Back in January, when we were all still reeling from the Tucson shooting that had targeted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and left six people dead, President Obama faced the difficult task of putting a country's grief into words as he spoke at a memorial service the week after the shooting. As thousands gathered to mourn and pray, the president gave an update on the status of Congresswoman Giffords, who was clinging to life at a nearby hospital. He reported the news that for the first time since the shooting she had opened her eyes. The crowd cheered, a catharsis after days of grief and the relief at having even some small good news to celebrate. While the cheers went on and on, the president repeated his report three times: "Gabby opened her eyes for the first time," he said. "Gabby opened her eyes. Gabby opened her eyes."
It wasn't just the movement of a few inches of skin and tissue he was talking about. It wasn't the news that some of her muscles worked that made the crowd go crazy. It was the news that she was awake to the world around her, that--even though the road to recovery lay long and rocky before her--she had stepped out of the darkness that had surrounded her for so many days and had blinked her eyes in the light.
She had been hovering there in that dark place between death and life, and here was this very visible, very tangible sign that life had won.
No wonder the cheers went on so long.
The 24th chapter of Luke's gospel begins there on the precipice of life and death, that gingerly balanced place called "early dawn," where dark and light spar with each other before light finally emerges victorious. The 23rd chapter ends in full darkness, with the death of the one they thought would save them, the tomb closed up, the quiet Sabbath surrounding those who dressed his body. Hope was lost in the death-filled darkness.
Chapter 24 begins with just a glimmer of hope as the morning sun rises over the empty tomb.
The chapter falls neatly into three sections. It starts with that Easter morning story of the empty tomb and the men in dazzling clothes who send the women away with the news. The chapter ends out in Bethany, with a blessing from Jesus as he is carried up from earth to heaven.
But here in the middle is the story of these two travelers who set out for Emmaus. Luke doesn't tell us why they're going, what their agenda is, why they've left Jerusalem. Maybe they've left in fear, maybe in despair, maybe because they don't know what to do now that everything has changed. On the road they meet this stranger, and I can't help but wonder if he seems even a little familiar to them, like maybe they've met him somewhere before but can't quite place it as they walk along. So the three of them talk as they walk, and the two travelers don't seem to understand what has happened, and the stranger tries to tell them. But before they know it they have arrived where they are going. It is late, so they invite him to come in and eat with them and he accepts, though it turns out that he may have been the one doing the inviting all along.
Surely, when they sit down to eat, it starts to come back to them, where they had met this stranger before. Surely, they start to remember other meals they've shared together--that bread-and-fish picnic when the 5000 were fed or that last supper in an upstairs room just days before, when they gathered, frightened, when he spoke of things they did not understand and did not want to hear, when he passed the cup and broke the bread. Surely, it starts to come back to them.
It's the breaking of the bread that does it. It's when he breaks the bread that they finally remember where they have met this man before. It's when he breaks the bread, when the flesh of the bread is torn and the crumbs fall to the table--it's then that their eyes are finally opened and they can see what's really happening. It's when he breaks the bread that they are brought back from the shadows of death and they realize that life has won.
It seems to me that the church lives here in the middle of this chapter--between the abandoned linens of the empty tomb and the ascension to heaven. I know we celebrate the birthday of the church on the fiery festival of Pentecost; but I think the church is born here, broken open here with the breaking of the bread.
We weren't there that morning. We didn't see the rolled-away stone or hear the women tell the story. And the great mystery of heaven lies far off--in comprehension, at least, if not in time. So here we are, in the middle. That's where the church lives--gathered around the table, telling old, old stories, sharing the feast. It's in the scriptures and the table that the story breaks open for us, and we realize again that life has won.
Sometimes, though, if we are honest, that breaking open means not just rejoicing in the triumph of life, but also opening our eyes to the broken places in our world. It occurs to me that when Gabrielle Giffords opened her eyes on that January day in Arizona, she wasn't just coming back to life. She was also opening her eyes to the terrible truth that while she had come back from the precipice of life and death and opened her eyes into the light, others had not.
Living with eyes opened means recognizing that this place we live in, here in this middle time between the empty tomb and the rise to heaven, is a place that is sometimes as filled with pain and grief as it is with life and love.
So maybe the church becomes the place where those truths are broken open, too. With eyes open, we can see that there is too much injustice in the world, too much pain. With eyes open, we can see that there are too many hungry and too many left out in the cold, too many strangers still not welcome at the table.
And maybe the church at its best lives in the midst of those hard truths, challenges the powers that threaten to pull us into darkness, and offers little glimpses of the light.
One Sunday morning at our church, we were gathered in the fellowship hall as we often are, drinking coffee and eating breakfast, catching up on news from the week and thinking about heading upstairs to Sunday school classes. There was a commotion underneath one of the tables where I was standing, and I bent to look and discovered a red-headed three-year-old playing matchbox cars with one of the highly respected elders of our congregation, who had crawled under the table in his church clothes. They vroomed their cars up and down the floor, oblivious to the rest of us watching, both of them filled with the delight of playing with the other.
Maybe it's a small thing, playing matchbox cars under the table on a Sunday morning; but when I saw them there, I thought: that's what church should be--a place where, even for a moment or two, life breaks open and joy abounds.
When we do it right, that's what church looks like: sharing meals around potluck tables, crying together at the funeral of a friend, lifting prayers in weekly worship, telling and re-telling the stories of scripture, working for justice, serving together for community and world, suggesting, sometimes loudly, sometimes gently, that maybe there might be another way to live.
That's where the church lives, I think, in this world that is far too broken, offering little glimpses where grace breaks open and we can see that life just might win again.
Let us pray: God of light and life, break open the good news for us. Meet us here, in this broken world, and remind us again of the power of light over darkness, of life over death. Help us to live with eyes opened to the new life you offer us. Help us to live with eyes opened to the pain around us, that we might bring your hope to the world. Grant us peace. Amen.