SERMON: We too are filled with new life, new hope, new joy!

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 30 April 2017

The story of the Emmaus Road is surely one of the richest of the Easter encounters, told with such skill by Luke.

There are two fundamentally contrasting moods within the story.

To begin with the story starts with the two disciples walking away from Jerusalem. Their hopes have been dashed. You can feel the heaviness in their hearts: ‘We had hoped,’ they say as they walk away from the other disciples. They’re confused and dispirited. Things no longer make sense. They tell the story of the last few days and they can’t get the bits of the jigsaw to fit together.

I wonder if there have been times when we have felt like that?

The mood by the end of the story is very different. Their energy level has shot up! The two disciples get up from the table and they immediately set off back to Jerusalem. It’s evening, but who cares?! They’ve got seven miles to travel but there’s now a spring in their step. Life does make sense, their hearts burn within them, their heads are held high, their spiritual eyes are open and there’s a deep sense of joy and purpose about them.

I wonder if there have been times when we have felt like that?

These two moods, at the beginning and the end of the Emmaus Road story, are in striking contrast with each other. What’s happened? Why the change in mood?

The disciples have encountered the risen Lord! They now have a gospel on their lips that they are keen to share: ‘Christ is risen,’ they say to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. ‘He is risen indeed,’ those disciples reply. And they tell the others what has happened to them as they walked along the road to Emmaus, and how they’d come to recognise the Lord in the breaking of the bread.

There are a number of aspects about this encounter with the risen Lord that shows the spiritual depth of these Easter narratives.

The first happens as they come near to the village of Emmaus. There, Luke writes that the risen Christ walks ahead as if he were going on. The disciples respond by urging him to stay: ‘Stay with us,’ they say to him, ‘because it’s almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ Why is the story told this way? Why is it said that the risen Christ walks ahead as if he were going on?

There’s one other occasion in the gospels when a similar thing happens. It’s not an Easter story but it’s when the disciples are out in a boat by themselves on the lake and Jesus has taken some time to be on his own up on the mountain praying. A storm gets up and the disciples are struggling against a strong headwind and Jesus comes towards them early in the morning.

Mark who tells this story in his gospel, says that Jesus intended to pass the disciples by. But on seeing him, the disciples cry out for help.

Again I wonder why the story is told in this way? Why is it said that Jesus intended to pass them by?

In both of these stories, I sense that there’s a kindling of desire in the hearts of the disciples. The Lord comes close to them on both occasions but means to go on so that the disciples are forced to reach out, to cry out, to urge him to stay with them or come to them.

It’s as if Jesus is inviting them to seize the moment, to be insistent, to feel the desire within them and act on it rather than let the moment slip through their fingers. He’s awakening their desire so that they cry out – and when they do, he responds generously towards them.

I wonder.

Another aspect to the Emmaus Road story that shows the spiritual depth of these Easter encounters is this.

All the resurrection stories, and the Emmaus Road one in particular, tell with great subtlety how the risen Lord was initially not recognised – but in this story when he is recognised he is no longer seen. The turning point comes when they are at table together: ‘He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight.’

Up to that point, the risen Lord has been there beside them. They’ve walked seven miles together though the two disciples haven’t known that it was their Lord beside them.

Then, as soon as they do recognise him, he vanishes from their sight! Before they are able to have any further conversation – he disappears! So having journeyed seven miles from Jerusalem with him, though not knowing it at the time, they now have to journey seven miles back, apparently without him.

Perhaps the clue lies in the change of mood that the disciples experience and which we have explored a little. How when they recognise the risen Lord, he vanishes from their sight and they immediately rise from the table, rush back to Jerusalem and announce to the other disciples that the Lord is risen.

In that moment of recognition, when the eyes of their hearts have been opened, the faith of the disciples has come alive.

No longer is he beside them, as he was on the way from Jerusalem; no longer is he in front of them, as he was at that meal table at Emmaus; rather he is within them, hidden from their sight, yes, but now alive in their hearts!

I wonder.

These Easter narratives of the disciples encountering their Lord again, are extraordinarily profound. Both the disciples and the gospel writers appear out of their depth as they try to find a way to convey what has happened and for which nothing is comparable. That’s the difficulty.

The remarkable thing is just how well they succeeded; and strange as it is – and it is strange – their accounts resonate deep within us and we too are filled with new life, new hope, new joy!

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