Reinventing the Parish at Easter

Cambridge, MA. Here in the Boston, as in many other cities around the country, the Church is of necessity rethinking parish structures, often drawing parishes together in collaboratives. Much of this has to do with the declining number of priests and diminishing congregations. Yet this rethinking, despite all the problems it raises, also presents an opportunity to think about how small Christian communities — including parishes — can best fulfill their mission. I mention this because I was preaching this morning in my (weekend) parish in Sharon, MA, and I found — with the congregation — that today’s Gospel (Luke 24; April 19, 2nd Sunday after Easter) sheds light on how a new, renewed Christian community is and works, at its best. (That a Resurrection story shows us how to be community is no surprise — all the great Easter stories do this.) I will put before you just four of the points I made, in relation to parts of Chapter 24.

1. We all have had experiences of Christ; it is those experiences, not the lack of them, that brings us together:

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying,  ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. (33-35)

The two disciples who met Jesus on the road had their experience of him; the apostles are brimming with the news that Peter has seen the Lord. Neither Peter, nor the apostles, nor the disciples, have a monopoly on the experience of Christ. No one is merely in need, as if to learn of Christ only from others. But such individual experiences bring us together, and together we share them.

2. But such experiences, even as they bring us together, do not predict fully what happens when the community gathers. When we gather, Jesus will be present again, in a new way:

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them,  ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. (36-40)

Jesus knows that they have gathered because of their experiences of him. But the personal experiences of individuals never add up to all there is; when we gather, there is always more. That is why Jesus stresses the materiality, physicality of the experience: See me, touch me, look closely at my hands and my feet. The intense reality of Christ in the community is something more, beyond all the experiences that brought us there in the first place.

3. The next step in this process is simple enough: if they are truly to recognize Jesus, he needs to eat with them. We recognize Christ in the meal, in the meals we share. Here we might immediately return to the now familiar symbol, “breaking the bread” together — as if it must always be through bread, the Eucharistic bread, that Jesus will be specially present. But not so:

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them,  ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (41-43)

Such a simple question: “What have you to eat?” Whatever you have, let that be the meal, and you will recognize me there. Bread, but also fish — but also every other meal we share — can be the place where we meet Christ.

4. This could well be the end of it: they recognized him in the breaking of the bread; in his encounter with Peter; and now even in the eating of fish. But there is one more step, enlightenment:

Then he said to them,  ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. (44-45)

These are special, chosen people, who have experienced the Risen Christ, more than once; they have seen him, touched him, shared the meal with him. And yet, they cannot build the church by sharing this truth with everyone, unless Jesus opens their minds to the full and fulfilled meaning of his words. Then they can carry those words with them along still other roads, and to still other upper rooms, that once again they might share their experiences of Christ with people who have experienced him in other ways.

Much else can be said about this part of Luke 24, but if we are trying to build Christian communities in our changing, sometimes diminished parishes, the points I’ve noticed here will get us quite far:

1. Everyone who comes to the parish has already experienced Christ. No one owns the experience of Christ.

2. When we come together, we experience Christ in a new way, beyond all our individual experiences. Let’s not settle for what we already know.

3. When we share a meal — the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but other meals too — Christ will be with us again, vividly, close up. So let’s figure out what we have, and share it.

4. All the experiences in the world are not quite enough, until Christ opens our minds to the meaning and inner power of his words. Let’s pray for the opening of our minds. Pentecost is not that far away.