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What Would Jesus Do?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has written a thoughtful piece in the Christmas double issue of Radio Times (some of which is reproduced here on his own site) where he takes on the way the Occupy movement has taken up the popular evangelical slogan, ‘What would Jesus do?’ (WWJD). Dr Williams points out that Jesus is often more about asking people questions than giving them answers, and when religion is like that, it is often at its most constructive. There is further background on the BBC website in a piece by Stephen Tomkins of Ship Of Fools.

What do you think? How easy, possible or desirable is it to answer the WWJD question?

Sermon: Cleopas On The Emmaus Road (People At The Cross And The Tomb)

Luke 24:13-35
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.[1]

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.’[2]

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.


[1] Interviewed in Q Magazine, June 2008; quotation via Tools For Talks (subscription required).

[2] Interviewed in Third Way magazine, Winter 2004; quotation again via Tools For Talks.

Authenticity And Creativity

Having just quoted in the last post from An Hour On Sunday by Nancy Beach, there is a quote from that book I have been meaning to post for reflection for ages. She includes it in her chapter on authenticity. It would also fit with what she says about creativity.

She tells on page 186 of how a friend had drawn her attention to an article in GQ magazine that was painful reading for Christians. Walter Kim, not a Christian disciple, had chosen to immerse himself in the evangelical subculture for a week – music, videos, even an exercise régime. His words were damning:

‘[Evangelical Christianity] is mall Christianity. It’s been malled. It’s the upshot of some decision that to compete with them – to compete with ‘N Sync and Friends and Stephen King and Matt and Katie and Abercrombie and Fitch and Jackie Chan and AOL and Sesame Street – the faithful should turn from their centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music … and head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off, on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale. What makes the stuff so half-assed, so thin, so weak and cumulatively so demoralizing … has nothing to do with faith. The problem is lack of faith.’

(Walter Kim, “What Would Jesus Do?”, GQ magazine, September 2002, p 496.)

Well, where to begin? Mall Christianity? (Love that ‘It’s been malled’ pun, by the way.) Yes: so much evangelical Christianity is consumerist, and thus in denial of the Gospel. What a tragedy when you think where the contemporary Christian music scene started out from: the revolutionaries of the Jesus Movement around the late 1960s and early 1970s who were committed to a radical lifestyle. Now it only matters if it sells. No wonder the likes of Larry Norman never fitted in with it.

The quote is also the best piece of writing for making me reflect on why the wider world has despised contemporary Christian music. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t get played on grounds of prejudice, and I don’t doubt that is partly true – the deliberate snubbing by the media of bands like Delirious? is a case in point. But what Kim makes us forcefully see here is the sheer problem of a lack of originality. You can read reviews of Christian music and there is a need to compare the sound with something on the ‘secular’ scene that readers may be familiar with (I know that, I write reviews myself for Cross Rhythms) but sometimes it’s a sad expression of the paucity of artistry. Although too many of the American artists are certainly not working ‘for scale’: some command enormous fees. Material poverty isn’t absent from the US scene, but it’s far more common this side of the pond.

But what has stuck with me most since I first read this a few weeks ago is the way Kim latches on to the positive regard he and others have for our ‘centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music’. I knew ‘the world’ liked our ancient paintings, sculpture, stained glass windows and classical music, but I had assumed that was a spot of traditionalism. I knew there was a fondness for gospel music, but had assumed there was a certain stereotyping going on. (Think Kenny Everett and the large hands.) What Kim is saying here is that these art forms were original. Perhaps that’s why there is an innate respect today for U2, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, et al. Integrity and authenticity require honest creativity.

Kim’s writing leaves me wondering whether to label him what I have called elsewhere in a sermon on the arts and culture one of God’s unwitting prophets. We certainly need to hear his voice.