Abram welcomed three strangers into his tent, and showed them his best hospitality, only to discover that they were angels sent to deliver the good news that his wife Sarah would bear a child within the next year. The Bible tells us that Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 89, so I’m not sure how good you could call that news.
A widow in Zarephath risked sharing her last meal with a stranger, only to discover the stranger to be Elijah, a prophet of God. Her jar of meal and jug of oil never ran empty.
So strong is the value of hospitality, that the writer of Hebrews admonished his readers, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” The Biblical witness tells us that we meet God in the stranger.
That’s what happened to the two followers of Jesus who were walking to their home in Emmaus that first Easter Sunday. Their hearts were still heavy with grief while they tried to wrap their minds around implausible stories about angels and an empty tomb. A stranger joined them. He asked a few questions and then began to interpret the ancient salvation story in light of the recent events. He began with Moses and moved through the prophets.
Could there have been a better preacher or teacher than Jesus? And yet, if we are to believe the witness of some of his own disciples, they didn’t recognize him in his teaching. They had been talking about Jesus and all the things that had happened in the past week—the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and later, his arrest and crucifixion. How close they came to Jesus during that week we don’t know. As followers close enough to have heard about the resurrection from the women, they may have also heard about Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and his prayer in the garden. They may have watched at a distance as he was crucified, suffered, and died. They knew he had been buried and the tomb sealed with a stone.
And then a stranger joined them as they walked. For several miles Jesus walked with his followers illuminating the scriptures, interpreting everything in the scriptures about himself. And they still did not recognize him. When they arrived at their home, the two disciples prevailed on the stranger to stay and eat a meal with them. During dinner that night the stranger took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. In the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened, and they saw Jesus. Had they not invited the stranger to share their table, they would not have seen the risen Christ.
What do you know about breaking bread? What are your experiences of inviting strangers to eat with you? I’ve told you about growing up in a military town where my grandma or aunt invited soldiers to dinner after church. Our family heard wonderful stories about big cities and small towns and other families. My Grandma saved food during the depression for anybody who came to her door looking for a meal. Like the widow of Zarephath, somehow Grandma’s pantry never ran out. The strangers at our table created and preserved community. I didn’t get it then. Sometimes I resented the people we had to get to know and wished that it could just be our family—where we could be more comfortable. But my grandma, the Sunday school teacher, didn’t care how snotty we kids were, she was always as gracious as if it had been Jesus himself sitting there eating and telling stories. Church potlucks function the same way. Whoever shows up belongs as we get to know each other better sharing food and stories.
One of my favorite theologians, Glàucia Vasconcelos Wilkey, says that it doesn’t matter if we are eating together or studying the Bible together, whether we break bread or break open the word in Sunday worship, if there is no stranger with us we have not welcomed Christ, we have not entertained angels. Oh, to be sure, I see Christ in you, and I hope that you see Christ in me. It’s just that we miss the unexpected story, the moment when our eyes are suddenly opened and we know that we are in the presence of God. When we welcome the stranger, we welcome Christ.
This is a very remarkable story that the church tells about the experience of the early church and why communion was so important to them.
You can talk about Jesus as much as you want,
you can search the scriptures at length,
you can preach and you can teach,
but you will not meet the risen Christ until the bread is
taken, blessed, broken and shared in the community of the beloved.
That is where, the early church tells us, you will meet the risen
Christ. That is when our hearts will burn within us.
So can I mess with your minds for a minute? Sometimes, it’s helpful for me to ask a few “what if” questions. What if it’s really not Jesus who joins the disciples on the road to Emmaus? After all, no one recognized him. What if it’s someone they don’t know? There were a lot of people who followed Jesus. The two friends walking on the road to Emmaus are not named because, I think, they have not been central to the story before. They are not part of the twelve, but men who were part of Jesus’ larger congregation, if you will. So what if the man who joins them on the road is another member of that larger group of followers? He adds his questions and experiences to the conversation. Along with the other two, he is trying to make meaning of the events of Holy Week. He’s trying to put it all together.
I teach a class in the ecumenical seminary at Seattle University that asks students to make meaning out of their first experiences of ministry as interns along with what they have learned in classes and know from their own Bible study. They spend a year with me learning to put it together. They ask hard, deep questions. They pray, think, listen, and write. And sometimes what they write brings me to tears because I suddenly see the face of Christ or the compassion of God as they discover it for themselves. It truly is an experience of my heart burning within me. My faith is suddenly enflamed and I fall in love with God all over again. Wonder and love wash over me and I am in awe. Their experience of ministry with a stranger I will never meet has broken open the word, and Christ is present. Maybe, just maybe, that’s why they didn’t recognize Christ on the road—he wasn’t present until their hearts were suddenly opened with the familiar ritual of breaking bread.
What all the post-Easter experiences of the risen Christ tell us is that the Church and individual disciples continued to be surprised by the real presence of Christ at unexpected moments and especially when they broke bread together. That’s why we come to the table every week. We don’t know when the circumstances in our lives will leave us gasping, or weeping, wondering, or rejoicing. We don’t know when one of us will be on our knees. We break bread together every week because we don’t know who Christ needs to meet at the table. The table needs to be spread and ready. And so we come to the table, and invite anyone who will come, to join us. We hope to find the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread. We expect to see Christ unexpectedly in our midst. We long to behold our very selves in the broken bread and to become what we eat—the body of Christ. We pray for our eyes to be opened.
Today, when we come to the table, I invite you to hold each person in prayer as they eat and, while you are praying, look for the risen Christ. Without doubt, he is here. The Church continues to witness to the presence of the risen Christ. Hear this blessing written by Chuck Wilhelm when he was a divinity student at Claremont.
"I pray that Christ may come to you early in the morning, as he came to Mary that morning in the garden. And I pray that you find Christ in the night when you need him as Nicodemus did. May Christ come to you while you are a child, for when disciples tried to stop them, Jesus insisted that the children come to him.
"I pray that Christ may come to you when you are old, as he came to old Simeon's arms and made him cry: 'Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen.'
"And may Christ come to you in grief as he did for Mary and Martha when they lost their brother. May Christ come to you in joy as he did to the wedding in Cana. And may Christ visit you when you are sick, as he did for the daughter of Jairus, and for so many who could not walk, nor stand straight, nor see, nor hear till he came.
"May the Lord Jesus come in answer to your questions as he once did for a lawyer and a rich young ruler. And in your madness may he stand before you in all his power as he stood among the graves that day before Legion.
"May Christ come to you in glory upon your dying day as he did to the thief hanging beside him that Good Friday. And though you seldom come to him, and though you often 'make your bed in hell,' as I do, may you find Christ descending there, where the apostles in their creed agreed he went -- so you would know there is no place he would not come for you."
Let us pray.
Gracious host, you set before us a table and invite us to be your guests. Through your unfailing love, you set a place for us at your eternal banquet. Give us the grace to set an abundant table and practice startling hospitality in your name so that all may come to recognize their home in your healing heart.