(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
He took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him.
The story of the road to Emmaus is a familiar one for many Christians, and it is a popular illustration of Jesus’ interaction with the disciples after his resurrection from the dead. This story is set on the evening of Easter Day when a couple of dejected disciples find themselves on the road leaving Jerusalem. To their minds Jesus is dead, dead, and gone, and the rumours about his body having disappeared from the grave prove too much to take. They are leaving; leaving everything behind, walking away from their hopes and their dreams.
In the opening scenes of the Lord of the Rings Gandalf rebukes Frodo for his lack of faith saying, ‘A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.’ Now, although Jesus is by no means a wizard, his unexpected visit to the disciples does remind me a lot of this phrase. At the lowest point in in the disciples’ lives, when it seems too late for faith to be revived, Jesus makes a timely appearance, and eventually breaks down the dejection and the sorrow that prevent the disciples from recognising him, transforming their disappointment in uncontainable joy.
Luke often tries to locate the stories of his gospel with some degree of accuracy. But in this case we are not told by the evangelist where the meeting between Jesus and the two disciples took place; all we know is that it was somewhere at a short distance from Jerusalem, on a dusty road which the sorrows and the disappointments the disciples bore made even more slow and difficult to walk. Yet, this Luke’s inaccuracy about a specific location proves to be for our benefit; so that we may be able to relate a spiritual meaning of the story to our lives.
We may not know where the village of Emmaus was but ‘the road that leads there is the road every Christian, every person, takes.’ (BXVI) At various points dejection towards the Christian life can take hold of us, or maybe serious doubts can make the practice of religion more taxing. It is in these moments that we must seek the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus in the twofold ways highlighted in our gospel.
First, we see that as Jesus walked along the road with the disciples he explained to them the Scriptures pointing out to them all those things that the Old Testament, and particularly the prophets, foretold about him. Likewise we ought to nurture our faith with regular study of God’s Word, through prayer, discipleship courses, and reading religious publications, so that our faith may become grounded, rooted, in the soil of the Scriptures.
Secondly (and more importantly, I should add), we see in our reading that the disciples only recognise the Lord for who he really is in the moment of self-giving, in the moment in which he breaks for them the bread of eternal life. ‘The eyes of those who receive this … are opened that they should recognise Christ; for the Lord’s flesh has in it great and ineffable power’ (Theophylus). We too must approach Holy Communion as often as we can in the same way; as the encounter with Jesus who gives himself to us so that we may recognise him as the Lord, living and present in our midst.
The story of the road to Emmaus is a familiar one for many Christians, but it is more than just the narration of something that happened after Jesus’ resurrection. It is a simple pattern we readily apply for living the Christian life in the best way, by reading and praying the Scriptures, and receiving the Eucharist. And if we follow this pattern, our faith too will be transformed in the uncontainable joy of knowing the Risen Lord.
Which of the three men, do you think, was a neighbour to the one who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer replied, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’.
A couple of weeks ago as we were planning this service, we decided to steer clear of the word “community” as the theme for this celebration. And there are very good reasons for this. “Community” has become a buzzword to signify everything and anything that might bring or hold people together. Here at All Saints’ we are responsible for this as anyone else, given that the description on our website says, ‘A friendly and welcoming Christian community…’ But by overusing, and misusing, the word “community” we deprive it of any real meaning.
Yet, the gospel encourages everyone (Christians and otherwise) to consider a different approach towards bringing people together; not in terms of being a community – although the Church could be understood as a community of sorts – but in terms of coming together as good neighbours. This approach is somewhat different from what we have been used to hear over the last few decades, and it is definitely more challenging to embrace.
In the gospel passage that the Mayor has kindly read for us Jesus gives us an example of how belonging to a community can sometimes hamper the flourishing of other individuals. We see this in the priest and Levite who belong to the same community that served in the Jerusalem temple, and led the worship for the people of Israel. These two characters, seeing the man left for dead on the side of the road, cross over to the other side in order not to be defiled by coming in to contact with him, and so lose their sense of belonging to their own community. “He is not one of us”, the priest may have said to himself. “If I become ritually impure by touching this man, my community would banish me from service”, the Levite may have thought.
Their strong sense of belonging to a certain group of people prevents them from helping a stranger they encounter, giving him the time of day, and showing mercy towards his sorry state. Their inaction, which from their point of view is perfectly justifiable, becomes for us an example of how an inward-looking impersonal idea of community can actually do harm, by setting membership as a higher priority than doing good to others.
But to this example of strict adherence to a community Jesus contrasts the behaviour of another man, who would be cast as “the Good Samaritan” happily ever after because his actions. This remarkable man is not part of Israel’ society, in fact he and his fellow Samaritans are despised by the Israelites and considered the least trustworthy people around. Yet, he is the one who helps the man in his troubles, cares for him, and gives him back his human dignity; he sets aside his belonging to any specific community in order to help a fellow human being needing his attention. In short his is the one who acts as a good neighbour. The priest and the Levite are also neighbours in the sense that they find themselves in close proximity to the poor man, but they are bad ones and they do not do anything to help.
The gospel here teaches us that being good neighbours is something that transcends any idea of community each own of us might have; crucially it goes beyond religious creeds, political affiliation, nationality, or everything else. Being a good neighbour is about seeing the person next to me for who they are; another human being endowed with infinite worth, and, as such, seeing them also as worthy of my time, dedication, and care.
Our town is changing rapidly but this is by no means the first time that dramatic changes have altered the appearance and dynamics of this place. Indeed the town has been transformed many times beyond recognition since it started out as an Anglo-Saxon village over one thousand years ago. Nevertheless, as new roads and infrastructures are built and new people come to live here we, who already live here, have an even bigger chance to show ourselves as good neighbours to newcomers and old residents alike.
The gospel poses us an indirect question. What kind of neighbours do we want to be? Ones who care only for likeminded people, for members of our own little communities? Or ones who are there to help anyone we may find on our way?
The likelihood that everyone in Houghton will be part of the same community (whether through creed, nationality, or ethnicity) is very small indeed. But by learning to be good neighbours we will learn how to bring people together in a broader, more personal and lasting way… one small act of mercy, one cuppa, one generous offer of help at a time.
‘…he saw and he believed. Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.’ John 20:8-9
Perhaps surprisingly, the gospel reading set for Easter Day presents us with the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord, without featuring Jesus himself. Instead, this passage is marked by frantic search for some tangible explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body; there are rumours of something having happened at the tomb overnight, perhaps fears that the resting place of Jesus has been vandalised, that the body has been stolen… There are witness statements to be confirmed, and a certain degree of shock to be overcome. But among all this uncertainty we encounter an example of faith which should help us in our own faith journey. This example is given to us by the Saint John, described in the gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In verses 8 and 9 we are told a peculiar phrase that has puzzled theologians ever since, we are told that John ‘saw and believed; Till this moment [Peter and himself] had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.’
John believed without understanding the Scriptures? Then what did John believe in? Can there be faith without full understanding of the Scriptures? A few Christian writers affirm that the words ‘saw and believed’ mean that John finally believed in what Mary Magdalene about Jesus’ body having been taken from the tomb (Cf. John 20:2). In a world where female witness counted very little, John and Peter run to the tomb to verify Mary’s story; so when John’s sees that the woman was right, he eventually believes in her statement – Jesus’ body is truly gone.
However, I would stand with other gospel interpreters in suggesting that John’s faith is actual faith in the resurrection as a mystery; faith in the inexplicable victory of Christ over death. John sees the grave clothes left neatly behind, he recalls the words of Mary, and something clicks in him – this cannot have been the work of very tidy grave robbers. John believes. He may not be able to articulate his faith very well at this stage, but an embryonic faith is already there; a faith which will later be confirmed in his sighting of Jesus – later in the gospel John is the first one of the disciples to recognise Jesus from afar and to shout with joy, ‘It is the Lord!’ (John 21:7). John believes in the very mystery of what happened; he may not be able to explain his faith using Scriptural references, yet he believes.
I believe John’s experience may be quite common among Christians. Oftentimes, people think that, as believers, we have everything figured out; that we have the answer to whatever theological question and extreme moral dilemma we might be face by. But the truth is that we don’t; we are works in progress not just in terms of how we behave, but even in terms of how we believe. In this sense, for many Christians having faith in a constant prayer saying, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24), and this is a good place to start.
But we go even a step further. For example, this morning we welcome James into the family of the Church, as he comes to the Lord supported by the faith of his parents and godparents, and by the faith of all God’s people in this place. James cannot articulate faith in God, but God accepts our faith, however great or small, on his behalf, and welcomes him in the number of his children. As James’ family, and as a wider congregation, all we need to do next is trying to grow in this faith, along with him, through grace, study, and prayer. Like Saint John, James will have occasions for his faith to mature, be strengthened, and confirmed in his own words; but in the meantime, we just need an open heart to believing and to be constant in prayer.
‘Jesus had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was’; or in a better translation, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (John 13:1)
Oftentimes preachers speak about the love Jesus shows for us by focusing almost entirely on the Cross; this is because the Lord’s death on Calvary is the greatest thing anyone has ever done for each one of us. Yet, the Cross did not come out of the blue, it was the climax of a life lived in generous self-giving for us. And tonight as we enter once again in the mystery of the Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection we are greeted by that love. Behind the suffering, the bloodshed, the nails, and the tears what we ought to see is love – not a romantic, sentimental, butterflies-in-the-stomach-causing sort of love, but the unmeasured and self-giving love of Jesus for us.
So I would like to draw your attention to just one aspect of that love. On this night when Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and gives himself to us completely in the holy food of the Eucharist, he does not avoid Judas; Jesus does not say “in a few minutes you are going to betray me, so I don’t care about you…” Instead, Jesus washes Judas feet and feeds him with the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Why?
One could say that he did so in order to give Judas a moral slap – if Jesus, into whose hands the Father had put all things, was ready and willing to perform the work of a servant, then how could Judas be so arrogant and deceitful? But this interpretation wouldn’t quite work, because the gospel tells us that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet to show them love, not moral superiority. Also, in this case, Jesus could have then prevented Judas from taking part in the Eucharistic meal, but noticeably, he did not.
No, I believe that Jesus washed the feet of Judas and welcomed him at his table to show him that he was not going to give up on him that easily. Judas may betray Jesus and be condemned for it, but Jesus would not betray Judas. And this is truly unmeasured love.
So let us transpose this gospel reading into our lives. We all fall into sin, great or small, on a daily basis. We all are tempted from time to time to turn our backs on the Church. But every time we fall or find ourselves tempted to betray Christ in favour of something else, Jesus does not turn us away. He is in the sacrament of the Eucharist, he is in the absolution of Confession, he is there for us; he does not exclude us and does not give up on us. And this is, once again, truly unmeasured love.
If we understood just this one simple truth, then we could also understand the words of our offertory hymn and learn to sing them as if they were our own;
Could I dare live and not requite / such love
- then death were meet reward:
I cannot live unless to prove / some love
for such unmeasured love.
(from 'O Bread of Heaven, beneath this veil')
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
This morning we come to the end of our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments by looking at the last two instructions – “two”, if we use the traditional numbering, or “last one”, if we used the Anglican.
‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbour’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’ (Deuteronomy 5:21)
These last two commandments are precisely the reason behind my preference for the traditional numbering over the Anglican one, which tends to lump together people, animals, personal belongings, and everything else under the Sun in the same precept.
In truth, there is a strong similarity between the two commandments, because both tell us not to unhealthily long after someone or something not available to us. But the Old Testament expressed this idea by using two distinct words in order to highlight the difference between the sense of desire we might experience towards someone else’s wife or husband, and the craving we might feel for something. Because, at the end of the day, a person (such as a wife) and a thing (such as a house or a field) do not belong in the same category and neither should the commandments controlling how we relate to them. The last commandment does mentions people, ‘you shall not desire your neighbour’s …male or female slave’ but only insofar as these servants – especially if numerous and capable – were seen as expressions of their master’s social status.
So, the ninth commandment is primarily a call to refrain from lusting after a person not available to us; whilst the tenth commandment forbids us from wrongly desiring anything whatsoever another person might possess. By keeping them both we would go a long way in keeping also the preceding eight rules because healthy, or orderly desires, lead to sound actions as well.
Conversely, failure to keep these two commandments can be understood in terms of the surreptitious vice of envy, or jealousy, which sooner or later will lead us to break the other commandments as well... But, if we were honest with ourselves, we would see that giving in to envy is a daily temptation for many of us – especially since we are surrounded by a culture where we are continually told that to be the object of envy is a great thing, a where envy of other people’s prosperity is the driving forces behind our consumerism, or at least behind most advertising campaigns.
But we would do well to resist this temptation. Envy is unbecoming to a Christian, ‘for just as rust destroys iron, so too does envy destroy the soul that has it’ (St Basil, Homily on Envy). It is a dangerous spiritual illness that makes our greed to grow exponentially. Under its effects we come to desire inappropriate relationships with people not available to us, and to crave the possession of things that do not belong to us. Envy can also drive us to feel distress at the prosperity of others, resentful towards those people that this disease has wrongly made out to be our rivals, and even to feel cheerful at their misfurtunes.
So what is the remedy against envy? And how can we keep the last two commandments? Sheer will-power can do only so much, but there are other two complementary ways to be immunised against envy. The first one is to take love as our yardstick once again. Loving our neighbours as ourselves will necessarily prevent us from coveting their fortunes in an attempt of making these our own. Furthermore, by loving our neighbours we will learn to exercise kindness, which is the habit diametrically opposed to envy. Instead of being distressed at the prosperity of others or happy at their demise, we will learn to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep [and to] live in harmony with one another’ (Rom 12:15-16)
The second way to root out envy and to keep the commandments is learning to depend on God’s Providence. I spoke about this a few weeks back, but putting our ultimate trust in Providence is truly an essential tool for overcoming envy – if we really make God’s love for us the foundation of our existence, then no-one else’s wealth, husband, wife, or social status will ever cause us to be envious. And eventually we will be able to genuinely say with St Paul,
‘we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these’ (1Tim 6:7-8).