Third Sunday of Easter, 4 May 2014, St Mary, morning

Reading Luke 24.13–35

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

So, is this a Christian country, or not? Yes, said David Cameron, just before Easter. No, said some prickly secularists, who claimed it fosters ‘alienation’ and ‘division’ to say it is. Then various British Muslims, Jews and others said, ‘Yeah, it is, really,’ and didn’t sound too alienated by the thought, one or two adding that it was actually quite a good thing. Now this is a game we can all play – feel free to have a go after the service – because ‘Christian country’ can mean a lot of things, some of which are true of the UK and some of which aren’t.

Ex-Archbishop Rowan Williams has had a turn, saying that we are a ‘post-Christian’ country, which – again – could mean about as many things as being post-modern society. One thing he thinks it means is that ‘the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian.’ Britain, he says, is ‘haunted’ by Christianity, in the way you might talk of a ‘haunting melody’ that ‘hangs around, persistently.’ I once heard a preacher put it more strongly. ‘The killing of Jesus,’ he said, ‘is relentlessly contemporary’: it doesn’t so much hang around – even persistently – as keep stepping into our world and asking us questions – see the revived interest in Monty Python’s Life of Brian; see that more interesting film, Calvary, see the twenty thousand people in Trafalgar Square two weeks ago for a passion play.

For the despairing couple on the Emmaus Road this morning, Jesus is no longer their contemporary, for he is gone (something the stranger who falls in beside them seems oddly ill-informed about) yet he haunts them, and not in good way: his death and defeat persistently hangs around them: ‘We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.’

Who are these people? One is called Cleopas. He may be the Cleopas who is the husband of Mary, one of the women at the foot of the cross in John’s Gospel (John 19.25), so this might be Mr and Mrs Cleopas walking home together, haunted. But it doesn’t matter who they are. And where is the place they are going to, Emmaus? Nobody knows, though various places near Jerusalem claim the title. And that’s fine, too. The story has a strangeness about it that suggests to me that it’s rooted in an experience of actual people, but we go on reading this story because those people could be you, me, anyone, and it could be anywhere. It can be anywhere, that moment of disclosure, when the penny drops and you get what it means for the risen Christ to be with us. It can be here, now, this morning.

The Emmaus story is the haunting melody of this and every Sunday morning. Its pattern is embedded in the shape of what we do here. We start with

Meeting ‘The Lord be with you.’ Like those two disciples, we can arrive at church haunted; the disappointments and failures of the last week hang about us, we are drained, just about managing to keep going; and the Lord comes alongside us, meets us where we are, as we are, like Jesus does on the road. Then comes

Confession As soon as they get the chance, the two people on the road pour out their story to the stranger: Jesus’ condemnation and death; their disappointment, confusion, frustration, perhaps guilt too. And so do we. ‘Lord, hear us and help us,’ we just said, as we tried to hand over all that heavy stuff. God’s answer is

Absolution God takes it; lifts it from our shoulders – ‘May…God…forgive you and free you’ as the service puts it. And now we aren’t so burdened, we can attend properly to what comes next.

Story On the road, Jesus interprets to them ‘the things about himself in the scriptures’. Here, through our Bible readings and sermon, through the re-affirmation of our faith history in the Creed, and through the linking of that with the needs of others in the Prayer of Intercession, through all this, God puts us back in touch with the story of salvation. God tells us what we need to know, reminds us of what we already know, draws to the surface what we already believe, brings new vision out of old words. All that is in preparation for

Encounter It’s when the bread is broken that they see. And when the bread is broken here our eyes are now ready to see that simple act for what it is – the feast of God, celebrated in Christ’s own, real presence. But even that precious moment of encounter, of most holy communion, is incomplete in itself. It must lead to

Sending At Emmaus, the impact of that encounter sends the two disciples rushing back to Jerusalem – at what time of night? – to share what they have experienced. So we too, nourished and strengthened, are to be sent out: ‘We are raised to new life with Christ. Go in his peace.’

The fourfold Emmaus pattern

    1. starting where and as we are
    2. being put back in touch with the story
    3. a moment of encounter…
    4. which leads to mission

is not only the shape of the Eucharist but the rhythm of Christian discipleship. It is, for instance what the Exploring Christianity course has done. Come back tonight to support our candidates from the group – from St Mary’s, Alice Eastaugh as she is confirmed and Ros Constantine as she renews her baptismal promises.

A Christian country? (mused Rowan Williams) A Christian country as a nation of believers? No. A Christian country in the sense of…being…saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it? Yes.

But the vision will vanish unless there are people who find in their own lives this sacramental bridge between past and present – for us, between Emmaus and Richmond. The story of salvation is an idle tale unless it tells of what God is doing among us now, as well what God did back then. Here, we aren’t putting on a passion play, we don’t just recall an ancient story, we celebrate a present reality, the God who meets us on our road, listens to us, puts us right, gives us heart, makes himself known to us and sends us out with a purpose. A modern Christian thinker puts it like this (in the wordy way theologians have)

The Church empowered by the Spirit is itself part of the message it proclaims. It is a fellowship which actualises God’s love in its everyday life, and in which justice and righteousness are made present and operative.

Or, in Mr and Mrs Cleopas’ more pithy words, we can speak of our hearts burning within us as the Lord walks with us along the road.

 

Notes

This sermon owes much to one of Bruce Saunders, Canon Pastor of Southwark Cathedral, preached there on this Sunday in 2008.

Christian nation?

Cameron bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-16224394

Secularists telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/10777417

Williams telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10789740

The Church empowered David Bosch, Transforming Mission, Orbis, page 517, possibly quoting Jürgen Moltmann.

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