Blessed and broken
I just love the story of the walk to Emmaus. Two disciples walk to Emmaus. They’re at their lowest ebb. (One is named, Cleopas; I suspect the other was his wife, Mary.) A third joins them, and draws them into conversation.
This stranger shows them from the scriptures that was inevitable that the Messiah should suffer; that a blameless life was bound to attract persecution, and even judicial murder.
As they draw near to their place, they invite the stranger in for a meal. Remember, these are two people whose hopes had been dashed; now, through the ministry of the Word offered by this complete stranger, they are able to offer hospitality rather than fall straight into bed and the oblivion of sleep. In fact, they want to hear more.
At the table, the undreamt-of happens. The stranger ‘took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’. And they know. They begin to comprehend the incomprehensible. Before them is none other than the Lord, the Living One, who has won the victory over death itself. He is there, with them—and then he vanishes from their sight.
I never get tired of hearing this fabulous story. It shows us that even where we have lost all hope—when the absolute worst has happened, and we’ve given in to despair—Jesus Christ is there with us. We are never alone.
People talk about the Third Man factor or Third Man syndrome. This refers to the reported situations where an unseen presence provides comfort or support during traumatic experiences.
Sir Ernest Shackleton was an Antarctic explorer around the time of the First World War. In his book South, he described his experience that a being joined him and two others during the final leg of their journey. He wrote:
during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.
Other survivors of extreme hardship have reported the same thing. Someone joined them at their point of greatest need. One study of cases involving adventurers reported that the largest group involved climbers, with solo sailors and shipwreck survivors being the second most common group, followed by polar explorers.
I always think of Emmaus when I hear the story of Ernest Shackleton. It shows me just how low these two disciples felt. They were at absolute rock-bottom. And while they are there, Jesus comes and walks with them. (By the way—Shackleton was convinced that the fourth who walked with them through the wilds of South Georgia was Jesus himself.)
When Jesus walked with them, what did he say?
Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?
It was necessary. And it seems to me also that it was necessary for these disciples to go through what they were going through. To walk the way of Jesus with Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t walk with us to help us wallow in our misery. He doesn’t want us to feel that we are victims—he became the Victim for us. But he also doesn’t want us to deny that the way is sometimes hard. Jesus wants to show us that in times of suffering and difficulty he walks with us. And our suffering can lead us to a deeper knowledge of God and of ourselves. Suffering accepted in the right spirit can make us more whole people, deeper people, more mature and insightful people. That doesn’t mean that suffering is a good thing. We shouldn’t ever celebrate suffering, and we should always try to relieve the suffering of others.
Once Jesus has taught us about the meaning of his suffering and ours, he reveals himself to us in the Breaking of the Bread, this thanksgiving meal, this Holy Communion.
At Emmaus, just as at the Last Supper, Jesus took bread—gave thanks—broke it—and gave it. This is what we do every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
But let me take it one step further. Jesus said of the bread, ‘This is my body given for you’. But we who eat it are also his Body. We are the Body of Christ, receiving the Body of Christ in the Communion bread.
It’s not only the bread that is broken and blessed. It is us too.
Can we imagine that it is us who are taken by the Lord, and blessed by the Lord? Can we imagine that it is us who, though we are broken, can offer ourselves to others in our vulnerability? We who are not perfect can help others who are not perfect. Can we imagine that it is we who are given to others to relieve their suffering?
When you come to this holy meal tonight, take in this truth: we are the Body of Christ, we are the bread taken, blessed, broken and given for the sake of the world. As we receive the bread and the wine, we receive the deepest truth about ourselves.
We will say these words later:
Let us receive what we are.
Let us become what we receive:
The Body of Christ.
This comes from St Augustine, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. In his sermon #272, he says that we are the Body of Christ who receive the Body of Christ; and so we need to truly become the Body of Christ, imperfect and broken though we are.
Receive Christ tonight; let your eyes be opened, that you may see him; and also receive the truth about yourself: we are the blessed and broken Body of Christ.