I went to see Mark Godson on Thursday morning. He was in bed. We chatted for a few minutes. He was reflecting on his life – how wonderful it has been, as he looked out at the stunning view from his bedroom window. But he said ‘of course, I have had some challenging times in my life as well…’ Those of you who know him, will know what these have been. It’s been really tough. But it is amazing that as his life draws to a close, Mark is describing it as ‘wonderful’.
The difference between a wonderful life and a life thought of as tough may not principally be in the events which occur in that life; but on the meaning that we give them.
Mark is a man who seems to turn everything tough and negative in his life to the positive. Out of every unfair disaster which has occurred to him was someone to be helped. Most recently just before Christmas, only a few months ago, he worked with Elaine Labram on the Bereavement Journey, we ran in the parish, turning his own experience of unfair early bereavement into something that could help others.
I was thinking about Mark as I was preparing to talk to you this morning, it struck me that this passage from Luke (see below), this story of the journey to Emmaus, reads like a metaphor for the journey that life is for each of us.
As we walk on the journey that life gives us, we encounter moments of great excitement, joy and hope: like the two disciples reflecting, as they walk, on their time with Jesus, and how they had seen him as a prophet ‘powerful in word and deed before God and all the people’. We all have our Palm Sunday moments.
But, as we journey on, we also experience crushing disappointment and suffering, just as the disciples had experienced Jesus’ trial and crucifixion on Good Friday.
I suppose that it is in the nature of things, that when extremely improbable success occurs in our lives (any success in my life has been improbable) when success happens, we tend not to question it.
But we certainly do question it when we experience unlucky misfortune and suffering. We ask God: ‘what is going on? It’s unfair. Why did that terrible thing have to happen?’
Downcast, we might pause, in life’s journey, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in an anguish of lost hope and shattered dreams, in total confusion, in our inability to make any sense of it all as we seek to find some meaning in what we have been experiencing; we ask the question ‘why?’
It’s no good to say, as militant atheists tend to say, ‘There is no why’. As human beings, we seem hard-wired to look for meaning in what happens to us. And the road to Emmaus shows us that the meaning we give to things is as important, on life’s journey, as the events themselves. They are both part of that journey and indeed help to set the course that we take.
On the road to Emmaus the disciples reflect sadly on the events of Good Friday. Then we hear how Jesus (although they did not know that it was Jesus) draws alongside them and explains from Scripture how what had happened to him; how what he had suffered on the Cross, had been prophesied and was necessary.
So I want to make two points about this: When we are asking the question ‘why?’ we need Scripture and we need Spirit.
Firstly, we need Scripture. We stand no chance of hope in our suffering if we don’t see our suffering in its Scriptural context. Unless we can see that our suffering is not how God meant the world to be and not what God wants for us, but that nevertheless, despite our shattered dreams, the universe is relentlessly moving towards a renewal of heaven and earth which God will bring about maybe sooner maybe later but will assuredly happen, as Jesus returns.
Theologian Tom Wright sees it in this way: It is like we are living in a five act play of God’s purposes for us revealed in the Bible. The five acts are:
We are living in the fifth act – the period of the church.
Like in any play, we can look back at the earlier acts because they point to what is going to happen in the final act. The act in which we are living now and is yet incomplete. At the end of that fifth Act God will renew the heavens and the earth.
We have a role to play in this phase of the creation story; each one of us, whether we choose to accept it or not. But God’s purposes are still being resisted by an enemy who has been ultimately defeated by Jesus victory at the Cross, but who still has power to inflict pain suffering and chaos on us. To use a human analogy, we have successfully completed D Day, but VE day is still a way off and unfortunately there is lots of pain to go through before then.
If we assume that our suffering is random and pointless and that we are victims of a merciless universe which is going nowhere to no purpose, we will despair….
In Scripture alone, can we find a context to our suffering.
In Scripture alone, instead of seeing ourselves as victims of the sin of others (not our own sin in the vast majority of cases), in Scripture alone, can we find that we are casualties in a cosmic battle which our side will inevitably win in the end.
In Scripture alone, can we find that our suffering is not pointless.
In Scripture alone, can we find that our suffering is seen by our Creator and that it has purpose and meaning.
In Scripture alone can we find hope
And yet we find it so difficult to accept the context in which we are suffering. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who Jesus chides for being ‘so foolish and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared’.
So firstly, we need Scripture. We need to become familiar with the Bible: To see the context for our suffering; To give it meaning and purpose and to see beyond it to….hope
Secondly, we need the Holy Spirit
The disciples say, reflecting on their encounter with the Risen Christ, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
We can tell when God is really moving in a place in which the Bible is being preached, taught or read, or in which God is being worshipped, because we have an emotional reaction to what is going on.
Look, I know that it is not terribly British to weep in church, we tend to leave our weeping for opera or chick flicks or even football…but we can often experience
a seemingly irrational and unpredictable emotional reaction when encountering the Bible being preached. It could be a ‘warming of the heart’, as experienced by these two disciples on their way to Emmaus. John Wesley the founder of the Methodists experienced something similar, his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ as he attended a meeting in Aldersgate Street.
Sometimes people say to me ‘I can’t go to church, because when I do I cry’. I say ‘that’s such good news because God, through the Holy Spirit, is trying to engage with you’.
I can remember Canon Paul Osterricher coming to speak to us at school in the 1970s. I cannot remember what he spoke about, but I was on a high for about an hour. I thought my heart would burst! I had to walk round the school just to calm down.
I now recognise that this was an encounter with the Holy Spirit; but there was no one to tell me that this was what was happening to me, there was no-one to ‘open the Scriptures to me’ and eventually the feeling went away
You need both Scripture and Spirit together
It was over 30 years before I experienced the Holy Spirit again, when I attended the Alpha Course while living in Japan.
Now I know that God is working in this place; in Itchen Valley, because Amanda and I have had a number of conversations with you which reveal this to us. But it strikes me that He may be working in many more of you than Amanda and I know.
Please do tell us when you have a surprising, even what you might think is an irrational emotional reaction to what we might be preaching; or to the Bible or to any of our services; even actually if they make you angry; we won’t be offended!
Because in these different ways the Holy Spirit reveals to us where our hearts are.
The Lord may be calling you through this emotional reaction. Tell us and Amanda or I will be able to pray privately with you for God to reveal more of himself to you.
Because there is a final step on the journey to Emmaus. The disciples invite Jesus in. He does not force himself onto them. God will not force himself into your life. Jesus acts as if he is travelling on, but the disciples ask him in.
And it is only then, in the breaking of bread, that their eyes are opened and they finally recognise him. Then everything changes for them in the most exciting way!
Look, I don’t know why they were travelling to Emmaus in the first place: were they going home? Were they perhaps running away from Jerusalem, the scene of Jesus death? But even though it may have been very dangerous to travel at night the few miles back to Jerusalem, casting off all fear they rush back to tell the other disciples that they have ‘seen the Lord’.
What has happened to the disciples? The events have remained the same: Jesus was crucified, they have lost him; but the meaning of these events has changed completely. The disciples have moved in one evening from being victims of the sin of the Jewish leaders, in the crucifixion of their leader Jesus, to understanding, through Scripture, that they are casualties in a cosmic battle being waged between good and evil, in which Jesus ‘had to die on the Cross’; to having invited Jesus in. They have gone from being victims – powerless as the powerful exercise their power against them, to casualties, to understanding themselves as those injured in a cosmic battle being waged against sin and the devil, to victors impregnable against all the schemes of the enemy.
As St Paul says in Romans 8:37: ‘we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord‘.
If the Lord is calling you, don’t miss out on the opportunity to invite him in.
Tell Amanda or I about it, so that we can pray with you for the amazing things to happen in your life that God wants for you.
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles 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. 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, 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. 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 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 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
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 24:13–35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.