When I was working as a chaplain in a children’s hospital, I became friends with one the staff members on the floor to which I was assigned. We would hang out on breaks, chat about life, and occasionally, we would go out together after work. There was this great place right around the corner called Coogan’s. Inevitably, some stranger would strike up a conversation and eventually ask, “So, what do you do?”
The first time I was ever asked this question at Coogan’s it was a particularly busy night. The room was crowded, and when I responded with, “I’m a chaplain at the hospital,” everyone in a six food radius stopped and stared. A strange hush fell until someone spluttered out, “What are you doing in a bar?!” To which I replied, “Having a drink with some friends.” What can I say? I’ve got a fondness for French Martinis.
Add to this dynamic a few cultural factors: that Coogan’s is a pub largely frequented by Catholics, and the fact that I am woman, who at the time was wearing a pin-striped suit, and no collar, and you’ve got a whole mish-mash of factors that contribute to the fact that no one would have recognized me a ministry professional had I not been honest about my profession. I was the wrong gender, wearing the wrong clothing, and hanging out in the wrong place.
What fascinated me about the response I got was that it so clearly communicated the notion that neither chaplains, pastors, priests, nor anyone else in professional ministry hang out in bars. It’s not that they don’t necessarily belong in bars. In fact the church I was attending in Brooklyn at the time actually holds services in a bar. Rather it’s just not where you’d expect to find them. No one goes looking for a ministry in a bar.
We see a similar thing going on in today’s passage. We’ve got two disciples of Jesus, heading home after the Passover festival. They’re devastated at the loss of Jesus. He rode into town the week before, receiving a welcome from the people who hailed him as king and messiah. By week’s end, he had been betrayed by one closest to him, denied by another, deserted by all, stripped, beaten, crucified by the Romans and buried. The great hope of the Jewish nation was gone.
So those who had been visiting Jerusalem to celebrate Passover were headed home, dejected, discussing the events of the past three days.
And this is where we meet Jesus: casually taking a stroll down the road to Emmaus. He bumps into the two disciples and they don’t recognize him. What the text actually tells us is that their eyes were kept from recognizing him. This seems to happen a lot in the gospels: the people who we would think ought to recognize Jesus (the religious elite before his death, his closest disciples after his death) largely don’t.
It’s there in the story today: these two disciples think Jesus is just another visitor to the area, a stranger to Jerusalem who has celebrated Passover and is headed home. And they think he must be the only person who has no idea what’s happened in town over the weekend. So, they tell Jesus the story, their story, Jesus’s own story: how this man from Nazareth, a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, was handed over by the chief priests and leaders of the people, condemned to death, and crucified. They shared with Jesus the hopes they had had before all this transpired: that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel from Roman oppression. And now, it is the third day since all of these things happened.
I find it curious that these men make mention of it being the third day. After all, throughout the gospels, every time Jesus spoke of the fact that he would killed, he always told them he would rise in three days: “Destroy this temple,” he tells them, “and I will raise it on the third day.” Yet, here are these men, on the third day, wondering what went wrong.
They know the rest of the story! Some women from their group astounded them with it! Heading out early in the day, the women arrived at the tomb to find it empty; his body wasn’t there. Rather, they saw a vision: angels who said that Jesus was alive. Others went to the tomb and found it empty, but nobody had yet seen Jesus.
This is where Jesus begins to tell them what’s really going on: how through the whole of Israel’s history, this is the event of which their prophets have spoken. The coming of the messiah was always going to include suffering and death. In fact, it is necessary, declares Jesus, that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory.
And Jesus starts at the beginning. Long ago and far away, when dinosaurs roamed the earth…. Oh, wait. That’s another story. He actually starts with, “Way back when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt….” And he walks them through the whole of the salvation story—God’s ultimate plan for humankind since the beginning. Jesus goes so far as to read himself into the Old Testament scriptures—claiming that this Jesus who was crucified three days ago is the very Messiah promised by God’s prophets.
These disciples were so impressed by what Jesus had to tell them that they invited him to join them and stay the night. After all, it was nearly evening, the day was ending, and Jesus could travel no further that night. Without ever realizing it, these men chose to play host to their friend, their teacher, this man for whom they mourned.
Jesus joins them at their dinner table. While there, he takes the bread, he breaks it, and he gives it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him. After all, this is something Jesus has done many times throughout the gospels. Though we only read a few instances of it happening, that this act is what causes them to Jesus, I believe it is safe to assume that anytime Jesus was hanging out with a crowd at mealtime, he broke the bread, blessed it, and gave it to those who were eating with him.
Jesus is sharing communion with his followers. The Oxford English Dictionary defines communion as the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings. It come from the root word commune, which means to share. It is through the breaking of the bread and the sharing of this common meal that these disciples, the first to see the resurrected Christ, come to know him for who he is. It is through this ultimate sharing of his body and blood that Jesus is known to us.
This experience made real the feelings they had shared on their journey—what they had begun to know in their hearts while Jesus was on the road with them, they now knew with their minds: that it was Jesus with whom they had been communing. It was Jesus who fulfilled the scriptures. It is Jesus who had redeemed them and is redeeming the whole world from slavery to sin and death.
They didn’t keep this information to themselves. Rather, they immediately left their home and returned to Jerusalem, the place from which they had just come. They sought out the eleven and their companions and shared with them the good news that Jesus was alive. They shared with those who had been looking for Jesus in the wrong places—the places they expected him to be—that Jesus was no longer in the grave, but on the road, still sharing the journey with them.
After that first night out with my friends, when the shock had worn off the faces of those around me and the silence which followed my pronouncement that I was in the ministry ended, I was tempted not to share my profession when asked again in the future. There was an awkwardness experienced when strangers saw “a person of God” with a martini in her hand, chatting with friends in a bar. It’s not what they expected. It’s not the place people go when their looking for a minister.
But it was because of my profession that I had the enormous privilege to hear people’s stories. That first night, the gentleman who asked me what I did for a living was a police officer for the city of New York. He had joined the force 18 years before. He was there on September 11th, 2001 when the towers fell. He was not at all shy about telling me his doubts about and anger with God. He told me what it was like to watch friends and loved one die in the aftermath of those attacks.
I’m still privileged today to hear these stories. In my current working life, occasionally people will ask how I came to work for my current employer. “Well,” I always tell them, “being a ministerial intern doesn’t pay, and until I can find fulltime employment in ministry, I’m going to take whatever job I can find elsewhere.”
It always leads to further discussion—whether it’s people who love the church and want to know my views on certain political topics or literary works; or those who have left the church to pursue a life that feels more genuine to them. The latter always seem surprised and delighted when I tell them that I think it’s great they’ve decided to chuck the rule book out the window. “There are a lot of things in the church I think need to change,” I’ll say.
And inevitably, someone will tell me more of their story. For a few minutes, we’ll commune together. They will share their intimate thoughts and feelings about religion, about life, about religious life.
When I introduce myself, I never say to people, “Hi, I’m Mary. I’m a Christian and more than anything else in life, I want to be a minister.” Bars, break rooms, and classrooms for trouble-shooting broken windows aren’t places people expect to find a minister. But it doesn’t mean ministers aren’t there and everywhere else in our lives.
Jesus was known to his disciples through the breaking of bread. He is made known to us through Holy Communion. But I think the reason Jesus chose to be known through the common meal was because it was an everyday event, a part of life we partake of daily. Much as we find Jesus in the bread and the wine on the first Sunday of the month, I hope we find him in other places and at other times throughout the week.
And I hope that when others come to know us as Christians, they’ll also come to know Jesus, and recognize him in us, whether we’re in a bar, a classroom, or on the farm. After all, Jesus is alive! And as he has been made known to us in the common, daily act of breaking bread, may he be made known to others through the common activities of our daily lives.