Word and Sacrament on the Emmaus Road

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was growing up in London my family taught me to take reading the Bible seriously.  I had a copy of the Zondervan red letter Bible.  They were very popular also in this Diocese at one stage as Bibles given out at Confirmation.  In the red letter Bible every word that the Biblical authors ascribe to Jesus is printed in bold red, so that they stand out from the rest of the text.  That Bible, which I grew up with, helped me to focus away from the general stories of the New Testament and on to the very words that the authors had given to Jesus, highlighted by the red text.  This highlighting of particular texts is nothing new in the Christian tradition.

A few hundred years after the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, bishops gathered together in synods for heated debate over which books should be in the New Testament and which should not.  Our New Testament today is a product of those bishops deciding which Gospels, and which letters highlighted what they believed to be the most important, and authentic and accurate accounts of the life of Jesus and of the early church, from the many texts that purported to accurately describe the life of Jesus which were in circulation and being read by different Christian communities.

We continue today, in the life of the Church, to highlight certain of the stories and accounts and teachings of the Bible, and to not highlight others.  In some churches around us this is simply done by the pastor deciding which texts he or she wishes to preach on.   Even in our Anglican tradition, where I am not given the freedom, simply to choose each week which text I think we need to hear, because we have a three year cycle of readings already prepared for us, and agreed for use throughout the whole of the Anglican Church of Australia – even within this lectionary system, there are certain texts that never appear for reading at the Eucharist when we are gathered together.  There has always been a certain amount of editing of biblical texts, both when the New Testament was being put together, and now by the choices that are made as to which texts should be read at the Eucharist and which should not.  The important thing for us to remember is that, as Anglicans, we believe that the Spirit of God that was present throughout the very complex process of the New Testament coming into its final form, is also present each time a group of scholars provide us with a new translation of the Bible, and each time a group help to highlight certain things in the text for us, and each time we open the scriptures for ourselves.  But since the English Reformation, which led to the re-establishment of the authority of the English Church, once again taking its own control back from the Church in Rome, there has been a lively debate about the place of the Sacraments and the scriptures in our Church.  Because we trace our roots back to the Church of England, we are the inheritors of that Reformation, and of the struggles that have gone along with it.

I have been thinking about all of this over the last few days as I have been pondering today’s Gospel reading, because earlier this week I happened to meet a friend in the street in Newcastle from a more evangelical church in the Diocese who I had not seen for some time but who had heard that we had been reading the Gospels together during Lent.  She expressed surprise to me that a congregation such as ours, in the Catholic tradition, would be interested in reading the Bible at all. I had to remind her that those of us who ensure that the Sacraments are central to our life, do not by doing that, push the Bible to the margins.

It is true to say that the place of the Bible and the place of the Sacraments has been hotly contested throughout the history of our Church since the Reformation. There have been times when it was presumed that the Bible alone was all that we needed.  It has been presumed at others times that the presence of God in the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion were fully sufficient for Christian living.  But the way that we express our life in Christ, as we gather together here at St Peter’s, to offer worship to God, and to be resourced by his Spirit (and by each other) to remain faithful to our baptismal calling in Jesus, seeks to hold together both Word and Sacrament.  We are not protestants in the way that that term is used by the Baptist, Uniting and new churches.  When that description is used of Anglicans, it is used in a very different way: that is self-evident by the very fact that, unlike them, we have continued to order the life of the Anglican Church in a ‘Catholic way’ with Bishops, Priests and Deacons.  But there are also important differences between us and the Catholic Churches of the East and West (of Rome, and of Orthodoxy).   We do not – like them – claim to be the only Church, in fact we do not claim to be a Church at all, but a provisional structure of Christians waiting for the fulfilment of Christ’s promise that all who follow him will one day be one.  For me, the most accurate description of our life, would be to say that Anglicans are Reformed Catholics. We take all that was accomplished at the Reformation seriously, and we take the continuation of our life with the Church that existed before the Reformation seriously as well. We do not say, “scripture alone,” neither do we say, “sacraments alone are sufficient”.  Today’s liturgy, as it is every weekend, reminds us that we hold both Scripture and Sacrament together.

We never read the Bible alone, even if we are physically the only person in the room.  Our reading of the Bible comes alive because God’s Spirit is with us. That is why when I read the Bible here in the St Barnabas Chapel at Morning and Evening Prayer (when I am alert to what I am doing) expectant that God will say something new to me, even through a passage which I have read many times before. If we wanted one text, one story in the life of Jesus and his first followers to give us some assurance that we may be moving along the right lines, we need look no further than today’s Gospel reading.  The writers of the Gospel of Luke offer their great presentation of the life of Jesus between journeys which act as book ends to their story.   Right at the start of it all you will remember the journey of Jesus’ parents back from the Temple in Jerusalem, when to their horror they find that the boy Jesus is not travelling with them.  As we heard a few months ago on the Feast of Candlemass, when his parents find him again he is in the Temple, even as a young boy, teaching the religious leaders.  “Did you not know,” he says to his parents, “that I would be here doing my father’s business?”  Now at the end of the Gospel of Luke, in today’s encounter we are caught up in the second book end, the second journey that the authors use to frame the whole of their story, and it is important to remember that even though some weeks have passed in our own lives, we are still on the day of the resurrection.  It is on the afternoon and evening of the first Easter Day that today’s journey is taking place.

We are not entirely sure who the two disciples are that are wandering home to Emmaus on the road.  We know that they are filled with disappointment and despondency, that their journeying away from Jerusalem is not just geographical but spiritual as well.  A tradition grew up in the Early Church that Cleopas, the one who is identified by name in this encounter, may well have been related to Jesus as a cousin.  Certainly he would have been well known to the first Christian communities, and that is why he is named.  In John’s Gospel there are a couple named Clopas and Mary and it may well be that the second (unnamed) companion on the journey is this Mary, Cleopas’ wife.  Once again, as in the other resurrection stories that we have been reflecting upon during this great Easter Season, these two who have known Jesus before his death, are not able to recognise him instantly in his resurrection body.  As Jesus joins them on the road, he discovers that they are talking about all that has taken place over the last few days, as they journey home with the greatest sadness that all that they had hoped for has come to nothing. Jesus, as he travels with them, even though they do not yet know it, opens up the scriptures for them, and highlights texts for them to help them to see that all that has taken place is part of God’s deliberate plan for the salvation of the world.  That process of highlighting has continued in the Church ever since.

It is as if he saying to them, as he did to his parents when they journeyed back and found him teaching in the temple, that all of this has taken place so that the father’s business could be achieved.  The whole of Luke’s Gospel is framed between these two great moments. The journey of Jesus’ parents in which they discover their son as the one who is revealed in the scriptures, and the journey of these two disciples, who are about to discover in the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread, that all that had been promised has been accomplished in him.  Because the reality of the resurrection is about to turn Cleopas’ statement of hopelessness, that they had hoped in vain that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel, to the assurance that he was the one who already had, without them realising it.

As we heard the moment of realisation comes, after Jesus has broken open the scriptures for them, when he also breaks bread – the first Eucharist of the resurrection: completing that meal which he had begun at the Last Supper, and as we heard from Fr Wilf last Sunday, was to continue with the fish breakfast on the beach.  Right at the end of the Gospel of Luke, as the climax of all that has taken place, the authors want to carefully remind those who will hear their presentation of the life of Jesus, that we can hope to continue to know and experience the presence of the resurrected Jesus in the life of the Church through the words of the Bible and through the actions of the sacraments.

Not scripture alone, nor sacraments alone: that is not the Way of Jesus, that is not the Anglican Way.  We live by Word and Sacrament.  As it was for Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, may it be so for us: as we read the scriptures day by day, and share in the life-giving actions of the sacraments, aware of the Spirit’s power at work in both may we know the assurance of Our Lord’s presence in our lives.