Knowing Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread

By Clyde Tilley

Luke 24:30-35

Strange it is that they would not have recognized him—these two people who walked together on the road to Emmaus. For two days they had thought of little else.

They spoke painfully of him as they walked. Their hearts ached for his loss. Then he joined them on the road. He conversed with them and they heard his voice. They saw him as he walked and extended him an invitation to be their guest. He accepted their hospitality— and still they did not know him.

Stranger still it is that they should come to know him in this particular way: He broke bread and they knew him. What an astounding source of revelation! More articulate than the words he had spoken was his breaking of bread. More vivid than his countenance was his breaking of bread. More penetrating than the scriptures he expounded was his breaking of bread.

Or maybe it was not so strange after all. How often they had seen him break bread! Jesus had distinguished himself as a hearty and even controversial eater. He brought down the wrath of the religious elite upon himself because of his dietary customs. He ate food with sinners and tax collectors in violation of the sanctimonious taboos of his day. When he was hungry on the Sabbath, he proceeded to help himself to the standing but forbidden grain and to lead his disciples to do the same. Choosing the celebrative feast rather than the somber fast as the hallmark of his ministry, he had actually been accused of being a glutton.

In fact, he enjoyed a good meal so well that he felt everyone should be entitled to adequate provision. When the multitude had heard him eagerly throughout a long day, he refused to send them away until they had been fed.  His followers had seen him take a little boy’s lunch of two fishes and five loaves, bless this food, break it, and then distribute it to a throng of people that numbered in thousands. He had actually taught his disciples that when they fed another who was hungry, it was as though they were doing it to him.

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus had insisted upon eating the Passover meal with his disciples. After supper, in what was to be his last meal with them before his death, he once again broke bread with them saying, “This is my body.” He shared the cup with them and likened the wine to his blood, soon to be shed.

These were among the flood of memories these men brought with them to the table at Emmaus. Thus it is less mysterious but no less moving that we read: “When he was at the table with them, he took the bread and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him….” (Luke 24:30-31) They came to know Jesus, their risen Lord, in the breaking of bread.

This event on a Sunday in Emmaus need not be an isolated event of revelation. Nor has it been. It has been the testimony of the centuries that not only the devout have recognized him anew but that also those of the world have come to know him when bread is broken. When bread is broken, Jesus is known in the hands that break the bread. He is known in the hungry who take the bread. He is known in the bread that is broken and taken.

First, he is known in the hands that break the bread. Jesus was moved with compassion when he encountered human needs—like hunger. The Great Liberator came to set people free from every sort of bondage—including hunger, and including the greed or complacency that withholds bread from others. With his own hands he solicited bread, received bread, and broke bread.

With his own words he called people to follow and participate in his life-giving, life-sustaining ministry.

He still calls us today and judges us when we fail to respond. In his name, in his place, in his stead he calls us to give a cup of water, a piece of bread. As his earliest followers wrote:

If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go and be filled,” without giving them the things they needed for the body, what does it profit? (James 2:15-16)
If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17)

Deprived now as he is of his earthly body for soliciting and breaking this bread, Christ did not intend to be left without a body by which this same life-sustaining ministry of giving bread could be continued. His ministry has not been completed.

Luke told the story in his gospel “of all that Jesus began  to do and teach” (Acts 1:1), but a whole separate volume—the book of Acts—was needed to tell how Christ continued to do and teach these same things through his second body—the church. In saving us, Christ is incorporating us into himself. We become people in Christ. We become his new body—the body of Christ.

Quite frequently the apostle Paul spoke of the church as a body, but most notably he speaks of it in 1 Corinthians 12. He speaks not only of the unity of the body (v. 4), and the diversity of the body (v. 14), but he speaks also of the identity of the body (v. 27). It is Christ’s body that we comprise. Although metaphor, this is no mere metaphor.

Christ takes his identity with his church seriously. Encountering Saul on the road to Damascus, he asked Saul, who had never seen the historic Jesus, “Why do you persecute me ?” He proceeded to identify himself by saying “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Christ’s identity with his church is so real and personal that for Saul to persecute the church was to persecute the Christ.

We who are in him constitute no less than the very body of Christ. Our ministry performed in his name is no less than an extension, a projection of the incarnation of God in Christ. If there is a difference between these two bodies, it is one of degree rather than of kind. God who perfectly incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth is incarnated, however imperfectly, in those who bear his name.

Though by now these words may seem trite, they are no less true:

God has no hands but our hands
To do God’s work today.
God has no feet but out feet
To take God on the way.
  —Annie Johnson Flint

It is ours to be the continuing agents of our Lord’s ministry, including the ministry of breaking bread for our hungry world. The early church broke bread both in joyous celebration and in equalizing distribution “as any had need.” (Acts 2: 44-46) Across the years and the miles, Paul gathered funds from the adequately-fed Gentile churches so that the impoverished and famished saints of Judea might be fed, “that there may be equality.” (2 Corinthians 8:14) We are still God’s agents of ministry to make Christ known in the hands that break bread.

In addition to being known in the hands that break bread, Christ is also known in the hungry who take the bread. Just as he identifies himself with the blessed hands that bless and break bread for the hungry, so he also identifies himself with the hungry who live when we break bread and who starve when we do not.

A few days before his death, Jesus spoke of the great judgment of the Son of Man before whom the nations of the worlds shall be gathered. (Matthew 25:20-46) Those who are present shall be separated into sheep on his right hand and goats on his left hand. To those on his right his words shall be, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food….”

In utter surprise the righteous shall answer: “When did we see you hungry and feed you?” And the king shall respond: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it unto me.”

But that is not all of the story. To those on the left, the King will say: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food….” Then they shall answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry… and did not minister to you?” His rejoinder shall be: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not unto one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”

Surely we cannot read this story without drawing the obvious conclusion: Jesus identifies with the poor and the hungry and he is known in their faces. He is known in their glad  faces when bread is broken. He is known in their tearful faces when bread is withheld.

Conrad, a kindly German cobbler, lived alone. One day, according to Edwin Markham’s well-known poem, “How the Great Guest Came,” when Conrad received a revelation that Christ would be a guest in his home, his joy knew no bounds. He busied himself feverishly with preparation for the Holy Visitor. But he was not so busy that he could not help three needy strangers who came intermittently to his door throughout the day—a cold beggar, a hungry woman, and a homeless child.

The day sped on, and still the expected guest did not appear. As the day slipped away, Conrad knelt in puzzled prayer: “Lord, what has delayed you?” Out of the silence came a voice:

Conrad, be not dismayed, for
Three times I came to your friendly door
Three times my shadow was on your floor.
I was the beggar with the bruised feet;
I was the woman you gave to eat
I was the child on the homeless street.

The growing millions of hungry people in our world are both a judgment upon our overstuffed affluence and an opportunity that presses urgently upon us. When nearly 10 million people in our land, over one-third of them children, live in households experiencing hunger, Jesus is present, demanding a response. When one in ten households in our affluent nation reports that its access to food is extremely limited or uncertain, Jesus is present, awaiting a response. An estimated 828 million people on our planet are undernourished.

Christ is shown in mercy when his people break bread to them; he is shown in judgment when we do not. Never did Lazarus press closer to the rich man’s door than does the hungry world that presses its claim upon us in Jesus’ name right now. God’s people ought to break bread to them in sacrificial giving, in political action, and in economic sharing of our abundant resources. The challenge is to find the way rather than bemoan our helplessness.

Finally, Jesus is known also in the bread that is broken and taken. “The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it, and said: ‘This is my body which is broken for you.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24) In the very bread itself Jesus is revealed. When God’s people gather together to share the common loaf and to partake of the common cup, Jesus is present—revealed.

But do not think that these are words alone for the cloistered sanctuary or the sheltered altar. They are his words also for the dirty hovel and the lengthening breadlines and the makeshift canteen. Whenever bread is broken in his name, he is being recognized.

It was not in an upper room, aloof from the common people, but perhaps on a grassy knoll, the day after Jesus fed the masses that he said to them, “My father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world…He who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:32-35)

The church may preach God’s love with great eloquence, yet there is no eloquence so persuasive as that expressed when God’s people as Christ’s body feed the hungry in this world. They are the ones with whose needs Christ fully identifies himself. Then does the loaf make itself known as the Lord of the Emmaus road. We rightly sing:

Bread of heaven, on thee we feed,
For thy flesh is meat indeed;
Ever let our souls be fed
With the true and living bread.

God feeds his people not only that we may be filled but that we may feed. We feed in order that he who “is all and in all” (Col. 3:11) may be known. And how is he all and in all? He is the hands that break the bread. He is the hungry who take the bread. He is the bread that is broken and taken.

Clyde Tilley has been a college professor and a pastor in Dandridge, Tennessee. His writings on hunger issues have appeared in Seeds publications over a span of many years. This sermon was originally printed in Christian Ethics Today and was reprinted in Sacred Seasons, Hunger Emphasis 2002.