Where recognition takes place…

Luke 24:13-35 The Road to Emmaus

Christ Church Highbury, April 15th 2018

The story of the Road to Emmaus is probably my second favourite resurrection appearance – after Mary’s recognition of Christ in the garden. I can place myself both in the pain and grief of the two walking away from Jerusalem; and in their joy at the moment when Jesus reveals his identity to them. It also provides us with an encounter with Christ that we can emulate when we break bread and drink wine – as we’ll be doing later this morning.

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One of the things that has surprised me about ordained ministry is how easy it is for people to not recognise me when I’m not wearing my dog collar. Even more so if I’m wearing especially casual clothes, on my way home from the gym for example. (Or at the gym!) We all struggle with recognising people out of context. Even more so when we simply don’t expect to see that person – like the time I saw an old friend on the tube, who, as far as I was aware, was living in Singapore!

Jesus was the last person the two men on the road to Emmaus expected to see. He was dead. They were grief-stricken. Their hopes had been dashed. They’d witnessed the brutal killing of the man they’d believed was their messiah. No wonder they didn’t realise who Jesus was!

But the revelation of his identity was saved for a particular moment. At the Last Supper Jesus had called his disciples to remember him in bread and wine, using the words that we hear every time we receive communion – this is my body, this is my blood… But in Emmaus, it wasn’t remembrance that took place, it was revelation.

I don’t know how much time you’ve spent thinking about how you might go about telling people about Jesus and the message of the Gospel? Perhaps you’ve been involved in an Alpha course, or suggested that someone else do it? Or lent someone a book? Or been alongside someone in their darkest moments and offered to pray? There’s countless courses and books out there designed to train us as evangelists, as sharers of the good news, and revealers of Christ.

But something that the Road to Emmaus narrative tells us is that sometimes revelation happens without any of those things. Instead, Jesus a moment in which to reveal himself.

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Some of you are aware that once or twice a year I go on holiday to France in order to work with friends to renovate an old farmhouse. In fact, I just returned from our latest trip on Tuesday. We’ve been going for nearly 7 years, and the initiative is managed by the missional community of which I’m part. Over 13 trips, around 80 adults from the UK, US and a handful of other countries have helped turn a tumble-down barn into a space that – as of last weekend – can now be inhabited.

The ‘chateau’, Easter 2018.

One of the main features of our community is an open-table meal at our building in Limehouse every Thursday evening. When in France, the gathering around a large table is the focus of every evening. It’s no mean feat cooking and seating 20-30 people in one go!

In London, these meals are a place where relationship is built week upon week. There isn’t any explicit Christian content, apart from a prayer before the meal, but it has become a safe place for some who are exploring their relationship with God. In France, we often only have a few days in which to build relationships with those from places other than London, but the same principles apply.

Last summer, a family from Colorado joined us at Chateau Duffy (it is not a chateau, but it is owned by a guy called Duffy!). When they returned home, their father spent some time reflecting upon this rather peculiar European vacation that they’d been on. Jim wrote:

“It’s hard to explain the community-building work you’re doing through Chateau Duffy, but it seems to me a bit like that walk along the road to Emmaus. Strangers come together, get a little dusty, and talk about the things that matter most – by which I mean both their personal concerns and life’s biggest questions. 

Jesus is there in those conversations, but he’s not jumping up and down saying, “Hey! Look at me!” He seems rather to content to follow the road, and to let it—and the conversations—lead where they will.

But then there are these moments, and of course they tend to happen around a shared table, where something more is revealed, and deeper connections are made.

There seems to be a deep trust that whether we recognize it or not, God is on that round and around that table. He will reveal himself as and when he sees fit.”

Gathered around the Chateau Duffy table, summer 2017

In the years that this project has been a feature of my holidays, I’ve seen what Jim described over and over again – but had never put it together with the story of the Road to Emmaus. But as I read his words, I thought back over the years…

  • I thought about the conversations atop of a scaffold rig on a hot summer’s day, discussing relationships while trying to make mortar stay in between stones.
  • I remembered the late nights staying up drinking good whisky and getting to the types of conversation that only ever come up when you’ve been drinking good whisky!
  • I remembered the American interns who returned home with a new appreciation of what a diverse community can look like.
  • I think of atheist friends who’ve found a welcome and a place in which questions could be asked.
  • I think of the friendships which are deepened purely because we shared a week in a gite together, and have some brilliant stories about the ridiculousness of learning to tile a bathroom.
  • And I marvel at the deep friendship formed with a British family who live around the corner from our house, in this tiny village, who have opened their home to us time after time and who are now a firm part of our family.

We’ve been practising hospitality through meals for years, and if you asked me or Shannon (who founded our community) what our theological objectives were, I’m not sure that we would have articulated them as clearly as Jim managed to after his trip to France. But, the more I’ve reflected on this passage, the more I see it as a calling to all disciples of Christ to give him the space in which to encounter those who have not recognised him for who he is.

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I believe that we have a role to assist in Jesus’ revelation to others. After all, in our passage today, the two men tell Jesus the story of his ministry – but it is Jesus who provides them with the other half of the story, the prophecies that have been fulfilled, and the all-important punchline of realisation.

It brings me back to thinking about communion. Every time we share in the bread and wine here, we re-tell the story. Each Eucharistic prayer tells the story of who Jesus is; what he came to earth to do; and of the meal he shared that last night with his disciples. Then we receive the bread and wine, a tangible reminder and a physical encounter with the body and blood of Christ. It’s then up to Jesus to do the rest – to fill in the punchline.

Someone who has really inspired my personal theology of the Eucharist (which was the subject of the MA thesis I was finishing up when I arrived at Christ Church), is a woman called Sara Miles who lives in San Francisco.

Today, Sara is an internationally respected practical theologian, who leads a ministry that is shaped by her experience of the Eucharist and what that means for the community in which she lives. Sara came to faith while eating the bread and drinking the wine. This is how she tells her story…

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.

Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food – indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realised that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.

And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced.” 

‘I found [righteousness] at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honoured.’ 

Sometimes, for Christ to reveal himself to others, all we need to do is to welcome people in and let Jesus meet them in that place – whether that’s communion; or a shared table; or a chance conversation; or any number of spaces in which revelation is possible.

Quote from Take This Bread. [Picture Credit.]

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Today, I have two thoughts for you to ponder:

Firstly, how well do you recognise Jesus in the world around you? If you’re not sure, ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes and reveal Christ to you.

Secondly, where might you make spaces where Jesus can reveal himself to others? Inviting someone to a meal, or to church could be a simple action that leads to an encounter with Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to encourage you and show you what to do.

In praise of St Lydia’s

My trip to the States was essentially a “hooray for finishing my MA, let’s have a well deserved break” kind of holiday. It had been nearly 3 months since ordination and life had been pretty full-on, with getting to know Christ Church, my MA thesis and a freelance research project. It was to be a time for R&R and a complete break from life in London.

One might have assumed that that would mean a break from churches – but no. In fact, in my first 24 hours in NYC I managed to spend time in four different churches! Out of 7 nights spent in the city, five were spent participating in some kind of church activity. This is possibly what one might call a bus man’s holiday, but in my defence not only did it result in new friends, it also gave me a really interesting insight into the issues at the forefront of churches in this part of the US – from LGBT rights and inclusion, to race and church segregation – which was fascinating to reflect upon, comparing with the UK.

My first stop, having landed at JFK and taken the A-train into Brooklyn, was a church – St Lydia’s to be precise – where Hannah (my host) works and which had been cited in the MA thesis I’d handed in just ten days previously. It is a community that enacts one of the most fascinating acts of Eucharist (communion) that I’d ever participated in. Having read a lot about it and heard many stories from Hannah (and a member of Matryoshka Haus who’d recently got to know it too) it was high on my list of places to visit in NYC!

St Lydia'sImage credit.

My thesis was on the subject of how the Church of England could make Eucharist more a part of the mission of the church, and hospitable in the way that (I and others argue) Jesus and Paul intended it to be. St Lydia’s seemed to me to be a brilliant embodiment of this. Every Sunday and Monday night, the community comes together for ‘dinner church’ in its store front home, where the communion is celebrated around a table to which all are welcome. The elements (the bread and the wine) are shared in the context of this meal, and it aims to foster the genuine inclusivity of the Kingdom of God.

Preparing for dinner church

I was expecting to be fascinated by the service – I did not expect, over the course of such a short space of time, to be so embraced by a community who were all but strangers to me. I could wax lyrical about the meals, but for starters, I just want to highlight a few things that really struck me.

  • Dinner Church is essentially sung Eucharist. Simple songs were taught and repeated (and clearly repeated week in and week out, so many knew them well) as part of the liturgy. They were accompanied by a box accordion and simple drumming that might to a stranger seem indicative of ‘hipster Brooklyn’, but were in fact just instruments that really fitted the context.
  • There was a healthy respect for the elements and an elevation of the Eucharist’s role within the community. This is exactly what my thesis was trying to get at – all too easily in the CofE we can make Eucharist a part of worship that we do without thinking, or in some circles, do too infrequently. Here it’s at the centre and drives the life of the community. It is at the table where relationships are formed and lives shared – it was the truest ‘foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet’ I have yet experienced on earth.
  • Name tags might seem cheesy, but at St Lydia’s I was touched by the impact they can have upon building relationships. A name tag enables you to offer your neighbour the bread or wine using their name – which I think has a profound effect upon the act. [I am still in awe of a college tutor who would give the bread using the name of the recipient at college worship, I watched him get the names of over 50 people correct!!] It also meant that people would readily start a conversation with “So Liz, how have you ended up here?” – perhaps helped by American confidence, but use of someone’s name helps them to really feel at home. (Plus my name tag went into a box ready to be used on subsequent visits…)
  • People really were open to sharing their life stories with one another. After the short sermon was a time of response, related to the topic. British me was surprised at how keen people were to share personal information and stories to a group that would always include some who were unknown to them. Even more incredibly, by Dinner Church number 3, I was willing to share too! [Also, have you ever heard a sermon where the response was to design a tattoo??]

My name is Liz

I’ve brought home with me lots of ideas – for church, for my ministry and for Matryoshka Haus. In the case of the latter, it was the very practical divvying up of tasks when cleaning up after dinner! Washing up or fixing tables not only means everyone is sharing responsibility for the task, but also provides great getting-to-know you opportunities. I would love to try this kind of service myself, in some form, once I’m priested next summer. It’s also confirmed to me that ideas I included in my thesis are possible! The church just needs to get a little bit more creative.*

The table is set

St Lydia’s isn’t just dinner church – there’s a new ‘waffle church’ (a version of messy church where stickiness is definitely an end result) and a vespers service, as well as one-off talks and community events. My final New York evening was spent listening to Phyllis Trible lecture on feminist theology – which I’m sure is everyone’s idea of an excellent way to spend one’s last night in the Big Apple! Whatever, I enjoyed it! I also loved being made to feel so welcome by Emily and Julia and everyone else who makes up the community there – especially the one evening when out of a gathering of 24 people, four of us were Elizabeths or Lizs!

If the long-term plan to do a PhD is realised, and I base it upon the groundwork I’ve done through my MA, I’m vaguely hopeful of spending some more time with St Lydia’s in the future, but until then, thank you guys! It was a real joy.

 

*On the subject of my thesis, I realise I’ve not said anything much about it. To be honest, as I’m still at the “Argh! It’s probably all rubbish!” stage of awaiting my grade, it’s not a great time to go into much detail. But its official title was: ‘Communion Table or Communal Table. What can Anglican practice of the Eucharist learn from the communal table of the missional community?’ Suffice to say, I now know a surprising amount about certain sections of Canon Law…