(Undeniably better than broken hearts and burning bread)
My reading of scripture has often provoked jealousy. I’m jealous of Moses who was physically changed by encountering God. I’m jealous of Mary who felt God in the flesh stirring within her. And I’ve often said that I’m jealous of Paul—he wasn’t even seeking God at all when a blinding light came from heaven and a voice said, “I am Jesus.” I have prayed for my own road to Damascus experience and wondered what it would take to get God’s attention. Am I not righteous enough? Am I not evil enough? Am I not useful to God?—Or does he even live at all?
As I do most mornings, I awoke early on Sunday and read my Bible by lamp-light in my dark home. Oh, I love that book. I don’t believe that it is without error, and I don’t even believe that it provides us with an entirely accurate portrayal of God, if a God exists in the first place. It moves me even still, and my life is richer because I have committed so much of it to memory. It still holds the greatest story I’ve ever heard. It still challenges my thinking and changes my heart, even though I’ve read it time and time again. On Easter Sunday, I was reading about another experience with Jesus that happened on a road—the road to Emmaus. It takes place on the same day when the women who loved Jesus found his tomb unoccupied. It is very different from the Road to Damascus story that I have longed to call my own, and in many ways, it resonates with me more closely.
The story begins with two men walking to the village called Emmaus, located seven miles outside of Jerusalem. They were discussing the empty tomb when Jesus joined them, unidentified by the two men who were “kept from recognizing him.” He asked them what they were discussing, to which they, incredulous at his ignorance, essentially replied, “Where have you been?!” They recounted the events of the day, starting with a description of Jesus that revealed their own doubts and their waning hope. Jesus responded by showing them how all of scripture pointed to him. When they reached their destination, they invited their companion in to eat and sleep. They finally recognized him during the shared meal when he broke the bread, and in hindsight they asked, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the scriptures to us?”
Where am I in this story? I’m somewhere on that road to Emmaus. I can imagine their slow gait under the weight of despondency. I’ve been there too. They described Jesus as a “prophet,” not as the Son of God or the Lord they loved. I have also modified the words I use when I speak of Jesus—“If he existed at all [and I do think he did], he might have been delusional.” They speak of unrequited hope that I know so well—“We had hoped that he was the one…” I have been heartsick over lost hope for quite some time now. I had hoped to have more than a century of awareness, for some sense of significance to apply to humanity’s brief existence on earth, for some foundation to build my life upon. I feel that I was programmed for devotion and deep love, and I had hoped to offer it to someone greater than myself—to someone who would save me from myself. I had hoped.
How else is my story similar to this one? My heart burns within me when others speak of Jesus. My heart burns within me when I read the scripture that is so precious to me. My heart burns within me and makes me wonder if my spirit is detecting truth or if my intellect is giving way to my desire. And I invite him in. At the end of the day, my plea echoes theirs: Stay with me.
One final parallel between this story and mine: I recognize Jesus when bread is broken. I recognize Jesus in fellowship over a shared table. It seems so fitting to me that this was the moment when their eyes were opened—the moment when Jesus was doing what so many of his followers had reportedly seen him do so many times. He offered bread, just as his Father had given bread to the Israelites in perfectly timed provision when they wandered in the desert. He broke and distributed bread just as he had when he took a humble five-loaf offering and made it sufficient for a multitude. He had described himself as the bread of life, and during his last meal with his apostles, he had broken bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you.” He had asked who was greater—the one who reclines or the one who serves? He had served them at that last meal, just as he, the guest, served his traveling companions on this night. It’s no wonder that they recognized him as he broke the bread—This is the one who hears our cries and meets our needs. This is the one who makes our meager offerings enough. This is the God who ate with sinners. This is the bread of life. This is the body that was broken for us—now whole again. The one who serves us now is the greatest.
I see Jesus when those who love him break bread with me. I see Jesus when they invite me to the table, even though we disagree. I can miss it completely when they insist that he’s alive and that they have seen the evidence first-hand. I can miss it completely when they walk with me through scripture and show me all the ways it points to him. But something happens in fellowship over broken bread with some of the people who call themselves the body of Christ. Something happens when they stay, instead of walking on and leaving me alone as darkness closes in.
My plea for a blinding light on the road has not been answered—but maybe I’m on a different road. I see glimpses of Jesus in broken bread with those who live to bear his image. Could it be that he has walked with me the entire time? Oh, how my heart has burned within me…