3rd Sunday of Easter 2020

Brian Reader

The road to Emmaus

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Luke 24:13-35

Many living today have never before experienced the difficult times that we are now facing. One of the things that Christians feel deeply is that we cannot attend Church and we miss the comfort which may be found in the Service of Holy Communion. However, it is not the first time that the Church has been in such a position. Throughout Christian history some Christian people have found themselves isolated from the sacramental life of the Church for all sorts of reasons, and particularly in times of plague, famine and warfare.

At such times the Church has encouraged people to make what is called a spiritual communion. It is a way of uniting yourself with Jesus and entering into communion with him even though you are not able to receive the sacrament itself. I hope that many of you partake in services at home, reading prepared words or joining in with a service on the radio, TV or online.

Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of two of Jesus’ followers on their way to Emmaus. One of the things that sometimes upsets people in the story of the resurrection, is that Jesus’ friends failed to recognise him. Why did this happen, and is this something that should concern us?

Despite the fact that Jesus had told them that he would return from the dead, his disciples did not understand this, and they had no idea what he would look like. In a similar way, it is not unusual, for us to ignore friends or simply fail to recognise them, especially if our thoughts are elsewhere. Let me give you an example. I was in Tesco’s the other week during the ‘lockdown’, when someone I knew by sight said ‘Hallo, how is your father keeping?’ This took me by surprise as had my father still been alive, he would have been 118 years old. So my reply was a feeble one: I just said, ‘I have no father’. 

Today’s gospel reading is my favourite resurrection story. No, it’s much more than a story, it is an account of what actually happened to two people as they walked along the road from Jerusalem. Nowhere does the Easter story speak to us as clearly as in Luke’s account of this walk to Emmaus. Imagine the scene. The bottom has dropped out of their world. They are wrapped up in their own thoughts, their friend and teacher Jesus, had been crucified like a common criminal. They couldn’t understand it. They were very dejected. And someone joined them – as the Good News Bible says, “they saw him, but somehow did not recognize him.”

Jesus said to them, “What are you talking about” And they answered, “Where have you been? Haven’t you heard about Jesus the prophet who they crucified? And we had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set Israel free! And now some of our friends have said that they have been told by angels that he is alive!” They were trying to make sense out of what had happened, but Jesus had the answer. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

We are lucky, we also have the New Testament to help us, but Jesus was able to give them a Bible study on their journey using just the Old Testament. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Jesus used scriptures to make sense out of what had happened, and we too today can use the Bible to help us when we are disheartened and worried, and the Holy Spirit will guide and help us. But Jesus will only come into our lives if we are ready and willing to accept him.

As they approached the village, Jesus acted as if he were going further, but they invited him to stay. So he went in to stay with them, and he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him.

Jesus, from the time of the Last Supper, has left us a positive and practical act that we can follow. It has come down to us for almost 2000 years and, although today we cannot join with other Christians in the act which we do in ‘remembrance of Him’, we can join in simply as we pray, so that we can come near to Him, recognise Him as our risen Lord and Saviour; and in that way Jesus can feed and sustain us in the days ahead.

The Gospel tells us that the disciples got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. For them despondency and mourning are now things of the past. Let’s imagine what would have happened if it had been us… We would just have finished a seven-mile hike from Jerusalem. It was evening, the sun would have set, and we haven’t finished our meal yet. Yes, we would have been pleased and overjoyed. But to go back to Jerusalem tonight? No, let’s get some rest, and go tomorrow when it’s light. Not so his true disciples, they got up and returned at once to Jerusalem to tell the others what had happened on the way and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.

And that same Jesus relates to us in the world today. So let us take four lessons from the reading:

  1. Sometimes we fail to recognise Christ as he works in the world today. We ask, “Why does God allow this to happen?” We fail to realise that it has doubtless been a consequence of our own poor choices and selfishness and carelessness collectively as human beings that has brought this world to the state it is today, but Jesus has not given up on the world.
  2. We have the scriptures to help us to understand and by reading the Bible, the Holy Spirit is able to teach and direct us.
  3. Jesus left us a ceremony where usually we can join together as his disciples did at the last Supper. Today, alone or with others we can join in a spiritual communion. This can be a special time when we not only remember, but we are able to recognise and become part of Christ here on earth.
  4. We are Christ’s hands and feet on earth today and we should be ready to do his bidding whenever he calls us and to be always looking for opportunities to spread the Gospel, the good news, of his glorious resurrection.

O Lord Jesus, we know that you are alive today. Help us to look for you and recognize you in the world about us.
Help us to read and appreciate our Bibles more, and send your Holy Spirit to guide us in the way of all truth.
Be with us as we make our spiritual communion today and help us to make coming to your table a regular habit.
Lord, show us what you would have us do in the way of sharing the good news of your love and salvation for all.
And please, Lord, help us to act when your time is right and not put off till tomorrow what we should be doing today.

Amen.

Passion Sunday

Brian Reader

A sermon prepared for Passion Sunday, the beginning of Passiontide, and the last two weeks of Lent leading up to Easter. It is based on the Gospel of Saint John Chapter 11, verses 1-45:

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

We all get disappointed in this life when we think that friends have let us down, and if you are like me, then you too may show your annoyance. Did you feel annoyed like Martha that Jesus did not come immediately he got the message about his friend’s illness? But how did Jesus receive the message, and how did they know where he would be? We will never know for sure, but according to the previous chapter of John’s Gospel he had been to the place on the Jordan where John the Baptist had been baptising and first met Jesus. One thing we can be sure of is that they didn’t have mobile phones to make immediate contact! So we don’t know how long the message took to reach him. So why did Jesus not go at once? Perhaps he knew that his friend was already dead! I don’t believe for a second that Jesus was delaying so he could then do an even greater miracle of healing.

When I have difficulty trying to unravel a passage from the bible, as well as praying, I also read a commentary by Bishop Tom Wright on the subject, which usually gives a different point of focus. The bishop believes that the story gives us an insight into prayer. We pray for justice and peace, – for prosperity and harmony between nations and races, and still it hasn’t happened. Why? God doesn’t play games with us. His ways are not our ways. His timing is not our timing. One of the most striking reminders of this is in verse 6 of the passage. When Jesus got the message from the two sisters, the cry for help, the emergency-come-quickly appeal, he stayed where he was for two days. He didn’t even mention it to the disciples. He didn’t make preparations to go. He didn’t send messages back to say ‘we’re on our way: He just stayed there. And Mary and Martha, in Bethany, watched their beloved brother die. What could be harder than that?

So what was Jesus doing? If we think about the rest of the story we can find the answer. He was praying. He was seeking to find the will of his father. He wanted to do what was right. The disciples were right: the Judaeans had been wanting to stone him, so surely he wouldn’t think of going back just yet?

Bethany was, and is, a small town near Jerusalem, on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. Once you’re there, you’re within easy reach of the holy city, and who knows what would happen this time if he had returned.

It’s important to realize that this wonderful story about Lazarus, one of the most powerful and moving in the whole Bible, is not just about Lazarus. It’s also about Jesus, and when Jesus thanks the father that he has heard his prayer, I think he’s referring to the prayers he prayed during those two strange, silent days in the wilderness across the Jordan. He was praying for Lazarus, but he was also praying for wisdom and guidance as to his own plans and movements. Somehow the two were bound up together. What Jesus was going to do for Lazarus would be, on the one hand, a principal reason why the authorities would want him out of the way. But it would be, – on the other hand, – the most powerful sign yet, in the sequence of ‘signs’ that marks our progression through this gospel, of what Jesus’ life and work was all about, and of how in particular it would reach its climactic resolution. The time of waiting, therefore, was vital. As so often, Jesus needed to be in prayer exploring the father’s will in that intimacy and union of which he often spoke. Only then would he act – not in the way Mary and Martha had wanted him to do, but in a manner beyond their wildest dreams.

This story is all about the ways in which Jesus surprises people and overturns their expectations. He didn’t go when he received the sisters’ message. But he did eventually go, although the disciples warned him not to. He spoke about ‘sleep’; meaning death, and the disciples thought he meant ordinary sleep. And, in the middle of the passage, he told them in a strange little saying that people who walk in the daytime don’t trip up, but people who walk around in the darkness do. What did he mean? He seems to have meant that the only way to know where you were going was to follow him. If you try to steer your course by your own understanding, you’ll trip up, because you’ll be in the dark. But if you stick close to him, and see the situation from his point of view, then, even if it means days and perhaps years of puzzlement, wondering why nothing seems to be happening, you will come out at the right place in the end. There is a great deal that we don’t understand, and our hopes and plans often get thwarted. But if we go with Jesus, even if it’s into the jaws of death, we will be walking in the light.

The prayer of Jesus at the grave begins with thanksgiving as all prayer should; we take too much for granted. But if, like the Psalmists or Job, you have a complaint about arbitrary injustice or the unfairness of it all, it is right to tell him so. Martha certainly spoke her mind, and, feeling neglected, bluntly reproached Jesus. A prayer of protest is quite proper. Prayer is a dialogue of learning; in the stillness you learn more about yourself, and God, and the way things really are. You may come to understand, ‘Why should it happen to me?’, is answered with ‘Why should it not?’, and ‘Why me?’ becomes ‘Why not me?’ ‘Jesus wept’ is not an oath; it expresses his grief at the death of his friend and the distress of his sisters; for John it stresses the reality of the Incarnation. This man is truly flesh and blood, who understands a cry of pain and anguish, and shares the pain and hurt of bereavement. If ever you are almost overwhelmed by grief, he understands and shares; and comes to you as he came to Martha and Mary. The long story about Lazarus (whose name so aptly means ‘blessed by God’) is the crowning sign of victory over death. Here Lazarus is dead and buried and decaying and this resuscitated corpse is a further sign:

Jesus not only speaks of the word of life but he himself is the Resurrection (Anastasis)

Often we hear a voice that reminds us that in the midst of life we are in death; but Jesus’ commanding voice insists: In the midst of death we are in life. Don’t worry about what happens when you die for he is Resurrection. And there is more to come. Offering you a chalice, a minister may say: ‘The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life,’ – in other words – keep you where you already are. That’s John’s new theology and an understanding after his sixty years of prayer and meditation. Eternal life is here and now; we have passed from death to life already. Yet sometimes you may feel half-dead through bereavement or despair, divorce, or disappointment, or redundancy or being told about a life threatening illness for yourself or someone close to you and yet you find a new lease of life that seems like resurrection, a life that is fuller and richer, more satisfying and fulfilling, eternal in quality as well as quantity, here and now. I certainly found that when working in a hospice.

As Easter makes plain, God is in the business of raising the dead. Life is a succession of deaths and resurrections; and when you come to the end of your days and he leads you through death into Life, it will be but one more in a whole series of resurrections.

Lord Jesus, give us the courage and strength to follow you,
especially when times are hard,
so that we may experience your love
and help through all our days.

Amen