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Sunday, 30 April 2017

Going to Emmaus




So, it is Easter Day –
well, it isn’t, of course, but in our Gospel reading it is still Easter Day.
And all of Jesus’ disciples and friends are confused and sad –
many of them haven’t really heard about the resurrection,
or believe it if they have heard it.
Everybody is scared –
will they be next?
Will the authorities clobber them for being part of Jesus’ retinue?

Anyway it’s all over now.
The Teacher is dead.
And something weird has happened to his body.
Maybe it’s time to go home, to get on with their lives.
Cleopas certainly thinks so.
He doesn’t live very far from Jerusalem –
only seven miles.
High time he was going home.
So he and his companion –
who may well have been his wife –
pack up and go home, sadly, tiredly.
And Jesus comes and walks along with them, but they don’t recognise him.

But they start talking and he asks why they are so sad.
What has gone wrong?
And when they say, “Crumbs, you must be totally out of the loop if you haven’t heard;
what stone have you just crawled out from under?”
he goes through the Scriptures with them to show them that this wasn’t disaster, it wasn’t the end of the world, but, quite the reverse, it was what had been planned from the beginning of the world.

And when they get home, they invite this stranger, this wonderful person who has brought them hope, to stay for supper.
And part-way through the meal, he takes the bread and blesses it –
and they know who He is.
It is Jesus!
And then he is gone.
But they know.
And they know they must tell the others, too,
so as soon as they’ve finished eating, they get up and go back to Jerusalem.
Seven miles;
a couple of hours’ walk.
Not so bad early in the day, when they were fresh –
but after supper, when they were tired?

And when they get to Jerusalem, they hear that Simon, too, has seen the Lord, and that he is really risen.
And they share their story, too.

---oo0oo---

In a lot of ways, this story poses more questions than it answers.
Who were Cleopas and his companion?
Have we ever heard of them before?
Why didn’t they recognise Jesus?

I don’t know who Cleopas was;
but it’s possible that the companion was his wife.
Certainly a former minister of mine thought so, and would use the text “Jesus himself drew near and went with them” whenever he preached at a wedding.
But I noticed awhile back, when reading John’s Gospel that one of the few women named is a Mary, the wife of Clopas.
Clopas, Cleopas?
Same person, do you think?
So is he walking with his wife, Mary?

I think it’s significant that they weren’t in the main group of disciples;
Cleopas wasn’t part of “The Twelve”, still less part of the very close group around Jesus.
But they were followers, fellow-travellers.
The wife was one of the group of women who kept the whole show on the road, I expect, probably seeing to it that everybody ate,
and that nobody got too dirty
and everybody had a blanket at night,
if there wasn’t a convenient place to stay.
But they weren’t in the close group.

Which, I think, shows us that Jesus was and is anxious for all his followers, not just the big names!
Sometimes it feels difficult, doesn’t it –
there we are, small churches in a small circuit,
in a country that doesn’t “do” God very much,
and is apt to be a bit frightened of those who do...
but Jesus himself draws near and walks with us,
even if we don’t always recognise him.

I wonder why they didn’t recognise him?
The text says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”,
as though it was done on purpose.
Did the risen Lord look so very different from him as they’d known him before?
Or was it just that he was out of context, as it were –
look how it isn’t easy to recognise someone you only know slightly,
your hairdresser, for instance,
or the guy who shoves trolleys around at Tesco’s,
if you meet them on the bus.
You know you know them, but you can’t think where from,
and what is their name?
Or had he the hood of his cloak up, so they couldn’t actually see his face?
But eventually he does something so familiar,
the taking of the bread and blessing it,
that they can’t help but recognise him.
Of course, they may not have been present at the Last Supper –
as far as we know, it was only the Twelve who were –
but they would have seen Jesus do this at almost any meal they took together.
It was a part of a normal Jewish evening meal,
especially the Friday-evening Sabbath meal.
It would have been well familiar to them.
And so they recognised Jesus, knew it was true –
he had risen, he wasn’t dead any more –
and then he wasn’t there any more, either!

I wonder, too, whether when Jesus opened the Scriptures to them,
he wasn’t opening them to himself, just as much.
He had told the disciples, frequently –
although often only the smaller group –
that he was to rise again, but it must have been well scary for him.
We saw in the Garden of Gethsemane how awful it was for him, the whole prospect of death on a Cross,
with no real assurance that God would raise him.
He knew, he believed –
but what if it wasn’t so?
What if he really were just deluding himself?
We all get moments of doubt like that, don’t we?
What if the whole God thing is just a delusion,
dreamed up by human beings to help us cope with the nastinesses of life?
But Jesus was vindicated.
He had been raised.
And maybe, just maybe, when he opened the Scriptures to Cleopas and his wife, he was reminding himself, too!
Yes, this was what it said, and this was what it meant!
How lovely to know for certain!

We can’t know for certain yet, and we often doubt.
That’s okay –
if we knew for sure it would be called certainty, not faith!

But so often, when we get to the shadowed places, the awful times, when God seems far away and maybe summer and daylight will never come, then Jesus himself draws near and walks with us.
We don’t always recognise him, of course;
in fact, very often we don’t even know that he is there.
I don’t know about you, but I’m very bad at recognising Jesus!
But sometimes a friend or even an acquaintance will say something, and you know that it is from God!
Don’t ask me to explain how you know, you just do!
Been there, done that?
Yes, I thought some of you would have!

And there are times, too, when we don’t recognise Jesus at the time;
things are just too awful for that.
And yet, when we look back, we see that he was there, all the time,
just that we didn’t recognise him.
Maybe he was there in the tissue a friend offered us to mop up with, the shoulder offered to cry on, the hand-clasp in the darkness.... but he was there.

Remember how Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus,
even though he was about to raise him from the dead?
There are times, I think, when all God can do is to weep with us, or to share in our frustrations, or even to act as a receptacle for our anger.
But at least he is there doing that.
I remember when the daughter of an acquaintance was killed in a dreadful accident some years ago now, her father said at the funeral “Thank God for a God to be angry with!”

Jesus himself drew near and walked with them.
It’s not just in the bad times, of course –
them too, but in the good times, too.
And perhaps in the indifferent times, the time when life goes smoothly and the days slip past too fast to count.
Jesus is there, I think, in a piece of music that lifts our spirits,
like the Hallelujah Chorus or some other favourite piece.
Jesus is there when we are getting ready to go on holiday, or share a family celebration.
When we are looking forward to things, when we are dreading them.

Jesus himself drew near and went with them.
If we are Jesus’ people, then we need to learn to be aware of his presence with us.
It’s not always about feeling –
we don’t always feel his presence, and that’s as it should be.
As I said, if we were certain, they wouldn’t call it faith.
But if we believe that Jesus is present with us all the time –
even when we’re in Tesco’s, even when we’re at the office or washing-up the supper dishes –
then how are we going to live?

There was once a monk who served God in a community of brothers, and he was called Brother Lawrence.
And he learnt over the years that God was just as real and there whether he was washing the dishes in the community kitchen, or whether he was on his knees in the chapel.
He wrote about it, and developed a correspondence with other people who wished to find this out for themselves.
You may have come across his writings yourself;
he was called Brother Lawrence.
As he explains, staying aware of God’s presence is far from easy, but it doesn’t matter if you make a nonsense of it –
you just come back to remembering as soon as you realise you have forgotten.
The Jesus who walked along the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and his wife also walks with us while we’re doing the washing-up or reading our e-mail.

So –
do you stay aware of that?
I know I don’t, not as much as I should!
Maybe we should all make more of an effort to stay aware of God’s presence with us at all times.
Even when we can’t see Him, even when it feels as though all trace of him has totally vanished from the universe.
There are all sorts of methods you can use to help with this –
making a point of a quick prayer when you put the kettle on, for example, or whenever you get up to go to the loo at work.
Even just “Lord, have mercy” or “Into Your hands”.
There has been a discussion on one of the book groups I belong to on Facebook about the amount of times a day children at boarding-schools were expected to pray –
space for private prayer in the mornings,
Grace before and after every meal,
corporate prayer in Assembly, probably twice a day....
and so it went on.
Not that the children probably appreciated it at that age –
I know I didn’t –
but if you think about it, a routine like that does structure pauses into your day to be aware of God.

Jesus himself drew nigh and went with them.
Two ordinary Christians –
well, they weren’t even that, of course, as the name wouldn’t be coined for awhile, but you know what I mean.
They weren’t part of the inner ring, they weren’t special.
They were ordinary people, people like you and me.
And Jesus himself draws near and walks with us, too.
Hallelujah.
Amen.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

He is risen, He is alive




Alleluia, Christ is risen!

So we have proclaimed, and so, I imagine, we believe. I wonder what it would have been like to have been there.

I love this story in John’s Gospel. There is so much detail, so many little personal touches. Unlike John, really – so much of his Gospel is a formalised account, and you only get a couple of glimpses of Jesus as a person, unlike in the synoptics. But here is one of the intensely personal stories. You can’t help but get the impression that it is an eyewitness account.

Imagine, then, what it would have been like for Mary Magdalene. The third day after her dear Friend, her dear Teacher, some even say her Husband, had been killed. Yesterday had been the Sabbath; she couldn’t do anything then except sit at home and weep, and when the Sabbath ended, it was night, and there was no way she could go to the tomb after dark – nobody was going to let her go. But now it is morning; dawn hasn’t quite broken yet, but it’ll be light soon. It must have been about five o’clock, I think – dawn in Jerusalem at this time of year is about half-past five, a little earlier than for us. Mary hasn’t slept, or she’s woken up early, and creeps out of the house and makes her way to the tomb where, two days earlier, she had helped lay her Master’s body. Perhaps she’ll feel better if she can just see the body one last time. Some of the other accounts imply that they hadn’t quite finished embalming the body, and wanted to do that before it got too nasty.

And Mary walks up to the tomb – and finds the stone is rolled away from in front of it, and the tomb is empty! There must have been grave-robbers at work! Oh, it’s too bad of them. Couldn’t they have left his body in peace? So Mary rushes off in despair to find Peter and John – although quite what she thought they’d be able to do isn’t clear. Perhaps she hoped they would have more authority to ask awkward questions of the powers-that-be than she had. Anyway, she finds them, and rushes up to them in floods of tears.

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” So Peter and John rush up to have a look, and see what she is talking about. John is the fastest, but when he reaches the tomb he just stops and peers in. Perhaps Mary was wrong – he doesn’t want to trample on his dear Friend’s body Or perhaps he’s a bit overcome by it all. Anyway, whatever, he just stops and peers in. Peter rushes up and rushes in, not stopping to look first – how typically Peter, somehow. And John follows him in, hoping perhaps to try and stop him making yet another gaffe. And then they both see.

The graveclothes are still there. It isn’t that the whole package, graveclothes and all, has been taken away, it’s just that the body has been taken out of the clothes. And the bit that had been round the head, the bit that Mary and John had wrapped round together, that’s still there, too, lying separately. It really looks as though the shroud hasn’t been disturbed at all. How very weird. Almost as though – could it be?

Peter and John look at each other with a wild surmise. Perhaps it’s true? All those heavy hints that he had dropped? Without a word they rush off back to tell the others.

And they forget about poor Mary, who has gone off to have a good cry by herself somewhere.

Typically male, don’t you think? Mary has come to them for help, and they suddenly rush off without even telling her what they think might just possibly have happened.

Mary is too busy crying, just at first, to realise that they’ve gone, but all of a sudden she realises that it’s gone quiet, so she peers into the tomb. And there are these two beings dressed in white. Hang about, that’s not Peter and John, is it? Who are they, and when did they arrive?

“What’s the matter?” they ask her. “Why are you crying?”

She explains, “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put him!”

Then she feels someone behind her.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how Mary needs to be with the body to get her grieving done. The thing she really minds is that she won't know where the memorial, the tomb, is.

That says something to us, I think, about how we grieve for those we love.

Mary can’t see beyond the fact that the beloved body has gone missing: she won’t know where to bring flowers in the future; she won’t be able to finish off the embalming...

And when a man, whom she assumes is the gardener, asks her what’s wrong, she says again, “Where is he? Have you moved him? Where did you put him? Please tell me, please?”

And then the man suddenly says, in that well-known, familiar, much-loved voice: “Mary!”

And Mary takes another look. She blinks. She rubs her eyes. She pinches herself. No, she’s not dreaming. It really, really is! “Oh, my dearest Lord!” she cries, and flings herself into his arms.

We’re not told how long they spent hugging, talking, explaining and weeping in each other’s arms, but eventually Jesus gently explains that, although he’s perfectly alive, and that this is a really real body one can hug, he won’t be around on earth forever, but will ascend to the Father. He can’t stop with Mary for now, but she should go back and tell the others all about it. And so, we are told, she does.

---oo0oo---

Well, that’s the story. The question is, is it true? Was there really a physical resurrection? Does it matter? Isn’t it true that what really matters is that Jesus is alive today?

Well, that’s quite a point, of course. The one thing that really matters is that Jesus is alive today. But as St Paul said in his Letter to the Corinthians, the whole point is that if the Resurrection didn’t happen, he’s a fraud and our faith is futile. In other words, we might as well go home. For St Paul, if Christ is not raised, our sins are not forgiven, and we have no hope of everlasting life.

Even that begs the question slightly, for Paul might just have been talking about a spiritual resurrection – after all, we know that our own bodies, when we’ve finished with them, will either be buried or burnt, but we will expect the bit of us that matters to go on. Obviously, if we don’t believe even in a spiritual resurrection, what are we doing here?

The question is, does it matter whether or not we believe that Jesus’ body was raised? That he wasn’t a ghost of some sort, but in a genuine body one could hug, that could eat and drink, that could walk, talk, break bread, and, one assumes, eliminate.

People say, oh but the Gospel accounts are contradictory, they are writing what they would have liked to have happened, etc. I, personally, believe that the very fact that the Gospel accounts do tend to be different in the details makes it all the more likely to be true.

If it were just wishful thinking, their accounts would tally far more, and there is absolutely no way in the world they would have had it that the first people to meet the risen Jesus were women! In those days, women’s testimony simply didn’t count. Women were not supposed to be able to tell the truth, or something. If you wanted a witness, he had to be male. So absolutely no way would the stories, if they were made up, or wishful thinking, have had the first witnesses be women.

But does it matter? I believe it’s true; you may or may not. But does it matter? In one sense, yes, it does matter. The Resurrection is, after all, totally central to our whole faith. If it didn’t happen, then we might just as well all go home, as St Paul so rightly says.

But the most important thing of all, of course, is that Jesus is alive today! The Resurrection is important, it’s central, yes. But if it is just an episode in history, no matter how true, no matter how well documented; if it’s just history like the Second World War or the Gunpowder Plot, then it doesn’t really affect us at all. But the fact that Jesus is alive today, the fact that he can, through the Holy Spirit, come and indwell us, you and me, the fact that we can know God’s forgiveness and healing and wholeness – that’s what matters! And for that we say “Alleluia!