Sermon: Third Sunday of Easter, 30 April 2017, St John the Divine

Reading  Luke 24.13-35

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers

Today, the day of the Annual Church Meeting in all three churches in the parish, followed this evening by the RTM APCM, is traditionally a day for reviewing the past year, looking to the year ahead, and also a day to give thanks for the ministry of this church community at St John’s, which continues faithfully throughout the year in numerous different ways. I promise I will come on to all that in just a moment, but, if you will indulge me, I can’t resist a brief comment on today’s Gospel reading, one of my own favourite Bible stories and one which seems to me endlessly fascinating.

What is going on here? If these two travellers on the Emmaus road were disciples, why didn’t they recognise Jesus as their companion, and why did he disappear from their sight as soon as they realised who he was? The two men were clearly disappointed that the Jesus story appeared to be over. ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’, they said. Now, it seemed there was little else for it but to go home and try to pick up the pieces of ordinary life once again. But this encounter changed their story dramatically: they hadn’t expected it to be like this, but the Jesus story wasn’t finished at all. Into their dispirited disappointment comes a revelation which tells them beyond doubt who their companion is. And they come to know him in two ways: first as they reflect on how he had opened the scriptures to them as they journeyed and, second, in the breaking of the bread.

As we acknowledge each time we come to church, Word and Sacrament are two key ways in which the divine is made known to Jesus’s disciples of every generation since that first Easter, and both carry inestimable value. That’s not to say, of course, that God cannot be encountered in many other ways as well. Indeed, ever since the Enlightenment, a church which relegates human reasoning in the search for truth and relevance may not hold much appeal for contemporary seekers, those, we might say, who are on their own symbolic road journeys, wondering what it’s all about, questioning, looking for meaning and purpose. It is our reason which enables us to explore revelation. Indeed, the classic three-part Anglican approach to divine revelation takes very seriously the balance between scripture, tradition and reason. And to those three we might also add the importance of our ongoing human experience.

Too often in the church there have been hidden motives when it comes to trying to communicate God to others. A package of dogma has been presented which implies that, if you believe this and do it this way, the goal of your journey – indeed, your very salvation – is assured. Only last week, someone told me their local priest had told his congregation he considered his primary job was to get them to heaven. My own take, for what it’s worth, is that the focus needs to be not on the end of the journey, which is essentially God’s business, and which we cannot talk about with absolute certainty in any case. Rather, it should be on the journey itself, and on accompanying travellers on the road. Few people express the paradox more memorably than T.S. Eliot in ‘East Coker’: ‘In order to arrive at what you do not know, you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. In order to arrive at what you are not, you must go through the way in which you are not, and what you do not know is the only thing you know, and where you are is where you are not.’ Something of a riddle, isn’t it? And it bears reading a number of times to try to discern the real point. Jesus disappeared from the disciples’ sight, perhaps symbolising that if we think we have already reached the destination of the journey of faith, we, in fact, find ourselves having to move on again. That’s the nature of the new life of resurrection. To summarise, be willing to be surprised by the journey, and how God might be encountered. And don’t be surprised if the story turns out differently from the one you either predicted or expected.

Can I invite you just for a moment to take another look at this morning’s collect on the front of the pew sheet. Its central point – sight of the risen Jesus and confidence in his presence with us – finds its origins in John’s Gospel, when the writer describes Jesus’s appearance to the disciples on the evening of the day of resurrection and we are told they were glad to see the Lord. Our story from Luke this morning brings Jesus’s disciples to that same recognition, but by a slower and more tortuous route. Unlike John, the kind of seeing which Luke sets out to evoke depends less on the eye and more on a deeper level of perception. In fact, he goes as far as saying that the eyes of Cleopas and his companion were kept from recognising’ the stranger who walked the road to Emmaus with them. That blockage turns out to be the pivot on which this compelling story turns. As the two disciples on the road discuss recent events in Jerusalem, Jesus hears their bleak admission that their hope for a redeemer of Israel had come to nothing. There had been one last flicker of optimism when the women of Jesus’s circle found the tomb empty and heard from angels that he was alive. But, as Cleopas concludes, poignantly, ‘they did not see him’.

This is Jesus’s cue to help these two men see differently. He comments, somewhat wryly, that they are ‘slow of heart’, pointing out to them that at every stage scripture had been fulfilled and the story had not ended. They had witnessed the suffering; now the Messiah was about to enter into his glory. But still they failed to recognise more in their fellow traveller than the basic need of another human being for food and an overnight stay as daylight begins to fail. Their eyes are only opened when Jesus assumes the role of host. Instead of waiting to be offered bread by them, he himself takes bread, breaks it and blesses it. Although they see this with their own eyes, more significant is the recognition that joins this breaking and blessing to what Jesus did at the supper he had shared with his disciples only a few days previously. And at that very moment of understanding Jesus vanishes, and the two men are once more left pondering their experiences and wondering how they could have missed the knowledge that was growing as they walked: Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?

Word and sign, feeding and blessing, come together in this extraordinary scene, as Luke steers his readers towards an understanding of what it means to be part of a community whose most vivid shared reality is the breaking of bread. For this first generation of believers, it is when they invite the stranger to ‘Stay with us’ that the invitation becomes far more than merely a simple sleepover. Rather, it becomes a prayer of invitation to take up a permanent place in the human heart. And that is what the church of Jesus must pray and embody: Lord Jesus, alive for ever, stay with us.

Now, as promised! Two and a half years after I became the full-time priest here, I can honestly say it still feels like the greatest possible privilege to be sharing the journey of faith and to be breaking bread with this church community which has been so influential in my own life for so many years, long before my ordination, and since. We have a rich heritage, and a loyal, committed congregation. And just as well, for this ministry is the work of all the people of God, not just the priest.

The scope of this church’s ministry is gradually changing and increasing. Having my office base in the narthex means the church doors have been able to be open much more during the week. A surprising range of people come in, most of whom you’ll never see on a Sunday morning – sometimes foreign tourists visiting, or art/architecture fans, or local residents who’ve said they’ve never seen the church open before! Some need to talk to someone, as I discovered only on Friday afternoon when my sermon preparation slot disappeared in a lengthy conversation with someone in personal distress. Regular parishioners sometimes pop in, or those who come to be still, or to say a prayer, ask for a blessing, or light a candle. It is what I sometimes call ‘the ministry of presence’. But it isn’t just being inward looking or just about the building. We have made further connections with some of the commercial and community groups that use our premises during the week. And others with our neighbours – the Met. Police (chaplain), SPEAR (women’s project) Falcons School (now coming for RS classes as well as summer and Christmas concerts), and Christ’s School, whose staff and governors came here for their start of spring term Eucharist and, just before the Easter holidays, when 160 students and staff came to hear the story of Easter. Currently, we are exploring chaplaincy links with the local Air Force Air Cadets, which would add yet another dimension to the ministry of the church.

But we also have challenges, which is why I want to encourage each of you today to discern your own part in the life of St. John’s. Like most churches, we face significant cultural changes in society and also changes in patterns of church commitment, attendance and involvement. I want to encourage you that St John’s is currently doing more than merely holding its own. Quite the reverse, in fact. Attendance figures at services here have increased overall, as I discovered a few weeks ago when I sent off some old registers from the early 70s onwards. Baptisms and weddings have decreased, not surprisingly, and it must be said that the earlier generations, for whom weekly church attendance and full and active involvement were second nature, are gradually passing. So, in the context of your own busy lives, what skills, gifts, ideas and contributions can you bring to the ministry of St. John’s, because we are hugely dependent on volunteers for all sorts of things that need to be done, and it gets harder to find new volunteers when time is so precious to people.

It is important for me that SJD continues to be seen as an inclusive church which extends a welcome to everyone. I want us to embrace both the seasoned churchgoer as well as those who are genuinely seeking meaning for their lives and a community where they feel they can belong. An important component of that is the development of this church’s ministry of welcome, which is about much more than merely giving out the service books at the door. I’d like to see more people involved in this ministry and, in the coming weeks and months, I will offer some reflection and preparation on the welcoming ministry for those who would like to be part of it.

We need more people to join the rota for leading the prayers in our services. There are few roles more important than leading God’s people in prayer and, again, guidance and support are here to those interested in exercising this ministry. Also, as ever, there is a need for more singers in the choir, more helpers on the flower rota, more servers in the liturgy, more helpers in the Sunday School, more people to serve coffee after services, more readers of the lessons, more volunteers to help clean and polish. At the moment, we are over-reliant on a relatively small core of people who ensure that jobs get done and today is an appropriate day to acknowledge all the work that goes into keeping this church looking as good as it does, and to thank those who give so much time and effort to it. Frankly, we sometimes expect too much of them, for the work of running this church is the work of all of us.

I encourage you to stay for the annual meeting straight after the service. Just grab a coffee and come back, to give thanks for all that has been this past year and to elect and support those who are standing for office in the year to come. And let us be very conscious that all that we seek to do is for the glory of God and to serve people in the name of Jesus, our risen Lord, to whom we pray, as the disciples on the road to Emmaus prayed: Stay with us. And be made known to us in the breaking of bread.

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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