Imagine not recognising someone whom you had known for a few years and had seen on a regular basis! This is precisely what happens in the gospel passage for this week, near the end of St Luke’s gospel. Two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem, the place where Jesus had been crucified and buried. They are downcast and deep in conversation when they are joined by a stranger who asks them what they were discussing. When they pour out their story and tell of their shattered hopes and dreams, the stranger does not commiserate with them but declares them to be foolish! In most circumstances this would sound rude, but here it is a moment of honesty that opens up a conversation - one that would have a lasting impact on those two men.
The stranger delved into the Hebrew scriptures that we call the Old Testament. These would have been familiar to those two men. But now it was as if they were hearing them for the first time. Everything in those passages shed light on Jesus, the person they thought they had known and understood but who now appeared a stranger to them. They were so intrigued that when they reached the village of Emmaus, their destination, they asked the man to stay with them.
As the spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen points out, the man who was their guest now becomes the host. He takes bread and breaks it to share with them and suddenly they realise whose company they are sharing. In that moment of recognition he disappears from their sight but they no longer feel bereft. They acknowledge how, when he was speaking to them about the scriptures, their hearts were burning within them. Also they share their recognition of Jesus at the breaking of bread. Filled with enthusiasm they return to Jerusalem to find that others too had encountered the risen Lord.
This strange but beautiful passage from Luke’s gospel invites us to consider why it might have been that the men failed to recognise Jesus. When Jesus calls them “foolish men” he is not condemning them but he is drawing a line under an old story that was no longer a source of life. Their expectations of Jesus as an earthly liberator had to die with Jesus on the cross. When Jesus, risen from death, met his disciples once again they had to get to know him as if for the first time. No wonder they failed to recognise who it was. Jesus is now leading them into a much greater reality and a vision of the future that they could never have dreamed of.
This passage invites us to consider whether our own ideas about Jesus are too small. One thing is for sure: Jesus will never be contained within our own limited outlook on life and the world. Mary Magdalene found she could not cling to him and neither could the two disciples on the road to Emmaus keep him as their own personal house guest. Christ is always leading us beyond the narrow horizons of our worldly vision.
In every Eucharist we are invited to bring our story before God, just as the disciples on the road poured out their story of loss and sadness. We come to acknowledge our failures, our disappointments, our sadness and fears and to hear the reassurance that God forgives us and loves us. We come to hear the word of God, not just as a familiar old story, but as if for the first time as it tells the story of Jesus but also, in some way, our own story too. Then we come to share in the action of Jesus himself, breaking the bread and sharing his own life among us. Do not our hearts burn within us? Do we not recognise who it is that comes alongside us on our journey and as we join together as the Church, distanced as we might be at this time?
Cleopas and his companion came to know that the journey they had shared with Jesus really did not end in death. As much as we might somehow like to return to a time in the past when we imagine everything to have been okay, we know we cannot do this. For the disciples, the cross and the empty tomb meant that they had to say goodbye to all that. But the wonderful thing is that by his resurrection, Our Lord heals our memories and opens up for us a future of hope and of new life. At this terrible time, let us keep that in our sights.
Let us pray: “Stay with us, Lord, on our journey and be our companion on the way. In your mercy, increase our hope and inflame our hearts, so that we may recognise you in the scriptures and in the breaking of bread. Amen.”
Well, spring is here and Easter has arrived. It doesn’t feel very much like it normally does though! As we face a pandemic there is no rush for the coast or other outdoor beauty spots. No getting together with groups of friends and relatives. So many things feel different at this time. The signs of spring are all around us, but our outlook is not the same.
Maybe, at least in part, this might take us a bit closer to the experiences of the first Easter. We know how that story worked out and we know how it did not end with the death of a good man upon a cross. Yet it took the disciples of Jesus some time to recognise that this was so. All they knew at first was that they had suffered a terrible loss. For some of them, Simon Peter included, their self-image seemed to have been shattered. They had to pick up the pieces, bit by bit and start over again. The world around them seemed to keep on as normal but for them nothing felt the same any more.
We can capture something of Mary Magdalene’s distraught tone as she reported to the Beloved Disciple how the body of Jesus had been taken away. He and Simon Peter ran to the tomb and Peter went inside. There was no sighting of the risen Jesus at that point in time and yet St John’s gospel leads us to believe that something shifted in the consciousness of the disciples: “Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
At this time we look out upon a changed landscape. It is not difficult to experience fear or sadness as we hear the news and look at the statistics. We don’t really know when this will end. Throughout Holy Week the liturgy and Scripture readings have invited us to enter into the experience of dereliction as we survey the Cross on which Jesus gave up his life. But that same liturgy and those same readings do not leave us there. They are our guide in an unfamiliar situation as we seek to find our bearings and to recognise signs of hope and new life.
For Christians the empty tomb with the stone rolled away and a visit from a group of bewildered disciples is where it all began. For the first disciples, to borrow the words from one of the prefaces used at the Eucharist, “life is changed, not ended.” Nothing would be the same. This was because the Lord of life could not be held captive in a tomb. That life emerged once again and gradually this became known to the disciples in their daily circumstances and encounters.
There was a peace and a joy at work here which gradually drove out fear and gloom. God really can bring life out of death. The power of the Resurrection breaks the bonds of sin and tears apart the chains of death. That new life which we experience through faith in Christ is like a light in the darkness, which, as St John reminds us in the preface to his gospel, the darkness could not overcome.
The darkness will not overcome us either. Even now, in these troubling circumstances which we face, there is always a reason for hope. The life of God, revealed in Jesus, is stronger than death. By our sharing through faith in the life of Christ, we too are partakers of his risen life. The love of God overcomes everything that might drive us apart. For this reason, even in difficult circumstances we can rejoice.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed, alleluia! Happy Easter.
“His state was divine, yet Christ did not cling to his equality with God… he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” (Phil. Ch 2: 6;8)
The Passion of St Matthew takes us on the journey with Jesus into Jerusalem, from the enthusiastic welcome he received, through to the people turning against him and then his trial, suffering and death. In this account we see how shallowness and celebrity worship meet with humility and sacrifice. We see too how the worst and most cruel aspects of our humanity encounter the grace and mercy of God.
This year we have the strangest Holy Week I have ever known. A month ago I would never have dreamed of celebrating it in the dining room with an online congregation and no one else present. We would not have chosen a time like this, but can we learn from it?
Among all the bad news of recent times there have been some very positive things too. For once it is not the rich, the powerful and the famous who are getting all the attention. Clapping the people who work for the NHS and all the carers and key workers is becoming something of a pattern for Thursday evenings. These are the people who might often be taken for granted unless we or our loved ones suddenly need them. Now it seems that many people do need their care and thank God that they are there for us.
This is a time that challenges our priorities. The message of the Scriptures contains a challenge for us too. What is most important in our lives: the worship of fame, money and possessions - or the acts of love, devotion and care that build us up as human beings? Jesus spoke truth to power and he wasn’t taken in by people’s shallow praise. He gave us an example of love and service that has continued to inspire people throughout history and in our own time too.
During Holy Week we hear of how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, taking on the kind of action that was normally reserved for the most menial servant. From Matthew’s gospel Ch 20: 28, Jesus said: “…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus turns our world view upside down. In him we see how humble service, rather than being something to be despised or taken for granted, is made noble and holy. Jesus, who was despised and rejected and then put to death, was raised to the heights of heaven and is a beacon of hope for all who look to him.
So for now our heroes are the people who are rushed off their feet in hospitals and care homes; the people who take the housebound to doctor’s appointments, fetch their shopping and their prescriptions; paramedics, ambulance drivers, police and the fire service; providers of public services; people who stack shelves in supermarkets and serve people. Often those people are hardly noticed and at times have to deal with abuse.
When all this is over, and I’m sure we all long for that, what will have changed? Will we still be taken in by the shallow things the media invites us to worship, or will we be focused on more important human values?
Christians do not worship a distant God, who is remote from our lives. In the face of the “Servant King” who is Jesus, we see the living God. May we never lose sight of his glory.
Keep Safe and Well
FROM THE PULPIT
As we begin this time of Advent the Scriptures portray a mood of expectation and hope. At the darkest time of the year Advent shines a light in the gloom and brings a quiet assurance that the brokenness of humanity can be healed by the coming of a Saviour. There will be struggles to face, but through our faith we need not lose hope. The light of Christ dispels all darkness.
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FROM THE PULPIT
When was the last time you lost something that matters to you? Only the other day I thought I had lost a wallet and was stomping around in a very grumpy state of mind. Susan reminded me to look again in the first place I had thought it might be and you know what? There it was. The grumpiness took a few moments moments to subside, but then afterwards I was filled with relief.
If that is how it feels when we find an object, then how much more are we relieved and filled with joy when it is a person who is found. In the news and on social media I see images of young people and sometimes older people who are missing and the pleas that go out to the public to look out for them. A few years ago I spoke with a man whose son had gone missing a couple of years earlier in his early teens. He had last been seen on a CCTV image, boarding a train to London. I can only begin to imagine the distress and desperation that this must bring. Even today he has still not given up hope of someday finding his son. I pray that if and when he does, he will be found alive. I’m quite sure that if he is, his father’s response will not be anger and recrimination but relief and joy.
In the gospel Jesus tells two short parables. One is about a woman who found a lost coin. We might find that her happiness was a bit excessive in throwing a house party, but we can understand the delight in finding what she thought had been lost or stolen. Then he tells of a shepherd who defies all logic by leaving behind 99 sheep in order to look for one that was lost. This would probably have been an exceptional shepherd, but a very devoted one nonetheless.
The context of those two parables was the judgemental attitudes which Jesus encountered among the Pharisees and scribes when he was spending time among the sinners who were seeking him out. Jesus did not reject these people or give them a stern lecture, but he radiated the loving presence of the Father who welcomes the lost son or daughter. Unlike many of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus did not wait to see perfection in other people before he reached out to them and welcomed them back home.
Jesus then moves on to tell a longer story, whose message has entered into our cultural memory as that of the Prodigal Son. The one who left behind his father and his home and who blew his inheritance on earthly pleasures now returns home. He is met first of all by his father, not with condemnation but with unconditional love. His brother reserves a frostier kind of welcome. In fact he doesn’t welcome his brother home at all but launches into a tirade against his father, ridiculing him for his lavish generosity.
To those who heard the story, the message was very clear. The father in the parable is an image of God. The lost son is a symbol of all those human beings who have wandered away from God and who have experienced a sense of emptiness and confusion. The older brother, in contrast, represents those who believe themselves to be beyond reproach and who reserve for themselves the right to judge others, but whose hearts have grown hard and who have lost light of the living God. Both these sons are lost, but just in different ways.
I don’t think that Jesus is saying that there are two different categories of people. Probably at different times of life most people can experience being lost in both those ways. If we look hard enough we can perhaps identify, even if it is only in a diluted way, with both sons. Human beings can be wilful and selfish, but they can also be self-righteous and judgemental.
What this parable tells us is that God never gives up waiting for our return and is ready to welcome us back home. St Paul speaks of his own overwhelming experience of conversion and of the mercy of God in his first letter to Timothy. His message is that if he, a persecutor of the followers of Christ, could be forgiven, then this would be a powerful testimony to generations to come. No one is outside the scope of God’s mercy. We need to experience for ourselves the way in which God has been merciful in our own lives. Then, as Christians, we are called to show that same attitude of mercy and compassion to the people who cross our path.
One hymn which seems to sum up the message we are called to share is: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.”
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
This is a much better message for the world than the cold and judgemental attitude of the scribes and Pharisees. It was Jean Vanier who said:
“The person in misery does not need a look that judges and criticises, but a comforting presence that brings peace, hope and life”
How often have we heard of some misfortune or passed someone on the street and thought: “Well, they’ve obviously brought it on themselves”?
It is so much easier to judge than to display unconditional love. That great spiritual writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
Let us pray for that same grace, that we may seek out the lost, and if we feel lost ourselves to remember that we believe in a God who actively seeks us out. The Lord is reaching out to us now… Let us also pray for grace not to judge but rather, that we might find it in ourselves to love as God loves us. Amen.
A message from Father Richard
I remember that at Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan, now Duchess of Sussex, over a thousand ordinary members of the public were invited to be present for the occasion. My own invitation must have been lost in the post. To be fair though, some of the people invited had done some praiseworthy things. One was a former soldier who lost a leg in an accident out in Afghanistan and another was a schoolgirl survivor of the Manchester concert bombing, who had raised money for other survivors. We hear a lot about the privileged people who normally get the spotlight and we know too that there are plenty of unsung heroes in our world. So it is good when such people are not overlooked and overshadowed by the more obvious celebrities.
This brings us to today’s gospel, where Jesus is proposing something that goes much further and much deeper than the worldly example I have just given. It would seem that he has been invited along so that the Pharisees, who were unsettled by his teachings, could appraise him away from the crowds. They watch him closely, but Jesus is unperturbed and he watches them in return. He notices that when people were coming in they were making for the most prestigious positions, nearest to the host, and so he tells them a parable.
It can be embarrassing enough if we go to an event and we inadvertently sit in a place reserved for someone else. How much more embarrassing would it be if we deliberately chose to take a front seat and were then asked in front of other people to move further back to make way for someone more important than ourselves? The parable Jesus tells sheds a light on the insecurity and anxiety that status-seeking can produce in people. People with sharp elbows are striving for recognition and for the highest place. There are times when that tendency can lead to humiliation. Far better, then, to take the humble approach, as Jesus suggests. “Come up higher, friend” sounds much better than: “I’m sorry, but you are sitting in someone else’s place.
Of course, this teaching was not meant to be some kind of lesson in dinner party etiquette, but a teaching about life. There is nothing wrong with trying to be the best we can or with being competitive. What Jesus has to say really speaks to a tendency towards entitlement and self-importance. In order to make sure we always have the exalted place, we have to be prepared to step on other people and to push them down the pecking order. This happens in all walks of life and it can even happen in the life of the Church. Jesus points out the futility of jostling for position in God’s kingdom. There we may find that it is the poor and the marginalised who are the first and that the egotists are left behind.
Humility probably wasn’t a popular concept in the lifetime of Jesus and I’m not sure that it is now. The people who are most admired and emulated are often the rich and the ambitious types. Humility is seen as weakness. This is not how Jesus presents it though. There is a quiet strength in recognising that our self-worth and our true potential is not achieved by comparison with other people. Putting others down does not make us greater. It certainly doesn’t bring us peace and lasting happiness, but instead keeps us insecure and always threatened by the position of our neighbours. Jesus wants us to recognise that we find the peace we long for through our closeness to God and our concern for others.
As we are told in the passage from Ecclesiasticus: “The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly.” Being thankful for what we have and being concerned for the well-being of others can bring us joy and peace. There are so many people who are overlooked by society but who are precious in God’s sight. Giving up something of what we have to serve their needs makes us aware of the ways in which we are blessed and of the gifts that God has placed into our hands. This is not weakness. Through this we identify with Jesus, who was not concerned with status, but who willingly gave of what he had, even his own life, and opened up for us the way to everlasting treasure.
Today we have been invited to share in the Eucharistic meal. In the words form the letter to the Hebrews:
“But what you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole Church in which everyone is a “first-born son” and a citizen of heaven.”
So to God we are made first-born sons and daughters in Christ. No need to worry about our status, because it is secure with God. All we have to do is discover for ourselves the joy of knowing God and serving one another.
I am a rather old Saint.