04 May 2014
10.30 Priory Sung Eucharist
The Third Sunday of Easter
Revd Simon Cowling
Walking, words, and wonder.
It is the first Easter Day, though we only know that in retrospect. Cleopas and his companion – who is never named – are walking in the late afternoon towards the village of Emmaus not far from Jerusalem. They are joined by someone who, to them, is a complete stranger. After a preliminary exchange, in which the two disciples recount for the stranger some recent events that have taken place in Jerusalem, the stranger begins expounding the scriptures to them. This exposition is necessary because the two disciples have not joined some crucial dots: ‘Oh, how foolish you are,’ says the stranger, ‘and how slow of heart to believe…’. The disciples have not joined the dots between some apparently inexplicable events in Jerusalem – the crucifixion of Jesus, the subsequent discovery of the empty tomb and the women’s astonishing tale of Jesus’ resurrection – and the full truth of the message of the prophets, a message which the two disciples had understood as providing hope that Israel would be freed by God’s Messiah. But at journey’s end, and after all these words, the disciples still do not recognise the stranger whom we, the readers and listeners, have known to be Jesus all along. The disciples invite the stranger to stay and eat with them. He sits at table and breaks the bread. Then, in Luke’s beautifully understated words: ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized him’. It is the breaking of the bread which makes sense of the exposition of scripture which had gone before, during the journey to Emmaus. Scripture has opened the disciples’ minds; but it is only in the moment of the breaking of the bread that they receive sight, literally and spiritually. Hope is born again. The dots are joined. It’s a wonderful moment, and wonderfully caught by Mark Jarman in the poem on your readings sheet:
……………. ……………………And they are amazed
And look on as they chew, as their friend talks
And breaks a fresh loaf open, and remarks
It’s like something, and offers it to them
And says it yields up truth like a sweet savour.
Walking, words, and wonder.
In the Emmaus story Luke is describing a walk, a journey. The story is full of movement. The disciples are walking; Jesus comes alongside and walks with them; they approach the village together; Jesus makes as if to walk on; he vanishes from their sight after the meal; the disciples walk back to Jerusalem. Both Jesus and his followers are on the move. But this is not movement for its own sake. The movement, the walking have a purpose. It is to tell the story of Jesus: the stranger’s words of explanation and of interpretation are the spoken word that opens out the written word of scripture; and the disciples’ words to the eleven and their companions on their return to Jerusalem are words which tell of new life in the risen Christ, God’s living Word. But telling the story is not the only, or ultimate, purpose of the walk. The disciples’ encounter with the stranger culminates in wonder, in their final recognition of Jesus as he breaks the bread. An ordinary, practical, action at table explodes into a glimpse of God as the disciples finally and fully understand.
The Church is, or should be, a group of people on the move. That’s what tradition is – a movement from the past, through the present, and on into the future. That is what we take from the Emmaus story: a past in which Cleopas and his companion are stuck, gives way to a present in which a stranger challenges them; this in turn allows them to imagine a future unutterably different from anything they had dared to imagine. As I heard someone say recently, tradition is not the Church reminiscing; it is the Church reinterpreting. That reinterpretation is a task for us all, and a task for which we may well need the help of the stranger, the newcomer in our midst. The journey of the Church is one on which we carry, and hand on, a living flame rather than some guttering embers.
The Church is, or should be, a group of people who have a story to tell. That is what the Gospel is. A story of good news which we share because we happen to think it is important. Yes, many of us will have heard the challenge to Christians, attributed to St Francis, that we should preach the Good News and use words if we have to. But I worry that the details of the Christian story have become so sketchy in the minds of many, that we do need to learn again how to use words as we communicate our faith. We should long for people’s hearts to burn within them as they recall what we said to them, just as the disciples’ hearts burned when they remembered Jesus opening the scriptures to them. As we carry that living flame of our tradition we need to see ourselves as the sparks that set the world on fire with the story we tell.
But words must eventually give way to wonder, just as happened at that supper table in the Emmaus inn when Jesus broke the bread. The wonder of seeing God in the faces of all whom we meet, for all are made in the image and likeness of God; the wonder being alongside God, as we learn how to share our material and spiritual resources with our sisters and brothers in need, serving Christ as we serve them; the wonder of deepening our understanding of God through learning, and hearing, the stories of others. The wonder of a world transformed by the love of one whose body was broken on the cross, and whom we continue to meet in the breaking of the bread.
So let us walk together, let us share our story along the way, and let us rejoice in the wonder of God’s love for us and for all people to the ages of ages. Amen.