The story of Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with the disciples on their way to Emmaus is one of my favorite Gospel stories. It begins with despair and ends with joy. It fills me with hope to see Jesus patiently, graciously walking with people even when they’re going in the wrong direction. It’s a story that speaks directly to my heart.
There’s a part of the story, however, that challenges part of my Reformed convictions. Each time I read it, I wonder, “Why don’t the disciples recognize Jesus until he breaks bread?” Christ walking alongside them, Christ rebuking them, Christ opening Scripture to them… At none of those points does Jesus open their eyes. Rather, it’s the table that becomes the place of recognition. My Reformed heritage emphasizes the supremacy of the Word – and rightly so, in my humble opinion. Our belief in the authority of Scripture is evident in our teaching and even in how the pulpit is front and center in most churches in the Reformed tradition. Yet the eyes of the disciples in Emmaus are not opened by the explanation of the authoritative Word (by the Word made flesh, no less!) but by the breaking of the bread.
Sometimes an unfortunate byproduct of our appropriate emphasis on the Word (which Reformed Christians tend to capitalize) can be the relegation of the Sacraments (which, interestingly, Reformed Christians tend to keep in lowercase) to the sidelines, as though they are something kind of optional, to save for occasional use. I think the story of the disciples in Emmaus challenges that perception. I think this story can form part of the case for recognizing how the Sacraments are as important as the Word. The diploma hanging on my wall, after all, declares I am a minister of “the Word and Sacraments” (and both words are capitalized on my diploma).
If we insist on hearing the Word weekly, why do we not have the same insistence on receiving the Sacrament?
There is certainly precedent for this. In Acts we read how the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” something the church consistently did “on the first day of the week” for many centuries as far as we know. Although people (at least the laity) celebrated the Lord’s Supper much less frequently by the time of the Reformation (sometimes as seldom as once a year), both Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated for weekly Lord’s Supper celebrations. Fast forward to today and it turns out that celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly is the pattern for the majority of Christians around the world and across denominational lines.
One can also make a case for more frequently celebrations of the Lord’s Supper on the basis of Reformed theology. The Belgic Confession has a great line where it speaks of how God uses the Sacraments “to represent better[!] to our external senses both what God enables us to understand by the Word and what He does inwardly in our hearts” (article 33). God knows we are physical beings so he uses physical things (the bread and juice of the Lord’s Supper as well as the water of baptism) to communicate his grace to his people. Yes, our ears and eyes need to receive God’s Word – it has the power to make “our hearts burn within us.” But God also desires to communicate his grace to us through our senses of touch, smell, and taste as we feel the water of baptism, handle the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, catch a whiff of its smells, and taste the elements in our mouths. Countless times since that evening in Emmaus, Jesus uses the breaking of bread to open our eyes and speak to our hearts that we may recognize him with us.
What’s stopping us from inviting Jesus to open our eyes and speak to our hearts by gathering around the Lord’s Supper table more frequently?