Sermon by Canon Treasurer Sarah Mullally DBE
The Third Sunday of Easter
Luke 24: 13-35 and Acts 2: 14a, 36-41Yesterday afternoon I found myself in the quire of St Paul’s Cathedral listening to our girl Choristers rehearse. They had been invited to sing for the service to celebrate 20 years of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England. Thank you girls and Mr Halls it was a delight to travel with you and to hear you sing and it was much appreciated by many. As I was listening to the girls rehearse the cathedral slowly filled with applause. Not for the girls but for the activity at the west end of the Cathedral so I turned to look towards the West End. There, with the sun streaming in through the opened doors over 900 women ordained in 1994 began to process in. It was a very moving sight.Why was it moving? Not just because it was a celebration but because each one of those women represented an individual journey of faith during which they had struggled for their ministry to be recognized by the Church of England. It is true that every priest during their journey of discernment has struggled, but these women were the first and have had to carry the burden of all that that meant. As a women priest who came after them, I am immensely grateful to them.
I was also aware that in each of their journeys, although there were times of joy there would also have been times when they would have been disappointed and disillusioned, when they would have questioned why God had let them down, why God hadn’t come through as they had hoped. As such they walk the way of many who have for other reasons felt deserted by God.
And they are in good company. Here in our gospel reading Luke invites us to join two disciples, Cleopas and probably his wife, who have decided to return home to a little known village – Emmaus, disillusioned and despondent. As they went they were deep in discussion or more likely a full blown argument. In fact the word that Jesus uses to ask them what they were doing when he appears, suggests that they were literally throwing things at each other.
They knew that Jesus was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all people but they had been hoping that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would redeem Israel (24:21). However their hopes had been dashed when the Jewish religious leaders suddenly succeeded in crucifying Jesus. They were going home, dejected and disappointed. They were still in shock. They didn’t understand why God had let them down. God hadn’t come through as they had hoped.
It will be true for us, there will be times in our lives when we feel disappointed in God when what we had hoped of God had not been realised. Just as with the disciples, this may well be because our hopes for God are not quite what he had in mind but just like the disciples, those times which appear to be the death of our hopes and ideals are not the end but rather a new beginning.
Jesus cares for their hopes and dreams and so he opens the scriptures to them, a lesson in Old Testament theology from the Law of Moses through the prophets. Helping them not simply make sense of recent events in light of the Scripture, but also to make sense of all of Scripture - and indeed of God and life in the light of God's redemptive work in and through the cross – to help them understand the nature of hope.
As they near their home, the stranger seems to be passing on by when they offer their souls deepest prayer into the fog of confusion and pain:
“Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
This is a wonderful prayer. At the darkest moments when it is almost night and hope seems to have gone they ask the stranger to stay. In our darkest moments when it is almost night when hope seems to have gone this too is a prayer we can offer. “Stay with me Lord, stay with me, for the day is ending and soon it will be night”. It is a prayer of resurrection hope. A prayer to keep going despite how we may feel or how we feel about God. Resurrection hope is hanging on in there and our hope is dependent on what God has done and not on what we have done or how we may feel.
The invitation of the disciples opens up the opportunity to encounter Jesus and in the midst of the meal, the guest becomes the host. He takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. At once, they know who he is and then he is gone.
There are within this passage three helpful reflections which can help us in our Christian journey especially in those moments when the night seems at hand.
First is the importance of the scriptures in faith. And they said to each other, "When he talked with us along the road and explained the scriptures to us, didn't it warm our hearts?"
A prominent theme in the story is that faith is understood as sight. Although physically present the disciples were unable to see Jesus because they did not understand the scriptures. Only after listening to him explaining the scriptures and as they are present with him in the breaking of bread, do they see him and find faith. We move from doubt to faith when we are able to see Jesus through the scriptures, in the breaking of bread and in the community of faith. We should be people who never tire of searching the scriptures through our own study, study with others and not being afraid to tassel with the scriptures in light of our daily experience. This for us helps us encounter God and better understand how to live our lives in the light of the gospel.
Secondly, we see the importance of hospitality. Even before they recognise him the disciples were concerned about his welfare, and then invited him to join them. It was through their openness to caring for his needs that they were profoundly changed by him. By the offer of hospitality the Emmaus companions transcended their self-concern and sadness and opened themselves to the revelatory experience around the table where they were nourished.
To be able to come through, or be carried through the Gethsemane of things which make what was once seemingly impossible possible, is part of what it is to share in the resurrection.
To be open to the possibility of God meeting us in the stranger, to the possibility of looking to the needs of others when we find ourselves in those dark places of hopelessness, opens up the possibility of encountering God and his healing transforming love.
Once Jesus is gone they then know they need to be gone too. So they get up, venture the dangerous evening road back to Jerusalem to tell of what they've seen. Why? Because they can't help it - news this good just can't keep. They have found hope when it seemed hopeless and wanted to share it with others. That is my final refection; when we have encountered God it is something that we should want to share.
For us to say “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over” is to never tire of searching the scriptures, to have a spirit of hospitality, to never tire of breaking bread and of walking in the community of faith.
Let us pray that we may also be able to say: “Didn't it warm our hearts,” giving us the courage to return to the world and preach to the message of hope, mighty in word and deed. Amen.