Sermon preached by Rev’d Karen Charman on the Third Sunday of Easter, 26th April 2020 via Zoom
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[f] from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.[g] 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19 He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,[h] who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.[i] Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ 25 Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah[j] should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us[k] while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
“How he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
The “breaking of the bread,” – one of several ways in which Christians have encountered Jesus over the past two thousand years.
And now, that privilege … that means of encountering Jesus – has been denied to many of us … to many of you, for I am one of the privileged few, still able to break the bread and to drink the cup – for, and on behalf of us all. A privilege and a responsibility which I – and I’m sure Sarah, Mark and Bishop Humphrey, who have also been breaking the bread for and on behalf of us all – a privilege and a responsibility which we don’t take lightly. A privilege and a responsibility which brings so many mixed emotions, as we do so with each of you in our thoughts and prayers, and hearts and minds. And, now that we’ve switched from Facebook to Zoom – and can see each other on our screens as we worship together – the emotions become more powerful and, perhaps, even more mixed.
I don’t know how each of you feel about being denied physical reception of the bread and wine – of the body and blood of Christ.
And I don’t know how you feel, seeing me – or Sarah, Mark or Bishop Humphrey – receiving the bread and wine on your computer screen, tablet or smart phone.
Your feelings will depend a little on your sacramental and Eucharistic theology – whether you believe that the bread and wine is somehow the body and blood of Christ, or – to put it another way – that Jesus is, somehow, ‘present’ in the bread and wine. Whether you believe that something ‘happens’ during the prayer of consecration – the Eucharistic Prayer – and that some change takes place – or whether you believe that the bread and wine is just that – bread and wine, with which we remember Jesus. I don’t know most of you well enough to know your thoughts and beliefs about the Eucharist. And, perhaps, these might be questions some of you haven’t ever considered before.
Perhaps many of you missing the act of gathering together in our beautiful churches, singing hymns, and enjoying some form of worship, more than you are missing the actual bread and wine?
But, perhaps, for some of you, your heart aches, and you feel intensely sad or wounded, when you see the bread and wine but cannot physically receive it.
I expect, for most of us, our emotions change from day to day. Some days, we might miss gathering together in our churches. Other days, it might be the bread and wine we miss most.
Some days, seeing each other on our screens might ease some of our sadness and pain. On other days, it might make the sadness and pain more intense. Some days, seeing the priest receive the bread and wine on your behalf might bring you some comfort …on other days it might make the pain more intense. Or, perhaps, when we gather together ‘virtually’ – via Zoom – you experience at the same time both the joy of seeing familiar faces and the pain of separation.
Much has been written in recent weeks about the act of ‘spiritual communion’. A former tutor at Cuddesdon, who many of you may know – Canon Dr Grant Bayliss – wrote one of the earliest articles about spiritual communion during the current pandemic. He asserted confidently that – when he watched Bishop Steven preside at the first Oxford Diocese live-streamed Eucharist of the lockdown, and crossed himself while Bishop Steven lifted the bread and the cup – he “would be eating and drinking spiritually the body and blood of our Saviour Christ,” even though he would not receive the sacrament with his mouth.
These words from a very highly-regarded, and much-loved, theologian assured me that Bishop Humphrey, Mark, Sarah and I should continue to celebrate the Eucharist, for and on behalf of the Benefice – and that to do so would be beneficial, even though it might also be painful, for those unable to physically receive the sacrament.
Then, over the last week or so, I’ve read articles that have challenged those assumptions – that have suggested we should refrain from receiving communion until we can gather again in our churches. And it could be a long time before we can gather together in our churches.
I wonder how you feel? The fact that you’ve joined us this morning suggests that you may be in favour of us sharing the Eucharist in this new way, and that you hope to receive some benefits from this on-line worship? But perhaps you’d be equally happy if this were a Service of Word – Morning Worship, or Breakfast Time, or Family Time, perhaps?
Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” – and the thought of us not doing this, in any shape or form, for some weeks or months in our Benefice fills me with alarm … but, of course, the Eucharist hasn’t always been celebrated with such frequency as we celebrate it today.
Nor is the Eucharist the only way in which we encounter our Risen Lord – though for Cleopas and his companion, it was only when the bread was blessed, broken and distributed that their eyes were opened and they recognised Jesus.
Only then did they acknowledge to one another that their hearts had burned within them, while – as they walked along the road to Emmaus – Jesus explained the scriptures to them.
The Emmaus encounter forms the pattern for Eucharistic worship today. First, the reading and expounding of Scripture, then the blessing and breaking of the bread. And many of us believe that Jesus can be encountered in both the word and the sacrament.
I wonder, though, how easy we find it … how easy you find it … to encounter Jesus in the word and sacrament during lockdown, when we worship in this new and unnatural way?
Sometimes, clergy are advised that we should hide our vulnerabilities. That we should always present ourselves as resilient, and capable; strong in faith; confident and unshakable. I prefer to be honest. I prefer to admit that – although my faith remains strong – I’m struggling to encounter Jesus at the moment, or – perhaps more accurately – I’m struggling to recognise him at the moment. I know that the Lord is here, his Spirit is with us -and that he walks with us through the darkest valleys – but, at the moment, I’m not feeling his presence as often as I’d like … I’m not encountering him when I read the Scriptures; and I’m not always recognising him in the breaking of bread – particularly, perhaps, when I see that breaking performed via my computer or phone screen, performed by a Bishop or priest I’ve never even met. To quote, once more Father Grant Bayliss, and his recent blog on Spiritual Communion, “matter matters.” I want to touch and to taste the bread and the wine … I want to see Jesus and – to quote another of my favourite hymns – I want to see his footprints, and in them plant my own.
One of my several sacred spaces is a beach.
It’s a beach in Northumberland – on the island of Lindisfarne – or Holy Island – where you can walk for miles and not see another soul. Where the only sounds are the gentle lap of the waves and – sometimes – the singing of seals.
Walking on that beach, I sometimes imagine myself walking with Jesus beside the Sea of Galilee and, while doing so, I’ve had a really strong sense that Jesus was with me … walking with me … talking with me … as he walked with those earlier disciples on the Emmaus Road.
These are challenging times. We can’t all recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread. We can’t gather together in our beautiful churches … nor gather anywhere, except in this ‘virtual’ on-line space.
We must, though, carve out space for our spirituality – for our relationship with God. I know what I need to do, to create that sacred space for encounter … the time and space where I can meet my risen Lord, and where my heart can burn within me – can be set on fire with love for him – as I am filled, and fed, once more by the Holy Spirit and the living bread.
I wonder, where will you encounter Jesus … encounter God in these difficult days?
What can you do to ensure that your spiritual eyes are opened, and that you ‘see’ Jesus?
What can you do to ensure that you are fed by our faithful shepherd – the Lord who leads us beside still waters, and restores our soul?
Perhaps, like me, you need to sing some hymns and worship songs.
Perhaps, like me, you need to sit in silence and still your soul.
Perhaps, like me, you need to be more contemplative … less busy.
Perhaps, like me, you need to go for a walk on your own, and imagine that Jesus is walking beside you.
Perhaps, like me, you need to make your spiritual communion more often, and recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread, painful as that may be.
In the silence which follows, I invite you to consider where and when you might best recognize Jesus, and how he might make himself known to you, in these difficult days and nights.