Tag Archives: disciples

Walking The Emmaus Road

The Road to Emmaus by Daniel Bonnell

The story of the Road to Emmaus lends itself beautifully for us to think about our own journeys of faith; the processes we go through of discovering who Jesus is, wanting to know more  about him and when we have that moment of revelation, confessing him as our Lord and Saviour. Here is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter 2017, based on Luke 24:13-35

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

The story of the Road to Emmaus, one of the most vivid and insightful accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. So often there are stories in the gospels that make you really want to be a fly on the wall, or in this case a fly on the road.

We also need to understand that the journey to Emmaus is both a literal and a spiritual journey. On the one hand it recounts the journey of two of Jesus’ disciples who, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, walk seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. On the other hand it mirrors the journey that we all take from not knowing or recognising Jesus, to understanding what the bibles say about him, to recognising him for who he is and that he is the reason we are willing declare our faith and can call ourselves Christians.

It’s a journey that we are all on; all of us at different stages, independent of length of time or knowledge and understanding, but like today’s gospel story there are waypoints, crossroads, defining moments. A journey we’ll see that those disciples found didn’t end in the house in Emmaus but began a new voyage of life changing discovery.

Over the last few weeks it has been wonderful to journey with some of our young people and adults as we have explored what it means to be a Christian, the joy of the Gospel and prepared some of them for one of their own defining moments when they will confirm and recognise their faith at the upcoming Deanery Confirmation service. Each of them will have their own story to tell, their own unique journey they’ve travelled to get to that point, their own experience of a relationship with Christ. So what does the story tell us about both their and our own journeys?

Firstly it’s interesting to wonder who those two disciples might have been. Well we are told the name of one of them, Cleopas – a disciple whose name or variant of it some scholars claim has appeared before in other gospels. In John he is mentioned only by association with his wife Mary, one of the women standing at the cross with Jesus’ mother, Mary wife of Clopas. Secondly, it’s generally assumed, rightly or wrongly that the second unnamed disciple is a man. Perhaps it might make sense that Cleopas and Mary, husband and wife, both close disciples of Jesus, were making their way back home together

A bas relief on a church at Emmaus showing Jesus with a male and female companion

Of course nobody knows for sure, but it does lend itself to the inclusivity of Jesus’ message to all regardless of gender, race or sexuality. What we do know is that it is Jesus that seeks us in the first instance. On the road, Jesus himself ‘came near to them’ and although the disciples knew who Jesus was, they did not recognise him. They knew a lot about him, they had heard a lot about him and yet they were unable to recognise him when they met him. This could be said to be true for many people, even nowadays; they’ve heard of Jesus and even some of the things that he did, and yet they don’t recognise him or respond to him. They don’t engage in wanting to find out more, despite his presence.

We could also ask why the two disciples were prevented from recognising Jesus. Perhaps God had a purpose in blinding their eyes from reality. It’s not cruelty on God’s part, but by a gradual revelation of himself, Jesus allows them and us to learn that we can trust God’s promises. Remember that the disciples as a whole had been told about these events many times beforehand, but still they had not believed

Maybe it was because events had not happened as expected. Their preconceptions of who Jesus was and what he had come to do had been turned on its head; perhaps they dismissed the whole thing as misplaced hope and trust. When things turn out different to how we expect how often do we give up and admit defeat instead of trying to understand whether there is a reason for it.

It could be that they had too little faith – why didn’t they believe the reports of the women, even when they’d seen the empty tomb for themselves. Or the whole idea of a supernatural event of God raising Jesus from the dead was a concept they couldn’t grasp; had they even considered who Jesus was?

Is this a mistake that’s repeated today? Just because someone knows about Jesus, doesn’t mean they know him. They may have heard about him, read about him, use his name and many claim to know him. But knowing about him and knowing him are two different things

Along our journey there will be others who help us to know more about Jesus, but ultimately it will be Jesus that opens our eyes. For the two disciples on the road he used the things that they would already know about, the scriptures, and how if they believed what the scriptures said about him then they would understand why he came and why he had to suffer. We too today have scripture to help reveal who Jesus is, and we have the double advantage of not only having the Old Testament but the New as well.

When we read and come to know the scriptures better they help to build up our faith, they are a reliable witness to who Jesus really is, and the truth that they contain lead us to a personal faith in Jesus. A personal faith and a personal relationship with Jesus, but it mustn’t stop there. If we personalise Jesus too much he fast becomes God in our own image. The relationship we are called to have is one of fellowship and community. It is not coincidence that it is around a supper table that the disciple’s eyes are opened.

Think how many of the resurrection appearances are associated with table fellowship: the request for something to eat when he appears to all the disciples almost immediately after the two from Emmaus had told their story, or having breakfast on the beach. It was during the intimacy of a shared meal when Jesus broke bread and gave thanks, that the disciples recognised him

When he was at the table with them,
he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him
Luke 24:30-31

We too through our sharing of communion also come to recognise Christ in the memorial of the bread and wine shared at the supper, which goes on to prompt us to share with others our recognition of his presence. I can vividly remember my own first communion, a real sense of being filled with the Holy Spirit, as the bread was placed in my hands and the wine sipped from the cup. That was my moment of my ‘heart burning within me’ as I acknowledged who Jesus really was and the transformation he was bringing to my life. Like the disciples in Emmaus when we are moved with similar emotions then surely there is only one thing we can do and that is to testify in our lives, actions and words why we are followers of Christ and invite others to join us on that journey.

It would be lovely to see lots of us there at the Confirmation service, not only to support those who are declaring their recognition of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, perhaps publicly for the first time, but to remember that we too are either travelling on a journey toward that decision or recalling the time when we too made that declaration.

We are called to walk together in fellowship and the great thing is that we also have a Saviour who walks alongside us. So we can never walk alone, however hard or tough the journey. Sometimes we may try to run on ahead, at other times we trail behind, but somehow eventually we learn to walk at God’s speed, and God continues to give glimpses of himself across our lives; enough to sustain us and keep our faith strong on the journey.

Amen

 

 

 

Brea(d)th of Forgiveness

Breath Window

Breath – Nave window at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Lebanon, New Jersey*

The gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, as often happens, included in part the reading that was given for Easter Sunday’s evening prayer service. This morning we heard the additional story of Doubting Thomas and thought about how we too can doubt, but that how we are more blessed when we have come to believe rather than have the concrete proof that Jesus offered to Thomas.

Last Sunday, when I preached at evensong, my thoughts were more on the breadth of forgiveness that Jesus offered in coming to and appearing to his disciples, who had hidden themselves away from the world. In return this reflects the breadth of forgiveness offered and how we should receive it.

Reading: John 20:19-23

“To err is human, to forgive divine” Alexander Pope, poet (1688-1744)

In our build up to Easter we have taken a great deal of time to reflect on the pain and the suffering that Jesus was to endure through the cross. An instrument of torture, it has, as of this morning, become a symbol of God’s transformative and life-giving power through its emptiness, echoed with the discovery of the empty tomb by two of Jesus’ disciples. This new life is offered to us as a result of Jesus taking on himself our sins in order that we could be completely forgiven, not just for our sending him to die in the first place, echoed in his words from the cross, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ but as part of our response to do the same from thereon in.

Yet, one of the most difficult things we ever do is forgive another. We know we should forgive, because it’s the right thing to do; it’s the Christian thing to do and we know it’s what Jesus would do. But it’s always easier to see another through the lens of their behaviour and its effect on us than it is to see them as God sees them.

How often have we recited the Lord’s prayer in which we ask for forgiveness for our sins as we forgive others? But if our forgiveness to others is given begrudgingly then perhaps we might suspect that our own forgiveness might be begrudged. Even more difficult than forgiving another is to forgive ourselves, to set ourselves free to return to the likeness of God.

What the disciples were to receive on that first day of the week as they came to terms with the amazing turn of events was the life-giving gift of the Spirit as Jesus breathed it onto them, with its resonance to God’s creation of Adam at the beginning of Genesis.

The Spirit is given and the disciples are now called to take up Jesus’ mission, and its immediate effect will be to send them out, to take responsibility for the world. The Christian mission starts in the knowledge of our own need. It’s what the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church is for. It is not designed to fill us with pious emotions, or give us unwavering certainty, or overawe others with our power, or even to build us into the church, though it may do all of these things. The gift is given principally to the disciples and to us to do what Jesus told us to, which is to be his witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

 Throughout John’s gospel, the way in which people react to Jesus signals whether they will accept or reject God’s forgiveness offered through him. Now the same thing is happening to the disciples. Their mission, too, is to do with forgiveness and judgement  and while it might sound as if Jesus is giving the disciples a blank cheque when he says they now have the power to forgive sins or retain sins, the important thing to remember  is to whom this charge is given, and in what circumstances.

This is a group of people who, only a few days previously, had betrayed and deserted their leader and now they have locked themselves in an upstairs room, fearing for their own lives. When Jesus comes to them and shows them the marks of the nails, it is not just so that they can be truly certain who he really is, but in order that the tremendous mission he  is about to entrust to them can be grounded in the reality of who they are too. These disciples know how much they have been forgiven. They are not going to take the power they are being given over sin lightly.

The temptation is to treat the gift of the Spirit as something for insiders, something to be enjoyed and guarded jealously. Instead we need to long for the Spirit to fall down on all of God’s people; a longing that all should share in the forgiveness and new life that God has given to us. We receive in awed gratitude, and share because we know that God has given us what we do not deserve. Shouldn’t we then in our own levels of forgiveness ensure we are as ungrudging as God?

 Amen

Forgive

*This beautiful interpretation in glass of John 20:21 is one of a series of windows in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, Lebanon, New Jersey. To see some of the others please follow this link

What Does It Take For Us To Believe?

'This is impossible' said Alice

‘This is impossible’ said Alice

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20:19 – end

On the second Sunday of Easter we find out that not everyone was yet ready to believe the incredible Easter news that Jesus was alive. Some people still had their doubts, including the apostle Thomas. We also hear how another apostle, John, was persuading a group of Christians that what he had witnessed first hand was the truth. Put that alongside the growing number of believers who were learning a new way of living as a community and suddenly the question of what it would take to enable us to believe is one that we might ask; which is exactly what I did in my sermon this morning

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

If you don’t mind I’d like to start by conducting a straw poll with a show of hands. There are two main choices, but possibly an infinite number of circumstances and experiences that could fall into either of those categories.

I want you to think about your journey to faith, from when you first took an interest in Christianity to a point when you knew you believed. I wonder whether this was a sudden and datable experience or whether it was more of a gradual process, where you can perhaps remember a time when you didn’t believe and now you do but you don’t know exactly when that happened. Perhaps you’ve always believed or maybe you’re still on that journey.

None of these choices are better than the other, but it would be interesting to know, if you’re willing to share. Put your hands up [Reader, you too can join in, although remember that statistically the result will be 100% for whichever choice you raise your hand to] if your belief followed a sudden, ‘Damascus road’ type experience…… and now if your belief has been more gradual…… We’re actually quite representative of the average, which is about three-quarters describing it as gradual and a quarter as sudden.

I’d actually quite like to stop and hear from some of you about your journeys but I suppose I better carry on… because the really interesting bit might not be when it happened for those already there, but what it takes for us to believe.

The Incredulity of St Thomas blog

The Incredulity of St Thomas, Benjamin West (1738 -1820)

For Thomas it was the sheer physical proof of placing his hands on a man with whom he had spent the best part of the last three years and who he knew had been crucified, had died and had been shut up in a rock tomb and was now according to his friends and fellow disciples very much alive again; a man who was speaking to him and asking him not to doubt but to believe. This apparently indisputable proof led Thomas to publicly declare that Jesus was indeed ‘My Lord and my God’.

Where then does it leave those of us who will probably never have the opportunity to physically encounter Christ, at least not in the same way that those first disciples did? We are told that we are blessed more if we come to believe without seeing. Do we, therefore, come to belief because there are first-hand witness statements available to this event?

The First Letter of John

The First Letter of John

We don’t know for sure who the author of the first letter of John was, but from the very earliest of times it was believed to have been written by John, the fisherman and apostle of Jesus and bears striking similarities to the Gospel of John. Here is someone writing to one of the first group of Christians, who are somewhat unsure as their faith is being tested by spurious claims about whom Jesus really was; that he wasn’t actually human and didn’t really suffer on the cross; that he only ‘seemed’ human.

John writes to reassure these believers, that as a first-hand witness of Jesus’ ministry he and his friends saw and heard and touched Jesus when they became his disciples and shared his life. In this way their testimony is very convincing – they believed that Jesus was none other than the ‘Word’ of God – the source and meaning and purpose of life.

Even so, an eyewitness account is not quite the same as having concrete facts and figures, to inform our belief. Now before you get too excited I am not going to pull the ‘white rabbit’ of incontrovertible evidence out of my theological training ‘top hat’ but in amongst the minutia of historical data plenty of scholars and historian have investigated what might be myth and what could be reality.

WDITFUTB_Lament over the Dead Christ blog

Lament over the Dead Christ, Giovanni Bellini (c1432 – 1516)

We know that without a resurrection Christianity is counterfeit. As the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless’ 1 Corinthians 15:17. Accordingly, since a resurrection requires death, Jesus’ death by crucifixion has to be regarded as true. This ‘fact’ is attested to by a number of ancient sources, including the non-Christian historians, Josephus and Tacitus, who were therefore not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events.

We know that the chances of surviving crucifixion were very bleak and no evidence exists that Jesus was removed whilst still alive. The unanimous professional medical opinion is that Jesus certainly died due to the rigours of crucifixion, and even if he had somehow managed to survive, it would not have resulted in the disciples’ belief that he had been resurrected.

Il Precusore,

Il Precusore, Giulio Aristide Sartorio (1860 – 1932)

What about the empty tomb? Well its location was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. So if it hadn’t been empty, why would the chief priest have devised a plan to give a large sum of hush money to the guards, telling them to say that ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’ Matthew 28:12-13. It would also have been pretty impossible for the large group of believers to have suddenly sprung up in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed just a few weeks before and for those same believers to have been willing to die brutal martyr’s deaths if they knew this was all a lie.

Were people hallucinating when they encountered the risen Christ? Well, usually hallucinations are something that happens in an individual’s brain and not repeatedly on separate occasions and certainly not to groups of up to 500 people! 1 Corinthians 15:6 Even if they were visions, brought on by the apostle’s grief over the death of their leader, surely the body would have still been in the tomb.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal’s Wager

Convincing facts and figures? Well maybe. Or perhaps Pascal’s Wager might be the reason why people believe. Pascal was a seventeenth-century philosopher who theorised that humans live their lives by wagering that believing in God is a good bet because if when they die he does exist then they have gained the best of everything, on the other hand if they don’t believe and then find out he does exist then they made the worst choice and will have lost everything. However if they were to discover after death that God never existed then it didn’t matter what you believed.

So by believing, you are in a win-win situation. This sort of hedging my bets is just one accusation made against Christians who assume that because they believe in the right God, they are automatically good and have a one-way ticket to everlasting life. However, it also assumes that God would always reward blind faith above living a conscious Christ-centred life and all of the obligations that that might bring.

WDITFUTB_Belief is truth blogPerhaps belief and faith are different then… that belief is something that our logical, human minds hold to be true whilst faith is something that is felt deep within our hearts. Or could it be that faith is based on belief and that is why faith alone is not possible because belief always brings about actions and reactions?

Some people might even say that faith is truth held in the mind and that belief is a fire in the heart. Perhaps we just can’t separate the mind and heart, because as we heard ‘The community of believers were of one heart and one mind’ Acts 4:32

I hope you’ve been aware that I’ve been careful to never actually define what it is exactly that we understand and count as belief. Some might say that’s a cop-out; that the church is forever allowing so much laissez-faire around declaring what it believes and stands for that it nullifies any claims it might have to the truth. Well, I’m sure that for the majority of us it will include the belief that Jesus died and was resurrected in order that we might ‘have life in his name’, but that for each of us that might mean something slightly different depending where we are on our journey of faith.

As we walk together in fellowship with each other and with God, let’s make sure that we’re not only helping each other to increase in faith, but that we are sharing our beliefs with others so that God’s joy may be complete. After all didn’t Jesus say ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. So let’s go and open a few more eyes to the truth of what we believe.

Amen

John 20:29

John 20:29

Lent And How To Give It Up

The 40 Days of Lent

The 40 Days of Lent

This morning I finished my Parochial Placement with St Thomas’ church in Fair Oak and Horton Heath. It has been a useful and at times challenging experience with much to reflect on; but more of that in a later blog. However, today, Ash Wednesday, I was given the opportunity to preach at their 10am morning communion service and I took my reading from Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Today sees the beginning of the Lenten season, when we concentrate our thoughts on the journey toward the cross. I would hope that our focus is always centred on the passion of Christ and ultimately his resurrection, but for the next few weeks we are asked to try to set aside and deny ourselves some of life’s worldly pleasures. But how might we do that?

Well I wonder how many of us have started the day having already been shriven? … In order to be shriven we need to have made a confession – a confession that we’ve not always got things right; that we’ve held back our love from those most in need of it; that we’ve failed to live up to what is expected of us as followers of Christ.

Do we need to shout out how sorry we are from the rooftops? No, our confession is to be done quietly, honestly and simply between God and ourselves and although he already knows everything we’ve done, by admitting it before him he will know just how repentant we are. We need to have done this so that we can approach Lent unburdened, forgiven and with open hearts and minds.

Of course a good many people have translated this unburdening to mean an emptying of the larder… To deny ourselves all the goodies such as sugars and fats in chocolates, biscuits, cakes, etc.  I suspect that fewer people would have known yesterday as Shrove Tuesday – rather it was Pancake Day – and jolly nice they were too!

But we shouldn’t feel smug that we know it more than as a chance to lose a few pounds in weight, because it is hard to give up things we love; and don’t you find that the more we deny ourselves the more the shops, magazines and television seems to be full of images and examples of our favourite treats – no wonder we might look dismal instead of joyful.

I wonder also if we don’t – and you’ll pardon the pun – ‘make a meal of it.’ How many times when we’ve been offered a forbidden treat have we answered ‘Oh I can’t eat … I’ve given it up for Lent’ thus declaring to the world how good we’re being, rather than a simple ‘No thank you.’

This period is also a time for considering offering financial support with a donation to a charity or cause – perhaps with the money we’ve saved on buying all those goodies?  Maybe there’s a special Lent appeal, or Lent programme that puts a cost against the many blessings we already receive – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong in doing something like that – in fact I would encourage us all to take this opportunity to review our sacrificial giving – but an anonymous donation will mean so much more than an official thank you note.

We undertake this journey with Christ just as his disciples did on that first Lenten journey and I don’t expect Jesus was worried about how much sugar the disciples were putting on their breakfast cornflakes. He was more concerned that they understood what was going to happen, what they needed to know about and how they were going to continue his work – because time was running out.

We also only have a limited time, and I don’t just mean these six weeks, the rest of the year or even our lifetime, in which to make a difference and to really appreciate what we are being called to do. That time starts right now when we need to draw closer to God and so begin to gather up those imperishable treasures of goodness, mercy and love. In that way we will not only discover our own hearts but God’s as well.

Amen

I would like to finish by reading you a poem called Lenten Days

Lentern Window

Lenten Window – from the old to the new – from death to life

The Empty Tomb

The Empty Cross

The Empty Cross

Alleluia! Christ is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

It was with this greeting and response; as we sat down to share our evening meal that a new term began at college. It was only two days beforehand that I had sat next to the Easter cross in my home church, celebrating Easter Sunday and here I was, back to my studies but with new tasks to complete and new challenges. It seemed the same, but then again it also seemed different

I suspect it was the like that for the women, who approached the tomb on the first day of the week. Yes, a dreadful thing had happened and yes, they were probably a bit disorientated and shaken, but they were coming to do what they would always have done if someone died – that at least was normal, but what happened next was very different

Each Gospel gives a slightly different version of accounts. In Mark there are several women together to who arrive to anoint the body, only to find that the stone sealing the tomb had been rolled back and inside was a young white-robed man telling them not to be afraid, but that the body wasn’t there. Despite his call for calm, they are terrified and flee from the tomb, too afraid to tell anyone what they have seen

In Matthew, it is two Marys who go to look at the tomb, only to experience an earthquake, caused by an angel’s descent from heaven; who puts the guards into a stupor and then shows them that Jesus is not in the tomb. He sends them fearfully, yet joyfully, to deliver a message to the disciples that they are to return to Galilee, only for them to meet Jesus himself who confirms what they must do.

In Luke we again hear about a group of women, who meet two dazzlingly dressed men and after being reminded of what Jesus had previously told them, return to the disciples only to be accused of idle talk until Peter runs to look for himself.

Finally, in John, it is Mary Magdalene who, on seeing that the stone has been removed, runs back to tell this to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, who both then set off towards the tomb, the latter outrunning Peter to reach the tomb, but respectfully waiting for Peter to enter it first, only to be met by discarded linen wrappings. However, it is after this that Mary in a bitter-sweet moment encounters Jesus and can report this back to all the disciples.

All of these accounts add to the story of what happened, but the one fact that they all substantiate is that the tomb was empty.

‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.’ Matthew 28:5-6

I often wonder if it shouldn’t be the tomb that is used more as an image of Christ’s resurrection, a permanent reminder of the defeat of death – but equally it is the empty cross that is a powerful and iconic symbol of transformation to which we are drawn.

This is his blood which he shed for you

This is his blood which he shed for you

The truth is that in a way this transformation is what was happening on Sunday, as I watched people, coming forward to place a flower around the cross. The blooms themselves were fresh and vibrant, and everyone placed them as carefully as they could, trying not to bruise the petals. However, some found it difficult to push  them into the ‘ground’, while others knew exactly the spot they wanted in relation to the position of the cross. One flower in particular caught my attention – a beautiful cream tulip, streaked with red, that was placed right in the centre  at the very foot – which looked this morning as if its cup had opened up to catch the blood that would have fallen from Jesus’ body

Yet, as beautiful as this display had become, each single representative bloom was already dying; just as we are called to die to Christ in order to be transformed and given new life. This truly is the joy of the Easter message and yet not everyone chooses to respond to it. That, no doubt, is the greatest regret as far as God is concerned as he tries, in love, to reconcile all of his creation. However, it still doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and do our part by sharing the Good News

Alleluia! Christ is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

He is risen as he said

He is risen as he said