Known and unknowns

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter during the pandemic suspension of public worship.

So here we are again, on the road to Emmaus with Fred and Cleo. We know that Jesus is risen from the grave. We have heard the stories. We have witnessed fear, joy, awe, and the tears of great consolation in the midst of great grief. And yet, somewhere on the road, between there and here, going about our daily business and its many steps, we forgot how to recognize him. We began to doubt that he was with us. We forgot what he looks like.

A lot of the time, perhaps, we are content to let the rituals of bread and wine stand in for understanding; we allow the Sacraments to serve as our certainty. He is known to us in the breaking of the Bread.

But I wonder, as they hurried back to Jerusalem, their hearts full of the joy of Jesus, whether Fred and Cleo nevertheless harboured some regrets, at not recognizing him sooner, not following the promptings of their hearts.

Before he was made known to me in the breaking of the Bread, Christ made himself known to me through the stories of the Bible, through prayer, through the kindness of certain teachers. He saved me from an emptiness that I was just beginning to recognize. He raised me to a new life, one which would last me a lifetime, so far. It was as though I was born again.

If I had waited to look for him, to find him, to recognize him; if I had waited until I was allowed to share in the breaking of the Bread, for me, it may have been too late.

When I was a child, I took myself off to church looking for the God that I had heard about in Bible stories and in prayer: the one whose name was hallowed, whose name was intimate, who would deliver us, me, from all evil. I found a church with dark wood pews and a boat-like ceiling; with an unlikely yellow carpet and a stained glass window of the Lamb carrying a flag emblazoned with a cross. It looked like something out of a picture book.

I heard prayers in a language that I barely understood, but whose poetry sang to me. I don’t remember many of the sermons, except one when the vicar referenced a new blockbuster movie, which he thought was called The Empire Hits Back, and one when a woman preached. I don’t remember her words, but her presence was astonishing to my adolescent spirit, a witness to the resurrection.

I found the Psalms of Morning Prayer to be almost interminably long. But twice a month, we celebrated Eucharist, and I learned to get in line with the adults heading up the steps toward the altar, between the choir stalls, to kneel at the altar rail, where the priest would place a blessing on my head. I would file out with the others, through the Lady Chapel. There was one man who would leave right from the rail, straight out of the back door of the church. The rest of us remained for the Post Communion prayer; I would fret over the words, knowing that I had not consumed the Body and Blood of Christ as it was placed in the hands of the adults around me, but grateful, nevertheless, to have drawn near, to have known his presence so close to me.

Even before I was admitted to the Communion of bread and wine, Christ made himself known to me in the breaking of the Bread.

But first, he came to me in story, in word and prayer. As we heard in the Letter of Peter, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. … That word is the good news that was announced to you.” (1 Peter 1:23,25)

Like Fred and Cleo, my heart burned within me as, through the salvation story, Christ made known to me God’s love for a child such as myself. Had my heart not burned, and had I not followed my heart, I would never have come to that supper of the Lamb, the breaking of the Bread.

We are living in uncertain times. We hear mixed messages about opening up and continuing to keep ourselves to ourselves – at least physically. While we received some clarity from the Bishop’s Pastoral Letter issued Friday, which confirmed that we will continue to fast from public worship for a while yet, we may feel as though we are in famine from our Holy Communion. But if Christ is known to us in the breaking of the Bread, that Bread is his Body. We have seen him broken on the Cross. But even he himself told the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4); and he is the very Word of God. He is known to us in the mystery and majesty of his Resurrection, and in the uncertainty of unfamiliar terrain, and in the prayers and concerns that we share, and in the doubts that we discuss between us, in our grief and in our hope.

We are on the road to Emmaus still, uncertain and excited; and Christ is still with us, meeting us at the crossroads, walking with us, telling us the salvation story and waiting with us, waiting for us to understand, for as long as it takes for our hearts to awaken, our eyes to open, our joy to be complete.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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