sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands
Acts 2: 14-41
1 Peter 1: 17-23
Luke 24: 13-35
Christ is Risen! Alleluia!
He is reisen indeed! Alleluia!
In the name of God, who creates, redeems and sustains us.
Two grieving disciples, making their way back to Emmaus. Their hopes have been betrayed. Jesus is dead. Even his body seems to have disappeared. An angel has told them then he lives, but there has been nothing yet to confirm that the angel was speaking truly. Two grieving disciples, followers of Jesus who has died, on their way to Emmaus.
And now they are joined by a stranger, a stranger who does not know their story, whom they are going to have to tell everything that has happened. And that is hard, so hard when all they can do is wish themselves back to how it was before. This stranger who doesn’t know, and with whom they are now going to have to share their grief, their uncertainty, their disappointment.
This stranger is well informed in other ways though. He can expound scripture. And he can even connect his reading of scripture to what has been happening to them, show them where it talks about Jesus’s life and death. He may be a stranger, a stranger who doesn’t know their story, but he still understands something about this Jesus they have been following. In fact, they don’t quite understand what he is saying.
But they offer him hospitality anyway, invite him to share their evening meal with them. They sit down together – and the stranger takes the bread, gives thanks for it, and shares it. And then they recognise him. In the breaking of the bread, in the gathering around the table, in the being together.
Luke seems in this story to be reflecting on the experience of his own community, telling us something of their priorities and how they understood themselves as a church, rooted in Old Testament scripture and exegesis, and sustained by the sharing of the Eucharist. But this is not just some kind of parable about Luke’s church; there is an ongoing and important message here for us too. Because the story begs the question, what would have happened if the disciples had ignored their stranger? If they had decided that they would not tell their story because he would not understand? If they had not invited them home with him, not opened their home to him, not shared their meal with him? What wold have happened?
I don’t know. But I don’t think it would have turned out this way. I think they would have remained trapped in their grief, would not have received the comfort his words offered even when they did not understand them, would not have recognised in this stranger their friend and companion, the resurrected Jesus.
This story of the encounter at Emmaus (and we have no idea where it is, by the way, no idea what sort of place it was) – this story of encounter reminds us how important it is to take time for each other, to be attentive to one another. We need to give each other time, so that friendships can grow and develop, relationships can deepen and bloom. We need to give each other time, to get to know one another, to recognise the gifts, the potential in each of us, not to judge from a knee-jerk reaction. We need to walk together, open ourselves up to each other. And part of that is about sharing the everyday. Walking together. Eating together. Sitting together. Being together. In learning to know one another better, taking time to know one another better, we also learn to know Christ better, take time to know Christ better.
Rowan Williams writes that it is this kind of encounter which defines the church.
The church is holy not because it is a gathering of the good and the well‐behaved, but because it speaks of the triumph of grace in the coming together of strangers and sinners who miraculously trust one another to join in common repentance and common praise.
For Rowan Williams, this is how our unity in Christ is experienced and proclaimed: “Holiness is always like this: God’s endurance in the middle of our refusal of him, his capacity to meet every refusal with the gift of himself.” This is the core of the encounter on the road to Emmaus, at that table in Emmaus: Christ’s gift of himself.
But the Emmaus story is also a story of a community rooted in hospitality. Margaret Guenther asks, “What happens when we offer hospitality?” And she responds: “We invite someone into a space that offers safety and shelter. … Hospitality is an occasion for story-telling with both tears and laughter … [it] is a gift of space both physical and spiritual.” Offering one another space; gifting space. The story of the Emmaus encounter reminds us just how important this is. In this space I encounter others and see them differently. And perhaps I may also learn to see myself differently too.
Nearly thirty years ago the priest and theologian Henri Nouwen wrote a very moving book about his decision to give up his professorship for theology at Harvard and move into a L’Arche community, a community in which people with and without learning disabilities share life together. In the epilogue he writes about this first months in the community, and reflects on how important it was to allow time for relationships to become established. Nouwen was asked to tend for his housemate Adam. “He was so vulnerable, I was afraid I would hurt him. … But slowly I got to know and love this stranger.” Rflecting later, he explained: “I started to realize that this poor, broken man was the place where God was speaking to me in a whole new way. … Adam taught me a lot about God’s love in a very concrete way. … he taught me that being is more important than doing, that God wants me to be with God and not to do all sorts of things to prove that I’m valuable. … that the heart is more important than the mind.” And, Nouwen reflected: “It wasn’t easy just to be with Adam. It isn’t easy to simply be with a person without accomplishing much.”
In getting to know Adam and others at Daybreak, Nouwen also discovered and came to understand “my own handicaps, my own struggles and my own anguish.” He came increasingly to believe that choosing a life in community, with others, and choosing a life with Jesus are “one and the same choice.”
I have just been re-reading Sally Magnusson’s account of her mother’s succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease, to dementia. Like Henri Nouwen, Sally Magnusson reflects powerfully on the importance of the time she and her sisters spent with her mother, and on the importance of personal contact. This process of accompanying deepened her love for her mother, even while it also showed her the depths of her own frustration, the extent of her own pain, the limits of her patience. In all of this, love was there, transforming the daily reality. There is something here of 1 Peter’s exhortation:
Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.
What Henri Nouwen learned at Daybreak and Sally Magnusson learned in accompanying her mother though her illness and to her death, seems to me to resonate deeply with the Emmaus story. These are stories which remind us that the most important thing is not to protect ourselves, not to pretend that everything is fine, not to cut ourselves off from those we encounter in our daily lives by not sharing what is going on for us. Rather, it calls us to be open with each other to walk the way together, to share in the everyday, and in doing so to speak of what is concerning or troubling us. As Nouwen Magnusson both admit, that can be very painful. But it is worth it.
This is all part of reminding ourselves that “faith is not some kind of security blanket, not padding to protect us from pain. It is rather the strength to bear pain for the sake of truthfulness.” We are reminded of this by Christ’s resurrection appearances elsewhere in Luke’s gospel. This is not a return to the pre-crucifixion Jesus, but a risen Christ who is marked by the wounds and scars of what was done to him.
The story of the disciples and the stranger who encounter one another at Emmaus tells us something important about the relationship between church and community. We need to have time for each other, to offer each other hospitality, to share with one about our pain and our grief. In the midst of their grief, their uncertainty, their doubt, in a meal shared together, the disciples recognise the risen Christ, encounter the risen Christ. Because they spend time together. Because they tell him their story. Because they invite him home. And because Christ offers himself to them – to us – over and over again until they – until we – recognise that it is indeed he.
 Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement, 136.
 Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening, 13.
 Henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak, 219.
 Ibid, 220. Compare also http://www.30goodminutes.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/354-henri-nouwen-program-3301.
 Ibid, 222.
 Te Deum 16.4.2013.