When he 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; 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?
The liturgy of the eucharist, which we celebrate every week, is a process by which the church, the corporate body of Christ, steps into eternity, contributing to the eternal hymn with the cherubim and seraphim, making contact with the glory of the kingdom come, a lived experience of “the already/not-yet.” Eternity, as I’m using it here, is not a measurement of time. It is a place and way of being that is outside of time and in all times. Eternity is the home of God. Eternity has no beginning or end. Eternity is our home as well. Through the Eucharist, the breaking of the bread and drinking of the wine, we take in eternity that lives in Christ and find that it resides in us.
In the early days, Christians, then called “followers of The Way,” were accused of cannibalism. They met in secret rooms and performed new rituals where it was whispered that they ate the flesh and drank the blood of their prophet, their God-king who was publicly executed in Jerusalem. The whispers were not entirely false. It is a strange thing for a man, for God, to offer his flesh and blood as a meal to his friends the night before his arrest. It is a strange thing for those who have eaten his flesh and drank his blood to mourn at his public murder. It is stranger still for those same god-devourers to claim that this man survived not just their hunger and thirst, but the hunger and thirst for violence that permeates the mechanisms of empire. It is a very strange thing indeed for an eaten, murdered, god-man to visit his friends by regularly teleporting to and from them, and to break bread with them, and for those friends to continue to eat and drink of the god-man forever, in remembrance of him. We practice a strange faith. We follow a strange way.
But, none of this theology was established by the afternoon of the resurrection, the time at which our Gospel reading occurs. By that point, Luke tells us, the women had seen the risen Christ, but the men had only seen an empty tomb. The Messianic ruler who it was foretold would usher in a new age of nationalistic dominance and security, overthrowing the yolk of the oppressive empire, returning Israel to the glory days of the Davidic Kings had surprised everyone. First by dying (rude), and then by refusing to stay dead (also rude). No one knew what was going on, and everybody was talking about it.
In the midst of this confusion, two disciples, Cleopus and some other guy, set out on a trip.
Saint Augistine, or Blessed Augustine as our Eastern siblings say, is supposed to have coined the latin phrase “solvitur ambulando.” It means “it is solved by walking.” Historically, this phrase was used to suggest that practical experiment would help to solve a problem. In recent decades, the phrase has been used more or less like a Zen Koan. Our high-minded ideals of how the world ought to be, of how we ought to live, have a tendency to come across trouble and complication when we put them into practice. We find problems along our way which are solved by walking.
Cleopus and the other guy are in the midst of an incredible existential upheaval. Today we say Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. Today we say Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. On that day they said, “Our rabbi is dead, but maybe has risen? What does that mean?” This is a problem that is solved by walking. And, unbeknownst to Cleopus and the other guy, they do not walk alone. In a very “Footprints in the Sand” situation, Christ walks along with them.
Sometimes, I find myself caught by silences in scripture. Gaps in sacred narratives are curiously human things. Luke informs us that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures,” and then they arrive at Emmaus. The name Emmaus roughly translates to Springfield and was apparently a super common village name in the ancient near east. Luke does not see fit to tell us (or does not know) what Christ says that is so illuminating. Neither does he bore us with the mundanities of walking. We do learn, later on, after Christ has revealed himself in the breaking of the bread and teleported away like nightcrawler, that during this conversation the disciples’ hearts were “burning within” them as they walked and listened.
There is a soteriology (a theology of salvation) based on a process called theosis. If you know your greek roots, you know that means “becoming god.” The belief is that the purpose of the eucharist and our faith is not to inject an external goodness into our fallen, flawed, beings. Rather, the purpose of the eucharist and our faith is to remind us who we are and help us return to being those people. The divine energies of God which are present in all people are likened to a fire that burns within us, purifying corruption, healing sickness, and illuminating the way.
Did our hearts not burn within us?
This divine fire that burns but does not consume is seen in scriptures, both in the burning bush from which God calls Moses, but also in the tongues of flame that will visit us soon at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is given to the gathered disciples. The fires of salvation, of theosis, are already present in Cleopus and the other guy. Christ’s presence and words, and all that walking, ignite something in them to burn.
I think that this story of Cleopus and the other guy walking to Springfield is an early model of what it is to live a christian life in the historical moment between Christ’s resurrection and ultimate return. We are confused. We believe, but we do not know, and we often don’t even know what we believe. We are walking along the way with our similarly confused companions, and we are trying to make sense. There is a point, in the breaking of the bread, where we enter into eternity and we recognize the presence of Christ in our midst, but that moment (although profound) is fleeting. It is only in retrospect that we realize that Christ is in our midst and ever shall be, and that our hearts were burning within us. It is only in retrospect that we realize that our problem is solved by walking.
The Eucharistic table and liturgy is not just this opportunity to enter into eternity, to partake in the paradoxical consumption of our God. It is also a dinner table around which the sacred community gathers. The German-Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber argued that meaningful contact with the divine was only sustainable in a sacred community in which all members remain open to witnessing and encountering the divine in themselves and one-another. His image of this sacred community was a circle, not unlike the one we make during our eucharist, with all members of the community aimed toward the center, open to one-another, oriented toward God.
I was not here last week to hear the story of doubting Thomas, but I remember as a child my deep envy at his incredulity. Perhaps if I, like Thomas, like Cleopus, and the other guy, had seen the face of the risen Christ, then I would understand, or at least be more comfortable with everything I don’t understand. But, I was not born to that time. Instead of the wounds in his side and his hands, I am given my glimpses of Christ in the faces of those who circle with me around the table. I see Christ in and between and within and through the eucharistic body, and my heart burns within me.
The problem of how to live in a world ruled by empire whose appetite for domination must consume and kill even the incarnate God is an incredibly difficult problem. This problem is solved by walking. The mystery of the eucharist interweaves transcendent categories of time, identity, divinity, and ritual. It is the central Christian activity. Both the walking of the way and the breaking of the bread are only possible in community.
What I am saying, dearly beloved, is that I, like Cleopus and the other guy, am tired and confused. I have ideas about how all this stuff is supposed to work, but in walking I find it’s far more complicated than the fantasies of my childhood. I need some help along the way. I think we all do. We need each other’s words and faces where we catch the words and face of Christ as we walk this road to Springfield. We need one another’s hands and hearts that burn within us when we gather in our circle of sacred community around the table where we feed one-another the divinity we already have. We believe that Christ will be made known to us in the breaking of the bread, and we hope that we recall that our hearts burned within us as we walked our way to Emmaus, to Christ’s table, into Eternity, together.