In the breaking of the bread

RCL Year A, 3 Easter

This story of the road to Emmaus is a favorite of many people. It is a story of how Jesus meets us where we’re at, along the way and not sure of what we believe. It is a story of resurrection hope happening in the midst of deep disappointment and grief. And, I will add, it is a profound story of what we do when we come to worship.

Think about what happens: Jesus meets the two disciples on the road, but they do not realize yet it is Jesus. As they walk along, he opens up the scriptures, helping them not simply to make sense of recent events, but also to make sense of all of scripture – and everything else besides – in light of what God has done on the cross. And then Jesus and the disciples share a meal, where Jesus blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to them. And then they recognize him. They hear scripture interpreted and taught, they eat and drink, and then their eyes are opened – there in their midst is God himself.  And then Jesus disappears, and the disciples immediately leave too, to go back to Jerusalem by night and tell the others what they have seen.

In worship together every Sunday, we follow this same pattern: we gather, we hear and talk about scripture, we share the meal, and we are sent back into the world. And what we hope is that what happens to these disciples on the road happens here as well: that in what we do together, we meet the risen Christ, our hearts burn within us, and we hurry out to share the good news of God’s work in the world. That is what happens here, right?

Well, maybe sometimes yes. But maybe too often, no. If not, why not?

Well, there are many answers to that question, but part of it, at least, has to do with what we do when we worship. Many of us simply don’t know or don’t really pay attention to what we do in worship, and it all passes by in a blur. When we don’t understand what’s happening, it’s hard for our eyes to be opened and our hearts to burn. It’s been a while since I talked through what we do in our worship, and it’s the kind of teaching that bears repeating from time to time.

In our church and in most Episcopal churches every Sunday morning we celebrate what we call the Eucharist together. The word Eucharist means to give thanks – it’s a service where that’s the central thing we’re doing, in other words, celebrating in gratitude together the gift of love God makes us in Jesus. Our worship service has two main parts to it: the liturgy of the word, and the liturgy of the table. The liturgy of the word is the first part, when we gather by singing and praying, and hear scripture read aloud and interpreted in the sermon. Responding to what we’ve heard, we declare the traditional words of faith in the Nicene Creed, and then we offer up prayers for our needs and the needs of the world. Most of that looks pretty much like what happens in other Protestant churches, and it’s something like what the kids are doing in Sunday School during their time there as well.

But we always go on from there into the liturgy of the table, and for that the kids join us and we all do it together. Every time we gather together on Sunday we break bread and are fed, as Jesus taught us to. If the first part of the service mostly engages our minds as we listen and learn, this is the part that mostly engages our bodies as we come together and eat and drink. For one thing, the words don’t tend to change much week by week, unlike the different weekly scripture readings we hear in the first part. We pray a Eucharistic prayer which basically says the same thing every time: it tells the story of God’s creation and God’s saving act of redemption by the sending of Jesus, and by his death and resurrection. It includes the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper with his disciples, in which he commanded us to continue the tradition he was beginning. And then it asks God’s blessing on the food and on us. If we come more than once, it all starts sounding pretty familiar.

But as Kimberly reminded us last week in her sermon, when we remember these stories as part of us and our faith, we make them present again to us here as we do so. Not just as old stories, but present truths about who God is and how God works. Jesus says, do this to remember (anamnesis) me – meaning, do this to make me present here, with you, all of us members of the Body of Christ, us being part of Jesus alive in the world today. In other words, the Eucharistic prayer is more than just a prayer and more than just a story. All of us together, and the words spoken by the priest and the people, make it real here and now.

So then when we come to the part where we share the bread and wine, it’s not just that we’re receiving the Body of Christ – we’re being the Body of Christ. We’re more than just a bunch of individuals having a private individual experience of spirituality – or not. It’s both a real and a symbolic moment of being God’s people in the world: real, because it’s something profound and powerful in its own right; and symbolic, because it’s meant to show how we are to act and be in the world always.

Pretty big stuff, in other words. We miss all that when we treat worship as just something we each do to find solace and peace in our own lives. We miss all that when we think of it as just something tired and ritualistic, meaningless when it doesn’t make sense or leave us in ecstasy. Yes, God is present here in worship, though not only in the way we determine God should be – God shows up in God’s own way, not according to our script. Which is why approaching worship as a spiritual consumer so often leaves us disappointed – “I hate that hymn, I didn’t understand that prayer, and so it’s all ‘off’ for me today, forget it.” God is present regardless of our special orders. But if we aren’t present, if we aren’t fully here in the midst of the people around us and ready for the Spirit to act, we might not even notice. We might miss what is happening here and now in our worship, in our community together – and we will fail altogether to see the connection between this and the world we go back into at the end.

Because after we’ve received the bread and wine, and after we’ve prayed our thanks and heard the blessing and sung the last hymn, the final thing is the dismissal. Our worship ends with a call for us to go as Christ’s servants out into the world. It reminds us that the purpose of worship isn’t just to encourage and build ourselves up, but for all of us to be empowered and sent forth as ministers of Christ. To get ourselves on the road like those disciples in Emmaus, even if it’s nighttime and it’s risky and we’ve been traveling all day, because there is news to share about God at work in the world. That’s what the encounter with the risen Christ did to those two disciples; that’s what it’s meant to do with us as well. The Spirit isn’t interested in filling us up as a dammed-up reservoir, filling us up for our own benefit alone – but in pouring through us and out to others.

So as we go through the rest of our worship today, and especially as we turn to the liturgy of the table, keep your eyes open. Listen with your heart, be present in your body as you exchange the Peace, as you pray, as you sing, as you come to the table. Jesus makes himself known to us here in the breaking of the bread. Take and eat, and go to love and serve the world. Amen.