Archimedes, the famous Greek mathematician of the 3rd century BCE. was beside himself. The king had assigned him to measure the amount of gold in the royal crown. He knew he couldn’t take apart the crown or remove the jewels from their settings. He agonized over the problem for days and days, unable to come up with a solution.
Finally, one evening, after a long and exhausting day of research and experimentation, he settled into his bath and began to relax in its warmth. As he lowered himself into the tub, he watched the water rise and the answer struck him with such a sudden force that he leapt out of the bath. He burst out of his house and ran down his Sicily street shouting, “Eureka, I’ve found it; I’ve found it!.” History, it seems has forgiven him for failing to collect his bathrobe before his run.
The two disciples on the road react in the same way after they recognize the companion who sits with them breaking bread in that Emmaus home. The flood of energy and relief and renewed hope sends them like a flash flood, nearly seven miles back to where they came from, after dark, on a notoriously dangerous road, risking their lives to tell the others. But you get the sense their joy would have inundated any danger for the rush of hope that sends them back to the other disciples.
This had been a busy, upsetting and confusing day for all concerned. Which is worth noting, considering this is our Easter story! Earlier, according to Luke, some women had gone to the tomb. But when they arrived, they found the massive stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb and Jesus’ body missing.
They claimed, these two women, that two angels appeared to them at the tomb and told them Jesus had risen. Now, we should note here that this is Luke’s account which is different from Matthew and John which were the texts for Easter this year. In Matthew’s narrative, the women meet Jesus on their way from the tomb after encountering an angel, as does Mary in John’s story. In Luke we have no eyewitnesses to this point.
If we were biblical literalists here, we would find only more reason to doubt the stories for their lack of consistency. But that’s to miss the power of these stories, which is to help us to understand the nature of faith and its new life for us in every generation. Luke, written about 40 years after these things happened is interested in the power of the gospel for the future—how the risen Christ meets people like you and me today.
According to Luke, the others were doubtful. As much as they may have wanted to believe what the women told them, they just couldn’t bring themselves to hope that this life that had changed everything for them was still alive and working in the world. After all they had seen, they were not able to bring themselves to believe in the power of God toward life.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds familiar. Belief is such a fleeting thing—sometimes I’m awash in a sea of faith. I am bursting with hope and possibility that compels me beyond my own concerns. At other times, I’m in a desert land wondering if these bones will ever live again: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
What is it for you that makes the difference?
As they walked the dusty road toward Emmaus, Cleopas and his unnamed companion were surely looking forward to some time to sort out the tumult of the past week. The memory of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the glory of the day was still fresh in their minds. But the experience in Jerusalem quickly turned sour. Cynicism, fear, and opposition rose against Jesus. The whole world rallied against him. The church and state conspired against him and the crowds demanded Jesus’ death. Friday was despair. Cleopas and his companion, along with all the disciples, denied, deserted and disappeared. As Jesus’ lifeless body was placed into the tomb and sealed, questions and doubts, confusion and fear overpowered them.
Are we really any different? I know I’m not. Sometimes I stumble through the church door weighed down by cynicism, stress, worry—and with it, hope, that sometimes glimmers and sometimes roars. We yearn for the living presence of God that blazes in everyday life and stirs to life the hope that springs eternal whether we left it behind last week or abandoned it decades ago now just going through the motions.
We do not have to look far to fuel our cynicism, rage, or despair, of course. That comes easy.
Faith, on the other hand, takes some practice.
But practice does make perfect—or at least possible. We still know somewhere within us what Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew: “Earth is crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God.” And those moments when, like these disciples in the breaking of the bread, we see it, it is more than enough. It is so much more than enough. Our eyes and our hearts are open. All that disappointment and fear is inundated with a flood of hope and possibility. It doesn’t matter how upside down things are. We believe again and it makes all the difference in this very real world of ours.
According to Luke, it was in the act of breaking bread that it became clear to them who this stranger was. We know a few things about memory and its God-given power in us.
We know that people lost in dementia will sometimes snap back when they sing an old hymn buried deep in their childhood. They are, in that moment, themselves again.
We know that what we believe changes us and changes our reality. “Belief changes attitude, and attitude changes performance,” says psychologist Martin Seligman.[i]
Memory is momentum. Memory propels us—sometimes in a crawl, sometimes in a sprint, toward what saves us. Such a common thing leads to such a profound discovery. For the disciples, the table was memory, and much more.
Surely, they lost count of the number of times throughout their journey together with Jesus that he sat at table with the disciples, with sinners, with Pharisees and religious leaders, even with enemies and broke bread with them. And although Jesus was often the guest, it was clear he was always the host, serving, providing, demonstrating to anyone who would watch a model of hospitality, of love of God by loving neighbor. The table was where the gospel got its legs and its hands and its hearts. It was where the body while being broken, was put back together.
So if you’re hungry for faith. If you want to believe again in the hope that lives outside of our ability to perceive it, look to this table where our story is once again made flesh. Look to this strange ritual that the church has trusted since its beginning beside the proclamation of the Word, to give life to our old bones and momentum to our memory.
The risen Christ is here, reborn again in you and me—in us, for the nourishment of the world. Beloved, believe this gospel, made flesh and blood in Christ’s body, blessed assurance, a foretaste of God’s power and presence. And if you are here today finding it hard to believe, come and eat anyway. Let this practice of this body feed and remind you of the hope that lives deep within and blazes in every bush and flower and life.
[i] Martin E. P. Seligman. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. (Vintage, 2006):