. He came so quietly that he seemed no intrusion to their private pain. He listened for a while, and then he spoke, “What is this about which you are talking?”
Surely anyone who had been in Jerusalem for Passover would know from words like Sanhedrin, Pilate, Jesus, and crucifixion what we were talking about. What else was there to talk about?
Then without a scroll in his hand he began to explain the Scriptures with which they had been wrestling so helplessly. They were so enthralled with all they heard they were not aware of how quickly they had covered the last few miles home.
When they arrived at their destination, the Stranger acted as if he were going on. But when the two men invited him to stay, he quickly accepted their invitation.
As they sat at the table, the Stranger took bread, blessed it, and broke it for distribution. In that moment, the New Testament says, “their eyes were opened,” and they knew it was their Lord.
But as suddenly as they knew that he was with them, he was gone; that is, they could not see him. After Jesus was gone from them, one of the men said that they should have recognized Jesus when they were walking and talking, because of the way their “hearts burned” within them as he explained the Scriptures to them. But the revelation came at a different moment. As they told it later to the disciples, Jesus “was known to them in the breaking of the bread.” It was at that moment when he took the bread and broke it that they knew he was their Lord.
That’s surprising, isn’t it? Logic says that they should have recognized Jesus while he was explaining the Scriptures. They themselves reasoned so. Their hearts had burned with excitement as he interpreted the passages to them; that should have been indication enough that his Stranger was their Lord. The preacher in me wishes it were so, for I open the Scriptures each week in the fond hope that people will, at such a moment, see their Lord. And often, of course, they do; for this is the purpose of the Scriptures and the expectation in preaching, that as the Scriptures are explained, people will see and experience Jesus Christ.
Come to think of it, we might have expected that the two men would have recognized Jesus at the moment he joined them. That event had about it the flash of recognition, what some might call the experiential moment. It’s the kind of instance when you expect a miracle: two people walking in loneliness and need, talking about their Lord, and lo, he appears. And of course, they recognize him. But it didn’t happen that way.
Instead, logical or not, Jesus was revealed to them when he broke the bread. Not in the dramatic appearance along the roadside, and not as he expounded the Scripture as only the Master Teacher could do, but when he took the common bread in his hands and broke it. “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Why? What is it that made that moment so special, so revealing, so miraculous? Our first inclination is to think that when Jesus broke the bread the two men were reminded of what happened in the upper room, when Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion. But then we realize that this can’t be the explanation, because these two men weren’t present in the upper room, since they weren’t part of the twelve.
Some have suggested that the two men were present when Jesus fed the multitude with the few loaves and fish. Thus they would remember the awesome moment when Jesus took a boy’s luncheon loaf in hand, looked to his Father in prayer, and began to satisfy the hunger of a great crowd by the miracle of what happened to crumbs of bread under his touch. This is certainly possible, even likely. It’s quite probable that these two men were part of the crowd on that special occasion, and if they were, they would no doubt have an indelible memory of the event.
But most of all, I think, it is that this act was so characteristic of Jesus. Often, over the years they had known and eaten with Jesus, they had seen him bless bread and break it, then distribute it to his friends. Often they had seen the strong carpenter hands wrench a piece of tough, middle-eastern bread for their enjoyment. Often he had fed them! Sometimes there was much and sometimes little; sometimes there was fish or lamb, sometimes fruit, sometimes neither. But always there was bread, and always the hands of their Lord, breaking it and blessing it.
It was not simply the physical act. It was that some quality of Jesus himself went into that act of breaking. Somehow Jesus was invested in the breaking. While the few loaves and fish remained whole in his hands, they fed no one. It was when he broke them that the multitudes were nourished. So, too, with every meal: the bread accomplished nothing lying on the table. It was when he broke it that the people at the table were fed.
And so it was, especially, in his own Person. Magnificent as he was, his value was slight if he held himself aloof, in majestic splendor. Come to think of it, they couldn’t have imagined him doing so. It was when he was broken that he fed the multitudes: broken, daily, in the pain of his compassion and in the untiring way he gave of himself to their needs; and broken at last on Calvary, in the ultimate sacrifice.
I am intrigued by the way the breaking of the bread has for so long caught up believers. In the Roman Catholic Church, through the long centuries when the mass was celebrated in Latin, there was that sacred moment when the priest would lift the Host and speak the momentous words of our Lord: in the Latin, Hoc est corpus meus – “This is my Body …” Generations of the devout – and yes, of the superstitious, of course – waited for this moment and for the ringing of the bell. It was an exultant, mysterious moment, signaled by those special words. No wonder that the peasants, not knowing Latin, made the words into hocus pocus. Their corruption of the Latin became a phrase in our common speech, a popular “magic” incantation. They knew that moment as a peak of mystery, when something quite beyond them happened. Hocus pocus, indeed.
But believe me, the breaking of this bread is no “hocus pocus.” It is a profound and magnificent mystery, but it is no clever magic. It is, rather, the very essence of who our Lord is, and of how he works. He came to our world to be broken. His body comes to us, not in sublime and delicate beauty, but broken. He makes us whole by himself being broken.
And that is exactly what the two disciples in this story discovered. In that moment when the Stranger took the bread and broke it everything changed. There was a miracle in the breaking. Their eyes were opened. Their mood changed from one of sadness and despair, to one of joy and excitement.
The text said they arose that same hour and went back to Jerusalem. I imagine they didn’t walk, back slowly, with heads bowed and eyes fixed upon the ground. They walked, almost ran back to tell their other friends about what had happed, to tell the others that Jesus had risen, that Jesus had done what he promised. They went back with a complete different mood. They knew they were no longer alone, their friend, their teacher their Savior was alive and with them. They were now excited, happy and amazed. They had their eyes opened.
That’s what happens right here in the breaking of the bread. There’s a miracle in the breaking. And that is a miracle that every single one of us need.
What is that miracle? It is the reminder that Jesus is with us even when we don’t recognize him, even when we don’t realize that he is there. Even in the midst of our doubt and disillusionment and despair, even when we didn’t recognize him, even when we felt we were all alone, Jesus is there for you. You may not see him or feel him. But in those times remember the promise he made right before he ascended into heaven, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He will never leave you or forsake you. He is always there.
What is that miracle? It is the reality of the fact that we see Jesus everywhere even in the common ordinary things of life and he is there even when we don’t expect it. The simple and common act of breaking of bread still stands as a vivid reminder of His abiding love and his never failing presence in our lives; A common loaf of bread and a cup of wine. But you may even see the face of Christ in a friend who offers you their support and encouragement, or in the glory of a sunrise. You may hear Jesus’ voice in the words of Scripture or in the melody of a hymn or in the song of the birds. You may feel the touch of Christ in a moment of quiet prayer or in the hug or a hand extended in help in a time of need. He is present everywhere all we need do is open our eyes. Open our ears, and open our hearts.
What is that miracle? It is the assurance that an encounter with the risen Christ changes your outlook completely. Jesus knew the two disciples needed a change in perspective. And when Jesus came and walked alongside them everything changed. Everything was different. Their cold hearts burned within us. They immediately returned to Jerusalem to share the good news. And the same thing can happen for you and me. He turns our mourning into dancing. “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation.”
I’m sure that’s what our Heavenly Father wants to say to you and to me today. We come, knowing that we are broken. Sin and the ravages of daily life have left their marks on our minds, our spirits, and our souls.
But here’s the good news. This table to which we come today is a table for broken people. The broken bread of communion can never be received by those who think themselves to be whole. That’s why the classic invitation to commune begins, “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins …” The invitation does not read, “You that are perfect,” or “You that have been sanctified.” As a matter of fact, it doesn’t even say, “You that are saved.” The invitation comes to those who know that they are broken and who want to be made whole. That is, for those who can recognize and acknowledge their brokenness and need.
Because, you see, we can’t really take this broken Bread in a whole hand. It is only as we confess our own broken state – our sins, our failures, our struggle, our pain – that we can receive such a gift of healing and forgiveness.
But then we encounter the miracle of the breaking. “This is my Body,” our Lord says, “which is broken for you.” And everything changes.
And so dear friends my invitation to you, the Lord’s invitation to you is simple. “Come. Come, whatever your brokenness may be, and experience the miracle which is in the breaking.