Revd Canon Dr Scott Cowdell
Third Sunday of Easter, 4 May 2014
Acts 2.14a, 36-41; Psalm 116.1-4,17-18; 1 Peter 1.13-25; Luke 24.13-35
The journey to Emmaus in this morning's Gospel is the journey of our whole Western culture today: a journey away from Jerusalem, a journey away from the city of faith, away from the place of God's certain presence, a journey into the desert, to who-knows-where? And, along the way, making what sense of it we can with our travelling companions in life. It's a journey some of us have taken thanks to the griefs, sufferings and disappointments that life so reliably delivers—a journey away from the place of faith. It's a journey I took as a young man, full of doubts about faith and identity and vocation—about what my emerging life as an adult was going to be about. It's a journey so many take who either never have or can no longer connect with the Church or the Christian faith.
Thanks be to God that Jesus is on the same road. The 'saviour without safety', as a John Bell hymn calls him, is with us on the journey of life. He too has left the place of certainty and cast himself on God's faithfulness, trusting. Hence we find him travelling incognito along the highways and byways of life in the world, working to rebuild faith and vocation, winning hearts and rekindling lives of meaning in an age grown weary of making meaning—an age getting used to therapy and diversion and forgetting because nothing better seems to be on offer.
Three things strike me about the encounter with Jesus in today's Gospel that I want to talk to you about. I might summarise these under the headings of 'learning, liturgy and living'.
The first, 'learning', has to do with the conversation the travellers have on the road. Jesus engages them. He listens to their story, and he links it to the ancient story of their faith. He delves into scripture, the scripture that seemed opaque to them—silent, irrelevant perhaps—but he delves into it in a way that takes their experiences and that of their contemporaries seriously. It's out of this exploration that energy and confidence returns: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32).
This type of exploration is the theological task as I understand it. It is a life task, a pastoral task, a real-world task, and one of its fruits is joy, one of its fruits is excitement. Sadly, many clergy read no theology, having always been bored and alienated by it. And for many lay people theology is an incomprehensible, runic preoccupation of the remote few. For me, the theological task is the work of Jesus himself, opening the scriptures in conversation with life, taking us and our world and its questions with absolute seriousness, confident to the point of exasperation that the connections are there if only we open our eyes.
An ancient catchcry of the Dominican preaching friars , 'no exhortation without explanation', is one of my mottoes in the ministry of preaching and church leadership. This reflects my confidence, born out in my own pastoral experience, that by reflecting together on the Gospel and its implications, what we plan and undertake as a community of faith will bear the fruit that abides. And the mark of course is that our hearts burn within us. That's what a vision from God fees like—it turns us on. We could even say that the scriptures and theology are erotically charged in the right hands. They excite and arouse. They are attractive, and fascinating. They light up the whole business of living. Nothing less than this is my hope for our Anglican parishes, as Jesus in today's Gospel shows us is eminently possible.
The next thing that strikes me in this morning's Gospel I mention under the heading of 'liturgy'. Theology is a fine thing. Learning and knowing about faith and the things of God, and how to engage this knowledge in the business of life, is a fine thing. But it's not enough. The wisdom of the great mystics and the theologians who were made saints is undeniable: that believing and knowing is perfected in praying and adoring; that worship is the heart's knowing, such that the theological task in its fullness is to bring the knowing mind to dwell within the loving heart, and vice versa. Jesus in today's Gospel is not properly recognized in the learning only, but in the act of Eucharistic worship, in the liturgy: "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him" (Lk24: 31); he was "made known to them in the breaking of the bread" (Lk 24: 35).
I believe this because, in my own experience, times of doubt and uncertainty have resolved for me in worship when no amount of thinking or reading or soul-searching could fix it, though no doubt these things contributed to the outcome. The coming of faith is God's gift to us in Jesus Christ when we gather and open ourselves to God and to the Gospel and to each other in the Eucharistic liturgy. I believe in liturgy, you see. I'm not one of those clergy who do liturgy because it's customary but think that the action, the real point, is somewhere else. It is both the ancient testimony and present experience of Christians that there is something uniquely revealing of God about the mysterious stuff of Eucharistic liturgy.
But in this connection let me name what for me is a great disappointment and sadness. It arises when I recall how many fail to see this divine richness, because our worship customs have come to obscure the action of God right at the point where God wants to be self-revealing. This is something I think about, and I know my colleague Rebecca does too. It's a sad testimony that so many young people, and not a few of their parents, too, find liturgy a bore, irrelevant and disconnected. The electricity that lit up that dining room at Emmaus has drained away to earth. Let me be crystal clear, though, that putting this right is not a matter of technique, with whiz-bang changes to the way we worship—changes that will have them flocking in. Too many Church leaders have given up on faith in favour of technique—in this, as in other ways. Rather, it's a matter of faith, a matter of reflecting together, a matter of teaching and openness and taking people seriously. And I'm quite sure that if Anglican liturgy is to recover more widely its power to connect the eager Jesus with eager seekers, it will need the leadership of a community with vision and with openness of mind—a community like St Pip's, you might well think!
The third thing that strikes me about the encounter with Jesus at Emmaus is the effect it had on the disciples, and the way the community of faith took up the news. So my last point is about 'living'. The mark of resurrection faith is that we become witnesses. We can't help it. We've been transformed from people of irresolute faith and uncertain commitment into witnesses, whose lives have a new theme.
'But wait', as they say in the advertisements on daytime television, 'there's more'. See how the travellers return to Jerusalem to tell their story, and other stories are added. There had been the story from the women at the tomb, which Luke no doubt wishes had been taken more seriously, and there was the story of Jesus' appearance to Simon. This is how it is not only in the Church where Luke's Gospel arose, but in the true Church everywhere: individuals and groups bring different stories of faith which are heard and shared. God in Christ is revealed differently to different ones of us, and together the rich tapestry of faith is woven, which tells one story through the telling of many stories.
For us, who belong to the faith community, there is the opportunity to be witnesses wherever we find ourselves in life, This is the primary ministry and vocation of the laity, not focused in the Church to maintain its life, so much as in the business of living, loving, parenting, growing up, working, leading, influencing, retiring, caring, and then finally dying with as much grace and courage as faith and circumstances allow. These are the vistas of Christian vocation into which the encounter with Jesus propels us as witnesses. Not Bible bashers, I hasten to add. The travellers back from Emmaus simply spoke of their experience, and in our other readings this morning we see some of the boldness and resolve that becomes possible through the whole life of faith as a result of this transformation. And their witness was collective, not primarily individual. It gathered them into a diverse community with one life-giving focus. The encouragement of lay vocation is a necessary priority in our Church nowadays, as we discover and explore together a way of 'living' transformed by the risen Jesus Christ.
So, friends, make no mistake. We who gather to celebrate the risen Christ today are part of something that the Western world has lost, and without that something so many are flailing, travelling downcast or distracted through life, burdened by futility, however carefully it's disguised. The risen Jesus is in the midst of this travelling throng of humanity, however, rebuilding faith and confidence, restoring purpose and courage for living. You and I are witnesses of these things, and many could testify to how it's changed their lives. New things are possible for us now. I've come here today to honour all of that in you, to open the scriptures with you so that our hearts burn within us, to know the risen Lord with you in the breaking of the bread, and to add my story to yours as we Anglicans grow into the community of witnesses that God calls us to be. God knows, the world needs us.