“Open Your Eyes”
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
30 April 2023
For as long as I can remember, this has been my favorite post-resurrection story. It presents the unfolding of faith as a journey of seeing the holy in our midst. I love the way Jesus walks alongside the two people without disclosing his true identity…just biding his time, interpreting scripture, continuing along the road to the village where the two people were heading. And then Jesus keeps on walking, but the two travelers call him back and ask him to stay with them since the day was reaching its end. The road at night could be a dangerous place.
This is a key moment when the story turns: a moment of profound hospitality. What if the two travelers had not insisted that Jesus join them for the night? They might never have realized who he was or that he had been raised from death. In this country, we don’t have the same depth of understanding when it comes to hospitality that other cultures do, including the middle eastern culture in which Jesus lived. It wasn’t just a matter of being friendly or kind, but rather hospitality could have been a matter of survival. We just don’t get it – that kind of hospitality. Years ago, when I was in South Korea as part of a UCC delegation, people went out of their way to ensure that we were comfortable and well-fed, offering me their beds, inviting me to a feast in a traditional home, and tuning in to where I was as a guest. For most Americans, hospitality is an afterthought, which is a shame.
It strikes me as odd that Jesus, the guest at the table, takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. Clearly, he switched roles and has become the host at the table. And his actions are recounted by Marta and me every time we celebrate communion: we take bread, bless it, break it, and give it. And it is in that moment of profound hospitality, in the breaking of the bread, that their eyes are opened and Jesus is made known to them. They have share a long, dusty journey together, and sharing the meal is the catalyst that enables them to experience the risen Christ.
Besides hospitality, eating is an important social phenomenon as well. In strictly hierarchical societies, people of different social classes don’t mix. You see it on Downton Abbey when those who eat upstairs would never eat with those downstairs. But think about where Jesus had been eating: defying the norms of purity by eating with sinners and tax collectors. This table — Christ’s table — is a representation of how the kingdom of God is meant to be for us: a table where there is no distinction because of class, gender, race, orientation, wealth, education, or ethnicity. It is a representation of God’s anti-imperial realm, where all of God’s children are welcome and no one is turned away.
The Emmaus story, the event at which Christ is made known to those who offer hospitality to a stranger, is a seminal event. Though we are unlikely to peer into an empty tomb or push our fingers into Christ’s wounded hands, we encounter the risen Christ in enacting profound hospitality. We encounter the risen Christ in the breaking of bread. We encounter the risen Christ in overturning the broken norms and assumptions of our consumer-driven, economics-obsessed culture.
I had a real epiphany coming out of the pandemic, a period of two-plus years when we didn’t eat together as a congregation. No dinner church. No First Name Club luncheons. No Simple Soup Suppers to bookend Lent. No celebration meals, even when we worshiped in the park. No potlucks. I have always seen potlucks as a sort of Prairie Home Companion-esque artifact of a time gone by, but the pandemic gave me new insight into how important it is that we share meals together.
It became clear to me last fall when Jane Anne and I were in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome and we saw a fresco from the second century…the 100s AD…so it’s very early. Men and women are eating together at table, sharing a meal. This wasn’t a celebration of communion, but rather a sort of community potluck. But it isn’t just a meal…it’s what happens when people gather around a table to share the abundance that has been entrusted to them. It is an occasion for building koinonia or spiritual community.
No one is ever turned away from a potluck. And there is always a bit of a loaves-and-fishes effect, because there always seems to be enough to feed everyone…even when everyone brings dessert. A potluck often has an element of mixing people at table who might otherwise not get to know each other. Older adults sitting with teenagers, well-to-do folks and those who may not have a cent in the bank, Gay, Straight, Bi, Trans, Lesbian folks all eating together. A meal can be a picture of what the Kingdom of God looks like in action.
Many of you will remember one of our visiting scholars, John Dominic Crossan. Many years ago, I was reading his provocative book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, and there was a wonderfully pithy sentence about this morning’s scripture in it that I have long remembered: “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.” In other words, this story may never have occurred in the way that Luke describes. And for some of us, that invalidates the larger truth of the story, which is tragic.
Does there literally have to be a village called Emmaus for the story to be true? Do there need to be two disciples, one named Cleopas, for the story to be true? Does Jesus need to walk with them, explain scripture to them, and eat with them for the story to be true. No. What makes the story true is that we ourselves can experience it. We encounter the risen Christ when we act compassionately, when we extend an extravagant welcome, when we break down barriers between people, when we remember the presence of Christ living within us and among us when we come to Christ’s table for communion. How can you and I make Emmaus happen here at Plymouth in our worship, in our fellowship, and in our welcome? “Emmaus never happened; Emmaus always happens.”
One of the other “Aha!” moments I had after coming back to church after the pandemic is that it is easier for us to see the face of Christ in each other when we are, in fact, face-to-face. It’s great that we have a livestream and Zoom meetings, but there is something precious about seeing each other in person. Wishing one another the peace of Christ in person. Receiving communion elements in person. Meeting new people in person. Discussing and debating in person. Hugging in person.
I have seen the image of Christ in Council meetings at Plymouth. When we are doing our very best to discern together a path forward for our congregation and how we live as an outpost of the Kingdom of God in this place. It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t always happen, but there is an element of grace and real presence that can happen when we gather intentionally as Christian community.
Sometimes when I’m leading a pilgrimage or a retreat, I’ll ask people at the end of the day if they had any God sightings: times when the love or presence of God became clear to them. And oftentimes when people are asked to pay attention, we notice things that otherwise might elude us.
It’s important that we keep our eyes open to see when we might catch a glimpse of the Christlight in our midst. It probably won’t look like Jesus looked, and that may be why the travelers on the Emmaus Road didn’t recognize Jesus.
I hope that for each of us, we have those moments when we have an encounter with the risen Christ, who continues to be with us. He is with us in the struggle for justice and peace, with us as we wrestle with scripture, with us in moments of deep hospitality, and with us in the breaking of the bread.
May we open our eyes and our hearts to one another and to God so that we might see the reflection of Christ in one another.
© 2023 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint.