SERMON 3 APRIL 2016
My earliest memories of communion services were of very important and sombre men, who were obviously invested with some kind of special power. We, the Sunday School children, were brought back into church to sit, quietly of course, in the gallery, where we could peer over the rail and watch as these men, with the black robed minister in the middle, sat behind the communion table. Earlier, at the appropriate moment they had walked in step down the aisles carrying the silver platters of tiny squares of bread and then the trays of cups. It was all very silent, though maybe I also associate it, a few years later, with the singing of “Ye gates lift up your heads on high” as the communion elements were carried in. It was always thrilling when the deep men’s voices asked, “But who, of glory is the king” and the women sang the reply “”The mighty Lord is this” and so on.
I have other memories of communion celebrations: sitting in a small cramped lounge room as we gathered, members of two small “communities”, Columban houses, living, as we did, on 2 separate “stairs” in nearby streets in a slum area of Edinburgh, where we were simply a presence, people who had a friendly welcome and listening ear at the ready. It was not an easy place to live in some ways, certainly not picturesque, as the blocks of flats were unloved, grafitti-ed, and the streets awash with all kinds of litter. I leave it to your imagination. But we would gather there squeezed onto old sofas and sitting around on the floor, and would pass around the loaf of often home-made bread, and a cup of wine. It was not exactly solemn but full of thoughtfulness. It was a blessing.
You will have your memories too. This sacrament is core to our Christian identity. We celebrate our togetherness with Jesus and with each other, made one as members of his church. Of course, this is also a source of division between churches, which is the great sadness of Christendom. I also have a memory of sitting at a long table in the centre aisle of a church with people, many of whom I knew well. One of them was Catholic, and as the bread and wine were passed from hand to hand, she felt she could not participate, the only one, because of what her church told her.
All around the world today, people of so many different cultures will be coming to receive bread or wafers, wine or grape juice and hear the words of institution that Jesus spoke at that last supper. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
We remember Jesus. So many years, centuries, millennia later, we are not remembering a physical presence but what we have come to know in our personal faith. That grows through our experience and our living; what we learn through Scripture that makes deep connections for us; what we see in others; what we sense of the mystery of God’s presence around us; what we have discovered of God’s leading in our lives. We too can remember.
On Easter Sunday we read about how the women at the empty tomb were told to remember what Jesus had told them already, and they did. That was the key to making some kind of sense to this empty tomb and beginning to reshape their world in the light of resurrection.
Today I have departed from the lectionary, as some of you will have realised. I did that because I wanted to follow on with Luke in what I think is a very important story that is left out of the lectionary altogether – the “Road to Emmaeus.”
I don’t know about you, but this really engages my imagination. Here are these two people, Cleopas and one other. Somehow we always seem to think it was a man, but it could well have been his wife. We haven’t heard of Cleopas before. And that indicates that there was a wider circle of people around Jesus than the remaining 11 disciples and the women we know about. The Scripture concentrates on telling the Jesus story with its focus on those close disciples travelling around the countryside, journeying with Jesus, learning from him, being gradually changed. But there are indications that there were possibly many others around. Did the owner of the colt on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem know him? Presumably the man in whose house they gathered for that last supper, the Passover feast, was somehow connected. It is not somehow wrong to imagine what might have been the bigger picture. It does not detract from what has been determined to be orthodoxy, which means “right teaching”. Jesus was a living person, surrounded by ordinary people like you and me, making an impact on hundreds, rejected by many, disregarded by more. But around him was not just a small group of intimate disciples, but a wider community of followers. We learn of that today.
As these two weary people walked that long road from Jerusalem to Emmaeus, they are joined by a stranger. I think it is interesting in itself that Luke relates this account of the resurrected Jesus appearing to someone hitherto unknown. This is the first time we hear of the risen Jesus appearing. Nearer the end of this story we learn, in passing, that Simon has also seen Jesus, though he didn’t see him in the garden on the Sunday morning. It is only a brief reference, left unexplained.
We can speculate on why or how these two people on the road didn’t recognise Jesus. To begin with they would never have been expecting to see him. But we know that it was only as their hearts and minds were opened, later, that they saw who this stranger was. There are many things that close off our hearts and minds. As my grandmother used to say “There’s none sae blind as those that will nae see”. Whatever the case, this stranger puts the events of the weekend that have so shaken up their lives, into a different perspective. He breaks open the Scriptures for them, just as he will later break the bread. They learn from the stranger. And they want to go on learning because what he has explained has begun to make sense. So they offer hospitality to the stranger. He becomes the guest. Then, finally, it does all fit together in their almost incredulous minds: the guest takes the bread. He becomes the host. He breaks the bread and they recognise him, even as he disappears from their sight.
The stranger, the guest, the host. Isn’t this how it still often happens? Can you remember for yourselves, times when you have met a stranger and had some perhaps fleeting connection with them that has made an unexpected impact? A conversation at a bus stop, in the supermarket queue, on any number of occasions. There are perhaps meals to which you have invited someone you didn’t know very well, maybe someone just passing through, and wished that they were not going far away because you have made a connection that seems God-related. Sometimes we forget, and that doesn’t matter, because often these encounters are just what we may have needed at the time. But there are also things that it is good to remember, not necessarily in their particular detail, but about the fact that we saw, our hearts and minds were opened, and we realised that God was at work.
As with the women at the tomb, these two people remember what was already there, perhaps hidden by their grief and stress. In the breaking of the bread, we are called to remember.
These two tired people are suddenly filled with energy and the overpowering need to go all that long way back to Jerusalem, at night, and share what has happened to them. They need to join with the others in this shattered community of faith and give them hopeful, joyful news. So they do. The restoration of faith has begun. The Scriptures had been recalled for them. They had begun to see Jesus in the context of their old faith and then Jesus himself had then been made known in the breaking of bread. He was not dead and buried, gone forever. How amazing! There was resurrection life. Jesus would then appear to them all and continue to help their new understanding.
The breaking of bread, the remembering Jesus, both in his living ministry and in his suffering, dying, self-giving is at the heart of Christian community, which is always a community of resurrection life. In this understanding, the breaking of bread is not with us as a celebration of some inward looking group with a closed ritual. It is the place where we find that Jesus is present in the stranger and the guest as well as being the host. This tradition of hospitality is something else that is core to every faith, not least Christianity. Remember, for instance, Abraham feeding the two strangers who then tell him that Sarah will have a child, when Sarah, who has been listening laughs? There is an awareness of entertaining angels unawares. Celtic Christianity has a lovely saying: “I saw a stranger yestre’en. I put food in the eating place, drink in the drinking place, music in the listening place, and in the sacred name of the Triune, he blessed myself, my cattle and my dear ones. And the lark said in her song: ‘Often, often, often, comes Christ in the stranger’s guise.”
We may not have many strangers here with us, but what this is telling us relates to the openness of God’s hospitality that can also lead us to new dimensions of understanding. It denotes an attitude as we journey along. It is a journey of transformation in so many ways, because it is about God’s journey with us.
That journey has been going on over the millennia, full of ups and downs, despair and joy, desert times and fruitful times. It is a Spirit led journey. Gamaliel, that wise man we heard of in the reading from Acts, was aware of this. That part of the Acts reading was also not included in the lectionary, which ended with Peter telling the Sanhedrin that he could not stop preaching about Jesus, because of what they had witnessed of Jesus and the Spirit’s work and they could not but obey that. They were newly empowered and they could also remember what they knew. God was at work. And Gamaliel knew that if that were the case, they, the Jewish leaders, should not and must not try to stop it.
This Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is ever at work. So this morning, here, as we break bread together, we remember all that we know in our own lives and from what we have learned in our communities of faith: Jesus is present with us in the breaking of bread and opens our eyes, our minds and our hearts to see him around us, often unrecognised, but with us still. God is at work. The Holy Spirit is ever active and we are part of that activity.