Pages Navigation Menu

At the Table

Thomas J Parlette

“At the Table”

Luke 24: 13-35

5/7/17

 

You’ve probably noticed I’ve included a few paintings in your bulletin this morning. This story from Luke about the trip to Emmaus has been a popular subject for artists over the years. The earliest one in this group is probably one of the best known ones, the one painted by Caravaggio in 1601. Caravaggio captures the moment when Cleopas and his unnamed friend – who some think was actually a woman, because women were often present but not named in the scripture, realize that their mysterious traveling companion is actually Jesus, the one risen from the dead.

You can see Jesus breaking bread and one disciple looks like he’s going to jump out of his chair while the other disciple has his hands outstretched, as if to say – “wait a minute, I know you.” And you might also notice that one end of the table is free, inviting us to sit at the table with Jesus.

Below the Caravaggio, you will see Rembrandt’s version of the story. Actually, this was one of Rembrandt’s favorite subjects, so he painted many versions of the meal at Emmaus, but this one was painted about 1648. This one also portrays that moment the disciples recognize Jesus. As is typical of Rembrandt, the human figures are almost dwarfed by the dark shadows around them. The source of light emanates from Jesus himself, and again, there is a spot at the table, inviting us to enter the scene.

The two paintings on the other side are less well known, but perhaps more interesting. In the top one, called “The Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus” by Diego Velazquez, you might not even notice the meal taking place in the other room – you can just see it in the top left corner. The painting is dominated by the kitchen maid, who has apparently just served the food. Jesus has broken the bread, the disciples express their surprise and you can almost see the maid tilting her head to listen as she hears that the one seated at the table is the one called Jesus, the one who was crucified and then raised from the dead.

The last painting in the group was one originally attributed to Caravaggio – you can see the similarities in the two – but was then proven not to be his work. We don’t know who painted it, but there are some unique things about it. First of all, it’s the only one in the group to have a dog – obviously waiting for some small scrap to fall off the table. This one too, captures the moment Jesus breaks bread and the disciples recognize him – but also notice the two young people serving the food, up in the right hand corner. The young boy seems to be saying, “Come on, get the food on the table, let’s go” – while the young woman just stares in amazement at what she has just heard. “This is Jesus – the one raised from the dead.” And once again, there is an open space at the table.

As different as they are, all of these paintings capture that moment of recognition, when the people present realize that this stranger is Jesus. That’s why this story has been the subject of so much art work over the years – this “A-ha” moment of recognition is a great subject – it’s a wonderful dramatic moment, it gives an artist a lot to work with. It certainly gave Cleopas, his unnamed companion and the servers portrayed a lot to talk about as well. This was a story they would tell for the rest of their lives; the story of the time Jesus stopped by for dinner and sat at this very table.

Many stories have also been told about the late Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, himself a good Presbyterian. Even though he was a billionaire, he somehow managed to communicate his folksy, down-home personality throughout the whole company.

To do so, he used every method at his disposal. According to one of these stories, Sam was flying in a helicopter over an interstate highway in Arkansas, and noticed a convoy of several Walmart trucks passing by below him. Calling in a favor from a friend who was high up in the Arkansas State Police, he had the pilot call him on the radio and ask if a state trooper could flag down the lead truck. A few minutes later, a trooper pulled the truck over. All the others stopped as well.

“Is there a problem, officer?”asked the driver.

“No, everything’s fine. Mr Walton wants to talk to you.”

Whereupon the helicopter landed the CEO by the side of the road, and he climbed into the cab of the truck. He had the driver lead the convoy to the next truck stop, where Sam Walton treated everybody to lunch.

It is said that for years afterward, the truckers story of how their CEO dropped from the sky to take everybody to lunch was circulated throughout the Walmart fleet.(1)

This story of Jesus at the table in Emmaus is certainly one of those kind of stories.

This Emmaus story is usually presented as a story of recognition and realization – and that’s fine, it certainly is. But taken in it’s larger context, the Emmaus story is also a story about the disciples confusion and struggle to come to grips with the resurrection. Cleopas and the other disciple understood enough to know that something momentous had happened – like the serving girl and the kitchen maid portrayed in the paintings – but they don’t fully understand what it means for their way forward.

This Emmaus story is one of those post-resurrection stories that describe the journey that all disciples must make. All followers of Jesus must travel from knowledge to encounter, from information to transformation. This movement from head to heart is what happens as the disciples journey from the tragedy of Golgotha to the amazement of the empty tomb and finally to the hope and assurance they experience in all the post-resurrection stories.

It’s been said that the classic definition of tragedy is that things go wrong in spite of our most heroic efforts. The classic definition of comedy is that things turn out better than we ever imagined. If tragedy comes out of Greece in the form of plays, then comedic irony comes out of Israel in the form of Scripture. The Bible is filled with things that are too good to be true, things that turn out better than we ever could have hoped. Abraham and Sarah have a baby in their old age and name him Isaac – laughter. Moses, a stutterer and murderer, is the means of Israel’s liberation. David, the least likely of Jesse’s sons, becomes Israel’s greatest king. The disciples, who never seem to understand what Jesus is all about, are the means by which the gospel is carried into the world. A persecutor named Saul takes the Gospel beyond Jewish boundaries and into the Gentile world. The greatest surprise of all is resurrection. As John Claypool was fond of saying, “God’s middle name is Surprise.”(2)

At Emmaus, Jesus sat at the table and said “Surprise – I’m still with you. I will always be with you. Remember that every time you break bread, I’m there at the table with you.”

That is our ultimate proof of our faith – the continuing presence of Jesus Christ whenever we gather at the table.

In Maryland, along the shores of the Chesapeake, there is an army base known as Aberdeen Proving Ground. It’s where the U.S. Army, since World War I, has tested a great deal of it’s ordnance – it’s artillery shells and other weapons that explode.

A proving ground is where you try something out to see if it works. Yes, there is a great deal of rational, scientific study and research that goes into developing weapons. It should work – in theory. Yet no one is completely sure they will perform as promised until they are “proven” – until they’re actually used in real-world conditions.(3)

That’s what happened at Emmaus. Emmaus is a proving ground for our Christian faith. In the midst of their real world feelings of despair and confusion, these disciples welcomed a stranger, shared their story, listened as this stranger opened their eyes to the meaning of the scriptures and they sat down together for a meal. And surprise – what Jesus had told them was proven to be true. “I will be with you always”

At the table, we welcome the stranger, we welcome the other.

At the table, we welcome the guest – and we become a guest ourselves.

At the table, we meet Jesus as the host, the one who gives us himself, who promises to be with us in the breaking of the bread – as proof that God loves us, accepts us and strengthens us for our mission of sharing the Good News of God’s love.

And for that, may God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 2, p.71.

2.    Roger Paynter, Feasting on the Gospels, Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, p. 353, 355.

3.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 2, p.73.