In the breaking of bread we encounter Jesus

For years I have been fascinated by the story of the two who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Initially my interest was aroused by my father buying a picture by a Swiss artist depicting the two disciples walking with Jesus. Who were they? In the picture one has a beard and so clearly was a man. The other, however, has no beard and looks like a woman. Was she the wife of Cleopas?

The truth is we do not know. Cleopas has sometimes identified with Clopas whose wife Mary was present at the crucifixion (John 19.25). We do not know. The reality is that Cleopas was not an unusual name and was a shortened version of the longer name Cleopater, the male form of the female Cleopatra.

However, that we do not know the identity of Cleopas’ companion is not a major difficulty. Indeed, the fact that Luke records that Jesus appeared to two insignificant disciples is in itself a pointer to the historicity of Luke’s account. Had the story been invented, then it would have been much more likely to have featured two well-known apostles.

Strangely, we do not even know where the village of Emmaus was located. Luke tells us that it was “about seven miles from Jerusalem” (Luke 24.13), but Emmaus was a common name for a village, and over the years four places have been suggested.

Even more strange is the failure of the two disciples to recognise Jesus. “Their eyes were kept from recognising Jesus” (Luke 24.16). How was that possible? What prevented them from seeing it was Jesus? A number of suggestions have been made, of which the least acceptable is that the evening sun was so dazzling that they were unable to see Jesus properly. However, if that were the issue then at the very least they could have recognised Jesus’ voice. Furthermore, why did the penny did not drop when eventually they came into the house for a meal?

Most commentators argue that what we have here is a ‘divine passive’. The Greek word translated ‘prevented’ (kratein) means ‘to control, hold, restrain’ and, said the American scholar James Edwards, “suggests an operative beyond human eyesight”. In other words, we have here an example of a divine passive, just as we have another divine passive a little later in the story where Luke writes “their eyes were opened” (Luke 24.14). Why God should have kept the two disciples from recognising Jesus we do not really know. I like the suggestion that faith is best exercised by minds which have been prepared in advance by an understanding of the Scriptures (see Luke 24.25-27).

However, it was when Jesus ”took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (Luke 24.30) that Cleopas and his companion recognised Jesus. Although James Edwards rightly commented that “we cannot presume that the resurrection Jesus intended the meal in Emmaus to be a Eucharist, or even that Luke understood is as such, for no NT Eucharist text contains the single element of bread without wine, as here”, the experience of many of us is that Jesus does indeed make himself known in the breaking of bread. As we discovered during the Covid pandemic there were times when communicants were not allowed to take the wine, but even then Jesus made himself known to us.

All this talk of recognising Jesus in the breaking of bread is, of course, something of nonsense to those who follow the teachings of the great Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli who taught that the Lord’s Supper is just a ‘memorial meal’. He along with many Baptists today believed that when we take bread and drink wine we just recall that Jesus died for us. However, when Jesus said “do this in memory of me” (Luke 22,19) he almost certainly had something more in mind. The fact is that there is a very real parallel with the way in which Jews celebrate the Passover as a ‘memorial meal’ (Ex 12.14).

Each Jewish father (including those who lived generations and centuries after the fact) was to explain to his son that he celebrated the Passover Seder in the way he did ‘because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’ (m. Pesahim 10.5)

Similarly, as we Christians remember the death of Jesus, the past becomes present, and we encounter Jesus. It is not that Jesus comes nearer to us at the Table, but that we come nearer to him. As we gather around his Table we become conscious of his presence with us. To quote Ralph Martin, a distinguished Baptist New Testament scholar of a former generation:

’In remembrance of me’ is no bare historical reflection upon the Cross, but a recalling of the crucified and living Christ in such a way that He is present in all the fulness and reality of his saving power.

Or in the words of an old communion hymn:

Here O my Lord, I see you face to face;
here faith can touch and handle things unseen;
here I will grasp with firmer hand your grace,
and all my helplessness upon you lean.

In this season of Easter as we take the bread and drink from the cup, let us do so with expectant hearts, remembering that in the breaking of the bread we may indeed encounter the risen Lord.

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