Monthly Archives: May 2011
Part Two of Julian Reindorp’s contributions to the Ministry Today conference: he shared a meditation, based on the work of the late Henri Nouwen. Imagine you are lying on the beach in your swimming gear. You are completely relaxed, and just for once not even one thought from your work in pastoral ministry is intruding into your mind.
As you lie there, you see a person walking in your direction from a distance away. It is a man. When he arrives, you realise it is Jesus. He speaks to you:
“I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for all you are doing for me.”
How do you react?
Because for some of us, those would be hard words to accept. We think we are such failures that we cannot believe Jesus would speak to us like that. Maybe the critical words of others so loom in our minds that they frame what we think Jesus might say. If they are critical, we may believe he is.
So what does our reaction say about our circumstances, or the state of our souls?
I’m just back from the annual Ministry Today conference. This year our speaker was Canon Julian Reindorp, recently retired from ministry in Richmond, Surrey. His theme was ‘Who Encourages Us?’ I plan to share one brief bon mot from his material each day for three days here.
The first is this: in our first session, he claimed that the work of ordained ministry has never been more important than it is today. Well, that caught my attention. Why would he say that when our rôle is increasingly marginalised and valued less?
For this reason: our calling involves building community – the community of Christ. Yet in our society, there is less and less community building. ‘Social capital’ is declining. Even previously social activities are now conducted alone, as Robert Putnam observed in his book Bowling Alone.
So let us hold our heads up high. Whatever people may think, the church is engaged in the most crucial of activities, and we who serve that church in leadership are contributing something utterly vital to our society.
Doubting Thomas: if ever anyone got a bad press from a pithy nickname, it’s Thomas. Today I want to join his rehabilitation campaign, and suggest to you that we might see some positive approaches to faith in the story of him coming to believe in the Risen Christ.
Firstly, we need to remember his context. There are a couple of previous references to him in John’s Gospel. In chapter 11, he shows himself to be a disciple who is doggedly committed to following Jesus. He encourages all of them to go along with Jesus to Jerusalem, if necessary to die with him. This is not a coward or an unbeliever: this is a courageous disciple. Let’s remember that when he is cheaply vilified.
Not only that, he was a disciple with honest question, as we see in chapter 14. Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for his friends, and Thomas honestly says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Lord, if you don’t give me the destination, how can I sort out a route? I need the address, Lord! I think you have to applaud a man like Thomas who has the honesty and integrity to ask Jesus the question that perhaps was in other disciples’ minds, but which they didn’t have the courage to voice.
And we should be glad he did, because it leads to Jesus’ famous reply, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” Would we have heard those words, but for the honest, questioning faith of Thomas?
As well as these two previous references to Thomas in John’s Gospel, one other piece of context is to compare him with the other disciples. It’s all very well that the others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” (verse 25), but it isn’t that long since they too doubted. When the women returned from the tomb, the male disciples didn’t initially cover themselves in glory. Why believe a woman? But they had had a personal encounter with the Risen Christ, just as Mary had in the garden, and just as Thomas is about to have.
So setting everyone else’s faith against Thomas’ doubts is unfair. He simply hasn’t had the experience of meeting his risen Lord yet that they have had. Perhaps today we can appreciate a dogged, honest disciple. It isn’t enough to say to some people, ‘Be quiet and just believe’. God is big enough to cope with our questions. We have a Bible filled with books like Job, and with plenty of Psalms where ancient Israel sang her painful questions in worship. If Thomas is an example to us, it is about church being a safe place for people with their questions, not one where they are shouted down.
In suggesting this, I’m not advocating unbelief, because unbelief is very different from doubt. Unbelief is a refusal to believe at all, but Jesus says Thomas was ‘doubting’ (verse 27). Os Guinness has a helpful definition of doubt: he calls it ‘faith in two minds’. Doubt isn’t the absence of faith that unbelief is, it’s faith in two minds.
There’s one other context to Thomas that I haven’t mentioned, and it’s not in the Bible. There is a strong early tradition that Thomas is the apostle who took the Gospel as far as India. There is even a Christian denomination in India called the Mar Thoma Church, which claims to trace its founding to him. If that is the case, then is it not a good thing to give someone the space to wrestle with their questions? If like Thomas they come through to a deeper faith, who knows what they might achieve in the name of the Risen Christ?
Secondly, then, I invite us to remember his questions.
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (Verse 25)
What is Thomas’ problem, apart from the fact that – unlike the others – he hasn’t yet met the Risen Christ? As I said, he isn’t an unbeliever. He is far from being a sceptic. In fact, you could say that he was deeply biblical. Like most pious working class Jews (but unlike the wealthy Sadducees) he believed the ancient prophecies that one day, at the Last Judgement, God would raise all people from the dead – some to the reward of eternal life, and some to judgement. He would likely quote Daniel chapter 12 in support of this view.
What they didn’t expect was that God would interrupt the middle of history with a resurrection. You get a flavour of that in John 11, where Jesus turns up at the tomb of Lazarus, four days after the death, and speaks with Mary and Martha. They say they are waiting for the great resurrection at the end of time.
However, Thomas’ willingness to state his question baldly sets the stage for another appearance by Jesus, this time for his benefit. John sees this next appearance, a week later, as a follow-up by Jesus. Again it is in the midst of locked doors because the disciples who are so full of enthusiasm about the Resurrection are still nevertheless afraid, so this isn’t just for Thomas. This is to bless them all.
But in Thomas’ case, his devout biblical faith is now stretched and expanded by meeting the risen Christ. And often, that is what God wants to do through an experience of doubt. It’s not there to destroy our faith, but to expand it. In a profound talk he gave last year on the place of doubt in Christian faith, an American Old Testament scholar called Peter Enns said this:
When you go out into the world and say “it’s not working,” maybe that is a signal. It’s not God who no longer works, it’s your idea of God that needs work. Maybe you are for the first time being called, as C. S. Lewis put it so well in the Narnia books, to go “further up and further in.” That’s where doubt plays a powerful role.
But where does Thomas have his doubts expanded into greater faith? It’s in a context of fellowship. He is with the other disciples this time, and I think that makes a difference. Classically, one of the ways Christians have defended the truth of the resurrection against charges that the disciples experienced hallucinations is to point out that hallucinations are rarely group experiences. They are more commonly solitary in their nature. So by Thomas having his experience of the Risen Christ in the presence of the other disciples there is an assurance here that this is real and true, not a fantasy.
And in doing so, I believe it points up the importance of fellowship when we have our doubts. What do we do when we face a crisis? Some of us, like me, restore our energy from within ourselves. Others gain energy from being with others. However, much as I renew my energy from within and generally alone, if I spend too much time just on my own at a time of doubt, it can all become morbid and increasingly negative. It becomes a downward spiral. I have seen people facing a crisis of faith take a major step away from church and fellowship for a period of time, and all that really happens is that the negative thoughts are reinforced.
Now, granted, the other disciples may not be the most helpful to Thomas in his doubt, but the fact that they had met the risen Jesus and that he appears to them in that context, is a sign, I believe, that it is worth persevering with Christian fellowship when we have our doubts. Our faith is not solitary. It involves being part of God’s people. Even if at times all our brother and sister Christians give us is a set of trite answers to our questions, nevertheless that is a major arena where we experience Christ.
So I would counsel people facing doubts to stay within the fellowship of the church, to find it a safe place to ask the hard questions, and to be encouraged that in that very place God may well expand and deepen your faith as a result.
Thirdly, I invite you to remember his confession. The other disciples had to see Jesus alive before believing in the resurrection. Thomas wanted that, and more: to touch the wounds. And Jesus offers Thomas what he says he wants. I think he just wants to know for sure, and he expresses it in this black and white manner.
But when the risen Lord stands in front of him, I’m not sure Thomas takes him up on the invitation to touch his hands and his side. Just meeting Jesus is enough, and he says to him, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28)
‘My Lord and my God.’ That’s the point to which Jesus wants to get Thomas, and us. And yes, this is one of those Bible verses the Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t explain, because Thomas clearly attributes full divine status to Jesus.
But it probably also had huge implications for the first readers of John’s Gospel. If, as most scholars think, John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century AD, then it is quite possible that the emperor ruling the Roman Empire was Domitian. He wasn’t the nicest of chaps. He may well have been responsible for the persecution of Christians that is reflected in the Book of Revelation. And what did he require of his subjects? That they worship him as ‘Lord and God’.
The confession of the risen Lord at which Thomas arrives through his doubts is not just intellectual. It is one that has practical consequences for daily living and, indeed, dying. Later followers of Jesus who read these words will be those who have sufficiently come through their doubts that they are prepared to make a confession that puts them in opposition to the prevailing values of the society in which they live.
And perhaps this is a major reason why Jesus wants to meet us with our doubts and expand our faith – to make us strong in faith to stand against some of the major forces at work in our world today.
Last week we sang Stuart Townend’s Resurrection Hymn, ‘See what a morning’. It contains the lines,
One with the Father, Ancient of Days
Through the Spirit
Who clothes faith with certainty
Do we have certainty – a certainty with which to face the world? We have a certainty that Christ is risen. We have an assurance of God’s love. To quote U2 for a second consecutive week,
It’s not if I believe in love
But if love believes in me
(from Moment Of Surrender)
Whatever our doubts may be, the Resurrection means that love believes in us. And in the light of that, our confession of faith in our risen Lord and God can be a rock to stand firm in the face of a world that is devoted to values vastly different from his.
Perhaps one of the most notable Christians for steadfastly not bowing down to the values of the world in the last century was Mother Teresa. Her care for the poor and those generally thought not worth bothering with and her freedom from wealth and acquisition made her admired by many, as we well know. After her death in 1997, reports emerged about the severe doubts she expressed in her personal journal. In the lecture on doubt by Peter Enns that I mentioned earlier, he quotes this story about her:
There is a wonderful story of Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh. In 1975 he went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. He was searching for an answer about how best to spend the remaining years of his life. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. And he answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.” When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
Jesus brings us to a confession that may or may not have clarity. But at its heart is trust. That, it seems, took Thomas to India, and the effects of his faith are still felt today.
What if we had trust – deep trust – in our risen Lord? Would he take us ‘further up and further in’? Where might the effects of our faith be felt?
Sally Coleman and I seem to be interested in much the same things right now. Not only have we both written about theology in the last couple of days, she has written about healing and now here am I doing the same.
We’ve just started running the DVD course ‘Letting Jesus Heal‘ from the Christian Healing Mission at Knaphill. Now before I go any further, I should make full disclosure and say that I have known John Ryeland, the director of the CHM, for a good number of years, and indeed went to school with his wife Gillian! So you can accuse me of bias if you like.
However, I want to commend this course enthusiastically, based on the first two weeks of the six. What I like about the teaching here is that John combines a faithful openness to the power of God to heal with a quiet, gentle approach. In style this is about as far removed as you can get from the hyped-up school of healing ministry so prevalent in some places. It is therefore both safe and ideal for introducing an expectancy that God will work in a context where people might be nervous of showmanship, noise or manipulation.
Not only that, one thing I deeply value about John’s teaching is that he opens people up to the belief and experience that God is speaking to us much more than we realise. How often do we think that God is not speaking to us, or just does not speak to us – especially in contrast to other Christians who, in the words many years ago of Gerald Coates, ‘have more words from the Lord before breakfast than Billy Graham has had in a lifetime’?
Eighteen months ago, I heard John give his teaching on ‘Encountering Jesus‘ and had a simple but profound experience of Christ in relation to some serious pain and disappointment in my life. It forms the second session of the healing course, and while I obviously cannot share any confidences, I know that a number of people heard Jesus speak to them on Wednesday night in the course.
If you are looking for something to encourage people in the area of Christian healing, then, I recommend you take a good look at this course. And if you’re not far from Knaphill, feel free to drop in on us next Wednesday at 8:00 pm.
The other day, someone said to me, “You’re not academic.” It was meant as a compliment, but I felt disappointed. The speaker meant that I was interested in people, and took ‘academic’ to mean ‘remote’.
However, I see academic theology differently. I know that in all too many cases it can be remote from ordinary life, and frankly abstruse. Try reading anyone called Karl – say Barth or Rahner – in a home group or a sermon. It’s often dense, and I need to re-read it to get the sense. My passion, though, is to connect the academy and the church. I believe theology is important for living.
So I was pleased to see Sally Coleman blogging on this very subject. I added a quote in the discussion there from one of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus:
If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.
(I found that quote many years ago in David Benner‘s wonderful book ‘Psychotherapy and the Spiritual Quest‘, where it was cited from S Lash’s article ‘Orthodox Spirituality’ in ‘The SCM Dictionary of Spirituality‘, edited by Gordon Wakefield.)
To me, it encapsulates what theology is about: not just words about God (which would be a fairly literal interpretation of the word), but words to God, the exploration of God as an act of worship.
As for the academic stuff, well don’t we need the people who will use their gifts to think hard about the difficult questions? The church can be strangely ambivalent about this. In my experience (although not, I hasten to add, in my current appointment), I have encountered Christians who have vehemently rejected the idea of sermons that made them think only at other times to expect the same minister to explain hard issues to them! You can’t have it both ways!
Surely we are all theologians, at least by Evagrius Ponticus’ standards. But we each bring something different to the table, as together we seek to know God more deeply.
Super-injunctions – the practice of famous people taking out an injunction to prevent the reporting of something bad about them, combined with an order preventing reporting even of the existence of the injunction – are much in the UK news lately. Reports suggest that up to thirty such orders currently exist. So thirty famous people have obtained court orders preventing the public from knowing something about them that would presumably tarnish their images.
A week or two ago, one such super-injunction was exposed: Andrew Marr, well-known political journalist for the BBC and one-time editor of The Independent newspaper, managed to suppress reporting of an affair he had with another journalist, even though he is a married man. This was brought to wider attention by Ian Hislop of the satirical magazine Private Eye (although three years ago a right-wing political blog wrongly claimed more than that about the situation). Hislop accused Marr of hypocrisy: Marr interviews people and examines their moral motives for political decisions, yet he tried to hide his own moral failings. Marr said he was uneasy about the action, but wanted to protect his family.
This week, the subject is back in the news in reports that a Twitter user has tried to reveal the identities of some celebrities who have resorted to this expensive legal tactic. Presumably, that will end in court for the user, either being sued for defamation or charged with contempt of court. Also, Max Mosley has lost his case at the European Court of Human Rights.
So how might Christians think about super-injunctions? One strand is the issue of power and wealth. Only those with power and wealth seem to have recourse to this action. No person in the street can suppress unfavourable stories about themselves. As with the libel laws, there is one law for the rich and one for the rest. Although imagine the Legal Aid bills – is that a sign that this whole approach is wrong? Is this more a matter of economic generation for lawyers?
Then there is the public and private issue. Where do we draw the line between what the public would like to know and what is in the public interest? The two are not necessarily the same. Is there a right to privacy for a public figure, or does the courting of fame mean forfeiting privacy? Surely not. What about those who invite us into their home lives, in exchange for a hefty fee from a glossy magazine? And what is the difference between genuine public interest and the voyeurism that passes for popular journalism in some quarters, voyeurism that sells papers and magazines, because it taps into an unhealthy popular instinct?
However, privacy is surely about dignity rather than hiding sin. The main argument for privacy, surely, is the protection of others. Was Marr right in that respect, or was he covering his own back? Perhaps we shall never know. It will have become horrendous to be one of his family members, knowing that either children at school are saying things to their faces, or that adults are saying things behind their backs. However, privacy and dignity are not about pretending that sin hasn’t happened.
Further, what exactly is the relationship between the famous and the press? Famous people need the press, but are there limits? And what does it achieve to keep these things out of public sight? It suggests that image is more important than truth, authenticity, integrity and all those unfashionable qualities. Is this another sign of a culture besotted with celebrities?
But does it matter? After all, does not the God of the Poor see? Will God not judge? Super-injunctions hide nothing from God. His justice is good news for those who do not have the financial muscle to benefit from our legal system.
A lot of Twitter users have tweeted that the remedy to this sad situation is that famous people should not commit immoral acts. And of course as a Christian I agree. However, we are also in the realms of people potentially making scurrilous claims online, too. Those do not need to be met by super-injunctions, though. The normal reaction would be a defamation case. However – again – the wealthy have the best access to such redress, since such cases do not attract Legal Aid, as I said above.
Even then, however much we might abhor the antics of the rich and powerful and their vain use of wealth and influence to cover their tracks there is still the Gospel opportunity of grace for those who repent. Do we Christians get caught up in the spirit of the age and show a similar prurience to everyone else when these cases are alluded to or reported?
What do you think?
This coming Sunday in our sermon series on ‘People around the Cross and the tomb’, we shall look at Thomas, or ‘Doubting Thomas’ as he is often known. The subject of doubt and faith is a vital one, and today I have begun typing up various random ideas that I hope will make their way into the sermon.
Among them is the text of a speech I found online nearly six months ago. I have kept it open in a browser tab ever since – probably I should have just saved it in Delicious. However, it is coming into its own as I prepare for Sunday, so I thought I would draw your attention to it now. The Benefit of Doubt: Coming to Terms with Faith in a Postmodern Era is a wonderful lecture to read by the American Old Testament scholar Peter Enns. I shall certainly be including some material at the weekend which takes its inspiration from this wonderful piece. If you have half an hour or so to spare, I commend it to you enthusiastically.
No, I’m not being rude. He really does. He says so himself.
But Dave is making a virtue of it. He has linked his personal slimming target to an effort to raise money for a charity called Every Child, which works for the welfare of children around the world. They keep families together, they protect children, and they ensure that children’s voices are heard.
For every pound in weight that Dave loses, he is going to donate a pound in currency to Every Child. However, he is also asking if others would like to donate to his cause. If you would like to, then please go to his Just Giving page and contribute.
Dave will appreciate any support you can offer. So will needy and hungry children around the world.
This video clip from the BBC comedy show Outnumbered has gone viral in the last year or two:
My reaction on watching it again this week is that many of young Ben’s questions to the vicar were all too reminiscent of the attitudes many adults have shown this last week when thumping their fists in the air to celebrate the killing of Osama bin Laden. Why not sort everything out with a quick bit of violence? These attitudes start young.
Probably the best question in the clip is from Karen, when she asks the vicar whether Jesus could have found another way apart from the Cross of saving people.
On Friday, I went into our children’s school to be quizzed by Year 1 and Year 2 children. It was our son’s class. On Thursday evening at the meal table, he told me the class had prepared sixteen questions to ask me. The little so-and-so wouldn’t give me a heads-up on any of them! His teacher was very pleased with that the next day.
Some of the questions were routine: do you marry people? What is a christening about? What does your font look like? Do you pray every day? But some were harder, and especially to give an accurate, succinct answer in understandable language. Why did you want to become a minister? Well, actually I didn’t …
After we got through the sixteen questions, the teacher invited a few additional spontaneous questions from the floor. That yielded one I could only answer concisely, and as briefly as I could in the limited span before playtime: do you believe all the stories in the Bible? A ‘yes’, combined with an explanation of needing to treat different literature differently, pointing to the different styles of books in the classroom.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, while I had questions about baptisms and weddings, I had none about funerals. The questions were about what interested and affected them.
But the honesty and directness were refreshing, and a world away from the spite and hate behind many such debates among adults here on the Internet.
This morning we have heard a Bible passage for a wedding service – the Emmaus Road.
What – not 1 Corinthians 13? No. The Anglican Rector friend of mine who preached at our wedding nearly ten years ago chose the Emmaus Road story as his text. He relied on an old tradition that Cleopas and his companion on the journey were a married couple, and proceeded to make five points about marriage from the account. I can’t tell you what those five points were, though, because we never did receive the recording of the service that we were promised.
But today we come to this famous Easter story with a more conventional agenda. What does the experience of Cleopas and his companion of the Risen Christ tell us about true faith? Here are three aspects I have noticed:
Firstly, their experience tells us about the importance of revelation. Faith in Christ is not simply about our free will decision: it requires a revelation from God to understand the truth.
If you come into my study, you will find not only my books but my CD collection. Much as I would like it to be in the main family living space, if I put the shelves of CDs in the lounge, there would probably be no room for the three-piece suite.
Among my large assortment of music you will find plenty by U2, led, of course, by Saint Bono. Their most recent album, No Line On The Horizon (not one of their best – known to some as No Tunes On The Album), there is a song called I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.
It contains this line, which is pertinent to the Emmaus Road story:
How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?
That seems to be the predicament Cleopas is in. He and his companion don’t just stand next to the truth, they walk next to the truth and just don’t see it. They are trapped in their old way of thinking that Jesus was supposed to have redeemed Israel (which I take to mean they thought he would overthrow the Romans) and that all those hopes were dashed in the conspiracy to have him executed (verses 19-21).
Now you know and I know that they were wrong. We know with hindsight and with faith that the reality was different. But what changed it for them? It comes with the response of Jesus:
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Verses 25-27)
They needed a word from the Lord. They needed revelation. An encounter with the Risen Christ brings that.
And we need revelation, too. Whatever our human skills and talents, whatever decisions we are capable of making, the life of faith does not start with us. It begins with God revealing himself to us. In our context, with Christ ascended to the Father’s right hand, that means the work of the Holy Spirit.
What implications are there here for us? It reminds us that for anyone to find faith in Christ, there must be revelation from God. Christian witness cannot be reduced just to us saying the right words or doing the right things so that people will come to faith. Think of John Wesley having his ‘heart strangely warmed’. Or hear this testimony from the former pop star Yazz, famous for The Only Way Is Up:
Her life and career had fallen apart after her two or three big hit singles. What was going to heal her life? She says this:
At that point, I’d tried everything to fill this ache inside except Christianity. One evening I asked Mum for a Bible. I didn’t understand what I read, but as I laid the book down next to me I was filled with something that felt like warm peace flowing through me.
So in our witness we rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ and God’s love to people.
But it isn’t purely about the call to conversion. It’s about every aspect of the Christian life. Always we need the revelation of God. However much I study a Bible passage, I need the Holy Spirit. We all do.
Secondly, Cleopas and his companion discover the importance of a Christ-centred interpretation of Scripture. If there is one thing that non-Christians perceive about Christianity and the Bible, it’s the thought that you can make it mean whatever you want, by picking the bits that suit you. So, for example, the broadcaster Jon Snow, who is the son of an Anglican clergyman, when asked in an interview, ‘Is there anything in the Bible that has particularly resonated with all you have been witness to?’, replied:
‘Yeah, I think treating your neighbour as you would have them treat you is a pretty good idea. I think that turning the other cheek is a pretty good idea. I think there’s a fair amount on conflict resolution in the Bible. But the problem with the Bible, as is well illustrated in Middle America, is that it’s very open to a pick’n’mix approach.’
I’m not about to suggest that I can solve all those problems in one fell swoop, nor resolve all the differences between Christians of various persuasions both presently and throughout history, but the experience of Cleopas does show us one vital, central approach to interpreting the Bible: it all centres on Jesus. It all revolves around Jesus. He is the centre of the Bible, he is the aim of the Bible, he is the key to interpreting it because he is the ultimate focus of it. Hence Luke says,
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Verse 27)
Is it any wonder, then, that our High Church friends often stand for the reading from the Gospels in a communion service, and in some traditions also parade the Gospel into the middle of the congregation before the reading? They are proclaiming in a liturgical way their belief that Jesus is at the centre of the Scriptures.
What will it mean for us to interpret the Scriptures in the light of Jesus at the centre? It’s rather more than might be popularly imagined. You will remember that only a few years ago one Christian fashion accessory (how did we get ourselves in such a state?) was a bracelet with the initials ‘WWJD’ – What Would Jesus Do? That’s a good question, but even that is not enough for what I am suggesting here.
Rather than just woodenly thinking of an appropriate Bible text from the life of Jesus, we do something bigger: we ask, how does this fit in God’s great plan of things? How does something fit in God’ grand scheme of salvation in history? Most specifically, how does it read in relation to the story of God taking on human flesh, living among us, dying for our sins, being raised to new life, ascending to the Father’s right hand in glory, sending the Holy Spirit and promising to appear again? How does the Scripture we are wrestling with point to this great narrative of divine blessing?
True, there have been some fanciful Christian approaches to this over the centuries, wanting to see the minutiae of salvation in the prescribed details of Israel’s tabernacle in the wilderness, and so on. But we are less about the minutiae and more about the big picture. And front and centre of our picture as we read the Bible is Jesus, because he is alive.
Thirdly, Cleopas and his companion discover Jesus in the midst of everyday life. He comes alongside them on the road (verse 15), he accepts their offer of hospitality at their home and he eats a meal with them (verses 29-30).
Here is a text where I have changed my mind about its meaning in recent years. I remember preaching on this as a young Local Preacher and making the point that Jesus’ rôle at the meal table in Emmaus foreshadowed Holy Communion. He took the bread, blessed it, broke it and began to give it to them (verse 30). The taking, blessing, breaking and giving were the same four actions as he performed at the Last Supper. Therefore the Emmaus Road story prepares us not only for remembering Jesus at the Lord’s Table, but for recognising his presence there, too.
It’s a popular interpretation. It’s one we sing, when we use the communion hymn,
Be known to us in breaking bread,
But do not then depart (James Montgomery)
But it’s wrong. We too easily ‘churchify’ our interpretations. Those four actions – taking, blessing, breaking and giving – were the four actions that were performed at any standard Jewish meal two thousand years ago. This is a normal family meal at Emmaus.
What we celebrate here is that the Risen Christ joins us everywhere in life. We meet him as much in everyday life as in church. Indeed, much of his public ministry was not conducted in the synagogues but in homes and outdoors – rather like the meal table and the walk in this story.
I am not saying that gathering together in church and in fellowship is unimportant – this is not a variation on the ‘You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’ nonsense. Many of the ways in which we encourage one another and strengthen each other can only be done by coming together physically.
But I am saying this: we should be open to meeting Jesus in the world, and this has huge implications. It means that our daily working life is important to him. We can do it to his glory, and we can expect to find him there, helping us. I know churches who put a segment into their Sunday services called ‘This Time Tomorrow’, where congregation members talk about what they will be doing not on Sunday morning at 11, but on Monday morning at 11. They then receive prayer – because it’s daft to think that the only people we pray for are ministers, preachers, Sunday School teachers, and doctors and nurses. Jesus is with each one of us in our daily tasks.
It means also that just as Jesus took the initiative to come alongside Cleopas and his companion to explain the Gospel to them and lead them into truth, so he is also coming alongside people to do that today. In other words, it’s a question of how we understand mission. In seeking to take the love of God to people in word and deed, in evangelism and social action, it doesn’t all depend on us. Jesus goes ahead of us and accompanies people. Our job is to join him where he has already been at work in people’s lives before we got there.
So don’t just proclaim – listen to people’s stories. You will find spiritual yearnings, religious questions and even experiences of God in their lives, because Jesus is going ahead on the road to meet them, speak to them and work in their lives in order to draw them to him. He then calls us in as his junior assistants to be the ones who are used by his Spirit to bring people to a point of saving faith in Christ.
In conclusion, then, Cleopas finds the meeting with the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus completely transforming. It requires revelation. It leads to seeing the Scriptures in the light of Christ. And it involves expecting to meet Christ everywhere in daily life.
The experience led to a revolution in the life of Cleopas and his companion. May we too meet the Risen Christ and have our lives turned upside-down.