On the Road of Resurrection Living

Woody Allen once famously said, “our civilisation stands at the crossroads.  Down one road is despondency and despair. Down the other road is total annihilation.  I hope we take the right road.”  In seeking to be humorous, I think Woody Allen summed up something of the spirit of our times.  The way ahead for us often seems unclear, both for us as individuals, as a society and as a global community. There are times when we seek to find the least worst of all of the possibilities that confront us.

Have you ever noticed that some of the most arresting words in our English language begin with the letter D:  disappointment, doubt, dejection, disillusionment, defeat, discouragement, despondency, depression, despair and of course death.  Once again in our Gospel reading today for the third week in succession we are faced with people who are caught in the experience that these words express.

It is as if time has stood still for us over the last weeks. We are just a few hours on from the reading which we heard on Easter Day, and we are a few hours earlier than where we met the friends of Jesus last week, huddled in the upstairs room for fear of their future.  On Easter Morning we were confronted by these feelings of despondency and despair in the experience of the women travelling to the tomb of Jesus.  Last weekend we met these words in the first disciples, cowering behind a locked door in the upper room.  Today we sense the discouragement and disillusionment of the two disciples travelling away from Jerusalem on the Emmaus road.  Jesus has been crucified, three days have now passed, and they are returning – in despair – to the lives that they left behind when they began to follow him.

Back in Jersualem the other disciples remain paralysed by all that has taken place. These two had left this downhearted and confused band of disciples, no longer even able to stay with them to see what would happen next. As they travel along, these two disciples are filled with disillusionment.  Even the report of the women who said that Jesus’ tomb was empty did not raise their spirits; it only confused them even more.  The two despondent disciples walking the road to Emmaus sum up the situation when they say, “We had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set Israel free!”

Human hope is a fragile thing as we all know, and when it withers, it is difficult to revive.  “We had hoped”, Cleopas and his friend had said, and what they meant was “We don’t expect it now, but once we did. We had high hopes for the future, but now those hopes are gone and all we have left is disappointment.”  As these two (now former) disciples walk along a stranger joins them.  The stranger asks them what they are discussing, and so they pour out their story to someone who seems willing to listen.  They tell the stranger all about their hopes and their disappointments. He simply provides a listening ear.  As they talk of their misery and disappointment, the stranger walks with them.

I wonder whether we can identify with the feelings of these two disciples on the road in some way.  For each of us the cause of feeling down might be different, but it would be a rare person indeed who could claim that they were not affected by any of those D words – disappointment, doubt, dejection, disillusionment, defeat, discouragement, depression, despondency or despair at some point in the journey of their lives.

Against this backdrop, the theme running through our liturgy today is established by the poetic words of the Collect prayer. It is always the task of that prayer, to collect together the various strands of our worship each week and express them for us before we hear our readings, that is why it is called the Collect.  That prayer, which I pray on behalf of us all, as the president of all of us who celebrate this Eucharist, is printed in our Mass booklets.  It is a beautiful prayer of faith and hope that stands in opposition to all of those D words so evident in our wider society, and in the beginning of our Gospel story:

Almighty Father,
who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord:
give us such knowledge of his presence with us,
that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life
and serve you continually in righteousness and truth.

Our Collect prayer, and therefore our whole liturgy today, as we continue to celebrate with great hope and joy the resurrection of Our Lord throughout this Easter Season, speaks of a God who, in his great mercy, gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord, and it prays that we may have the same experience that they had – of Jesus with us by his Spirit, strengthening us in his risen life, as we walk our Christian lives.

But what are we actually thinking when this prayer is articulated on our behalf?  Do we begin with eager anticipation to look around us for sightings of the risen Lord, or do we have a more relaxed view of the situation and suggest to ourselves that whilst this is a very interesting account of what the disciples believed they saw following the resurrection, and is a story loaded with deep and enriching spiritual insights, it has little to offer us in our own lives today?

That question, and this Gospel encounter as a whole, draw us back into reflection on religious experience, our experience of living as those who follow in the way of Jesus.  Last weekend I encouraged us to seek our own experiences of God as Thomas did, to be open to his work in our life, and not to simply live by the stories of the experiences that we have heard from others.  Now again, in this story, we are confronted by the challenge of the testimony of the risen Jesus being met by the first Christians as they journey on the road of their lives; because they are to discover that the stranger who is walking alongside them is, (as we knew from the beginning because this story is so familiar to us), none other than the risen Jesus himself.  The same Jesus, who we believe by faith, walks with us by his spirit throughout the journey of our lives.

Monica Furlong in her book ‘Travelling In’ writes,  “The religious person is the one who believes that life is about making some kind of journey. The non-religious person is the one who believes there is no journey to make.”

“Come. Follow me.” “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Christianity has never been simply a static body of doctrine, but rather a dynamic way of life.  The first term used in the New Testament to describe Christians were “followers of the Way.”  We know those things of course, but if I am honest I am not always so ready to be travelling on a journey that will require growth and change in me, and yet that is what the resurrection life is about. We are pilgrims always heading somewhere.

This story of these disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus Road serves as a reminder to us that we are never travelling alone.  If the journey seems daunting or overwhelming, this resurrection Gospel assures us that the Spirit of the Risen One will always be our companion on the way.

Woody Allen said, “our civilisation stands at the crossroads. Down one road is despondency and despair. Down the other road is total annihilation. I hope we take the right road.”  But Jesus says to us, “it is not so much a crossroads at which you stand, as a road transformed by the Cross on which you travel. By my Spirit I am on the road with you for ever. Trust in me, I am with you, to turn your greatest despair into living hope.”

That is why we have confidence to pray:

Almighty Father,
who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord:
give us such knowledge of his presence with us,
that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life
and serve you continually in righteousness and truth.