Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
No one knows exactly where Emmaus is. There are a limited number of places it could be: draw a circle with Jerusalem at its centre and a 7 mile radius, and those are your options. It was, possibly, a village where a garrison was stationed. But its exact location matters less than its direction. In Luke’s gospel, everything has been leading to Jerusalem. It is the place of expectation and revelation, the focus of Israel’s hopes and longings. And Cleopas and the other disciple are walking away from it. Because of course, since Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, Jerusalem is now also the place of disappointment, of confusion, of danger.
So they set out, not knowing that they are going the wrong way, but intent on putting some distance between themselves and all that has taken place in Jerusalem. And as they walk, they talk, trying to make sense of all that’s happened, to see where they’d got it so wrong, to piece together the fragments of their faith in a way that makes more sense than a bloody, criminal death.
And a stranger joins them on the way. He listens to their confusion, their fear, their attempts to work it out. And then he unfolds the scriptures with them. Judaism is rooted in the Law and the Prophets: God’s revelation to his people, and his dealings with them down the centuries. This is what shaped the people of Israel and taught them what to hope for, and what it meant to be faithful. The disciples will have known their scriptures: the promise of a Messiah who would vindicate God’s people, and usher in a reign of justice and peace. But they could make no sense of death on a cross, the worst form of death according to the Jewish Law.
We know, of course, that the stranger who walks with them on the Emmaus road is the risen Christ. But, says Luke, ‘their eyes were kept from recognising him.’ And that’s true also of their attempts to understand the scriptures and to work out how on earth a judicial murder fits in with God’s promise to his people. Until they read the scriptures in the light of the risen Christ, they don’t understand.
As the stranger unfolds the scriptures with them, they begin to see. How crucifixion isn’t the disastrous end to a story gone badly wrong, but the expression of the character of a God who loves us so much he is willing to die for us. How the place of shame becomes the place of glory and triumph. How the story of God’s faithfulness through creation, exodus and exile continues in Jesus, through whom he brings a new creation, new freedom, and new life to his people.
When the disciples reach Emmaus they stop for the night. Inviting the stranger to stay with them, he takes, blesses, breaks, and gives bread. Then they see him for who he really is, and he vanishes from their sight. This is the action Jesus has done at the feeding of the 5000 and at the Last Supper. It’s the action he does at every celebration of the Eucharist. They see him for who he is in the breaking of the bread.
Today we welcome Kiyan as the newest member of the body of Christ. He doesn’t know yet what promises we have made for him; what grace is poured out on him. That will come later. But what he needs from us, as he grows up, is for us to be a people in whom the life of the risen Christ is real and visible. He will need us to help him read the scriptures and be nourished by the Sacrament, to be the ones who walk with him, sometimes in the wrong direction, and help him to discern the presence of the risen Christ in his life.
And to do that, we need to be a people formed by scripture and sacrament.
I can remember one of the young people I prepared for confirmation a few years ago asking me ‘how do I use this?’ as he held up the bible he’d been given at the start of the confirmation course. It’s a good question. The Bible is not a reference manual, with a helpful index in which you can look up the definitive word of God for every situation you might encounter. It’s the story of God and his people – a people who can be fickle and faithful and loving and loyal and crafty and unreliable and joyous and sorrowful, just like us. And it’s the story of the God who refuses to give up on his creation. The more we read it, the more we allow him to speak to us. It isn’t always a straightforward thing to read: there are times when it will comfort us, times when it will challenge us, times when we will wrestle with it and struggle to make sense of a God of love when faced with the pain of the world. But it remains the place where God speaks to his people. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we’re invited to bring to the scriptures our confusions, our fears, our sorrows, our hopes. And in doing that, we let God speak to us. There are bible reading notes and apps that can help with this; there’s a lectionary that splits the readings up day by day so you can read the Bible in fellowship with the whole Church. You can read the bible prayerfully, academically, imaginatively, creatively. Just don’t leave it on a shelf. Make friends with the people you encounter in its pages, for through Christ we are all formed into one fellowship of love.
And come to the Eucharist. This is the place where Christ promises to be present. Whether it’s the solemn sorrow of a requiem, or the joyous celebration of a nuptial mass, whether it’s the quiet of a daily service or the packed out celebration of one of the great festivals, this Sacrament of the altar is Christ’s pledge that he is always Emmanuel, God with us. Here we know we will encounter the risen Christ, and he will make himself present to us.
It doesn’t matter that we don’t know where Emmaus is. Because through the scriptures and the sacrament everywhere can be Emmaus, the place of encounter with the risen Christ. And today this place is Emmaus, as we unfold the scriptures and break bread, and as we welcome Kiyan and promise to share with him the joy of the risen Christ.