Brief synopsis of the readings: Today we see Peter speaking to his fellow Jews. He reminded them that they worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the same God who glorified Jesus. He then accused them of condemning Jesus to Pilate while demanding “the reprieve of a murderer.” But their plan didn’t work as God raised Jesus from the dead. Peter goes on to tell his audience that “neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing” and called them to repent. Our Gospel today comes from Luke and comes at the end of the famous “Road to Emmaus.” On the road two disciples encounter another traveler who hadn’t heard about the death of Jesus. This traveler spoke to the disciples about Scripture; when the disciples came to Emmaus they invited this traveler to join them. This traveler broke the bread, and when he did, his disciples recognized that he was Jesus. Today’s Gospel begins with how these disciples tried to spread the word of this event. In the middle of this, Jesus appeared once again. Some of those gathered thought he was a ghost, and Jesus then invited them to touch him and ate a piece of grilled fish. Finally, Jesus reminded them of his predictions that he would be suffer, die, and rise on the third day. He also reminded them that his resurrection would allow the repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Our readings today come directly after the famous “Road to Emmaus.” Much of Luke makes us feel good about our faith (for example, the parable of the Prodigal Son), including the Road to Emmaus. I’ll confess that I’ve always loved this story and I don’t fully understand why it isn’t more well known. It’s really an extraordinary tale. We, of course, know that this anonymous traveler was the resurrected Jesus but they didn’t, and in fact “they were restrained from recognizing him.” Imagine if someone you knew very well, and knew was dead, appeared to you a few days later. You would certainly recognize him and frankly react with terror. There is reason to think that perhaps Jesus had a different body and many of us with body issues are heartened by the concept of a resurrected body (as long as I get a full head of hair I’m good with anything else).
But that’s not the crucial part. When we think of Eucharist, we normally think about the Last Supper. But we should look here also. These disciples, having spent the day with Jesus, invited him to dinner. They watched as Jesus “seated himself with them to eat, he took bread, pronounced the blessing, then broke the bread, and began to distribute it to them.” Their eyes were opened, they recognized Jesus, and then Jesus disappeared.
That’s where today’s Gospel comes in. We are getting nearly to the end of Luke’s Gospel, and Jesus won’t be with them much longer. His followers only recognized Jesus “in the breaking of the bread.” As Catholics we hold the Eucharist in high esteem, even calling it the “Blessed Sacrament.” But too many times we’ve seen Eucharist as a reward for goodness and we draw strict lines about who may and may not receive it. A few years ago I was arranging for one of my patients and his wife to receive weekly Eucharist (translation for any non Catholics reading this: From our earliest days we’ve recognized that illness prevents people from going to church. Today members of the church are commissioned to visit them in their homes and bring them Eucharist. My patient was too sick to get to the church and his wife couldn’t leave him alone). The priest at his church didn’t want to allow them to receive Eucharist until they had gone to confession for the sin of missing mass.
After several minutes of enthusiastic discussion I was able to convince him that one sacrament (Confession) can never be a prerequisite for another (Eucharist) and they didn’t have to go to confession first (taking to account the fact that missing mass for illness is not a sin).
Instead of seeing Eucharist as a reward, perhaps we should look at Eucharist as something that can transform our lives. Jesus’ earliest followers recognized him “in the breaking of the bread” and I think Eucharist allows all of us to see each other the same way.
I’m blessed to have worshiped at the same church for nearly 20 years now, and because of it’s proximity to the University of California, San Diego, I attend mass with many students. I’ve watched how many of them have gone from frightened freshman to graduate to spouse to proud parent. I’ve seen them increase in wisdom, abilities, and love. And it’s not just the students: we are a diverse community and the only thing we have in common is that we gather weekly to share Eucharist and recognize each other in the breaking of the bread.
Look also at Jesus’ disciples. In our first reading from Acts, Peter acted with great authority and maturity. It’s always a little foolish to attempt to determine a time line of Scriptural events, but it’s safe to say that it was only a few weeks after a cowardly Peter denied Jesus out of fear of his own safety. We can find some role in Eucharist for this? I think we can.
I think breaking bread with the rest of the disciples emboldened Peter. Here Peter makes some astonishing claims: he accused those gathered of murdering Jesus and allowing a murderer (presumably Barabbas) to go free. He then tells them that they need to repent to be saved.
For all of us who have encountered a knock at our door which led to people we don’t know telling us our beliefs are wrong, this was not easy ground for Peter. And yet he did it. Something transformed him and I like to think it was the Eucharist.
As for us, I think this is an opportunity to see the transformation, not only in our own lives, but of those around us. None of us are the people we were 20 years ago, and I pray that we have increased in wisdom, ability, and love. Let us give Eucharist the credit it’s due.