Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 30, 2017
The Third Sunday of Easter – Year A
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
1 Peter 1-17-23
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
The Christian “Holy Land” within the modern State of Israel and the Palestinian territories has rightly been dubbed the “Fifth Gospel” because it testifies so dramatically and so eloquently to the reality of the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ. The site of this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Luke is no exception, and a journey to that place is often the last stop on the itinerary of every Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And for many Christian pilgrims over the centuries, it has served as a capstone experience of the continuing “Real Presence” of Jesus Christ in his Church and, especially, in the Holy Eucharist.
The trip to Emmaus, now the Israeli-Arab village of Abu Gosh, usually features a celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the stark, yet beautiful Crusader-era church built over the site of the original fourth-century CE church marking the traditional location of the events proclaimed in this morning’s Gospel. At the bottom of a staircase leading down to the remains of that fourth-century building, the pilgrim passes a spring of “living water” in which some of the earliest converts to Jesus’ Way were likely baptized. What makes a celebration of the Holy Eucharist at Emmaus so powerful for so many pilgrims is the profound realization that they are encountering the risen Lord Jesus in the Holy Eucharist in precisely the same manner as his two disciples in this morning’s Gospel—albeit in a more ritualized form. Through the opening of the Holy Scriptures in the Liturgy of the Word and by “the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (BCP) in the Liturgy of the Holy Table, every pilgrim stands in the privileged place of the Emmaus disciples in today’s Gospel. There is a powerful sense of the Real Presence of the risen Christ at Emmaus: All sadness and grief are transfigured there by the joy of the Resurrection, just as they were for the two disciples in this morning’s Gospel. For the Christian pilgrim, the serenity and quiet joy of Emmaus is akin to the palpable peace and tranquility of the Mount of the Beatitudes, sloping down to the Sea of Galilee, where the story of Jesus’ public ministry began. Both are places where burning reservations yield to ineffable certainties that very often only take substance and form on reflection afterwards.
Our Gospel this morning begins on Easter evening with two, thoroughly dispirited disciples who are not entirely different from any of us at times on the spiritual journey: confused, and often wondering just how Jesus will make himself present to us in the midst of our pain and turmoil and grief. How many are the dusty roads that each of us has traveled—and are yet to traverse—through all of the chances and changes of this passing life, when sorrow grips our heart and our questions mount? “Where is God,” we ask, “in the midst of these sufferings?” And yet, the Love of God incarnate, Jesus the Christ, always seems to appear in the midst of them if we know how to listen and where to look, just as he does through his actions in today’s Gospel.
The first place to look and to listen for the risen Christ is the Church’s liturgy, especially the Holy Eucharist, the “fount and summit” of the Christian life. As you know, one of the great controversies to convulse the western Church of Christ during the years of the Reformation concerned the reality and nature of the “Real Presence” of Christ at the Holy Eucharist. Roman Catholics insisted on “transubstantiation”; the Lutherans countered with “consubstantiation”; and the Reform churches opined that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were a mere “symbol,” or a “sign” of such presence. We Anglicans, along with Eastern Orthodox Christians, were content to assert that the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is an unassailable and holy mystery about which we should maintain a reverent silence. Five hundred years later, it hardly seems possible that Christians literally killed each other over their differing and poor efforts to elaborate that holy mystery of Christ’s “Real Presence” in some way accessible to human reason. The tragedy is only compounded when we hear this morning’s Gospel, in which the risen Lord makes it all quite clear to his disciples: The Holy Eucharist is a “sacramentum,” according to the Latin translation of the Greek word “mystes,” because each and every time that two or three Christians gather together to remember with thanksgiving the mighty acts of God in salvation history and in Jesus Christ, the risen Christ makes himself really and truly present to believers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in a manner that is both palpable and hidden—which is the precise meaning of the Greek word “mystes,” or “mystery.” We Anglicans, along with the Eastern Christian Churches still preserve this sense of the matter by referring to all of the Church’s sacraments as the “Holy Mysteries.” All that vituperation and all of that bloodshed: it might have been avoided if we Christians had just held on to the witness of this morning’s Gospel and the wisdom of the ancient Church.
Another place to look and to listen for the Real Presence of the risen Christ is the Holy Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. When Jesus interprets the Scriptures—which for the Emmaus disciples would have been what we now call the Hebrew Bible—he did not deploy the historical-critical method; the post modern, so-called hermeneutic or interpretive principle of suspicion; or any other of the many interpretive schemes formulated by biblical scholars over recent centuries. Nor did he endorse a blind Biblicism that takes every word and verse of the Bible literally rather than seriously. No, according to Jesus, he himself is—for the Christian Church anyway—the interpretive key for understanding the Holy Scriptures. Jesus, the eternal Word of God made flesh, reveals the hidden meanings of the eternal Word of God revealed in sacred scripture. Once again, it’s all breathtakingly simple when we just follow the example of Jesus himself and the teachings of the ancient Church.
And, finally, there is at least one more very basic conundrum about the Christian spiritual journey addressed by this morning’s Gospel: the origins and nature of religious experience and liturgy as a divine initiative. When Jesus interprets the Holy Scriptures and breaks bread with his despondent disciples, he discloses the whole meaning and purpose of cult and religious faith. For Jews and Christians, anyway, they are nothing more and nothing less than the effort to unite us in love and service and deep communion to God and to one another. Faith is not fundamentally a set of philosophical propositions and beliefs about God, humankind, and the cosmos. Christian religious experience anchored in ritual around the recollection of and thanksgiving for God’s saving acts; it expresses itself in poor human language; and it discloses its shape and its inner meaning only through the interpretive activity of the believing community guided by the Holy Spirit. Once again, the ancient Church had it right when it simply professed “lex orandi lex credenda, that what we pray is what we believe. Meaning flows from the doing under the guidance of the Spirit of God. And so, the Anglican Communion, by design, has never had any formal confession of faith apart from its Book of Common Prayer: what we Anglicans pray in the sacred liturgy is what we believe as Christians.
Well, fortunately for us, we are actually living these Gospel realities at this very moment in our celebration of the Holy Eucharist this morning. We really need look no further than this church and its sacred liturgy to find the risen Christ dwelling in our midst this morning. Jesus is right here, right now; in word and sacrament. We too are Jesus’ disciples gathered together with him at “Emmaus” around the Holy Table today in the fourfold taking, blessing, breaking, and giving of our gifts of bread and wine! The risen Christ is offering us his unrestricted presence—his Real Presence—in the word of God broken open through the hearing and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, and in the “apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers,” (BCP) to use the language of our Baptismal Covenant. We too passed by the “living water” of the baptismal font on our way into the church this morning for Mass. All we need to do is to show up and to allow ourselves to be fed by the risen Christ, hidden in word and sacrament at the Church’s liturgy, just as those downcast disciples did on the road from Jerusalem on that first Easter evening. Then our eyes and ears will also be opened to his risen glory. What a privilege! What a holy “mystery”!
In one of his baptismal homilies, Saint Augustine of Hippo instructs the newly baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter to look with the eyes of faith and to listen with the ear of the heart to Jesus Christ who is always present in the Church’s liturgy. But hearing and seeing are not enough, he says. We are to go into the world to proclaim that Jesus Christ is risen indeed and fully present to the world that he has re-made and transfigured through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, just as the astonished and jubilant disciples on the road to Emmaus do in today’s Gospel immediately following their encounter with our risen Lord. The “messianic age” has dawned, and we are living in the biblical “end of days”! Saint Augustine tells the newly baptized to attend to the liturgy where they are “To behold what you are, and to become what you see and receive.”
So this morning, as we receive the gift of the risen Christ’s unrestricted presence with us in word and sacrament, may we also “behold what we are and become what we see and receive.” And may we leave this church today with “hearts burning within us” as well to proclaim by word and deed the ancient Church’s Easter hymn: “Christ is risen from the dead. By death has he trampled down death. And on those in the graves has he bestowed new life!” This will turn our sadness and grief into the Easter “joy of the Gospel” as assuredly as it has, for more than two-thousand years, for every Christian disciple on his or her own “road to Emmaus,” whether that road runs through the Holy Land or through the local Church!