“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.” Luke 24:30-31
As I prepared for Betty Schneeberger’s funeral service this week, I had the great pleasure of hearing stories about Betty from her family members and from some of you. Here’s what I learned. Eventually those stories were going to involve baked goods. Betty and her husband Frank ran the Chatham Bake Shop for many years, but even after it closed, they kept baking for friends and family for years after.
Any guesses as to what kind of baked good came up most often? Cookies. When talking about these cookies, people’s faces take on an expression of pure bliss. Even though it’s been years since some of them have had these cookies, they can describe in great detail what the cookies looked like, what they smelled like, and how they tasted.
For each holiday there were special kinds of cookies – heart shapes with pink icing for Valentine’s Day, bunnies for Easter, and owls with chocolate and vanilla icing for Halloween. If you were one of her kids or grandkids, when that holiday rolled around, a package of cookies would appear on your doorstep – whether you were away at college or had taken a job out of state. Those cookies found you wherever you were. And they brought with them a love beyond measure.
We often associate food with love. We gather with loved ones around special meals for Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas. We love catching up with old friends over delicious food. Just recently I was thinking about the many hours I spent playing canasta with my grandparents at their kitchen table. At some point in the game Granddaddy would get out his special snack supply, which often included my personal favorite – chocolate-covered graham crackers. (There’s a chance that he was trying to distract me from the strategy of the game with these snacks, but I could never prove it.) I can’t recall a time when his special snack containers were empty. I could depend on those cookies being there, just like I could depend on the love of my grandparents.
At the beginning of today’s gospel, the people walking along this road to the village of Emmaus feel like everything on which they have depended is gone. This story starts right after our Easter gospel from last Sunday. There have not yet been any Jesus sightings, although the women have told their story of the empty tomb, and Peter has seen for himself that Jesus is no longer there.
The people walking along this road have every reason to believe that Jesus is still dead. They are weighed down by grief, by the shattering of the future they had imagined: “We had hoped,” they say. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem us.”
Suddenly Jesus is there walking with them along the road – but no one realizes who he is. I’m not sure why. Certainly that road to Emmaus is far away from our reality in which every moment of every day is documented and shared with the world, so there wasn’t yet a “#resurrection” movement to follow. Maybe grief had clouded their vision. Maybe a resurrected Jesus looks a little different than the one they had known. Whatever the case, Jesus walks alongside them and talks with them – and even teaches them – without being recognized.
We might wonder why they didn’t know Jesus when he was right there with them, but how often do we miss seeing Jesus too? We know what it’s like to walk through our lives feeling overwhelmed, distracted, weighed down by grief or stress or fear. Every day we are confronted with more violence, this week from Sri Lanka to southern California. The magnitude of it all can keep us from seeing Jesus – especially in the people around us – the people we love most and the people we meet in passing and the people in places around the world. Those people are one way that we encounter Jesus again and again. He is present in all of them, but we sometimes forget to see each other that way.
Do you remember when it is in the story that the people finally recognize Jesus? It’s when they eat together. He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to his friends. And then their eyes are opened.
Does that seem familiar? It sounds a lot like Holy Communion, doesn’t it?
Today we celebrate First Communion for Chloe, Ava, Caitlyn, and Grace. We’ve had a lot of fun learning about this sacrament together. We’ve talked about how Jesus promises to show up when we share this meal. Jesus doesn’t wait for us to get our act together, to have a week of making no mistakes and following all the rules. Jesus is with us in this meal not because we deserve it or have earned the right to receive it, but because he has promised to be here. He has promised to be here with the love and forgiveness that we all need so much.
In Holy Communion Lutherans say that we experience the true presence of Jesus. Sometimes we call it real presence. The wafer and the wine are not just symbols or metaphors. We’re not just re-enacting something that happened centuries ago. Jesus is really here with us now, feeding us and giving us strength to go out and serve others in the ways that he has shown us.
As I was explaining true presence in our First Communion class, I shared a title from one of our Lutheran theologians Timothy Wengert. His chapter about the real presence of Jesus in Holy Communion is called “When Jesus Throws a Party, He Shows Up.” I think it was Ava who said, “Of course he shows up! It’s his party!”
Of course Jesus shows up. It’s his party.
And this party is a gathering of love. A party in which we join with Christians throughout this community and throughout the world, with those who have died and with those who are just being born, with those we have loved and with those we may never meet. We are one in the body of Christ, joined in our call to make sure everyone knows the party is for them too. That’s what those first travelers did: “They told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
We do not walk alone. Like those people on the road to Emmaus, we have good company as grieve together, as we learn together, as we celebrate together, and as we eat together. Jesus is with us. We don’t always notice him. We sometimes wish we could see him more clearly. But he is here.
So he says to us: Hold out your hands. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. I’m right here.
It really is that simple. That simple and that profound. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ