I’ve had some pretty intense pastoral encounters this past week. I think that’s the right term – ‘pastoral encounters’? I’m referring to those dialogues I have occasionally with people that are deep and spiritual, and I’ve had quite a number of them in this last week. And most of these intense pastoral encounters have taken place where most of my intense pastoral encounters do take place – after Fight Club.
You might assume that my most intense pastoral encounters with people would take place here in church – perhaps after Sunday morning worship, but the truth is that after Sunday worship we tend to talk about the footy or about fighting. On the other hand, after we’ve been fighting, that’s when a lot of us seem to be ready to address the deeper issues, and I’ve found that I’ve been doing a fair bit of that of late.
Listening to people’s stories, it’s always encouraging when someone shares with you how God was with them during the darker moments. For many of us, that is exactly our testimony – that when we thought we could not carry on any longer, we found that Christ was with us and He carried us through the dark night! That’s my testimony.
What I’ve found lately though, talking to people about their very real experiences of pain, is that lots of people do not have testimonies like this. They did not find Christ to be with them during their time of crisis. They did not experience any Divine healing or have any transcendent experience of spiritual comfort when they were in the middle of it. Indeed it would appear that in some cases, not only did Jesus not come to them in their time of pain, but when they went out desperately searching for Him they could not find him!
I must admit that this sort of testimony does not sit easily with me, though I accept that such a depiction is quite consistent with the Gospel stories in the New Testament, where Jesus is regularly elusive.
Think about it: how often in the Gospels, during the earthly life of Jesus, do you see people looking for Jesus when they don’t have a clue where He is! The trend starts when He’s a boy, you may remember. His parents loose him! The more commonly recorded experience though is that Jesus’ disciples loose Him, as He has headed off to some remote spot to pray, and they have to go out looking for Him!
And think about these resurrection narratives that we’ve been following. One of the common lines that we keep hearing from both men and angels is, “You are looking for Jesus. He is not here”, which prompts the obvious question, “well, where is He?”. and it’s not clear that even the angels always know exactly where He is.
They are fascinating – these resurrection appearances – as you get the impression from these stories that the resurrected Jesus had things that He had to do.
Do you know what I mean? When Mary grabs Jesus, He says to her, ‘Don’t hold me’ because He’s got to go to the Father! Similarly, when He meets with the disciples, it seems that He didn’t stick around for too long because He has other places He has to be! Where? We don’t know!
In the final chapter of Mark, in the original version of (what was probably) the earliest resurrection narrative, the disciples are looking for Jesus and they are told ‘He is not here, but He has gone ahead of you into Galilee’. And that is helpful for the disciples, as it gives them a starting point as to where to look for Jesus, but at the same time it’s pretty mysterious! Why did Jesus choose to go to Galilee, and what He was doing there prior to the arrival of the disciples?
Remember, Galilee was a rough place! Indeed, what self-respecting Rabbi would go to a place like that? But more importantly, what was the resurrected Jesus going to do there? Clean up the streets a bit? Start a youth centre for at-risk kids perhaps?
I don’t mean to sound cynical when I say this, for I’m guessing that Jesus had real reasons for being in Galilee. We just don’t know what they were. And it’s quite possible of course that those reasons are not at all relevant to us. Maybe that’s why they are not recorded?
This is interesting in itself, of course, because I think we so often get caught up in the idea that the work of God is whatever we are involved in. The truth is of course that the work of God goes well beyond the scope of anything we can imagine.
Perhaps the disciples did ask Jesus, ‘what have you been doing in Galilee?’ and He said, ‘None of your business’ or at least ‘sorry, it’s not relevant to you’. We don’t know of course. In truth, we don’t know a lot about the movements of the resurrected Jesus.
The resurrected Jesus is an elusive figure. He moves in ways we do not understand, to work on things that are outside our scope. His movements are hard to understand, but we know that He will often not be where we want Him to be.
The flip side of this, of course, is that just as Jesus often not there where we wanted Him to be, at other times He is there and we just don’t recognise Him!
Mary mistook Him for a gardener, you will remember. And these guys on the road to Emmaus mistake him for … I dunno … just some guy!
It’s another mysterious story, this road to Emmaus narrative, that raises as many questions as it answers.
Where was Emmaus? No one is quite sure. Who were the two disciples in the story? The details were evidently lost. How on earth did they fail to recognise Jesus? That question defies the imagination somewhat!
Evidently the resurrected Jesus looked different to the crucified Jesus in some way, though evidently in other ways He looked the same, for He still carried the marks of crucifixion in his hands and in his side.
Again, it’s hard to pin down the details, but what we do know is that He was there, but that the disciples did not really realise that it was Him until after He had gone.
This again is true to Christian experience, and may explain why this story was included by Luke. Is it not often in retrospect that we recognise how Christ has been at work in our lives? At the time we just seem to be plodding along under our own steam, and perhaps even wondering where Christ is, but in retrospect we look back and realise that Christ had His hand on us at that point and was actively shaping what we were doing!
Perhaps this will one day be the testimony of my friends, who say now that Christ was not there for them in their darkest moments. Perhaps one day they will say,
‘I realise now that He was there. I just didn’t recognise Him at the time’.
Perhaps that’s why this ‘Road to Emmaus’ story is included in Luke’s Gospel – because it is true to human experience. There is another reason though that I think it was included for us, and that’s because it fit’s a pattern of resurrection appearances, that I think give us a basis for being able to know when and where Jesus will appear.
Now this might seem like an odd thing to say – that we can predict where Jesus is going to be – particularly given what has already been said – namely, that the resurrected Jesus is elusive and hard to keep track of?
Both are true, I believe. We don‘t always know where Jesus has been or what He has been doing, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t know where to meet Him!
‘He was known to them in the breaking of the bread’. Does that sound familiar to you. Of course it does, because it’s part of what we are doing here this morning! We have gathered together this morning to break bread.
And the similarities don’t stop there. Look at the structure, if you will, of this resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus.
- The disciples came together
- Jesus joined them
- The Scriptures were read and explained
- They broke bread (at which point Jesus was recognised)
Compare this occasion to the one that immediately follows in the Gospel of Luke. The two guys in the story run all the way back to Jerusalem and … the pattern repeats itself.
- They gather together with the other disciples
- Jesus, to everyone’s amazement, joins them
- There is further discussion about the Scriptures
- They share another meal
Look through the Gospels at the other resurrection appearances. You will find that the pattern is remarkably similar:
- The followers of Jesus gather together
- Jesus joins them
- They hear from the Scriptures
- They break bread
Yes, there is no mistaking it – the resurrection appearances of Jesus with His disciples are structured along the same lines of Christian worship, and not just our Christian worship, but rather the structure of Christian worship that we have inherited and that has, indeed, been with us since the beginning of the church.
Does this mean that the Gospel writers structured their stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances based on their familiar pattern of worship? No, rather it reflects the fact that the early Christians structured their worship experience on the resurrection appearances of Jesus!
Do you follow me on this? It’s not that they remembered the resurrection appearances through their familiar pattern of worship, but rather that they patterned their worship on their experience of meeting Jesus after the resurrection!
For Christian worship is all about meeting with Jesus. We know this to be true. It is indeed the entire rationale for our gathering. And so we structure our time together after the pattern of the historic church, who structured their gatherings according to the early meetings with Jesus after the resurrection, and we find, yes, mysteriously, that the same miracle continues to occur:
- We gather together
- We hear from the Scriptures
- We break bread together
- And at some point in the middle of all that we too find that Jesus has joined us!
This is how Christians have always met. This is why Christians have always met this way. Because it’s all about meeting with Jesus!
This why we changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. It’s not because the resurrection took place on the Sunday. We don’t know what actual day the physical event took of the resurrection took place. It could have been anywhere within that three-day period. What did take place on the Sunday though was that we met Him for the first time after the resurrection.
And that’s what we continue to celebrate. And that’s why we continue to gather. And that’s why we’re meeting here this morning – to meet with Jesus!
Now I know it’s not a simple matter of saying to our friends who yearn for an experience of Christ, ‘Hey, come to church. He’s there every Sunday morning’.
At the same time though, we should not belittle the extraordinary fact that He has promised that when two or three are gathered together in His name, that when we open the Scriptures and break the bread, He will be here with us!
And is this not our experience here this morning – that He is with us? And if you haven’t recognised him yet … give it a few minutes, and see if He does not make Himself known to you in the breaking of the bread!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, May 2006.