Below is the text of my sermon at St James’ on 30th April 2017 when the Gospel reading (Luke 24, 13-35) described the journey to Emmaus of two of Jesus’ disciples, and their journey to a recognition of the risen Christ.
One helpful comment I received afterwards referred to my attempt in this address to reclaim as a positive aspect of Christian teaching the admission that all of us are sinners. My treatment of this theme here does not, I agree with my helpful critic, adequately explain in what sense I am using the term (ie, not so much to suggest that each of us is equally bad or immoral but to point up our intrinsic need for help, our fundamental inability to ‘make it on our own..’). Perhaps this should be the theme for another sermon on another occasion…
‘Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised Jesus; and he vanished from their sight…’
My friends, we live in the strange after-glow of Easter. Not only during these weeks when the garden of Resurrection, with its delightful montage of figures, tomb, primroses and moss, decorates the church building, and the paschal candle stands lit, prominently in the chancel. We live in this after-glow of Easter, always…
Each day, and each of our lives, is a journey, and we are like those disciples walking to Emmaus, trying to make sense of events and mistakes – and the stuff that just happens – and very often struggling to remain positive or hopeful in the face of it all.
In my experience, Holy Week, the days leading up to Easter, often bring into (sometimes painful) focus the challenges and pressures that are at work in our lives. It is almost as if the evil one (however you picture him or it) knowing his bluff has been called on Calvary, will cast around to cause all the mayhem it can among those with the effrontery to celebrate the fact. I remember during my time in an Oxfordshire parish (a stressful period in many ways) the church building for which I had particular responsibility was subject to some very unpleasant desecration on two of those holy, and for me then as now very busy, few days. Nothing so obvious afflicted me this year, but I approached Easter very uncomfortable about a conflict with some committees and officers of our diocese, and also feeling a continuing frustration and even outrage towards some aspects of our national political debate. You may find it hard to believe but beneath this calm and eirenic appearance… there exists a stubborn and angry (and too often self-righteous and arrogant) so-and-so (what do you mean, you knew?) The Christian celebration of Holy Week and Easter finds us as, and how, and where, we are. That is why the worship of those days is so powerful, in many ways so unwelcome and yet ultimately very rewarding (and why each year there are individuals whose lives are touched and changed in the process): it touches a spot.
Now, following Easter Day, we walk our Emmaus road, and we proclaim that Christ is risen, alleluia… But if our response is to be lived and not merely proclaimed in Church, then we must be honest. Believing in the resurrection is hard enough. Living in its transforming power is very often but an aspiration. So let us first acknowledge, as we must, the reality that undergirds everything we do here at St James’, the reality that assuredly unites us beneath all our differences, the reality that is each of our starting points and our truthful context: we are sinners. It is the only thing we all have in common and it is the only absolute requirement for membership of this church. You may believe all you like in Jesus, you may do all kinds of good Christian things, you may be a God-send and sign up for all those rotas on which there are vacancies (quite a few of those) but if you’re not a sinner you have no part here. This is the counter-cultural, stark but important basis for understanding Christianity. Tim Farron, the Liberal leader and a convinced Christian, discovered how hard it is for journalists and the public to understand this. In response to an inevitable challenge whether he considered gay people to be sinners (to which, it was clearly hoped, he would mutter something about fire and brimstone as all Christians are assumed to do) he responded with the orthodox and non-controversial point that of course gay people like all of us are sinners. That we are all sinners, however, is no longer commonly understood or accepted in today’s Britain. But here at St James’ we are loud and proud to say, we are!
How, then, are we to live in Easter’s after-glow? How might Easter Sunday not just be a yearly festival but a year-round dimension to all our days?
To answer that I must at least attempt to clarify how we might understand the resurrection of Jesus. A person whom I like and admire posted on Facebook the other week a series of exclamations against all religious belief and baloney. The posts were typically robust, plain speaking and witty. I was pleased rather than offended (I much prefer such honesty to the sometimes rather saccharine declarations made by us religious believers) but I gently demurred. Religious belief is not, I suggested, a matter of believing – like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland – several impossible things before breakfast. It is much more about living with your ‘centre of gravity’ so to speak, somewhere other than in you. Instead, it is always somewhere in front, somewhere that makes you want to reach out (in prayer and love) towards a centre that is not me. Religious belief feels like falling forwards, into God. Therefore, living in the glow of Easter is not simply a matter of how we define the resurrection of Jesus, but a moment’s reflection here may be helpful.
The Biblical accounts of the resurrection are surprisingly sober and restrained. They are not at all like the sorts of magical stories of ancient myths and nor are they like the biased, exaggerated or at times invented stories of the modern popular press. There is a quality to the Gospel accounts which impresses all who, with an open mind, investigate them. It seems clear to such a reader that ‘something extraordinary happened.’ What that something was is impossible to define easily. The evidence mostly points to the physicality of Jesus’ risen body (he eats, he builds a fire and prepares breakfast, he points Thomas to his wounds) but other evidence equally strongly tells us that was not just a physical resuscitation of a physical body (he appears among the disciples despite doors firmly closed and he is not immediately recognised in some instances, including today’s road to Emmaus until he breaks bread.)
Personally, I think legitimate Christian interpretations may cover a wide range. To me, the evidence suggests a physical, but also warns us against thinking it a merely physical, resurrection. But those who find it impossible to countenance a physical resurrection (and many of us have our times of doubt on this matter) may still find a home here among us. There are Christians who believe in everything that’s required of them and then live lives of zealous intolerance and unkindness, so I am happy to keep company with – and learn a great deal from – those who doubt the resurrection but are striving to learn to live more like Jesus.
For me, in short, the resurrection of Jesus is, in the correct sense of the word, a mystery. It is real but so real that it goes beyond the usual categories we have for describing events. Therefore the variety of ways in which it is related in Scripture (and experienced by us) are equally valid and equally unsatisfactory. The resurrection of Jesus, ultimately, can only be experienced by being lived. On Friday I attended a meal with the 14 or 15 people who had arranged the recent ReCreate Festival, meeting, imagining, planning, dreaming, despairing and then working with lots of others as the amazing week came about. At one point, we went around the table and each of us pitched in a high point or abiding memory from the week. There was a huge range, and each contribution, reflecting a particular individual experience or perspective, was met with an exclamation of, ‘Oh, yes!’, and so added to the account of what we had all experienced. I think the Resurrection of Jesus is like that and that every Christian who strays into its orbit expands the ways in which the tale may be told. Each of you whose heart has been strangely warmed by something of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a witness to these things and has a part to play in relaying the story of Jesus and amplifying the mystery of his resurrection.
This coming week some of you will be commuting to, it may be Bournemouth or to Birmingham, some of you will be wrestling with business decisions or (much more difficult and probably more important) young children. Some of you will feel too busy and too much needed and others of you will feel not busy, and not needed, enough. Most of us will hear the news from the country and the wider world with varying degrees of concern, sympathy, bewilderment and our usual variety of views that seem so self-evidently correct to ourselves. Our lives and our journeys are various, meandering and strewn with hazards. But along each of them we will be in company with one who comes as it were anonymously and unbidden and yet strangely warms our hearts – and in a week’s time, God willing, we will meet here again, and recognise whose company we have kept, in the breaking of the bread.