Friday, 4 April 2008

Word and sacrament Luke 24 36-49

The risen Jesus had appeared to the Emmaus disciples on the first day of the week in the exegesis of scripture and the breaking of bread. From that small beginning developed the tradition of making live the risen presence of Jesus in what became the two core elements of Sunday worship, word and sacrament. When they arrived at Jerusalem Jesus appeared again, this time to the eleven. Despite the testimony of the Emmaus pilgrims, and Simon Peter, to whom Jesus had also appeared, his arrival was still greeted with incredulity. They continued to react in the same way to the women at the appearance of dazzling young men at the tomb: with disbelief and fear. This was an encounter with the spirit world they would rather not make. The notion of a bodily resurrection was obviously totally alien to them. Whatever they believed about life after death, and at the time of Jesus it was still a doctrine that divided Jews, despite having witnessed at least a couple of raisings from the dead in the ministry of Jesus, the presence of Jesus in the room with them was a supremely uncomfortable experience.

Jesus’s attempts to reassure them can only have made their discomfort worse. He invites them to reach out and touch him; to put their hands in his crucifixion wounds. It is surely significant that the risen Jesus carries with him the scars of sacrifice. However he lives and reigns, Luke makes clear that he forever remains the crucified. Thus death and resurrection are made inseparable from each other. It is when the death of Jesus is celebrated (in the breaking of bread and pouring out of wine) that his risen presence is encountered. The place of the skull was transformed into paradise, and the wounds that speak of death become the signs, the evidence, of resurrection.

Then he called for food. For those who remembered his last meal with them this was surely deeply significant. Not only was it a device to show he was alive and bodily present in their midst it also announced the arrival of the kingdom. The eleven were now treated to a detailed exegesis of scripture to show how the suffering of the Messiah and his resurrection lay at the heart of God’s salvation from the beginning of time. And they were made witnesses to the gospel. That gospel was forgiveness and repentance. And it was for all nations. Whether Jesus’s word of forgiveness from the cross is in the best attested manuscripts or not its authenticity in terms of mission cannot be doubted. The significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus is that it opens up to all humanity the gracious mercy of God.

By sending his Son God makes himself vulnerable to our hate. But the willingness of Jesus to absorb our violence and not allow his love to be destroyed by it demonstrates the indestructibility of the love of God. This is of course affirmed by the resurrection. Thus the broken body of Jesus reveals the ever beating heart of God’s love. Jesus commands us to carry our cross daily. The kingdom does not come by crucifying – or by any other violent means – or by playing power games; it comes through cross bearing, absorbing suffering into love. It is in this sense that Jesus “bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.” He bore the squalour of death with the nobility of God. Paul tells us that the mind that was in Jesus should be ours too. This mindset did not seek equality with God but accepted slavery, and ultimately death on a cross. The way of the cross is the authentic route by which we all travel. This we embrace willingly through faith, as Christ did.

the walk to Emmaus Luke 24. 13-34

For fourteen chapters all the traffic has been inexorably heading for Jerusalem. Now it is flowing in the opposite direction. If at times that pilgrimage was made with faces set like flint, this return home is nothing other than a humiliating retreat. Hopes have been shattered. The one in whom they were grounded is dead and buried. A life they believed had been transformed has been sent back to square one, only this time to be lives with disillusion and zero energy. Their return is not purposeful; there are times when they simply stand still, and times when their walk slows, clearly reluctant to be admitting defeat. But a retreat it is.

It is Cleopas and presumably his wife. A stranger joins them in their walk. This story is apart from anything else a sublime piece of teaching on bereavement counselling: about getting alongside, going at the pace of those suffering, stopping where they stop, and moving on when they resume their journey, listening to their stories, before intervening with interpretation. Theirs is not only a story of disappointed hopes but of disorientation. The testimony of the women that the tomb was empty and that they had seen a vision of angels assuring them that Jesus was alive had made that disorientation. The death of Jesus, though deeply disturbing and a loss of all in which they had placed their hopes, had a finality to it that they might come to live with. This new development was not believable so was not a ground for hope, yet it was tantalisingly suggestive, enough so to undermine the certainty with which they had begun the day. If the testimony of the women were true, and they were fairly sure it was not, that would place demands upon them that would be even greater than when they had decided to put their faith in him in the first place. To follow in faith one you had seen and eaten with, conversed with and witnessed doing remarkable things had been demanding. But to follow one whom you had seen buried but were told was now alive required a different order of faith altogether, a faith beyond your Richter scale when it came to moving mountains.

The stranger began to unpick scripture. He talked about the Messiah. There was something about his teaching that made them want more. They reached Emmaus, their home village. He went on ahead but they called him back and invited him in. When supper was served the stranger took bread, blessed it and broke it. Suddenly they knew who he was. The painting in the National Gallery by Caravaggio says it all. The table is laid with chicken bread wine and fruit. The fruit is as fruit always is: it has its blemishes and its bloom, its wormholes as well as its refreshing ripeness. But it is placed at the very edge of the picture. The disciple flings his arms wide in a vibrant sign of the cross. The disciple on the left is caught in the act of leaping out of his seat. The fruit is about to come tumbling off the front of the table. The revelation of the crucified Jesus as risen Lord overturns all our tables.

The two disciples set out with the setting sun behind their backs and heads east to benighted Jerusalem. Their whole life has been turned back round into the right direction and a walk that was laden with sorrow becomes light footed with meaning and purpose. The story they had to tell had been transformed. This was no longer a story that everyone knew – now their testimony was exciting enough to tell the world. The fruit was out of the bowl.