A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 26 April 2020 by the Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Reading for this address: Luke 24: 13-35
When you’re looking in at Christianity from the outside, it’s easy to see the Bible as full of stories of faraway people of which we know nothing. It all seems obscure and distant. In 1777 the philosopher G.E. Lessing crystallised this problem in a memorable sentence: ‘Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.’ In other words a story’s just a story; it’s full of particular details that have no essential bearing on the truth about existence. What Lessing didn’t realise is that everything’s part of a story. Even when we give a rational or mathematical explanation for something, we’re assuming some kind of a story. Stories are the way we join different pieces of information together to make a coherent whole. Right now, in the midst of the virus, we have no idea how to do that. The reason we’re so perplexed is we have no idea what kind of story we’re in, how long it is or where it’s all going.
When you look at Christianity from the inside, the stories of the Bible feel completely different. Rather than assume our story’s normal and these stories are weird, we start to think the other way round. We come to regard them as our story, and we find meaning and truth by locating our story within their story. Rather than think our story makes sense and these stories are nonsense, we realise how incoherent is our story and how our stories only begin to make sense when we allow this story to become our story.
I want to tell the Emmaus Road story with this transformation in mind. In the simplest sense, it’s the story of two people whose story made no sense until they let Jesus tell them his story and then they were on fire with a true story. Let’s walk through it stage by stage and see how that transformation takes place.
At the start the disciples’ story makes no sense. When Jesus asks them their story, they open their mouths, but no words come out. ‘They stood still, looking sad.’ Stay with that description, for a moment. If Jesus were to come up beside you and your companion, and say, ‘Tell me what you’re discussing,’ would that be you? ‘They stood still, looking sad.’ Hard to blame them: they’d invested their whole lives in Jesus, they’d risked their necks, they’d left their work, they’d invested in him their whole meaning and purpose. And he’d been crucified. They were shell-shocked. Is there a part of you that’s stationary and sad? Paralysed and frozen? Numb and lost? Here you are, in this story.
Then Jesus coaxes the story out of them. It’s a cascade of words and events. Until the one that matters. ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ Pause again, and put the most shattering event of your life into that space. ‘We had hoped…’ That covers it. See how the word ‘hope’ contains a story. When a child dies, you grieve what you’ve known; but even more you grieve the years that never came to be. ‘We had hoped.’ When a relationship ends, you mourn the loss of something special: touch, laughter, companionship; but even more the seizing-away of something you glimpsed, the folly that for a moment you dared to dream. ‘We had hoped.’ When a political leader’s assassinated, you fear upsurge of violence; but you lament the future that seemed to be opening up, the new beginning snuffed out. ‘We had hoped.’ Here you are, in this story.
Then something remarkable happens. Jesus has heard the two disciples out. He’s waited gently beside their silence, and listened patiently to their story. What he does next is to tell a story that doesn’t deny their story but envelops it in a larger story. He embraces their feelings and their facts and encloses them in something more expansive and more wonderful. ‘Was it not necessary…,’ he says. ‘Was it not necessary that the whole purpose of creation was for God to come in person and be with Israel in flesh and blood? Was it not fitting for the covenant on tablets of stone to turn into a covenant of flesh and blood? Was it not inevitable that when divine goodness came face to face with human frailty, humanity would regurgitate and annihilate it?’ ‘Was it not necessary’ doesn’t have to mean God planned it all. It means God found a use for it all. Nothing could finally resist being folded into God’s story. ‘Was it not necessary’: you’ve been there. It’s the moment when you scatter the broken pieces of your story out in front of you, and then someone gently and kindly but inspiringly puts them together in a coherent shape like a mechanic assembling a motorbike from items strewn across a garage forecourt. Was it not better that you knew what heartbreak felt like, so when joy came along you realised how precious it was? Was it not necessary for you to experience failure, as you could become a compassionate person who understands life isn’t fundamentally about winning? Was it not necessary? Here you are, in this story.
The disciples don’t want it to end. They spilled out their story and it was sad and stuck. This is the same story but in Jesus’ mouth it’s amazing and glorious. ‘Stay with us,’ they say. Oh how we know that feeling. I could have danced all night and still have begged for more. We don’t want it to end. We’ve met a very special person and we want to go on talking and grafting our life into theirs forever. Who cares if the train’s reached the station, the course is over, the music’s stopped. ‘Stay with us.’ We want more. This is fabulous. But think about it. We can’t freeze the frame. You can’t put a moment in a bottle and keep it forever. We all know people who want their marriage to be like their wedding day, want their Christian life to be like their conversion, want to turn a rolling film into a static photograph. We know that instinct very well. ‘Stay with us.’ Here we are, in this story.
‘Then their eyes were opened.’ Everything suddenly made sense. There was only one explanation. Perhaps as they saw Jesus break the bread they beheld the nail marks in his hands and they realised they were sharing the body of Christ, the Eucharist, as the body of Christ, the church, in the presence of the body of Christ, the risen Jesus. Their story and Christ’s story all fell into place. Mystery became reality, grief became joy, companionship with one another became camaraderie with God. Have you ever tried for the first time to make a magimix work? It won’t start until you’ve got the bowl, and the cutter, and the lid, and the funnel all in place and the bowl has to slot into the handle from the right angle and then Voom! Suddenly, if the last person left it switched on, in a terrifying whizz it explodes into life. Voom. Their eyes were opened. In a flash, you looked at an old friend, and thought, ‘I love that man.’ Instantly, you looked at the early-morning sun peeping through the spring trees, and thought, ‘This is such a beautiful world.’ ‘Then their eyes were opened.’ Here you are, in this story.
And finally, on the way to Jerusalem with the news, they said to one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us.’ When does fire figure most in the Bible? When God meets Moses in the burning bush. That’s the start of liberation, the beginning of covenant, the central moment of God’s walk with Israel. God says to Moses, ‘I will be with you.’ And here, on the first Easter Day, it’s the start of liberation, the renewal of covenant, the central moment in history. The disciples say to one another, ‘God was with us.’ Don’t you feel your heart on fire, right this moment? Israel, Jesus, the church – the whole Bible from Genesis to the maps – all condensed into one evening on the road and at the supper table. Can you look back on such an evening in your life when you now say, ‘Did I not feel my heart on fire?’ That’s my prayer for this lockdown period, that in ten years’ time we’ll look back and say, ‘That was the crucible of everything that followed. We renewed ourselves, reinvented church, rediscovered Jesus. Were not our hearts burning within us?’ Here we are, in this story.
We’ve heard a lot about essential journeys in lockdown season. We’ve debated whether driving to wish your parents happy birthday is an essential journey or not. Well this is the essential journey. This is the journey on which God’s essence embraces our existence, on which our small and partial and incomplete story is fulfilled by God’s wondrous and merciful and gracious story. Emmaus is the essential journey.
Behold what this story really is. ‘They stood still, looking sad.’ This is our life, without God: bewildering, meaningless, hopeless. ‘We had hoped.’ We have a sense of God, Christ even, and yet it doesn’t make sense, we feel let down, baffled. ‘Was it not necessary.’ We hear the story again, in a way that envelopes and embraces but doesn’t deny or obscure our story. We’re swept up into a larger story. ‘Stay with us.’ We lower our defences and realise we want to hear the whole story, stay in this place forever. ‘Then their eyes were opened.’ Suddenly we realise this small story of this conversation, this meal, is not just our story, but the story of everything, everyone, for ever. ‘Were not our hearts burning within us?’ We go from this place with a mission to share this experience with everyone we meet, and to go through this process over and over again.
What I’ve just described is what we call the Eucharist. We begin confused and crestfallen: gathering. We share our stories, in all their fragility: confession. We hear God’s story: readings and sermon. We resolve to eat together: communion. Then our eyes are opened in the breaking of the bread. And we leave realising our hearts have been on fire.
This is conversion. This is the Christian life. This is worship. In one hand Jesus takes our story, like one half of the bread. In the other hand Christ takes God’s story, the other half of the bread. And when we meet God, Christ’s scarred hands break that bread and our whole story is conjoined in the broken body of Christ. And the two stories become one story: now, and forever.