Real Presence

“It is not only Jesus who is present in communion. We are present…. When we break bread together, we affirm that we are here together, in the flesh. We affirm that this is where the resurrection shows up in our lives, first and foremost: in the present moment.”

Sermon Preached: Sunday, April 23, 2023 at Trinity on the Green

Easter 3, Year A: Acts 2:14a,36-41 | 1 Peter 1:17-23 | Luke 24:13-35 | Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I wonder if this situation is familiar to you: you are at a gathering with friends or family, and someone in the room shares a bit of good news. Maybe a cousin is pregnant, or a friend has gotten a promotion, or a couple announces that they are getting engaged. And then, almost without fail, someone else in the room jumps to their feet and says: “I knew it! I knew this would happen. I knew it all along!”

This is such a human response. In fact, there are times in the recent past where I can remember someone saying this. I can remember being that person who said, “I knew it! I knew it all along!” And yet, sometimes I have to wonder: did you really know it? Did you really know what was going to happen in the future, or did you simply hope that it would happen? Did you know it, or did you only put together the details hindsight? Perhaps you had a thousand secret hopes that you were holding in your chest, and this was just one, of many, to come true. After all, it’s much easier to say these words – to say “I knew it!” – when your hopes have been confirmed. It’s much easier to say these words after the fact.

The disciples in today’s Gospel story, the road to Emmaus, make a very similar claim. They have just had the most amazing encounter – they have spent the day with the risen Jesus. Jesus walks with them on the road, and listens to their grief about the crucifixion, and encourages them with scripture, and stays with them when they arrive at their destination for the evening – but it is only in the last moment, when Jesus breaks bread with them, that they realize it was Jesus all along. As soon as they realize this, he vanishes.

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” The disciples exclaim. Were not our hearts burning within us? This, as far as I can tell, is the Biblical version of the person in the room who says “I knew it! I knew it all along.” With the benefit of hindsight, the disciples want to say that they knew it was Jesus. But in reality, they didn’t know. There might have been some subconscious wondering. They might have sensed that this encounter was important. But they didn’t know that the good news was unfolding before them, in that very moment. The disciples didn’t know that it was Jesus until their eyes were opened.

Let’s go back to that other example of good news, for a moment – that friend or relative who says “I knew it all along.” This is a joyful statement. A statement that comes from a place of deep love and affection. And yet, I wonder, is there something that person was missing, in the days or weeks before that particular announcement was made. Were they hoping for one specific bit of news – hoping so much – that they failed to see all the good things that were happening in the moment, along the way? Were they hoping so much for the news of an engagement, that they missed that wondrous time of a couple getting to know each other, and surprising each other, and learning how to move together as a unit? Were they hoping so much for the news of a pregnancy, that they missed being present with and supporting a loved one in their life before parenthood, in that period of freedom and discernment and longing?

In other words, did their waiting for one particular bit of “good news” prevent them from seeing the good news that is alive around them, every day?

I think this is part of what is going on with the disciples, on the Road to Emmaus. The disciples have a very particular idea of what good news ought to look like – and as they look around them, this isn’t it. Their life is in shambles, because the redemption they were hoping for didn’t come. Because Jesus of Nazareth, “a prophet mighty in deed and word,” was arrested and crucified. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” the disciples say, on the road to Emmaus, with such longing. They are so preoccupied by a particular vision of what redemption should have looked like, that they miss the redemption that is standing right before them – Jesus, in the flesh. They miss the redemption that is embodied by this stranger, willing to listen to their grief. This stranger, willing to walk by their side. This stranger, who gradually reveals to them a hope beyond what they were hoping: the hope of a resurrected Jesus.

If we are too specific in what we expect the resurrection to look like in our lives – we just might miss it. This is what happens with the disciples and it happens with us too, all the time. We expect resurrection to look like a particular prayer answered in a particular way: like a change in circumstance, or an improvement in health, or relationship restored. But sometimes, resurrection doesn’t look the way we expect. It is up to us to open our eyes, to broaden our expectations, and to see how the spirit of the resurrection is here among us every day, in big and small ways.

How can we see it? In the case of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the key to unlocking this greater sight is the breaking of the bread – a reference to the last supper that Jesus instituted before his arrest and crucifixion, the meal that we commemorate every time we gather for Holy Communion. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do to open our eyes to the ways that God is moving in our lives was to take communion once a week? What if it was that simple?

Sometimes it is. Sometimes communion is enough for me to feel the presence of God moving in my life once again. Sometimes it is enough to feel connected to Christians throughout centuries of faith and practice who have taken part in this same meal, and to experience how God is present in the bread and the wine. Sometimes it is enough to hear those words of Jesus spoken aloud – this is my body, broken for you – and to feel how God puts our broken pieces back together again and again, when we gather for communion. And also, I want to be realistic about the fact that communion does not miraculously solve all of our problems. Communion does not necessarily open our eyes in an instant to see the risen Jesus right in front of us, like the disciples in our reading today.

But here’s what communion does do, every time we partake in this meal: communion compels us to be present in the moment. Communion puts a pause on all of our other plans, hopes, and expectations, and anchors us in the present – in the temporary sharing of temporary things, like bread and wine. Tradition dictates that we keep a certain amount of bread and wine that is blessed during communion in a secure place for later, so we can share the bread and wine with people who may be sick, or people who are no longer able to come to church in person on a regular basis (many of who are watching and participating with us online in this moment). But even when we bring that blessed bread to other places, there is always a way in which it is anchored to the moment when it was blessed and broken here, in community. There is always a part of that bread that is anchored to this place, and these people.

When we talk about communion, we sometimes talk about the doctrine of “real presence” – the belief that Jesus is present in the bread and wine in a special way, beyond mere symbols. I believe in this presence. And furthermore, I believe that it is not only Jesus who is present in communion. We are present. Sometimes, I think I feel more present in communion than at any other time in my life. When we break bread together, we affirm that we are here together, in the flesh. We affirm that this is where the resurrection shows up in our lives, first and foremost: in the present moment.

I believe this is what causes the disciples’ eyes to be opened, so they can see Jesus: this gift of presence. This gift of returning to the present moment, rather than getting lost in their grief about the past, or lost in their seemingly impossible hopes about the future. Their eyes are opened when the disciples anchor themselves in the present. Their eyes are opened when they learn to say to Jesus, “Stay with us,” and somehow, in the process, they slow down and learn what it is to stay and be present too.

The resurrection is not just an event that happened two thousand years in the past, and it’s not just a hope we have for eternal life in the future either. The resurrection is most real to us, always, in the present moment. This is where Jesus meets us because this is where we live – in the present. Stay with it. Stay in this present moment – and your eyes will be opened to see Jesus too.

“I knew it, I knew it all along.” I can’t help but be skeptical of these words when I hear them uddered, out of joy and enthusiasm, in response to a bit of good news. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was true – if we truly did know it all along? If we knew all along how God loves us, and how God walks with us, and how God never leaves or forsakes us. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live with our eyes wide open and our hearts on fire?

May it be so.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s