Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Unity in Mission

24th January 2016               Christian Unity Service                   Holy Trinity, Llandudno
OT                   Isaiah 52.7-9
Gospel             Luke 24 13-36

We’re in the Epiphany season, a season of signs and revelations.

First there were three travellers from the East who discerned in their astrological charts, a very special conjunction, only to find the hand of God was at work.

Then Jesus came up from the waters of Baptism to hear a voice from heaven and see with absolute clarity what his mission was to be.

Last week, the miracle at Cana which revealed Jesus to his disciples in a way which caused them to believe.
In our own lives, sometimes a number of elements in life come together in a way that, on reflection, we can see the hand of God at work. Tonight I’ve been called to start a new journey with churches together.  A little like Abraham, I’m a little surprised to receive this call so late in life.   But then today, at the point of setting off on my way, I find that the readings for the day are two of those with I identify most closely.

This morning, in the Common Lectionary, we had Jesus’s Mission Statement from Luke, Ch.4:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

The recently baptised Jesus has just been on an intensive training course in the desert. The gospel story tells that he faces three temptations to go the wrong way.

He has realised he is going to have to give up the day job as a carpenter and undertake an unpaid itinerant ministry, where he will not know where the next meal is coming from and where he will not know where he is going to lay his head.

It would be easy in these circumstances to be held back by insecurity.  Thus the temptation to turn bread into stones is not just a response to his immediate situation, it prefigures the nature of his daily life for the future.  Can he trust other people to respond, support, feed him and take him in for the night?

Second, Jesus might be held back by concern about taking up power represented by the offer of the kingdoms of the world. Not everyone wants to be a king. Conversely, he might be tempted by the shortcut of fulfilling the historical expectations of a Messiah to lead a revolution.  There were plenty of people yearning to overthrow the yoke of the Romans.  But that path leads to the power of oppression.  The popular Maccabean revolution, still a recent memory for the Jews of Jesus’ time, had led directly to Herod.  It’s this oppressive power that we often think of as power.  We think of the droves of political figures, who started off with good intentions only to have them corrupted when they held power.

In contrast, true power is power built in relationship, which entails taking the risk of getting involved and challenging the oppressive power of the people who currently run the world.  It means giving back to the poor and the hungry and the prisoner the voice which has been taken away from them.  It means both leading such people and enabling their God-given power to be released.

Third, Jesus might be held back by fear of his own spiritual potential as Nelson Mandela suggested many of us are.  This is represented in the story by the temptation to jump off the temple.  It would be easy to gain a following by doing the magic tricks of which a divine being is capable.

In Mark’s account, when Jesus does go out into the mission field he spends a great deal of time telling the recipients of his miracles not to tell others what he has done for fear of the magic obscuring the message.
And then Jesus stands up in the synagogue and reinterprets Isaiah 61 as his mission statement.  In just 50 words he proclaims a message of good news to the poor and a challenge to those who are spiritually blind, those who are going the wrong way.

I wonder what you were talking about on the way here tonight.

Because an understanding of “the way” is central to the insights of the early church and particularly to gospels of Mark and Luke.

Tonight’s second reading told us the story of two disciples on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  Many explorers and archaeologists have searched fruitlessly for Emmaus.  I often wonder why, because like the two disciples mentioned in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, they’re facing in the wrong direction.

The English language sometimes has too many words and the fact that our translators can translate the single Greek word οδός (ô(r)thos) as road, path, route and journey obscures the key point the evangelists were trying to make.  Jesus is the way.  Jesus shows us the way.  We are followers of his way.

We can interpret The Way as a physical journey or as a journey of spiritual exploration and discipling, internalising Jesus’ teaching in our lives.

For Luke, the place of salvation is Jerusalem.  His gospel starts there and finishes there. It is the place where, through the death of Jesus Christ, God redeems his people as he redeemed the Israelites from slavery in the Exodus.  God literally buys our freedom.

The two disciples, Cleopas, and probably his wife, are on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They’re going the wrong way.  Their own way.

Like many of us, they are rooted people.  We are rooted in our homes, our families and even our church.  These are places of comfort, safety and sustenance.  When we’ve been on holiday, we instinctively relax as we turn the corner back to the familiar of home.  To become homeless, to become a refugee or asylum seeker, torn from home, is regarded as a tragedy.

After all the disruption of the previous days where their lives and hopes had been torn apart, Cleopas and his wife are returning to where they feel safe, home.  They had regarded Jesus as a prophet, and more than a prophet. God’s power had been present with him in his miracles and his teaching, and they couldn’t doubt that this was the man of God’s choice.  He was the one who would redeem Israel.  That’s why the crucifixion was so devastating.  It wasn’t just that Jesus had been the bearer of their hopes and he was now dead and gone.  If Jesus had been the one to redeem Israel, he should have been defeating the pagans not dying at their hands!
Cleopas’ puzzled statement only needs the slightest twist to turn it into a joyful statement of early Christian faith.  “They crucified him - but we had hoped he would redeem Israel” would shortly become: “They crucified him and that was how he did redeem Israel.”

But before they could begin to understand, they had to be prepared. The fact that they couldn’t recognise Jesus seems to have gone hand in hand with the fact that they couldn’t recognise the events that had just happened as the story of God’s redemption.

They had been expecting God to redeem Israel from suffering but instead they were presented with a story of how God redeemed through suffering; through in particular the suffering which would be taken upon himself by Israel’s representative, the Messiah.

When Luke says that Jesus interpreted to them all the things about himself, throughout the Bible, he doesn’t mean that Jesus collected a few, or even a few dozen, isolated texts, verses chosen at random.  He means that the whole story from Genesis to Chronicles pointed to a fulfilment which could only be found when God’s anointed took Israel’s suffering, and hence the world’s suffering, onto himself, died under its weight, and rose again as the beginning of God’s new creation, God’s people. This is what had to happen - and now it just had.

Perhaps Luke is saying that we can only know Jesus, can only recognise him in any sense, when we learn to see him within the true story of God and the world.

At the end of the story, Cleopas and his wife turn around and start back to Jerusalem, the icon of salvation, as we are all called to repent, turn around and follow the right way.

When Mr & Mrs. Cleopas reach the 11 in the upper room in Jerusalem, Jesus appears again and soon the physical way that the disciples take will take them all over the known world.  They will be uprooted, often not knowing where their next meal or bed will come from.  Their witness will often result in martyrdom as they follow the way of the cross. But before the end of the story, before recognition, Mr. & Mrs Cleopas will invite Jesus in to stay in their humble abode.

Think of the first meal related in the Bible:

“The woman took some of the fruit and ate it; she gave it to her husband and he ate it; then the eyes of both of them were opened.”  Gen. 3.6-7

This was the beginning of the woes that had come upon the human race.  Death itself was traced to that moment of rebellion.  The whole of creation was subjected to decay, futility and sorrow.

Now Luke, echoing that story, describes the first meal of the new creation:
“He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them; then they eyes of both of them were opened.”  Luke 24.31

Jesus usurps the right of the head of the household to bless the bread and his wife to break and distribute it.  Cleopas and his wife discover that the long curse has been broken.  Death itself has been defeated.  God’s new creation, brimming with life and joy and new possibility, has burst upon the world of decay and sorrow.
Luke has told the story in such a way as to help us live it ourselves.  We too are invited to listen to the exposition of the Bible, to have our hearts burning within us as fresh truth comes out of the old pages and sets us on fire.

This will happen as we learn to think through the story of God and the world, Israel and Jesus, not in the way our various cultures try to make us think, but in the way God himself has sketched out.
So too, we are invited to know Jesus in the breaking of bread.  Luke intends that his readers should see this simple meal pointing forwards to the breaking of bread which quickly became the central symbolic action of Jesus’ people sustaining them on the way.

Scripture and sacrament, word and meal are joined tightly together.  Take scripture away and the sacrament becomes a piece of magic.  Take the sacrament away and scripture becomes an intellectual or emotional exercise.  Put them together and you have the centre of Christian living as Luke understood it.
As you go on your way tonight, travel on the way, talk about the scriptures together as they did on the road to Emmaus, break bread together, always knowing there is one more person at the table, and you will find that there is only one way and only one invitation.

Along the way, announce the good news in word and deed to those who are poor and do not be afraid to challenge those in power who are blind to the truth.  And pray for me a fellow traveller.

This sermon takes inspiration and a few paragraphs from Tom Wright’s “Luke for Everyone” and insights from Dennis McBride’s “Emmaus, the gracious visit of God according to Luke.”