There are few thing things I enjoy doing more than entertaining, especially small dinner parties for six to eight people. There is something special about bringing an intimate group together for a meal after creating a warm and cozy environment in which everyone feels free to relax and just enjoy an evening together.
One of the best dinners Maureen and I have hosted occurred just before Christmas last year. Gathered at our table that night were Deacon Dorothy and her husband Andy, Mother Renee and her husband Thomas. I don’t know why this evening stands out among the many dinners we have had, perhaps it was the glow of the Christmas tree among the candle light, or just the fact it was the week before Christmas and we all just needed a break from the frantic pace Advent incurs on clergy families. No matter what the reason, as Maureen and I finished cleaning the last of the dishes, we both agreed something profound. . .even sacred had taken place, and yet we could not explain what it was.
In this morning’s gospel, we heard of another sacred meal. This one took place just outside of Emmaus after two of Jesus’ followers had shared the events of Good Friday with a stranger three days after the crucifixion. For reasons not shared with us, the stranger was the risen Christ who they did not recognize until they sat down to eat together. According to Luke, it was only as Christ was breaking and blessing the bread that it became clear to them who the stranger was and then suddenly, Christ disappears.
As I read this story, what stood out for me were two things, the context in which Christ is recognized and the centrality of the common meal. I believe both elements work hand in hand.
As we explore post resurrection appearances, with the exception of Christ’s appearance in the garden to Mary, all other appearances take place where multiple believers are gathered. On Easter evening Jesus appears to ten of the original twelve apostles in the upper room where the Last Supper was held. Then again a week later, Jesus appears to these same ten men plus Thomas. In this morning’s appearance,Jesus makes himself known in the midst of the two men. And later, Jesus will again appear on the Galilean shore to Peter and the others while they are fishing just a few yards out at sea. The only other time Jesus appears to a single individual is to Saul on the Road to Damascus, but there, Paul is blinded and sent to the home of Ananias to unpack and understand his experience of Christ.
Since our earliest days as a formal people of God, an emphasis has been placed on the need and the sacredness of the gathered community. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of you.”
What these stories and statements tell us is that our journeys with Christ are not meant to be done in solitude. They tell us that somehow, in the context of the gathered community, also, we experience the fullness of the risen Christ. Perhaps this is why the gathered community, the Church, is often referred to as the Body of Christ.
For the most part, all of us gathered here today already know this. Otherwise we would not be here or make participating in the Eucharist a regular part of our lives. However, the sacredness of the gathered community goes well beyond the confines of, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;” and “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” It extends to the other parts of our communal life that today, very few of us are able or willing to make time for. Things like coffee hour, and the other opportunities for fellowship and learning that are offered during the week.
When I train Lay Eucharistic Visitors, one of the things I tell them is to visit when you have time to visit. Because, for those we visit in the community and in nursing homes often live lives of isolation. Most are confined to their homes and are only able to leave them for doctor’s visits and other necessities. From my perspective, I tell them, the visit is as much a part of the sacrament as is the sharing of the Eucharist. Again if we look at this morning’s gospel, Christ did not meet the two men on the Road to Emmaus to stop them, sit them down and then break bread. No, Instead, he visited with them, listened to their story of woe and sadness, then he shared the scriptures, and offered them comfort. It wasn’t until all of this had taken place and they had sat down for supper that they realized Christ was among them.
The same holds true for us on Sunday mornings. Although we do not live in physical isolation as many of our older members do, we still need the deeper bonds being part of this community can offer.
For me today, my fondest memories of Church have little to do with the worship services I attended. It has more to do with what went on outside of worship. As I look back over our years in Dallas, what I remember most are the social events. The coffee hours in which my parents were always one of the last to leave, the church cook outs, the summer days spent in the swimming pool located in the court yard of the Church of the Redeemer. As I look back over the seven years we lived in Dallas, I realize the reason the community life of the church we went to was as sacred as worship for us was due to the fact, most had left family and friends in other parts of the country, and together, in the context of that community we found the brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins we lived so far away from in our midst. The support network we needed, such as those who would look after us when my mother was sick and would cook for us during the times my mother had to return home to attend funerals was all somehow connected with the church.
I know for many of us, the connection of family is just a few short miles away. And yet, despite this fact, we still gather for the same reason, for connection, connection with Christ through each other. Because whether we are the student from OCC who seeks a safe, familiar place, or the sojourner from a foreign land, we all come seeking one thing, connection with the Divine through the Eucharist and through each other. These connections can only be forged and strengthened through the bonds of the gathered community both during the Eucharist and through the fellowship of the church.
Today as I look back over our dinner a few months back with the Pierces and Zinos, I now realize there was a seventh person seated at the table, it was Christ, present in the meal we ate and present in the fellowship we shared. A presence made known to us as we left the table and were ready ti return to our separate lives.