4 May 2014
St Mary’s Hadlow
Luke 24:13-35 – The Road to Emmaus.
Heavenly Father, as we continue to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus in this season of Easter help us to walk with him day by day and to recognise him in the breaking of bread. Amen.
As most of you know I wasn’t here last week as I took a short post-Easter break. As part of that break I spent three days in a monastery in Hampshire, called Alton Abbey. At first Henry was quite impressed that I was going to spend three days with some monks, until he realised that they weren’t the sort of monks that teach Kung Fu.
The monks at Alton Abbey are Anglican and Benedictine – they are Anglican in the sense that they were founded in 1895 by a Church of England clergyman, originally as a community to house retired and destitute sea farers and they still come under the auspices of an Anglican bishop. And they are Benedictine because they follow the 1500 year old Rule of St Benedict in how they live and worship, in common with their Benedictine brothers and sisters in other denominations. Many of you will be familiar with the convent at West Malling that is a similar community for women.
I have been going to Alton Abbey for retreats since before I was ordained and I would highly recommend it and the concept of taking a retreat to anyone and everyone. Think of it as a pampering weekend for the soul. You join in the monastic cycle of services, and let me tell you that to hear the monks singing the psalms in plainchant and to let it wash over you is a beautiful experience, you join in their meals and recreation and can take plenty of time in quiet to read, pray, sleep and to rest in the presence of God.
For the last few years I have been gently exploring the idea of becoming an Oblate of Alton Abbey. Although there are only a handful of monks living full time in the Abbey they have over 100 Oblates. Oblates are essentially associate members of the community living lives in the outside world but seeking to conform their lives to the rule of St Benedict and the monastic pattern of work and worship. I spoke to the Oblate master whilst I was there and, as a first step towards becoming a probationer, he asked me to prepare a “Rule of Life” which is intended as a short document that sets out how one intends to live and to keep in balance the demands of family, work and prayer. Interestingly when I wrote the document and saved it on my laptop I mistyped “Rule of Life” and called it my “Rule of Love” and, actually, I think that is a much better title for it because it is all about making conscious space to show our love for our family, for God and for our vocation.
Some people ask me what the point of monasticism is and some wonder whether it is deeply selfish to hide oneself away in a monastery rather than being out in the ‘real world’ doing good works. Others may wonder what is the point of joining such a community either full time or as an Oblate. My answer is simply this – if you believe at any level in the transforming power of prayer, worship, dwelling on the word of God or the eucharist then the monastic life is like a power station fuelled by each of those things, 24/7 – and it is a power station that is there for us and which we can tap into for the benefit of ourselves and those around us. And, as St Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”
So, I have submitted my Rule of Love to the Abbey and I hope to pop back there soon to be admitted as a probationer. If I become a fully fledged Oblate in a year or so then you would be very welcome to come to Alton with me to see how my Kung Fu has progressed.
Now, you may be wondering what this little talk about what I did on my holidays has to do with today’s reading about the disciples encountering the risen Jesus whilst travelling on the road to Emmaus. On a prosaic level the answer may be nothing but on reflection it soon becomes clear that this wonderful story can, if we allow it, speak volumes to us about our pilgrimage through life and our appreciation, or otherwise, of the presence of Jesus.
The action of this story takes place on Easter Sunday – at the start of v.13 it says “Now that same day…” which is a direct continuation of Jesus’ resurrection and in v. 21 we are told that it is three days since the crucifixion and in v.22 that it was early that same morning that the empty tomb had been discovered. So although we are now two weeks since Easter Sunday we are still in the Easter season and today’s events are taking place on the first Easter day.
So on the day of the resurrection two of Jesus’ disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, about seven miles away. We know that one is called Cleopas and we also know from v.33 that neither of them was one of the 11 remaining apostles because they went back and spoke to the 11 later. We don’t know why they had left Jerusalem but it is quite feasible that they were running away – since the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus his followers were in real danger and perhaps they wanted to put a little distance between themselves and Jerusalem. It is clear that they had heard about the empty tomb and the woman’s tale of Jesus being alive but from their downcast nature it is also clear that they don’t believe it. After all, who can trust the testimony of grieving women?
These two disciples, Cleopas and the unnamed other, are walking along the road leading away from Jerusalem and they are discussing everything that has been happening – they may well have entered Jerusalem only a week before behind Jesus as the crowds shouted “Hosanna” and then, within days, seen their teacher and leader be arrested and executed like a criminal – they certainly have a lot to talk about as they leave town in a very different way to the way they entered.
And as they walk along discussing the events of that momentous week they are joined by a third man, whom they do not recognise. Like Mary who did not recognise the risen Jesus at first perhaps they are blinded by grief or fear or the sun or through disbelief or perhaps Jesus simply keeps himself from being recognised until the right time.
With feigned ignorance about the events they are discussing Jesus prompts the men to tell him what has happened. And they talk about Jesus as a powerful prophet who has been crucified and then, tellingly, they say: “…we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” These are disappointed followers – Jesus did not live up to their expectations and now, they think, he is dead.
And Jesus utters a wonderful rebuke:
“How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory!”
Jesus is making it clear that he is not a powerful prophet at all, rather he is the one about whom the powerful prophets spoke and that what has happened is not a disappointment of prophecy but a fulfilment of it. And then there is a marvellous but incredibly frustrating verse v.27
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself”
Wouldn’t it have been great to have that exposition from Jesus set out a bit more fully – it would certainly have saved a lot of work at college, but then that is probably the reason it is the way it is.
But in many ways this ministry of the word is a prologue to what happens around the supper table. When they reach their destination Jesus acts as if to continue but the disciples urge him strongly to stay and break bread with them. And that is exactly what he does:
“…he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him…” and then, mysteriously in the same sentence…”and he disappeared from their sight.”
And the disciples say: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
I love that phrase – hearts burning within us – because that is certainly something I feel whenever I encounter something of the holy or numinous and it is a phrase used by John Wesley in his famous Aldersgate Street experience: “I felt my heart strangely warmed”.
And despite having walked most of the day to get from Jerusalem to Emmaus the disciples get back up and go straight back to Jerusalem in a transformed state to seek out the 11 apostles and the others with them and they report how Jesus was recognised by them in the breaking of the bread.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, how often do we walk around downcast and obsessed with the events of our own life that we simply fail to recognise the presence of Jesus walking along beside us? The two disciples were so disappointed in the failure of Jesus’ ministry as they thought it should be that they did not recognise its success as God wanted it to be. How often do we set our own agenda to God rather than let God determine success or failure on his terms?
Wonderfully, beautifully, they encountered the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread, and I hardly need emphasis the sacramental nature of that encounter, but equally wonderfully and beautifully as he is recognised in the flesh so Jesus also disappears. As he said to Mary at the tomb – do not cling onto me but, rather, go and tell the others that I am risen.
Brothers and Sisters – on this pilgrimage through life let us never cease gathering together to listen to God’s word, in the expectation that our hearts will burn within us, and let us never stop gathering around the Lord’s table to break and share bread there, encountering Jesus in the sacrament and in one another and then going out and telling others that we have indeed met the risen Lord. Alleluia.