Matthew 18:15-20, Luke 24:28-33 November 6, 2022
What makes God’s presence real to you? While on Sabbatical three years ago, Jeanne and I toured a small cathedral in Todi, Italy. It was an odd church, with a dramatic fresco of the Last Judgement, with devils tormenting people. I noticed a display of an altar cloth with drops of wine splattered on it. The display card said someone had the bright idea of running a DNA test on the spilled wine. Allegedly, the results uncovered human DNA from the Middle East, proving that the Eucharist’s bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus. I wonder if that means we may someday be able to clone Jesus. (What a theological mess that would be, trying to accommodate the Doctrine of the Trinity, with the possibility of multiple proto-Jesus’s running around. Would they all get along without sibling rivalry?).
It took a few hours to discover why the display annoyed me. It wasn’t simply my skepticism about the claim. My son went to Catholic School, and I recalled all the school services where I could not take Communion, even as an ordained minister. The priest was very nice about it, and I could always go forward and cross my arms and receive a blessing. I never did this because it felt like acknowledging second-class status to the one true church. If a church claims the power to render the mere matter of wheat and grape into the sacred body of Jesus, does that make God more present in their church than mine? Is God more real if molecules are transformed beyond scientific understanding? And if such a miracle can occur, why doesn’t it make us kinder?
“Wherever two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of them.” Pastor Roy started every communion service with those words in my hometown church in Iowa. It was a comforting thought, but I wondered, “Isn’t God always present?” Anselm said one of the five attributes of the Divine is “omnipresent,” the ability of God to be present in all times and places. Is God more present as we gather during Communion? Is the Divine “more there” in breaking bread than during the gorgeous sunrise?
I have attended some Protestant Communion services where the liturgy felt sterile. We remember Jesus while dreary songs play in the background. We get a nibble of very white bread and a bare sip of Welch’s grape juice, if you are lucky. I snuck around the corner once as a child and watched Communion preparation. I was shocked at the lack of reverence. Complaints were aired about the length of the sermon and someone’s garish hat. I didn’t want to swallow bread so ill-treated.
I want a Communion that is vibrant enough to match the Jesus who fed 5000 people, told the parable of the Good Samaritan, healed lepers, and stuck it to self-righteous. But I don’t want to disbelieve in the laws and science and engage in ritual cannibalism to get there.
While reflecting on the two scriptures I chose for today, I had a couple of “Aha!” moments. I was surprised when reading Matthew 18:20, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them,” is attached to teaching about church discipline. What is the connection between Jesus being present and the process of dealing with conflict and hurt in the church? It’s good advice, but it seems like a random placement. I read from “The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” which has Rabbi’s comments in the bottom margins. The comments noted that in Leviticus 19:15, you needed two or three witnesses to accuse someone. No one can be charged on the word of one witness. Other Torah commentary noted that wherever two or three people are gathered to study Torah together, the Divine is present. Matthew is writing a standard idea that God is present to help us discern what is best, except he is now saying Jesus is present to his disciples in the same way.
Let me push this one step further. In Jewish writing about God being present where two or three are gathered, the Hebrew word is “Shekinah.” The Shekinah of God is present. Shekinah can mean the divine dwelling place, the light of God, or the glory of God. The burning bush where Moses hears God’s voice manifests the Shekinah. So does the innermost part of the Temple where God dwells, the pillar of fire that appeared before the people in the wilderness. The word is associated with where God is present to humans on earth. We could translate this verse to say, “The light of Go, the glory of God, is present wherever two or three are gathered in my name.”
I also want to comment on the story at the end of Luke’s Gospel. Two people who followed Jesus are walking the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion. They do not recognize Jesus as they journey until the evening when it says, “as he broke the bread and blessed it, suddenly their eyes were opened, and they saw it was Christ.” We might find it strange that the disciples did not recognize Jesus for such a long time till he broke the bread. Since they weren’t part of the twelve disciples, were they always in the back of the crowd and never up close? Why couldn’t they tell it was Jesus by his voice or face?
The phrase “having your eyes opened” in sudden recognition is a standard literary device in Greek plays. The Greek word “anagnorisis” means to discover a character’s true identity or true nature. Aristotle said all the best plays and tragedies have this event at the high point of the plot. The classic example is Oedipus, who suddenly realizes he is truly his father’s murderer and mother’s lover. Every good Sherlock Holmes story has this moment. We see all the potential suspects of the murder. Evidence spins us around a few times, pointing to more than one candidate. Then suddenly, the brilliant Holmes reveals the perpetrator, who was often a person of high regard, but they were secretly a murderer.
Another example is the scene in Star Wars II: The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke Skywalker is losing his lightsaber battle with Darth Vader when Vader suddenly reveals he is Luke’s father. This is the plot twist that changes everything. Luke is not just the orphaned son of a Tatooine farmer but the son of the Dark Lord Vader. That’s a fundamental identity shift.
Luke’s Gospel (not Skywalker!) skillfully weaves the term “breaking bread and blessing it” into his Gospel several times to set up this eye-opening moment. The first time Jesus blesses and breaks bread, he feeds the 5000 people. The second time Jesus breaks bread and blesses bread is at the Last Supper. Now at the end of the Gospel, when these disciples think he is crucified and dead, he again breaks bread and blesses it, and their eyes are opened. It’s an anagnorisis moment. He is suddenly revealed as the Risen One. To tie it back to our text in Matthew, two or three are gathered, and Jesus reveals the Shekinah, the light and glory of God, every time the bread is blessed and broken. Luke continues this phrase in the Acts of the Apostles. Breaking bread together is a mark of church life together.
What does all this mean for our monthly practice of Communion? First, it is essential to acknowledge that God is present in multiple ways, in the beauty of the earth, in acts of kindness and justice, in creativity, and love between people. We don’t have a monopoly on God’s light in church or at the Communion Table.
But the ritual of breaking bread around this table is a specific Christian practice of knowing God. It is a moment of revelatory possibility if we are present to it. We don’t have to completely understand it to partake; just be open and willing adequately. Communion can reveal as many things to us as Jesus did in his work among us. Sometimes we may be conscious of grace and filled with gratitude. When Jesus invited the disciples to the table, he was aware of their shortcomings and knew they were all about to fail. He even had Judas at the table, so who are we to turn someone away? So breaking bread might remind us that we come as we are, are still loved, and belong. Other times in Communion, I am more aware of the people around me. I feel the combined energy of kindness, hope, and love in the gathered community, and it fills me with gratitude. Communion differs depending on the season, from Advent to Lent to post-Easter. We can use the same liturgy, yet no two services are the same. Who we are with, what has happened recently, the quality of attention we bring to the moment all play a role in what comes to us. But what I take from Matthew and Luke is that when we gather and break bread our eyes are open to see the presence of Christ among us.
Therefore, the miracle isn’t necessarily what happens here at the table with bread and cup. The miracle is what happens in you. Bread is broken, spiritual food is shared, and eyes become open to see what is truly here, in the light and glory of God. Amen.