Image: Christ at Emmaus (1648) by Rembrandt.
Luke 24 records my favorite post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. Two disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus when the risen Christ joins them. “But their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). This temporary veiling of the disciples’ eyes draws our attention to the way or the means by which the risen Christ reveals himself.
We usually highlight verse 27, which says that Christ “expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” As much as I love this part of the story and refer to it often, the passage in fact emphasizes “how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). This is an unmistakable allusion to the Lord’s Supper and the basis for Charles Wesley’s communion hymn “O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread.” The risen Christ reveals himself in word and sacrament.
The Risen Christ Revealed in Word
First, the risen Christ reveals himself in the word. Unaware that they are speaking to Jesus, the disciples tell Jesus about the one who was crucified, and how his death confused their hope that he was the one to redeem Israel (Lk. 24:19–21). They had been amazed to hear the women’s report that the tomb was empty (Lk. 24:22–24). Jesus rebukes them: “‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:25–27).
The Bible is one story that points to Jesus. The Scriptures are the unified revelation of Christ. Later, when Christ appeared to his disciples, “he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:44–45). Jesus came for this very purpose, to fulfill the law and the prophets (Mt. 5:17).
The task of Christian preaching is to proclaim the risen Christ in all of Scripture, not merely in a few messianic proof texts.
In an excellent little article on “Should I Interpret the Old Testament like the Apostles Did?” Michael Bird concludes,
If Jesus is the climax of the covenant, if Jesus is the fulfilment of the law, if Jesus is the one who the prophets were pointing ahead to, if the Scriptures indeed testify to Jesus, if the Old Testament is filled with types that anticipate Jesus as Lord and Saviour, then it is not merely legitimate to read Scripture in a christotelic fashion, it is demanded as an article of faith. To read Scripture as a Christian is to regard Scripture as finding its substance, coherence, and unity in Jesus Christ.
It is the task of Christian preaching to proclaim the risen Christ in all of Scripture, not merely in a few messianic proof texts. Christian preaching is radically Christ-centered.
The Risen Christ Revealed in Sacrament
Second, Jesus reveals himself in the sacrament. While the Emmaus Road story is best known for Jesus’s exposition of the Scriptures, the disciples still do not recognize Jesus when they draw near to the village at the end of the day. It is in the breaking of the sacramental bread that Christ finally chooses to reveal himself. The passage emphasizes Christ’s self-revelation in the Eucharist.
Towards evening, “when he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:30-31). This is an unmistakable parallel to the account of the Last Supper just two chapters earlier (cf. Luke 22:19). It was only after Christ was made known to them in the breaking of the bread that they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Lk. 24:32).
Excited about having seen the risen Lord, the two immediately returned to Jerusalem and rushed to find the eleven: “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). Their report to the apostles focused on Christ’s self-revelation in the sacramental bread.
The breaking of the bread continues to be used in Luke-Acts as a metaphor for the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7). Paul likewise writes, “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). The risen Christ is present everywhere as the omnipresent Word, but he is present in a special way in the Lord’s Supper, both as our host at the Table and as the spiritual food that we eat and drink. N. T. Wright comments,
The way Luke has described the simple mealtime takes our minds back to the upper room, and to many other meals that Jesus had shared with his followers. [The disciples at Emmaus], not being members of the Twelve, were not present at the Last Supper, but what Jesus did then was (apart from the special words) typical, most likely, of the way he had always broken bread with them. But Luke also intends that his readers should see this simple meal pointing forwards, to the breaking of bread which quickly became the central symbolic action of Jesus’ people. Though Jesus was no longer physically present, they were to discover him living with and in them through this meal (Acts 2.42). Scripture and sacrament, word and meal, are joined tightly together, here as elsewhere. Take scripture away, and the sacrament becomes a piece of magic. Take the sacrament away, and scripture becomes an intellectual or emotional exercise, detached from real life. Put them together, and you have the centre of Christian living as Luke understood it.
Charles Wesley and the Mysterious Bread in Emmaus
In 1745, Charles Wesley wrote a communion hymn that celebrates Christ’s breaking of the sacramental bread in Emmaus and invites the risen Christ to reveal himself again in the eucharistic meal:
O Thou who this mysterious bread
didst in Emmaus break,
return, herewith our souls to feed,
and to thy followers speak.
Unseal the volume of thy grace,
apply the gospel word;
open our eyes to see thy face,
our hearts to know the Lord.
Of thee communing still, we mourn
till thou the veil remove;
talk with us, and our hearts shall burn
with flames of fervent love.
Enkindle now the heavenly zeal,
and make thy mercy known,
and give our pardoned souls to feel
that God and love are one.
As the community of the resurrection, we continue to meet the risen Christ in the Scriptures and at the Table, proclaiming the gospel in word and embodying the gospel in sacrament. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
Word and Sacrament in the Resurrection Community
Both word and sacrament are essential to the life of every true church. We’ve been looking at the last chapter in Luke’s Gospel, but Luke continues the story in Acts. When the Spirit of the risen Lord creates the church at Pentecost in Acts 2, the community of resurrection is marked by a devotion to the apostles’ teaching (word) and the breaking of bread (sacrament). Wesley comments on Acts 2:42, “their daily Church communion consisted in these four particulars: Hearing the word; Having all things common; Receiving the Lord’s Supper; Prayer” (see also “How Often Should We Receive The Lord’s Supper?“).
As the community of the resurrection, we continue to meet the risen Christ in the Scriptures and at the Table
In Classic Christianity, Thomas Oden turns to Acts 2 to highlight the central importance of the sacraments in the life of the resurrection community:
There can be no church without a fitting sacramental life. From the outset, those who have confessed Jesus as the Christ and “who accepted his message were baptized” and were immediately found devoting themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:41, 42, italics added). Where no one is baptized, there is no church (Cyprian, Epistles 72, ANF V, p. 382). Where the farewell meal is uncelebrated, one has no right to expect the true church. (emphasis original)
The risen Lord still reveals himself in word and sacrament. As we search the Scriptures and worship at the Lord’s Table, the glory and presence of Jesus are manifested to us as to his early followers on the Emmaus road.