Last week’s Gospel featuring the so-called “doubting” Thomas, one of the Twelve also called Didymus, tends to draw most attention to the individual struggle of belief experienced by one disciple. Many, with good reason, take the opportunity to reflect on how they struggle with their own belief in the Risen Christ, in the Scripture, in the witness of the other disciples. Yet, one of the things that is often overlooked is the dynamic at play when Thomas does believe. The good news, the Gospel, here is that Jesus meets Thomas in his unbelief, always already present after the Resurrection. But how and where is he present? Have you ever noticed?
Jesus doesn’t just appear to Thomas for Thomas’s sake, alone as if to offer the individual special treatment. Rather, Jesus appears to Thomas one week later again in the midst of assembled community. A community traumatized by the execution of Jesus Christ, a community also confused and uncertain of what’s to come. Thomas comes to believe when joined to the rest of the community of faith, in communion with those who, in spite of their doubts and fears and struggles and weaknesses (let’s not forget “Denying Peter” is there as much as “Doubting Thomas”) they come to call to mind who Jesus is and what God has revealed to them.
The location of belief, the where Christ is made present after the Resurrection is seen in last week’s Gospel, and this week’s Gospel begins to reveal more to us about what it means to encounter the Risen Lord after his life, death, and resurrection. Here I want to reflect on only three of the many themes that come out of this incredibly powerful Gospel pericope: Time, Hospitality, and Eucharist.
One of the most interesting things about the Gospel passage this week from Luke’s Gospel is the time in which the narrative is set. This is the day of the Resurrection, it has just been reported that morning and the two disciples traveling out of town are still pondering the meaning and the credibility of the accounts reported to them, first by the women — the earliest witnesses of the Resurrection — and then some of the Twelve.
This is a time of confusion, uncertainty, unexpectedness, doubt. It is a liminal time, placed between the experience of knowing Jesus as one knows another person in this life, and something else, a new way of coming to know Jesus — but how?
The time is our time as much as it is the disciples’ time early in those first days. One of the things that is revealed in the other dimensions of this narrative of encounter is that knowing the Risen Lord is for the disciples on the afternoon of the Resurrection the same as it is for us today.
We share this time with earliest believers. It is a new time, but it is not yet the end time.
The disciples only come to recognize the Risen Lord among them in the hospitality of welcoming a stranger into their midst. Today, perhaps more than ever, welcoming the stranger, welcoming the other, welcoming the unknown, welcoming what we don’t understand, welcoming the one of who we are afraid — this is not easy. So many barriers are easily placed between us and others: technology, money, status, social location, and the like. We tell ourselves comforting stories about why we should or shouldn’t welcome this or that person, pay attention or be concerned with another, be justified or entitled to fear or despise another, but the journey on the Road to Emmaus tells us something very different.
It is in welcoming the stranger that what could not be understood among those of like-mindedness becomes clarified in the encounter with another. The stranger, not yet recognized as Christ, is the one who is able to help make sense of these disciples’ lives and provide meaning to their faith. It is in meeting the stranger, in listening, and in sharing a meal in hospitality that the Risen Lord is encountered after the Resurrection.
Like St. Francis who encountered Christ in embracing the leper on a road outside Assisi, the disciples encounter Christ in the welcoming of a stranger and, likewise, we encounter Christ in the other when we, like these two believers, open our hearts to the experience of relationship with those we encounter on our own journeys — especially those we may not wish to encounter.
Like Thomas last week, these disciples do not encounter the Risen Lord alone. The setting is very clear, it is a setting that we celebrate each week when we gather as a community of believers, bringing out weaknesses and our doubts and our uncertainties, along with our hopes and needs and thanksgiving, to the celebration of the Eucharist.
The two disciples on the road journey together and welcome another, that small community then of “two or three” share the Word of God in the Scriptures, which enlivens their hearts like a fire within, and finally move to enter into communion with each other in the presentation, blessing, breaking, and sharing of the bread. Here is where the disciples realize what it all means. It might even have been the only time that week they understood.
What happens at the end is telling, and I don’t just mean the beautiful line about what is reported to the other disciples about “recognizing him in the breaking of the bread.” I mean the fact that they ran to report what they had experienced. The celebration of the Eucharist is not an isolated event or a one-off experience. Instead, it is something that calls us together at a given time and with a concrete spirit of hospitality, and then drives us out into the world by the Spirit to proclaim what we’ve experienced in the community, in the Word, and in the breaking of the bread: the Risen Lord.
Eucharist, that liturgy of thanksgiving and grace, is where we encounter the Risen Lord most completely, which has been the case from the afternoon of the Resurrection to today and through the end time. It is not about “me” or “you” or “doubting Thomas.” But it is about the gathering together of those who have been touched by the encounter with Christ and seek to continue to make sense of what has happened and what is happening. We come to make sense of all of this in the breaking of the bread, but not in that alone, in the breaking open of the Word, and in the hospitality of the gathered community in this time.
Image: James B. Janknegt