Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter Sunday 22 April 2012
Readings: Acts 3.12-19; 1 John 3.1-17; Luke 24. 36b-48
In today’s Collect, we ask that the God who, “gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord,” might “give us such knowledge of his presence with us, that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life and serve him continually in righteousness and truth.”
How, we might ask, will he do that? How will we know his presence with us so that we might, as the gospel says proclaim him to all nations? It is not our experience that Christ appears to us in that same direct and obvious way – capable of being seen, heard, touched – which today’s gospel recounts. If he were to do so, we might think there would be no problem. We would believe instantly and respond by doing all the things which Christians are supposed to do. But nor was it the experience of the
early Christians, after those initial days: forty in Luke’s account. So how did they experience the risen Christ after his ascension? If we can see that, then we might find clues as to how we might.
If we listen carefully to Luke, we see that there are in fact things which link us to those resurrection appearances; which place us with the eleven and their companions in that room; or with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in the story which precedes today’s gospel. In both we see at the heart of things for Luke are the twin themes of Word and Table. : the centrality of the Scriptures for Christian faith;
- the breaking of bread
together as an experience of the risen Christ.
‘“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and the said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”
Or on the road to Emmaus just before our passage: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
“Have you anything to eat?”
“When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”
One of the earliest accounts of Christian worship is from the “First Apology of Justin Martyr”, a portrait of the church about AD. 90:
“On the day which is called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the countryside gather together in one place. And the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as their time. Then, when the reader has finished, the president, in a discourse, admonishes and invites the people to practice these examples of virtue. Then we all stand up together and offer
prayers. …. when we have finished the prayer, bread is presented, and wine with water.
The president likewise offer up prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability, and the people assent by saying, Amen.
The elements which have been given thanks over are distributed and received by each one; and they are sent to the absent by the deacons.
Those who are prosperous, if they wish, contribute what each one deems appropriate; and the collection if deposited with the president; and he takes care of the orphans and widows, and those who are needy because of sickness or other cause, and the captives, and the strangers who sojourn among us…”
Here we see the early Church doing what we see Jesus doing with the disciples in Luke. Here we see the Church doing what the children of God continue to do Sunday by Sunday. Christians have continued to follow the basic pattern of worship which we find in Justin.
The Church gathers together around the word; to listen to it read and to have minds opened to understand. Here we see what we do.
Maddeningly for some – those who like to use scriptural texts in
knock-down arguments – Luke never tells us what all these passages
are. That is not the way it seems to work. It is not so much about individual texts, although the Church came to identify passages in the Psalms and in Isaiah, and events and figures in the life of Israel, which seemed to point forward to Christ.
It is more about the whole pattern and direction of God’s action towards his creation and people which is the essential basis for understanding Jesus and which only finds its fulfilment in Jesus.
There are times when meaning is immediately obvious, when we hear Jesus speaking directly to us. But we should not worry when it is not.
Think of those disciples on the road to Emmaus: it was only after they
had recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread that they were able to look back and say “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” It is on our journey with Christ that he opens the Scriptures to us and on that pilgrimage the meaning of those scriptures is found in the sacrament of his self-offering. The effect is cumulative and we have to keep listening and praying.
The Church still prays about all sorts of concerns and matters in our world: great and small. The Church still brings bread and wine to the table and the presiding bishop or priest gives thanks over them. And
the “blessed elements” are still taken to those who cannot be with us because of sickness: so on Friday afternoon I took Holy Communion to Sandra Allan in Northwick Park Hospital and yesterday I was at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford because John Welch is in there with pneumonia.
And we still give our alms for the work of the church and the care of her poor.
Now all this can seem very ordinary and dull, hardly the kind of thing to make people believe in God. We read ancient and sometimes obscure books full of stories of people, sometimes not very nice people doing not very good things. There are too many stories and not enough edifying higher thought. Then there is Jesus himself saying “Have you
anything to eat?” What kind of God is that? To the high-minded it all sounds embarrassingly physical, far too much of this world when we think religion should be about something spiritual. And the people who belong to the Church look far too ordinary for the world to recognise us as what the First Letter of John calls “the children of God.” And as for the clergy, well most of them are far too dull to lead the spiritual elite we see ourselves belonging to.
We may think that this is a problem peculiar to modern sophisticates like
ourselves. We tend to think that no one has ever thought as we think, questioned as we question, do8bted as doubt, before. In fact these very questions go back to the time of the New Testament and the early years of the Church. Then as now, there were those who thought the whole point of religion was to escape from the tiresome limitations of this
world to a higher plane. There were those who found the scriptures of the Old Testament and much of the New embarrassingly simple, even crude, and produced edited versions to suit themselves. The idea of a God who both created the material world and then, worse still, came to share its life, seemed quite mad and distasteful. Both Luke and the writer of the First Epistle of John, probably a disciple of the writer of the Gospel, were faced by people who thought like this; who hankered after other worldly, escapist spiritualities. Both responded, not by accommodating their message to them, but by emphasising the reality of the Incarnation: the Word made flesh in the womb of Mary. Both show a risen Jesus whose body bears the marks of his passion to show that he is not a ghost. Both speak to us then of a relationship with the risen Christ which is not to be found in flight from this world but in the life of that world in which encounter the presence of the risen Christ.
We experience the risen Christ in the one who opens to us the scriptures, who as we pray teaches us to recognise him in all his redeeming work, in his presence in those who say to us, “Have you anything to eat?”; who takes bread and wine to be the means of his risen presence and life; who says, “Touch me and see.”
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses