A sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
Christ Church St Laurence – 30 April 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
From the 24th Chapter of the Gospel according to Luke: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. Over its 178 year history, the Parish of Christ St Laurence has changed and evolved. The unsuspecting visitor may conclude that this parish is firmly and enthusiastically trapped in the middle ages. However, this community, like every other parish in the Anglican Communion has adapted its liturgical patterns to reflect the theological needs and understanding of the worshipping community. Our parish archives contain very early images of this church building that suggest a much more austere and certainly less sacramental tradition of worship. A plain church, with an even higher pulpit, and a lectern permanently located front and centre, took the focus away from the altar, which now demands our attention and reverence. Under the first two rectors of this parish, Matins would have been the principal Sunday gathering, with Holy Communion celebrated only once per month. It was not until the late 1880s that a Choral Eucharist became the most well-attended service. Choral Matins, a uniquely Anglican tradition, has all but disappeared from churches and cathedrals throughout the Anglican Communion. As an important part of the Anglican heritage, perhaps this is lamentable. However, there is obviously something very powerful in the Eucharist or the Mass; something so powerful that even some more Protestant Anglicans demand their share of this spiritual food every Sunday of the year.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. Although a similar story appears in Mark, the encounter on the road to Emmaus is unique to Luke’s Gospel. This story, well known to most us, has been described as the most beautiful of the post resurrection appearances. Luke tells us that two of the disciples were walking along discussing all that had taken place in recent days. A stranger walks beside them; talking with them, and yet they fail to recognise him. There are many reasons why we may not recognise someone familiar to us. In 2017 distractions often blind us to what is taking place all around us. Younger people walk around this city reading the tiny screens on their mobile phones, becoming a liability to themselves and everyone in their path, as well as failing to see those who share the city with them. I’m in that awkward stage of life, never being quite sure when I should and shouldn’t wear my reading glasses. When I do wear them in the city, I am aware that I don’t really see people’s faces. If I walk past you on George St, without acknowledging you, this is probably the reason, or at least it’s a very plausible excuse! The hapless disciples on the road to Emmaus were probably not wearing reading glasses; they certainly wouldn’t have been clutching the latest incarnation of the iPhone. They were blinded by grief; they failed to recognise Christ because the hope that they invested in him had been stolen from them on Calvary. As it turned out, he wasn’t the Messiah; he wasn’t the person that they hoped and thought he was.
As the three walk together, Christ patiently listens to their story; he reminds them of Scripture. This has a good effect on them. They ask him to stay; they offer hospitality, but they still fail to recognise him. Words were not enough to open their eyes to his risen presence. It was not until they gathered to share a meal that their sight was restored. And yet, as soon as their eyes were opened, he vanished from their sight. Although liturgical traditions change and evolve, the encounter on the road to Emmaus reflects the earliest patterns of Christian Worship. From the earliest days of the Christian Community, the faithful gathered for the reading and exposition of Scripture, which was followed by the breaking of the bread. It’s not surprising therefore, that this pattern continues to dominate the liturgical life of the church universal some 2000 years later. In a lecture given over 70 years ago, the great Swiss Reformed Theologian Karl Barth, emphasised the absolutely crucial importance of both word and sacrament as he dared to state: The Roman Catholic Church has a sacramental service without preaching… but… our own Protestant Church—we have a service with a sermon but without sacraments. Both types of service are impossible. 70 years later, it would seem that Karl Barth’s observations were quite right. Christians throughout the world, of virtually every tradition, have affirmed that we need the nourishment of word and sacrament as our assurance of the risen presence of Christ. The only perplexing issue is that the Road to Emmaus encounter does not end there. Luke tells us that as soon as their eyes were opened, Christ vanished from their sight. Why was it necessary to leave them again just when their hope had been restored?
The town of Odessa is a popular holiday resort in the south of Russia. It is a town with a strong Orthodox Christian heritage. During the Easter season, people still observe the Orthodox custom of greeting one another in the street with the words, ‘Christ is risen, Alleluia.’ ‘He is risen in deed, Alleluia!’ In 1918, when the communist government came to power, every effort was made to eliminate all traces of the Orthodox faith that had been a part of life for many centuries. In the town of Odessa, the Russian Orthodox priest was arrested and tortured. His torturers did not relent until they were sure that his spirit had been completely broken. The almost-dead parish priest was led out into the town square where he had agreed to publicly denounce the Christian faith. However, when he saw his flock standing before him, gasping for breath, he exclaimed, ‘Christ is risen, Alleluia!’ To which the assembled crowd responded, ‘He is risen indeed, Alleluia!’ The Eucharist or the Mass has become absolutely central to the way in which most Christians live out their faith. In the Eucharist, we are nourished by the word of God. And yet, as physical beings, we crave physical nourishment as well. A tiny morsel of bread and a sip of wine is something tangible that assures us of the living presence of God. But this passes in a moment; it vanishes from our sight. The risen Christ vanished from their sight because he wanted them to look at one another; they were forced to look around and to find hope, encouragement and the assurance of the resurrection in the gathered community of faith. There are not two vital components to the Eucharist; there are three: word, sacrament and community. Like a tortured and almost dead Russian priest, the baffled disciples were forced to look around them and to see hope restored in the gathered community. Although the ugly noises and distractions of our world may blind us to the living presence of God, we gather together in this place, as thousands have done before us, asking to fed and nourished by word and sacrament. But, the encounter on the road to Emmaus challenges us to go one step further. Christ said to the disciples, when their eyes were finally opened, ‘if you want proof of my living presence, look at one another… here I am’.
Christ is risen, Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!