“I hate church!”
At least that’s what I said to my mother when I was about 11 years old.
Part of it was the contrast between Saturdays and Sundays. Saturday mornings were filled with Looney Toons, Land of the Lost, Pop-Tarts and Captain Crunch, and all while dressed in pajamas. Sunday mornings were completely different. That’s when I had to put on dress clothes: slacks, a button-down shirt, a clip-on necktie, and a navy blue blazer. That’s the equivalent of a strait jacket to little boys. Once we were all dressed, we went to church. I fidgeted in the pew during the 45-minute sermons, eating mom’s hard candy and enacting battles for the fate of the world between my superhero action figures to pass the time.
But the worst of it was the first Sunday of the month: Communion Sunday. That’s when we got not only a 45-minute sermon, but also an extra 30 minutes for everybody to go to the altar for crackers and grape juice. It took forever. I just knew that I would die. “O God, please save me from this!”
That attitude changed dramatically when I went to a Presbyterian boarding school. Early in my freshman year, I attended an evening Communion service. It was a small group of about ten, including the chaplain and one of the teachers. We gathered around a table by candlelight. We sang songs accompanied by acoustic guitar. We read scripture aloud. The chaplain spoke briefly on the gospel reading. And then we prayed prayers of remembrance and thanksgiving over real bread and real wine. We passed the broken bread to each other in the name of Jesus Christ, and we did the same with the chalice of wine. And somehow, in a way that I was unprepared for and did not expect, I felt as though I was in the Upper Room seated with the disciples sharing that final meal with Jesus on the night before he died. I felt my heart burning within me as the bread and the wine passed around the table. My eyes opened.
Something like Holy Communion, so familiar from my childhood and previously so dry and boring, “clicked” for the first time in my life. Gathered around that table, I recognized the presence of the living Christ in broken bread and wine. And to this day, I look back upon that Eucharist as one of the spiritual turning points of my life.
Remembering that experience brings new depths of meaning to one of my favorite Gospel passages: Luke 24:13-35. Walking the road to Emmaus, I can imagine that Cleopas and his companion had a similar experience of being surprised and jolted into a new way of seeing things and persons that had become all too familiar. After all, they knew Jesus. Perhaps they had followed and lived with him. And so, no doubt, their connection to Jesus was not that of a young boy’s boredom in church. Theirs was a connection of friendship and zeal. They had pinned all of their hopes for the emancipation of Israel on Jesus. And when Jesus was crucified, their hopes were decisively dashed.
It was a no-brainer. Everybody knew that the Messiah does not die at the hands of Israel’s enemies. Quite the contrary, the Messiah conquers Israel’s enemies! Therefore, Jesus was not the Messiah.
Jesus’ death on the cross led the disciples to believe that they had been utterly wrong, that everything they had lived, worked, and hoped for was a big lie. So with the heaviest of hearts, Cleopas and his companion began plodding their way to the small village of Emmaus outside of Jerusalem.
Along the way and out of the blue, the risen Jesus joined them. Perhaps the depths of their grief kept them from recognizing him, but they didn’t have a clue that it was Jesus. So they told him what just happened in Jerusalem as if he didn’t already know. They shared their loss and dashed hopes. And then Jesus – still incognito – began to weave the story of Holy Week into the grand narrative of Israel’s hope for the redemption, not just of a nation, but for the whole of creation. As he broke open the Scriptures, it started making sense, this whole business about the Messiah having to suffer and die.
It must have been exciting to hear familiar passages of Scripture in a completely new and fresh light. Cleopas and his companion clearly wanted more, and so they invited the still-incognito Jesus to supper. And that’s when something they weren’t prepared for and didn’t expect happened. Maybe it was because they had seen him do it before, but something about the way this stranger touched the bread and said the blessing brought it home. Like scales falling from their eyes, Cleopas and his companion suddenly saw — really saw — this stranger for who he really was. It was Jesus! It turns out that what the women had said was true: he really had been raised from the dead.
Almost as soon as they recognized him, Jesus vanished from their sight. But their encounter with the risen Jesus in the reading of Scripture and in the breaking of bread transformed their sorrow into joy and their dashed hopes into a deeper, richer, and stronger faith in a God of surprises who does the impossible, turning the world upside down by overcoming death and decay with incorruptible life.
The story of the walk to Emmaus underscores a truth of the Christian faith that goes all the way back to the first disciples, a truth that we enact every time we gather on the Lord’s Day. We discover the most sure and certain means of encountering the surprising, challenging, and reassuring presence of the risen Jesus in Scripture and the breaking of bread, in Word and sacrament, in the worship of the Church.
It’s true that God can and does touch us in many ways. God is not limited to the confines of the Church. But the experience of the faithful for almost 2,000 years testifies that the risen Christ consistently touches and changes lives in powerful if often imperceptible ways when Scripture is read aloud and interpreted in preaching, and when bread is broken and wine shared in remembrance of his death and resurrection in the Holy Eucharist. These changed and empowered lives show that worship works.
In addition to my own experience of that candlelight Eucharist, there are many other examples of this. Take, for instance, the burial service for Princess Diana on September 6, 1997. During that service, Prime Minister Tony Blair read 1 Corinthians chapter 13, the apostle Paul’s soaring hymn about Christian love. Many of us have heard that passage read so many times at weddings and funerals that it may wash right over us. But this was a reading of Scripture unlike most I’d ever heard. It was passionate, yet focused and restrained. It drew out the core of the passage’s meaning. Somehow, the Spirit orchestrated the words read by Prime Minister Blair into an outward and audible sign of God’s healing and restoring grace. It was a public reading of Scripture that connected God’s Word with a grief-stricken nation and world. And it was a reading that opened space for the risen Christ to speak a word of hope.
Reading Scripture in worship works.
Other examples hit closer to home. I think of something my daughter said when she was about three years old. After receiving Communion and returning to the pew, she said to my wife, “Momma, I want some more Jesus.” A little three-year-old girl had encountered the risen Christ in the sacrament. In her own childlike way, she knew she had encountered the risen Christ. And she hungered for more.
Or what about the child who complained that she didn’t like going to church because she said that it’s boring. But then she was so captivated by the Palm Sunday processional and the enacted Passion Gospel reading that when the congregation shouted out “Crucify him!” she whispered to one of her parents, “Are they really going to do that to Jesus?” Suddenly, this child was invested in the story of Jesus. It mattered in a way that perhaps it never had before.
The list of examples could go on and on. And I’ll bet that if you reflect on it for a moment, at some point along the way in your journey it’s probably happened to you, too.
It can be overpowering. Most of the time it may be far subtler. Occasionally, we may even find it dry and boring. But over time, week after week, the Church’s worship using Word and sacrament does its work. It binds us closer to each other as one Body of Christ. It reminds us of who we are and to whom we belong. It brings us into the transforming presence of the risen Jesus. And in the midst of life’s changes and chances, the worship of the Church drops down an anchor, allowing us to rest secure in the eternal changelessness of God’s love.
The featured image is “day 244 – Eucharist at the outdoor altar!” (2010) by Flickr user Ray. It is licensed under Creative Commons.