Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 4 May 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Acts 2.14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 1.17-23; Luke 24.13-35
I’m enjoying some urban anonymity at the moment. It’s a pleasant change after living in a town where, whether or not I was wearing my collar, pretty well everyone soon knew who I was. Walking down the High Street in Berkhamsted involved numerous greetings, some conversations and the occasional bit of abuse. I could often do a significant amount of work just by walking along the High Street to Waitrose.
Walking to Waitrose along Margaret Street is different. One difference apart from one’s own greater anonymity (except to the Big Issue seller), is that you see the odd genuinely famous person, of whom there seem to be a lot more these days, presumably thanks to TV. Occasionally they even turn up at Mass. If you’re like me you often look at them just a little too hard for a moment, because you’re thinking, I know that face, he’s in that show on TV, or I’ve seen her in a film, or, more disconcertingly, you turn around with the sacrament at the invitation to communion and your brain says, he used to be Archbishop of Canterbury.
I wonder how Jesus actually felt about not being recognised. I’m not just talking about today’s gospel story. It is central to the plot and narrative of the gospels that he is not recognised. Over and over again. It’s pretty much the Big Idea of Mark’s gospel, that he wilfully keeps his true identity secret, at least from those outside his close circle of friends. And even they mostly don’t get it, to the extent that we sense a growing tetchiness in Jesus’ repeated attempts to explain himself to them. If you read the New Testament as a whole, the central challenge it issues is this: do you recognise Jesus for who he really is? Mark’s gospel, the earliest, is constructed symmetrically around three recognition stories: the baptism, Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, and the words of the centurion at the cross. [Mark 1.9-11; 8.27-30; 15.39-40]
So this morning’s gospel, an unusually complete little piece of narrative, is not just an Easter story, but one that goes to the heart of the gospel. Here we have a recognition-story which may suggest that everything has been leading to this event, the resurrection.
You may think that is obvious, but I don’t think it is. As my reference to Mark suggests, the gospels are constructed with the cross as the high point. In some parts of the early church the passion and death of the Lord, as we hear it on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, were read in their entirety at every Eucharist. Mark, the earliest gospel, has been called a ‘passion narrative with a prologue’ because after the central recognition scene in chapter 8, when Peter acknowledges him to be the Messiah, everything points to Calvary. Mark famously doesn’t do Christmas, but he also didn’t write about Easter: his gospel finishes, as the two Marys flee the empty tomb, with the haunting phrase, ‘for they were afraid.’
I believe that the gospels, especially Mark’s, were written for the liturgy. If that is true we might use this passage to think about some implications for the meaning of the liturgy. We could see the liturgy of the word developing as a prequel to the main event: first we hear the story of salvation, culminating in the Passion gospel. Then we are in the presence of the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread.
To unpack that just a little more, the eucharist begins with prayer and the reading of scripture, the high point of which, at first, was often or always the contemplation of the Passion and death of the Lord. When we move to the altar we then enact what we have heard, offering up bread and wine, representing ourselves, our souls and bodies, as an unbloody sacrifice united to his self-offering on the cross. In that true remembrance, the bringing of the past event into the present moment of worship, known in Greek as anamnesis, we are given back, by a wonderful exchange, the presence of the risen Christ with us. In consuming the elements we are united with one another and with him in his risen life; we are then, apostolically, sent out to share that good news.
That, roughly, is what we’re doing here, what the Mass is about, as understood from the earliest days of the Church. And this morning’s gospel plays a pivotal role in that understanding, because it links the recognition of who Jesus is with the one act of worship he commanded – this sacrament. You probably know that he never told anyone to read the bible. He told us to ‘do this’, in remembrance, by which we understand him to mean the Holy Spirit making present now what Jesus did for us in history, in order that our present may be redeemed and transformed.
So recognition, enacted recognition, recognition which evokes a behavioral response, is at the very heart of our faith. Without it we are just going through the motions, in whatever Christian tradition we do it.
Clearly the story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus was a well-known, precious and trusted narrative, indeed, more than that, it was one of the reasons why the early church didn’t give up completely. We hear expressed within it the state of depression and sadness in which, quite reasonably, the disciples found themselves after Good Friday, sadness and depression which is then transformed into joy, a new understanding of what has happened, and a burning desire to share the news.
Without a strong, reliable and shared belief in the resurrection there is little reason why the small group (and after the crucifixion it was a very small group) should not have reverted to ordinary Judaism. Nor why Paul, as Saul, would have needed to persecute them. Nor why Paul, as Paul, should have dedicated his life to broadening the gospel and the people of God to include the whole human race. Paul, of course, understood his own encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus as a resurrection appearance: this was the basis on which he claimed the title of apostle. To us, his experience seems a little different from the gospel resurrection appearances; but the important thing about his Damascus road encounter was that it too was a recognition encounter. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. Paul accepts the identification of the speaker, and the rest is history. Or rather, the rest is Christianity, as we know it.
The Emmaus story has the flavour of liturgical composition about it as well. I have no doubt that the encounter happened. But its retelling, its anamnesis, clearly has a parallel purpose to the Passion narrative. Perhaps Luke needed to explain to his readers why the Eucharist is so important: because here the resurrection happens for us all; we meet the risen Lord.
To go back to the earliest gospel, the central question and pivot in Mark’s account is ‘but who do you say that I am’. That is really the only question we have to answer. It is the essence of the questions put to us at baptism and confirmation. Confronting it is the persistent and repeated consequence of reading the New Testament.
If we answer, with Peter ‘you are the Messiah’, or, last week, with Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God’, then the only supplementary question is what are we going to do about it? And then, in recognition, saying with the good thief on that other cross on one side, the cross of ordinary life, ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’