The passsage is Luke 24:13-35 – the story of the diciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The occassion was the 4th Sunday in Easter. The connection with Ronald McDonald was an article that had recently been published by a Diocesan heavyweight, entitled, “McDonald’s church is no bad thing”
I’ve made it a rule over the years never to discuss church politics stuff in a sermon.
Indeed, I try to avoid bringing up issues that are specifically churchy altogether, in a sermon especially – partly because I don’t think it’s appropriate to try to polarise people over issues that are contentious, but mainly because I just don’t think most of that stuff is relevant to us here.
I appreciate that many people in many churches do get caught up in these issues, but for the most part, I just can’t get excited about them at all! Can women preach? We worked out the answer to that one here ages ago, and frankly the answer is blatantly obvious. Can women preach? Well … some can and some can’t! Though of course our recent experience here has been, ‘Can They What? Oh Yeah!’
Why do nice, caring, and generally strong-minded people get caught up in these ridiculous issues? I’m not sure, but I think it’s always been like this in the church. We have a long history of being consistently obsessed with the wrong issues!
I’m told that when, in the early 19th century, the government of Brittain was locked in debate over whether to end the slave trade, the church was totally focused on the issue of what colour scarfs the priests should be wearing at the Eucharist. And I don’t think we’ve progressed very far since. I think on the whole that the issues that the institutional church obsesses over are generally completely out of touch, not only with what its members are really concerned about, but equally (and far more importantly) out of touch with what God is really concerned about!
So I don’t talk about internal church political issues … ever … except for today.
I am going to break my rule. Why? Because I can’t get over this article that I read earlier in the week – one that has winged its way to us straight from the ecclesiastical epicentre, entitled, “McDonald’s church is no bad thing” – an article that suggests that McDonald’s restaurants may indeed provide us with an appropriate organisational model for the church of the future!
Now I won’t mention the author’s name (though you can find out for yourself if you’re interested) and I won’t go into the minutiae of the article, though I will say, in the author’s defence, that his thesis is not simply that if you put enough money in marketing, people will swallow whatever crap you feed them.
Having said that, the title of the article and the graphic that goes with it – a pious Ronald McDonald in a posture of fervent prayer – itself says more than the words themselves could possibly say, for we all know what makes the McDonalds formula work – one word: ‘predictability’.
We know that whenever we go to a McDonalds restaurant, we will be able to buy the same burgers, packaged into the same McValue meals, with the same sugary drinks and the same fatty chips.
And we’re willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that the piece of cheese that was in there somewhere seems to be getting smaller year by year, and we’re ok about the low nutritional value of the food, and we’ll live with the fact that we’re supporting an organisation that uses non-union labour and upholds questionable work practices for we know what we’re getting, and we know that it will keep our children happy, and we know that the toilets will be clean.
And yes, this pattern of offering the same ‘predictable’, neatly-packaged, low-nutritional-value product at every venue evidently does seem to be attractive to a lot of churches nowadays, especially those that are keen to share in the McRiches that the fat-friendly clown seems to have on offer. But the problem is that this model just doesn’t fit too well with the Gospels, and not only because it’s greedy, money-grabbing, mindless and crap-dispensing, but even more so, I’d suggest, because of the very predictability of it all! For while there are a lot of characteristics you could attribute to Jesus as He is depicted in the New Testament, predictability would not seem to be one of them!
We struck this head-on on Easter Sunday, you will remember: ‘He is not here!’
That was the triumphant proclamation with which we began our service a couple of weeks ago.
He is not here! It was the word given to the disciples at the tomb when they came looking for the dead body of Jesus. They thought they knew where to find Jesus, but they were wrong. He was not there. No one had predicted His movements! They knew where He had been, and they had an idea as to where He was heading, but as to where He was at that specific point in time, they had no idea!
That was three weeks ago. He is not here! This week we come across the opposite problem – ‘Oh my God, He is here, but we certainly had not been expecting Him!’
This is the very nature of the resurrection appearances as we read about them in the Gospels. We might have hoped that they would be a bit more systematic – that there would be less constant confusion over where Jesus was, where He had come from, and how on earth He got into the room when all the doors were locked! But Jesus had a habit of turning up in places and at times when people did not expect Him, and likewise of disappearing from view just when everybody was starting to get comfortable with having Him around!
And, as I’ve noted before, this ‘elusiveness’ on Jesus’ part wasn’t just the case with the resurrection appearances. It was true in His childhood, where, in the only story we have of the boyhood of Jesus, His parents lose him, and He turns up … in the temple!
And it was certainly a constant theme of the earthly ministry of Jesus. People were always looking for Him – the crowds were looking for Him, the disciples were looking for Him, his family was looking for Him – but Jesus was constantly elusive! He had things to do, places to go, people to see, and you just couldn’t pin Him down to a simple, predictable schedule. And just as you couldn’t find Him when you wanted to find Him, so likewise the converse turns out also to be true – that He turns up when you least expect Him! The day is over, we’ve given up waiting, the doors are shut and … all of a sudden, here He is!
Now let’s take a moment to focus on the story we had this morning – our lectionary reading from Luke 24, as it’s a particularly odd account. It’s a story of two relatively unknown disciples, heading home to some relatively unknown place, and then, all of a sudden … here He is … though we’re told, they don’t recognise Him (at first)!
It’s a bizarre story, that raises more questions than it answers:
Who were these two disciples, and if they were so significant to Jesus that He spent all that time with them, why don’t we hear of them again?
How on earth did they fail to recognise Jesus? Did He look that different?
What was all that interpretation of the Scriptures that He taught them, and if it was so important, why didn’t they record it and pass it on to us?
And … after warning ‘the stranger’ that he’d better stop with them for the night because it was cold and dangerous outside in the dark, why did the two disciples then run all the way back to Jerusalem on the same night?
I’m not trying to just be ‘clever’ here by raising these questions about the passage. I’m drawing attention to the peculiarities in the text because I’m wondering why the Gospel writer decided to include this particular story. After all, there were no doubt lots of stories that Luke could have included about how Jesus appeared to His disciples after He was resurrected. Why pick this one?
Indeed, in the very same passage we are told that when these two little-known disciples return to Jerusalem and rendezvous with the greater bunch, they are greeted with the news from the Apostles that, “the Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon” (ie. Peter)! Why didn’t Luke include that story instead? Surely the appearance of Jesus to Peter would have been a far more significant event than the one depicted in the story he did include?
I want to cut to the chase here and suggest that it just may be that the reason Luke included the Emmaus story rather than the others was because this story did actually help the early church to begin predict the movements of Jesus after all!
That may sound a bit crazy, but bear with me here for a moment, for the beauty of this particular story is that it can be broken down into very clear sections, and it may be that these provide us with a sort of archetypal pattern for understanding how the resurrected Jesus moved about, such that it gives us a slightly better chance of predicting His movements!
Now we don’t know much about the characters or the place they were going, but look at the broad structure of the narrative:
The disciples came together
Jesus joined them
The Scriptures were read and explained
They broke bread (at which point Jesus was recognised)
Compare this appearance to the one that immediately follows in the Gospel of Luke. The guys in the story run all the way back to Jerusalem and the pattern is repeated:
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
This seems to be the pattern, time and time again, of the way Jesus meets people, and this, I would suggest, could well be the reason that Luke included this particular story of this rather obscure resurrection appearance, because it lays out the pattern so clearly, and it’s a pattern that we are familiar with of course, as it is also the basic pattern that has been adopted, since time immemorial, for Christian worship!
We, the followers of Jesus, gather together
We hear from the Scriptures
We break bread
And we find, much to our joy, that Jesus joins us!
Now a cynic would say that this only shows that the Gospel writers, when they wrote up their stories about Jesus’ resurrection appearances, were influenced by their familiarity with their pattern of worship. But I think it actually makes a lot more sense to assume the opposite – namely, that the church, from the very beginning, understood their worship as a meeting with the resurrected Jesus, and so structured their meetings along the lines of the Biblical resurrection encounters.
This was the way Jesus met people. It seems that Jesus predictably met with people that way. And this is what Christian worship is all about – it’s all about meeting the risen Jesus! It’s not about the singing, learning, and enjoying each other’s company. All these things may happen, but that’s not what it is all about. It’s all about meeting Jesus, and so for this reason the church structured its services according to the pattern of resurrection appearances, and for the same reason changed its Sabbath from the more Biblically obvious Saturday to the Sunday, because Sunday was the day of the resurrection, and so Sunday was the day to worship, because worship is all about meeting with the resurrected Jesus!
So does this mean that the McDonalds model turns out to be appropriate after all, since, if we only follow the same basic guidelines week by week we can expect a meaningful and successful worship experience? No, I don‘t think so, partly because the basic elements that we see in the Gospel story – gathering together, reading the Scriptures and breaking bread – can be packaged in any number of different ways, but more so because the success of a worship experience turns out to be entirely dependant, not on the product we produce at all, but on the presence of the uncontainable and unconstrainable person of Jesus, who we can’t control, and whose presence we cannot guarantee, and yet who miraculously appears in our midst time and time again as we sing, listen, pray and break bread!
This is our experience. This is the essence of Christian worship. Just when we were feeling at the end of our tether, just when we were wondering whether God was really interested in us at all, just when loneliness and depression were starting to take us down – we meet, we listen, we break bread, and we find ourselves once again totally surprised by joy!
We can’t force the issue. We can’t guarantee that it is going to happen the same way next time. And yet, the miracle continues! And if you haven’t encountered Jesus yet today … give Him a few minutes. See if (once again) He is not made known to you in the breaking of the bread.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 6, 2011.