Breaking of Bread
My Grandmother died of lung cancer when I was about 17. Her funeral was the first one I ever attended. I remember being at the visitation and watching the line of people walk up to the casket and say their goodbyes. My family and I were in that line and as I got to the foot of the casket I couldn’t take it and to the back of the room. The whole time I was in that line I was looking down at my feet. Then when I reached the casket I looked up and I saw her nose and beginnings of her. pasty white face and I knew that was not my Grandma. My Grandma had tanner skin, she didn’t look like what the months of drugs, the embalming and makeup made her look like. I didn’t want to remember her like that, so I walked away.
Since then I have been to more visitations and funerals than I can count. At 17 I was not comfortable around death but now it comes with the job. When I was ministering in England I did countless funerals and many for people I never met before. Most of the people over there are cremated and the committal part of the service or sometimes the whole service is done at the chapel of the crematorium. At the chapel the casket is placed on stand and the congregation at the service stares that the foot of the casket. After I say the last prayer and benediction I would press a button under the pulpit and a curtain would close around the casket. The service was over. That person’s life was over. There was something finite and real about watching the curtain close around that loved one’s casket.
After the congregation left I would go back to collect my notes before the next funeral would came in. It was usually about this time that I would hear a door open from inside the closed curtain and I would then listen as people pulled the casket into the back room to be cremated. Then the curtains would open again. It was like a Venus Flytrap that would close around its victims, swallow them, and then open back up to await another meal. The first time I did a funeral there I was a little disturbed but I got use during the dozens of funerals I did that year.
We attempt to ignore death as much as possible. Sure we see it around us all the time. We pass by cemeteries or funeral precessions. We read obituaries and we lift people up who have passed away during prayer requests. But we ignore death the rest of the time. When someone dies we try to sanitize the experience. The family is quickly asked what funeral home will be taking care of their loved one. Then the funeral home people take over your life for the next three days to a week, ushering you through the death process. Filling out the obituary, purchasing the casket, contacting the minister who will do the service, reliving good memories of your loved one, participating in the service and finally the burial. That is our custom but it not the same as other religions or cultures.
It is a Jewish custom that after a person dies the eyes are closed, the body is laid on the floor and candles are lit. The body is never left alone until the burial. When Marsden Kitley, the retired minister over at 1st UMC, died he laid in waiting in their chapel the night before his funeral. Someone was with him the whole time, all night until the service of celebration for his life took place. The Irish are legendary for their wakes. The wake starts soon after the person dies and is displayed at the family home. Family and friends gather for food and drinks while their loved one’s body is in their midst. Tradition states that a window should be open to let the spirit go out and then after two hours the window is closed to prevent the spirit from returning to the body. In the Hindu faith the mourning time over a loved one lasts 13 days and some rituals can last for a year. All cultures around the world have their ways of dealing with death.
Once we breathe into our lungs the first breath of air we are on course to die. It is the inevitable reality. Once we are born we are dying. Right now we are all now seconds closer to our death. Some of you are thinking right now, “Jim you are being morbid today. Why all this talk about death? It makes me uncomfortable.” Well that is the point. If death is so natural, if we know for certain that it will happen to us, then why are we scared to death of it? (pun intended) Why is death something we avoid at all costs? Why is it something we don’t like to talk about or experience? It’s because we are scared of what is on the other side.
Later on that afternoon, after Mary and the disciples saw that the tomb was empty. Two disciples decided to head the seven mile journey to the village of Emmaus. They went there to escape the reality of what happened in Jerusalem. Then when a stranger came in their midst they shared their disappointment in the one they followed. They said, “we had hoped he was the one that would redeem Israel.” The one they looked up to for salvation, failed in their eyes because he did not do what they expected. They left that day from Jerusalem to run away from the reality that their Lord had died. It was the third day and Israel was not redeemed. So they went to Emmaus, the place where you go when you are running from death.
Over my short career as a minister I have gotten more accustom to death. I am not use to it, nor should I ever be, but I am acclimated, familiar, or at least more acquainted with it. It was early in the morning when I received the call that Bud Walker had passed away in his sleep. The senior minister was not around and so I took the pastoral call. When I arrived the funeral home had just arrived. When I walked into that room I could feel the presence of death and it engulfed me. Carolyn, Bud’s wife, was in her living room and Bud was still on the bed, right where he was when Carolyn woke up and discovered he had passed on. I held her hand and we prayed. We watched as they wheeled his body out of the small apartment. Yet this time, unlike my first experience at my grandmother’s funeral I wasn’t scared or frightened I had a different confidence in my soul because I had grown spiritually to understand death differently.
When the stranger came into the conversation that day he opened the scriptures to the two disciples and showed them that the Lord they worshiped was everything they thought he was and more. He walked them through their scriptures and unveiled God’s plan. Then they begged him to stay for dinner and as he broke bread together the two disciple’s eyes were opened and they realized it was Jesus that was with them all day. And when their eyes were opened he vanished from their sights. It was in the breaking of bread that the reality of God’s plan came to them. Instead of being something far off and distant, when their eyes were opened, they saw Christ in their midst. Then what the scriptures and what Jesus had told them became true. They believed and ran back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven.
When we partake of this holy meal we are partaking in death. When you receive the bread, I tell you, “This is the body of Christ broken for you.” When you dip it into the cup you hear, “This is the blood of Christ shed for you.” The meal that we eat is the breaking of bread with Christ. We do not have to wonder about death anymore because this meal tells us the truth about it. We do not have to fear what happens after we breathe our last breath because this meal tells us it is not the end. This meal opens our eyes to see that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is real, which means that we can be with God for eternity now. Death is not the end, it is only the beginning. As cliché as that sounds it is the truth. Christ’s death and resurrection is proof that for us death is simply the door into the world we once knew.
Frederick Buechner says this about Emmaus, “Emmaus can be a trip to the movies just for the sake of seeking a movie or to a cocktail party just for the sake of the cocktails. Emmaus may be buying a new suit, or a new car, or smoking more cigarettes than you really want, or reading a second-rate novel, or even writing one. Emmaus may be going to church on Sunday. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred: that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die.” Emmaus is where we run when we don’t want to come face to face with death.
Yet on the way, when we partake of the bread and wine with our Savior our eyes are opened and we feel the burning in our hearts. We realize that running from death is silly because it will come for all of us. We don’t have to walk to the back of the room to escape coming face to face with death. We don’t have to push a button so a curtain closes around our eyes. For when we are born we are already dying. In communion we receive the assurance God’s promise has been fulfilled. Death has no victory, no sting. Death is not the end, it’s the beginning of eternity with our Lord. May you find comfort and peace in the bread and wine today. May you feel your heart burning because of the presence of the risen Savior in our midst. As you attempt to escape the reality of death may you find yourself running into the open arms of our God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And all God’s people said…Amen.