Jesus was the stranger this time. Their eyes were kept from recognizing him, the text tells us. Jesus had been the reason disciples were gathered and travelled together in ministry. It was all centered around Jesus…until he died on a cross, like a common criminal. Really, there was little reason to stick around now. This movement they thought might take place, the Messiah overthrowing the oppressive Roman government, died when this Jesus of Nazareth died. Sure, there were some women claiming that Jesus’ body was gone, but what did women know? These two disciples, not of the 11 chosen by Jesus, but perhaps from an outer circle that travelled with them, were discussing it all as they headed towards a small town named Emmaus. As they walked, they talked about their disappointment, their sadness. And the stranger joined them and asked them what they were discussing. They were astounded that anyone in the area had not heard about Jesus and his crucifixion. So they told him their version of what had happened.
All of this took place, according to Luke, on the same day that the women went to the tomb early in the morning and found the stone rolled away and no body there to prepare for burial. Two angels told the women words that Jesus had often said to the disciples: "Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again" (24:6-7). Indeed, Jesus had told the disciples what would happen. They just did not want to hear it. Such a strange ending did not fit their plans for Jesus. Even though they were his followers, they thought he would overcome and set them free.
Still as stranger on the road towards Emmaus, Jesus became the interpreter of Scripture, again reminding them that the Messiah would suffer. They still did not want to hear this, and they did not recognize him through his words.
When they got to their destination, Jesus looked as if he were going on. The two invited him to stay the night, as was the custom in ancient times. With no hotels or bed and breakfast inns, people were obliged to take care of the stranger, the traveler. It also was not unusual for the stranger to say no at first, but if invited again, it would be rude for him to refuse. These two insisted, and Jesus went into their home with them. Jesus, the stranger, was now the guest as well. The hosts were gracious and provided a meal. But then Jesus took bread and blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. This same act that had taken place with the feeding of the 5000 and at the last supper opened their eyes, and they recognized their Lord. More than the words, it was this hospitable act that opened their eyes to his presence. It is the same act we will take in a few moments as community.
But as soon as they recognized the risen Savior, he vanished. They were astonished, shocked, and they turned to each other, saying, "Surely, our hearts must have been burning as he was talking and opening the Scriptures to us!" They did not understand why they did not recognize him on the road. But it took the act of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread to make him known to them.
Though it was evening after a long day, they hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the 11 disciples still gathered there. They were anxious to speak, but the disciples first told them that the risen Jesus had appeared to Simon Peter. Funny, but there is no story in any gospel about Jesus appearing to Simon, but tradition has it that he first appeared to him. Cleopas and his companion then got to tell the disciples what had happened to them, how Jesus had been with them but not known until he broke the bread again.
It is in these sacred acts – of baptism and communion – that our eyes and hearts are opened to something more than just words can give. When the pastor puts water on the baby’s or adult’s head, it is a sacred moment. When the bread and cup are shared, we are moved to another plain than when we listen to a sermon or study a Scripture. Here, in the midst of the community of faith, something happens in the gracious acts of hospitality and caring that these sacraments represent.
Hospitality is defined as "a cordial and generous reception toward guests; kindness in welcoming strangers and guests; an act or show of welcome." The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, means literally "love of stranger." Hospitality was expected in ancient times, for strangers and travelers, for widows, orphans, the poor. There was less emphasis on such hospitality in the Greco-Roman world, but the Israelites brought this custom forward from their heritage. In the ancient world, to share a meal with someone was to share life itself, and it created a bond between the two parties. Doctors and parenting experts still talk about the necessity of meals shared together around a table, rather than eating on the run or in shifts. Sitting down at a table and looking at one another, passing the butter, sharing the last of the mashed potatoes, these are acts of caring that it is hard to nurture elsewhere. The Lord’s Table takes the meal one step further by recalling for us the last time Jesus sat at table with his disciples and broke the bread and shared the cup. Now, each time we do this thing called Communion, we remember that night, and it moves us each time.
We come to the table as strangers, each in our own world, together in one place for worship, perhaps, but still separated by our thoughts, our worries, our interests. We come as guests, invited by the liturgy that recalls Jesus’ generous act. And we come as hosts, taking Jesus’ place to distribute the bread and the cup. And we are called as well to communion with strangers and guests beyond these walls. We are called to be hospitable to the IHN families who stay in our building several times a year, to those we serve in the line at the Shelter, to those for whom we will do various helping acts on Inasmuch Day on May 2. We are called to be hospitable by sharing casseroles with families we may not know but who are in a crisis and need help, by leading a Sunday School class, by ushering those who come in our doors for worship. We are called to be hospitable to strangers and others we may not even like, as Jesus told us to love even our enemies. We are called to be hospitable not only in church activities, but every day of our lives, as we work and play and interact with others of God’s children, as we are all God’s children. We respond to Christ as host by becoming hosts ourselves. Strangers no more, we become both guests and hosts, following our Lord’s example.
In a booklet called "The Art of Hospitality," Father Eduardo Montemayer reminds us that hospitality is not a science but an art. It requires creativity, innovation, motivation and inspiration. Cold and Unfriendly Churches, he says, are intimidating. They are not warm and welcoming of visitors, they do things on their own terms, with a kind of dress code of standards of behavior that is not printed anywhere but oozes out judgment of those who do not conform. There are cliques of friends in these churches that newcomers can never penetrate. Warm and Friendly Churches, on the other hand, he says, are inviting and attractive. They want to serve others and make them feel as if they belong. They act as friends to strangers and guests.
Surely we are much closer to being the Warm and Friendly Church, but we can always work at doing better. It always makes staff sad to hear, as we do occasionally, of someone who left or did not join because they visited and were not greeted warmly, not just by ushers or staff, but by those sitting in the pews with them. We are all called to be hospitable in the name of our Lord.
Hopefully, the things we do and say here lead us to be more hospitable. When we worship together, when we study together, or fellowship or serve together in the many opportunities that the church offers, may our hearts burn within us, and may our eyes be opened to see Christ in the breaking of the bread, as well as in everyone we meet. In a few moments, may we come to the table as stranger and guest, but may we leave as hosts. Glory be to God, Amen.