There is a view of religion – a cynical view – that interprets all religious stories and dogma as attempts to escape the cruelty of this world by imagining that things were different.
I read George Orwell’s classic, ‘Animal Farm’, for the first time only a few weeks ago and such a view was certainly represented in the book by the character of Moses, the tame raven. Moses was farmer Jones’ favourite pet, and while he didn’t do any actual work on the farm he was great at telling the other animals stories about ‘Sugar-candy Mountain’ – a place where one day all faithful animals would go and where there would be no more hard work nor bad food nor the ever-present threat of sudden butchery!
Of course those familiar with Orwell’s work will recognise that Moses’ stories weren’t so much the embodiment of the wishful thinking of the farm animals but rather were the creation of Mr Jones, who used these fanciful stories as the keeping the flocks and herds happy and compliant – as an opiate of the farmyard!
Even so, the basic formula is the same. It is a cruel world and we wish things were different. We wish so hard that things would be different that we allow our imaginations to carry us to a point where all of a sudden things are different! ‘Sugar-candy Mountain’ looms in the distance, helping us to lift our eyes above the misery of our current situation so we are able to cope (and produce and consume).
This is, as I say, a cynical view of religion, though this does not mean it is invalid. Even so, my recent trip to Syria reminded me that the opposite can also be true – that if the cruelty of this world can generate religious belief it can also destroy it!
One girl there asked me through a translator “Do you seriously believe in God?” I thought it an odd question to ask a priest. I said “of course”. She said “it is hard to believe in God in this country”.
Of course I took the opportunity to give a rousing defence of the Christian Gospel though it didn’t seem to have the desired effect and I don’t think that was the fault of my translator. On the contrary, I discovered that day that cynicism sounds roughly the same in Arabic as it does in English! It is hard to believe in ‘Sugar-candy Mountain’ when you’ve gone for three years without either sugar or candy.
As my dear friend Morde Vanunu once put so eloquently “Prison does not make a man more religious”. Morde last week commemorated ten years since he was released from Ashkelon prison in Israel, but ‘released’ in such a way that he has never felt himself to be truly free! Still he has no freedom of movement or speech and these things too (I think he would tell us if he we here) do not make a man more religious!
Of course you don’t have to travel the world to find brutality and bondage. We’ve had a terrible pastoral situation we’ve been dealing with ourselves here this week in our own little suburb!
A girl who was connected to our Youth Centre was due to go to court next week and this involved one of our staff members who was going to testify. The case concerned the alleged rape of the little girl that took place while she was in care – in a half-way house not far from our church.
While I won’t go into the details of the case or explain how I am connected to this matter, my understanding is that this girl (twelve years old at the time) was being violated by staff on both the day and night shifts!
I wouldn’t normally divulge details like this concerning a pastoral matter as there are privacy issues at stake, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be saying anything like this about someone who may turn up here to church one Sunday and who wouldn’t want anyone to know her history. Even so, that’s not going to happen in the case of this little girl as she died last week. She took a heroin overdose that was so massive that there could be no doubt about her intention.
We have been trying to come to terms will all that this week, and most recently with the discovery that the scheduled case against the little girl’s former carers is now apparently being thrown out of court on the grounds that the principal witness is dead. Such things (to paraphrase Morde) do not make a person more religious.
Cynicism, disillusionment and despair – these are emotions we are familiar with, and even if we have not plumbed their depths of depression ourselves we are not glib and naïve either! We don’t believe in ‘Sugar-candy Mountain’. That religion that is the opiate of the masses is not for us!
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days? (Luke 24:13-18)
It’s all there in that story – cynicism, disillusionment and despair. The disciples are walking and talking but obviously not very aware of what is going on outside of themselves. They are depressed, and for the most obvious of reasons – their master has been killed, their hopes for the future have been dashed, and their whole understanding of God and of their calling in life has been thrown into question!
As they go on to explain, rumours of the resurrection of Jesus are already circulating but these people seem completely uninterested. Their experience has been such that they are no longer expecting any miracles. They are feeling abandoned by God, no doubt, though the irony of the situation, of course, is that Jesus is actually with them! They just can’t recognise Him!
I offered this to my Syrian friends of course – that God is always with us in these situations whether we recognise His presence or not! Perhaps it’s easier to say that when you’re not the one living in a warzone. Even so, I believe it to be true just as I have to believe that Jesus was there with that little girl too. The God we discover in Jesus is a God who always stands with us in our darkest moments. This is fundamental, I think to any understanding of the Christian faith.
Indeed it is no coincidence that the church came to take as its symbol the cross. It was, notably, not the first symbol adopted by the church. I believe the first Christian symbol was the fish (which was a mnemonic, as I’m sure most of you know, for “Jesus Christ, God’s son, saviour”). But very early on the followers of Christ came to understand that it was the cross – the instrument of suffering upon which Jesus had died – that best embodied their new understanding of God and of life!
It can be difficult to find God in the cross – I appreciate that. It runs contrary to all our natural intuitions concerning divinity and omnipotence!
As Martin Luther said, “men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on.” Yet he added “it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognises him in the humility and shame of the cross.” (Heidelberg Disputation. 22, 20)
It can take a while to come to that, for this is not the religion of ‘Sugar-candy Mountain’. This is not an extension of our wish-fulfilment and this is not the sort of religion that functions to keep consumers in line. This is the radical religion of Jesus that shines like a light in the darkness and offers healing and hope to our world, but it is not an easy thing to come to terms with!
As I say, it took the church some time to recognise the presence of God in the cross and this story itself, in a sense, reflects that. For how is it that these two disciples, journeying towards Emmaus, eventually recognise Jesus? It doesn’t come to them as they reflect on the cross, and it’s not in the reading of the Scriptures either (even though their hearts ‘burned within them’, they would later say, as He read to them). Even so, it’s at neither of these points that they recognise Jesus. They recognise Him in the breaking of the bread!
Why is it that Jesus chose to make Himself known to His disciples through the breaking of bread? I have no idea! Why is it that Jesus continues to choose to make Himself known to us in the breaking of bread? Again, I have no idea!
It’s not the only way Jesus made Himself known to His disciples as recorded in the Gospels. In Mary’s case she recognised Jesus when He spoke to her in the garden (John 20:16). In the case of some of the other disciples recognition seemed to happen when they touched Him, but in the case of these two on the road to Emmaus and in the case of millions and millions of other disciples since it has been in the breaking of bread that we continue to recognise Him!
There is indeed a sense in which this journey to Emmaus is the journey we are all on. I don’t mean to suggest that this story was just written as an allegory of the Christian life. Even so, it is extraordinary that we have no idea who these disciples were (apart from the non-descript name of one of them) and we have no idea really where their journey was taking them!
Various suggestions have been made as to where historic ‘Emmaus’ might have been but nobody is at all sure! All we know for sure is that a couple of disciples were travelling somewhere and they met Jesus, and that all sounds rather familiar! And as you look deeper into the story it gets more and more familiar! After talking and reading the Scriptures the disciples break bread together. Hang on! Isn’t that the same pattern we follow every week here in church!
I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that our weekly pattern of worship is indeed structured along exactly the same lines as this historic meeting with Jesus. We meet, we read the Scriptures, we break bread and, lo and behold, Jesus is with us! That was the pattern and that is the pattern today as that has always been the pattern!
A cynic might suggest that Luke (the author) just structured his story of this resurrection appearance according to the pattern of worship he was familiar with. I would suggest the opposite – that just as the church changed its day of worship from Saturday to Sunday because Sunday was the day of the resurrection, so the Christian community structured their worship, from the very first, according to this fundamental template of encounter with the risen Jesus!
If that is true then it is a powerful reminder of what Christian worship is all about and what the Christian faith is all about. It is all about encounter with the risen Jesus!
It’s not about a trip to ‘Sugar-candy Mountain’ just as it’s not about escaping all the challenges of this life! It’s about Jesus who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death, was buried but on the third day rose again, ready to journey with us!
Suffering will not make a person more religious. I am sure that is right. Even so, an encounter with Jesus can equip a person to deal with all sorts of pain. I am sure that is right too!
So come, you who labour and are heavy-laden! Come, you who are cynical, disillusioned and despairing! Come to the table all of you who are willing to leave the quest for ‘Sugar-candy Mountain’ behind and instead follow in the way of the cross. Come and meet the risen Jesus in the breaking of the bread!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 4th of May, 2014.