How do you recognize Jesus?

Holy Communion UCity · The Rev. Mike Angell: How Do You Recognize Jesus?

How do you recognize Jesus?

The stories after Easter share a common thread. Jesus followers don’t always recognize him, not at first. Jesus is alive, but the Jesus who has risen is also changed. Jesus is back, but life is not exactly as it once was.

This story of the road to Emmaus is one of my favorite in the Gospels. It always has more to offer. Because Jesus takes time to reveal himself. Think about it. At no point does Jesus simply say, “guys, it’s me.” He doesn’t try and erase the hurt. This Jesus isn’t in the business of making faith easy. Instead he listens to their sorrow. He waits. They talk scripture together. He reframes their sense of what God might have been doing.

As the shadows lengthen, they ask him to stay with them. They are worried for his safety out on the road. He consents. They share a meal, he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and then they realize… and he slips through their fingers again.

Part of the appeal of this story for me is the sense of elusive encounter. We get the impression that the Resurrected Christ is playful, present but not easy to pin down. Isn’t that like God? And part of the appeal is the promise. Jesus will be known to us. Jesus is not departed and gone. Jesus is with us. Jesus is really present. We will catch glimpses of the divine.

In part, I have to admit, hearing this story today is also painful.

Because Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread. And we are unable to break bread together. Our quarantine means that we cannot celebrate the sacrament together. Your vestry can tell you, this has been a struggle for me. Because Eucharist is one of the places I encounter Christ.

Early in our social distancing planning, I was trying to figure out how to get Eucharist to everyone’s houses. I was ready to line up a flotilla of cars down Delmar and pass out kits to be delivered. Thankfully your vestry said, “Mike, Communion is important, but saving lives is more important. Stick with morning prayer.” They we’re right. And anyway, communion from a package on the porch isn’t the same thing. What I love is being together, seeing your faces as we share the body of Christ.

Today we’ll try a prayer of “spiritual communion.” We will follow the centuries old teaching of saints that says when we cannot receive the bread and wine, our longing to do so still can unite us to God. We’ll pray through this longing.

In the calculations to come, as we figure out what worship will look like, what life will look like, our longing is important. It is important to ask what we miss, and why. It is important to sit with our longing, to interrogate, to evaluate.

Because the life that is coming on the other side of this disease is likely not to resemble the life that came before, not exactly. On one level, this is cause for hope. I wouldn’t wish this disease on anyone, on any community, and yet the disease can be a teacher.

If we can learn lessons from this disease, lessons about caring for the vulnerable, if we can help fewer folks live paycheck to paycheck, if we can ensure everyone has access to healthcare as a human right, if we can learn certain lessons from this time the life that is coming may be an improvement on the life that came before.

God I hope we are willing to learn from this loss. So many have suffered. So many have died. We won’t take away the sorrow. We can’t. But we can choose not to return exactly to how things were. We can hold leaders and systems accountable. We can demand change.

The life that comes next is likely to come gradually. We are likely going to be moving out of this isolated and small way of living step by step. I have to admit, I’m frustrated. I’m tired. I miss my church. I miss gathering together. I miss breaking bread with you around God’s table.

Life as it will be…

This longing is important, because it reminds us that while we cannot go back to life as it was, while we cannot afford the systemic injustices that are exacerbating this crisis, we cannot allow them to continue, there are elements of the life we left behind that are worth fighting for, and more than that. There are hopes worth hoping. Even when our plans must change. Even when we don’t yet know quite how to recognize Jesus. There are hopes worth hoping. Holy Communion is part of who we were, who we are, and who we will be.

Those of you who know me well know that this time of isolation has been particularly difficult for me because I am a planner. I am future oriented. I love dreaming big dreams with folks. It’s part of what I love best about my job, sitting with vestry members and other leaders and asking, “where do we think God is calling us to serve next?” This time of uncertainty has me a bit unmoored. While planning is hard, it is important to remember plans we have made, and the “why,” the longing and the hope behind them.

Our plans:

Over the last few years as a congregation, as we discerned what God might be inviting us to do, we developed plans that lead us toward planting another worship community in our midst. We knew that there were folks who were not well served by church. We knew there were folks with cognitive and sensory differences for whom sitting through an hour and twenty minutes of traditional church, with bright lights, loud organ, long readings and sermons, we knew that for some folks this just didn’t work. The stimulation is too much. The time for sitting and listening lasts too long. Today’s service isn’t exactly what we’d do at Grace Gathering. I’d never preach this long. Laurie wouldn’t let me.

A little over a year ago know, first as seminarian, then as assistant rector, the Rev. Laurie Anzilotti joined our congregation and continued the work of discernment. She brought together a group of leaders who have been praying, and working, and talking within the community. Plans have continued to unfold to build a new afternoon worshipping community, open to folks of diverse ages, abilities, and faith journeys. We are learning from other churches across the country that have opened with a format of simple story telling, interactive sensory-specific engagement, and mellower acoustic music.

And we aren’t done hoping. Even in the midst of the quarantine, our church is asking, how can we recognize Jesus? How can we recognize Jesus present in those who have been left out of our so-called “normalized” spaces? How can we recognize Jesus in the delight of someone who hasn’t been told to sit down and be quiet, but who has been allowed to dance, to play, to laugh in church?

Can those who interact with the world differently also help us to recognize Christ’s presence differently? Maybe we could let go of some of our need to control and micro-manage? Maybe we could slow down? Maybe we could dance a bit more?

We have had to reprogram a bit around Grace Gathering. We had hoped to start worship in September. We don’t even know what our typical services will look like in September yet. But I don’t think God is done with this work. I, for one, don’t believe we should hang up our hats. This hope is worth hoping.

The “why” behind our hope: God gathers us round a table

And this encounter on the road to Emmaus is part of the reason why. Because Jesus chooses to be known in such a simple act, the breaking of bread.

There’s one more story I want to tell, it’s part of why I am longing to break bread, it’s part of why I know that wherever we are headed, I know that God will gather us around the table in fellowship again.

Our presiding bishop, when he talks about Eucharist, tells the story of the first time his father encountered communion in an Episcopal church. Bishop Curry is the first African American to preside over the majority white Episcopal church. His mother was one of the only black members of a majority white Episcopal congregation. When they started dating, Bishop Curry’s father was a licensed black baptist preacher. In those days, in the heart of America, black folks and white folks did not worship together.

(Let’s be honest, in most of America, they still don’t).

Bishop Curry tells the story that his father was astounded when he first saw Communion with his bride-to-be, in her Episcopal church. The priest first distributed the bread, “the body of Christ given for thee…” Then the priest came down the rail with the chalice. In those days the priest distributed both elements. In those days in America, white folks and black folks did not share the same section of the bus; they didn’t share the same schools or swimming pools; they did not share the same water fountains. Bishop Curry says, when his father white and black drank from the same cup, shared communion, he knew something of God was happening. Bishop Curry describes Eucharist as the “sacrament that can overcome even the deepest estrangement.”

Friends, I know we will see Christ again as we gather around the table. I know we will break bread together again, because I believe it is part of how God made us. Sharing bread, drawing the circle wider and wider around the altar, bringing more and more people into that fellowship, it is part of how Jesus chooses to be present to us, yesterday and tomorrow.

I don’t know when. I don’t know how. I am frustrated by all I don’t know. But I have faith, God is in the business of bringing people together. God is in the business of gathering people in. Jesus broke bread with his followers at the last supper before his death. While he has changed. While he is in some ways unrecognizable, at his first supper after the Resurrection he is back in the business of breaking bread.

Now God is also in the business of healing, and we believe God wants us to do this in ways that are safe, that keep people healthy. We are a church that takes scripture seriously and at the same time we take science seriously.

But have faith: we will gather around God’s table again, that table where all are welcome, that table where the more wildly diverse the congregation that gathers, the more deeply we can recognize the face of God.

We’re not giving up the work of reaching out. We’re not giving up the work of inviting folks in. We’re not giving up the work of building up God’s fellowship. Because we’ve caught glimpses of the elusive work of God. There are hopes worth hoping, even still. Because we believe God chooses to be known when folks gather together and break bread.

So the question remains. The question drives us forward, even in this time: How do you recognize Jesus?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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