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Sun, Apr 26, 2020

To Emmaus and Back

Duration:20 mins 38 secs

“To Emmaus and Back”

Sermon on Luke 24:13-34

Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

            Some of the best-loved stories in the world are stories about journeys. Think of The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, Candide, Huckleberry Finn, to name just a few – people on a road trip seem to be a natural subject for the storyteller’s art. Luke must have liked these kinds of stories, too, because he tells the story of Jesus and the early church as a travel story, a story of people on the move. In Luke, there are journeys within journeys, and every one has a destination and a purpose.

          However, the journey toward Emmaus of the two sad disciples on Easter Sunday afternoon seems to have no purpose. Luke gives us no idea of what they are expecting to find in Emmaus. Even stranger, we have no idea where Emmaus was. A town of this name doesn’t exist on any known map. Three different towns about seven miles from Jerusalem have been suggested as the location of this village, but there’s no conclusive evidence to establish any one of them. The two disciples are mysterious, too – only one of them is named, and, like the village of Emmaus, he appears nowhere else in any of the Gospels.

          It is almost as if Emmaus is “Anytown” and the unnamed disciple who walked with Cleopas could be any one of us.

          It’s possible the two men were going to Emmaus just to get out of Jerusalem – to bury their sadness in some unfamiliar place, somewhere away from the pain and cruelty of city life.

          Wherever or whatever Emmaus is, or was, it appears that these two disciples were running away, perhaps in the way that anyone who thinks he has squandered his life on a dangerous, foolish experiment runs away – to try to forget, in a place where no one knows you. The two men are all wrapped up in their sorrow, talking and musing as they walk along the road to Emmaus.

          But now here is this stranger who joins up with them, and they spill out the whole sad story, the story of high hopes trampled to the ground by the savagery of men, the disgraceful death of the one they had followed and trusted, and then the weird story the women brought back from the tomb, a story they dismissed as an “idle tale.”

          Even when the stranger interprets their sad tale for them, they are so blinded by pain and grief that they seem not to hear him. Luke doesn’t tell us their reaction to Jesus’s words, and Jesus doesn’t press them for conversation or company. But hospitality demands that they not let this gentle stranger go walking off into the night without a meal, so they invite Jesus to stay and have dinner with them. And finally, when they are at the table with him, as they had been so many times before, and as he takes bread and breaks it, as he had done so many times before, they recognize him. There is a fleeting second of joy and amazement, and then he is gone, vanished from their sight.

          And now the purpose of this particular journey to an out-of-the-way place becomes clear. This is the beginning of the transformation of the disciples. These gloomy men who had trudged along with their eyes cast down from now on would be people who had a completely different way of being in the world. The story of Emmaus is a story about the beginnings of the church, the small band of disciples coming together again to meet the world in a whole new way.

          The world these disciples would return to after the dinner at Emmaus would still be the same world, in spite of the resurrection. It would go on in its usual way, with its treacheries and betrayals and its disregard for the truth.

          But they would be different. And as they came together again, they would begin to form a new kind of community, a community that gathered around a table to share bread and wine and tell a story they would never get tired of telling. And every time they got together to taste the bread, drink the wine, and tell the story, there Jesus would be with them again, a phenomenon so remarkable they couldn’t keep it to themselves, and so all kinds of new journeys began, journeys to places whose names we do know: Antioch, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus …places where they would sometimes be welcomed, but more often than not, ridiculed, dismissed, sometimes even beaten or thrown in prison. The world had not changed in any apparent way, but they had.

          Every time we come to the Lord’s Table together we remember that Emmaus meal and so many others that Jesus shared with his disciples, where he showed his love for them through the simple acts of breaking bread and passing the cup to them. These were meals of communion, full of the presence of God.

          When the very first Christians came together to worship, they remembered all the meals with Jesus in a symbolic meal they called the Eucharist. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and thanksgiving is the dominant note of this meal with the risen Christ. This sacrament is one of the marks of the church: one of the ways we know we are a church is that we do this. It is as intrinsic to who we are as the reading and interpretation of Scripture.

          But now when we come together for worship we must do so virtually. It is a great blessing that we are able to live-stream these worship services, so that we can still gather, in a sense, from the safety of our homes. But we all know it is not the same – I can tell you that speaking to a camera in a sanctuary that is almost empty, except for those of us who are here to lead the worship, is not the same at all as speaking to you as a congregation gathered in one place, physically present, embodied and not virtual. Something is lost, and we all know it. And I think many of us feel that loss the most in not being able to come together at the Lord’s Table, where Jesus promises to meet us and transform us through our participation in the sacrament of his body and blood.

          To address this situation, some churches are carrying out online communion services. Many Baptist and independent evangelical congregations, in particular, seem to have readily adopted virtual communion, while Episcopalians, who emphasize the real presence of Christ in bread and wine consecrated by a priest, are tending to hold the line against a virtual sacrament.[1] The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, with whom we have a Formula of Agreement, is also discouraging online communion and recommending that churches use the time to “study more deeply the meaning of communion.”[2]

Presbyterians seem to be somewhere in the middle. When churches across the country began to shut down in response to local advisories or statewide orders, the PCUSA sent out an advisory statement saying that we should not try to have virtual communion services. Then, a couple of weeks later, our denomination reversed itself. The more recent advisory states that virtual communion can be practiced in the event of an “emergency,” which would include a pandemic. To quote the document: “During an emergency or a pandemic in which the church is unable…or advised not to gather in person for reasons of public health, a congregation’s session may determine that this includes observing communion online.” This should only be done, the opinion states, “after thorough investigation of the theology of the Lord’s Supper using Scripture, the Confessions and the Book of Order and with a clear understanding of … how those who participate… at home will receive the sacrament as a means of God’s grace.”

There are a number of things a session would need to consider before making a decision, but the most basic is our sacramental theology itself. We are not Roman Catholic, believing in the actual presence of Christ in the elements themselves once they’ve been consecrated by a priest, so we would seem to have more leeway. But we are not Baptists, either, who tend to see the Lord’s Supper more as a memorial of Jesus’s last meal with his disciples and the presence of Christ as purely symbolic. We are in the tradition of John Calvin, who saw Christ with us not in the elements themselves but at the meal, where he is spiritually present in the gathered community. This understanding makes a purely private consumption of the elements in our homes somewhat problematic. “Christianity is an embodied faith,”[3] so physical things are important: the shared bread and cup, the physical presence of the congregation or its leaders. At the same time, the sacrament is a spiritual gift, so the characteristic words and actions, which can be spoken and carried out in a virtual service, could be seen as conveying the spiritual reality of the Lord’s Supper even if we are not together physically.

So where does this leave us?  The Book of Order stipulates that Presbyterian congregations should observe the Lord’s Supper at least quarterly. Our last observance was on March 1, the first Sunday of Lent. That means we should have communion again no later than the first Sunday of June. That is a long time to wait, especially since we’re used to having communion at least once a month. If we get to June and we are still sheltering in place, we may need to take virtual communion into consideration.

It has been argued that virtual communion will help restore a sense of normality.[4] I understand that desire, but there is nothing normal about the situation we are in now, and there is nothing normal about private communion in our living rooms. It may help to remember that the church has had to do without true Eucharistic practice in past times of danger and upheaval. Theologian Michael Welker has described some of the bleak, depressing communion services he has attended, and one in particular stands out:

“I think back to services of holy communion in Berlin… after World War II, in which people stood in long lines in somber big city churches to receive bread and wine. Here one could not recognize Jesus’ table fellowship. The scene had more the appearance of a business…[distributing] scarce goods.”[5]

          His point is that many communion services, regardless of their form, do not convey gratitude, joy, or a communal sense of being with Christ. In its deepest sense, the Lord’s Supper is a feast of the abundance and generosity and vitality of God. The question is whether we can recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, as the disciples did at Emmaus, in an online service where we are distant from each other.

          Jesus stayed just long enough with the two disciples to give them what they needed to know that he was alive and still with them, and to travel back to the troubled world to carry out his ministry.

          Our own journeys have taken us in an inward direction over the last six weeks, but this is not the end of the journey. Let this be a time when we gather strength to travel back into the world God loves, when the time is right, and then be ready to serve God’s purposes there.

There are still many more journeys for us to make.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

April 26, 2020

      

 

[1] Peter Smith, “On Maundy Thursday, views on virtual communion vary,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette @https://liber.post-gazette.com/news/faith-religion/2020/04/08.

[2] Smith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

[3] PCUSA Advisory Opinion: Communion in an Emergency/Pandemic, 3/24/2020.

[4] By a United Church of Christ pastor, in “As coronavirus keeps parishioners homebound, Christian clergy debate online communion,” National Catholic Reporter @https://www.ncronline.org/print/news/theology (March 30, 2020)

[5] Michael Welker, What Happens in Holy Communion?, trans. John F. Hoffmeyer (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2000),  6-7.

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