When [Jesus] 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
This pandemic is taking away many things, including, for the time being, our ability to celebrate holy communion together. The Lord’s Supper means more to me than I can put into words. I miss it dearly, and I long for the day when we can “break bread” together again, and recognize Jesus in our midst.
The gospel reading for this Sunday is the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. This story reaches its climactic moment when the two who have been walking with Jesus finally recognize him, and it is at the very moment when Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. It happened, in other words, when they shared with Jesus the sacrament of holy communion. Later they told the other disciples “how [Jesus] had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35)
So, this raises the obvious question for us as we live through this time of needed social-distancing: how can we recognize Jesus when we can’t “break bread” together? I want to share a few thoughts about this, but I want first to say that I am not going to deal with the theological question of whether or not we should have communion as part of a virtual worship service. My presiding bishop and synodical bishop have recommended that we not do this, and I agree with their recommendation. So, I want to deal with the obvious question this raises: how can we recognize Jesus in our life and in this world when we can’t break bread together?
First of all, let me simply say that I can’t think of a more important question to ask, now or any time. Isn’t this, really, THE question? It is the question that is arguably behind every book I have ever read on prayer and spiritual formation, and the question that is arguably behind much of what we read in scripture. How do we recognize God’s presence in our life and in this world?
It is a question that goes back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden, and to life before that first sin. After Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” (Genesis 3:8) And we have been hiding ourselves from God ever since. Jesus was God’s last and most beautiful attempt to find us again, to usher us into God’s presence, but even Jesus faced obstacles from us. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:10-11) So, first, let’s state the obvious, that it is not always easy for us to recognize Jesus, and the fault of this is ours.
To put it another way, God clearly wants to be recognized by us. We were created by God to be in relationship with God, and as the great St. Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. God wants us to live in the presence of the Lord, and promises us that “there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11) in God’s presence.
And not only that, but God provides ways for us to experience that joyous presence. Holy communion is one way, one of the most beautiful and meaningful ways, but it is not the only way. The Psalms, after all, which often describe the blessing of being in God’s presence, were written long before Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper!
So, what are some other ways for us to experience God’s presence? One way to answer this question, a very Lutheran way, is to turn to Martin Luther and particularly to a famous passage in his “Smalcald Articles.” This is Article III:4:
We now want to return to the gospel, which gives guidance and help against sin in more than one way, because God is extravagantly rich in his grace: first, through the spoken word, in which the forgiveness of sins is preached to the whole world (which is the proper function of the gospel); second, through baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters. Matthew 18[:20]: “Where two or three are gathered …”Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles
God’s grace is given to us through the holy Sacrament of the Altar, Luther writes, but also through baptism and through the spoken word, through confession and forgiveness, and through the “mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters.” We may not be able to break bread right now, in other words, but we can continue to turn to God’s word; we can remember our baptisms; we can reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ for “mutual conversation and consolation.” We can do all of these things to receive God’s grace and to recognize Jesus in this time of social distancing.
When one of my favorite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was in prison awaiting trial for his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler, he had the opportunity to write and send some letters sent to his friends. These have been collected in the classic book, “Letters and Papers from Prison.” In one of these letters, written to his dear friend, Eberhard Bethge, on November 18, 1943, Bonhoeffer writes longingly of his “many long months without worship, confession, and the Lord’s Supper and without consolation fratrum.” Right now, we can relate to this more than ever before! Many of us, as we shelter in place, miss worship, the Lord’s Supper, and the consolation of simply being together with our fellow Christians?
So, we might ask, what did Bonhoeffer do, when he couldn’t do these things? He read his Bible. He prayed. He wrote these letters. He cared for his fellow prisoners. He even cared for those who were guarding him! He did what he could, in other words, to remind himself of God’s presence and steadfast love, and to live out his faith.
Bonhoeffer’s experience in prison, which can teach us a great deal about how to live in these unusual times, reminds me of one of my favorite prayers in all of scripture, the prayer of Jonah in the belly of the fish, Jonah 2:1-9. This prayer is so meaningful to me for many reasons. First of all, it is simply heartfelt and beautiful – poetic, even. But it is also a prayer that is almost completely taken from the Psalms. I learned this first from Eugene Peterson, in his book on Jonah, “Under the Unpredictable Plant.” He writes that Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the fish “is not spontaneously original self-expression. It is totally derivative. Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he prayed as he had been taught. His school was the Psalms.”
Worshiping and praying the psalms regularly prepared Jonah for a time when he could not pray them with others, and when he could not worship in the temple (“How shall I look again upon your holy temple?” Jonah asks in this prayer). When Jonah was alone, trapped in the belly of the fish, he need prayer more than he ever had before. And he was able to pray, to recognize God’s presence with him even in his darkest hour, because of his time spent with God’s word, and especially with the psalms. Scripture is intended to teach us to pray, and to teach us to recognize the presence of God even in the most dire of situations.
And this brings us back to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Because we can see in this wonderful story that Jesus was teaching his disciples to recognize him, not just through the breaking of the bread, but also through the scriptures. After they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and he vanished from their sight, they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) The breaking of the bread may have caused their eyes to be opened, but the opening of the scriptures caused their hearts to burn within them.
Even if we can’t have our eyes opened right now, in other words, we can set our hearts afire. We can pray. We can read God’s word. We can reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ for mutual conversation and consolation. This pandemic is challenging, no doubt about it. But we are not in prison, awaiting execution. We are not trapped in the belly of the fish. To be honest, it is easier for many of us to pray right now than for many who have come before us. And we can learn from this “great cloud of witnesses” in this time of our own trial. We can, in the words of a famous spiritual director, Dom Chapman, “pray as we can, not as we can’t.” So, let’s focus on what we can do right now, now what we can’t. Let’s pray as we can, not as we can’t.
How can you pray right now? How can you set your heart afire? How can you remind yourself of God’s presence in your life right now, while you (and I) await the day when we can return to in-person Christian community, and to the breaking of the bread together? To me, there is no more important question to ask, now or at any time, than how to recognize Jesus in our life and in this world, when we can’t break bread together, and even when we can.