Were not our hearts burning within us?

This is Rev Sue’s sermon from Sunday 26 April 2020:

They stood still looking sad. Their grief had overwhelmed them, and their whole attention was focused on the events of the last few days. At first it was difficult to relate to this stranger breaking into that community of bereavement the small but close band of brothers and sisters, those who had loved Jesus.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Nothing mattered now, there was nothing to be done. At the back of their minds they knew that one day life would return to what passes for normal, but it would never be the same again. Jesus had changed their lives and they had loved him, worked with him and for him. They cared nothing about possessions – they had given him everything. Their families had complained they were never around. Everything was for the kingdom of God. And now they were bereaved and deserted, grief stricken and angry, purposeless and lost. This stranger was a good listener, it all came tumbling out, the whole history. Last week was the pinnacle of their hopes. As Jesus entered Jerusalem the crowds at last realised the truth, that he was the Messiah come to save them. O happy day. The fulfilment of 3 years work! The beginning of the final campaign. How bitter those words were now. Almost immediately it had all turned sour. Jesus refused to fight, to work the crowds to turn them against the Romans and the Pharisees, and slowly they saw the victory slipping away from them. Yet it was not until the arrest that they realised the enormity of the situation. Looking back, there were signs, of the inevitability of it all, but at times like this you don’t want to understand, your mind won’t take it in. The unthinkable is happening. In 24 hours, the violence of the world had been heaped upon an innocent man. Questioned, beaten, mocked and killed he had refused to fight back – not even verbally. If he had only said the word, they could have mobilised some fighters, some orators to whip up the crowd. Fought back on equal terms. But he would not. They were paralysed, bewildered, frightened. Now they were angry, too, with Pilate, with the Pharisees and even with Jesus. Why had he let this happen? Why had he left them? He was 33 for goodness sake. That’s too young to die. And now the women have said they saw angels saying that he was alive. They must be deluded, it must be the grief speaking. For hope now was too much to bear. Better to stay in misery than to try to get up to be slapped down once again. 

The stranger had listened as their hearts poured out. His empathy and warmth had encouraged them to tell their story, to put into words the mixture of facts and feelings, the details that had riveted their attention, the emotions that flooded their hearts and minds. But he was more than a sounding board, for having listened he upbraided them. You are so slow! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? They were taken aback. It was their turn to listen. It wasn’t that the man said anything to them that was new. They had heard the scriptures all their lives. They had studied them, discussed them and meditated on them. But now everything was falling into place. It was like watching someone assembling IKEA flatpack furniture. You start with some mysteriously shaped pieces and a lot of screws, and gradually the whole thing comes together to make your chest of drawers. They began to see not only the suffering in Scripture, but also the glory. The suffering lamb of God would come through the anguish to see light. And gradually, like numbing fingers before the warmth of the fire, hope began to return.

Without noticing it, the time had flown by, and they were at the turning for their own village. They were so absorbed in the conversation that they hadn’t thought about the next step, and they nearly let the man walk on, but they gathered their wits and invited him back to their house. ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ Surely there was nowhere else for him to hurry to this evening, the roads wouldn’t be safe after dark. And they wanted him to stay, more than they could remember ever having wanted anything. It was the most important conversation of their lives and they didn’t want it ever to end. It was one of those chance encounters, when suddenly you realise the person you are talking to is changing your life for ever. Perhaps you are chatting on the train and relieved beyond belief when they stay on until your station. You are so engrossed you nearly forget to ask for their phone number. You need them in your life.

As the supper was prepared a companionable silence descended. They had talked, and they had listened. The raging grief had been calmed and they were at peace. Mentally, physically and emotionally they were exhausted, but they had found rest. His presence soothed and comforted them in a way they didn’t understand, but they were content to rest in it. The food was prepared, the table laid. It seemed natural to ask him to say the blessing. As he did so, he lifted the bread tore a piece off, and handed them both a morsel. In that instant, both at once they saw. How did they not realise before! It was Jesus. The one they loved back with them.  And in that moment, he vanished. But it didn’t matter. He was alive.

It was only then that they realised just how they had felt while they were walking with Jesus. At the time they were concentrating on what he was saying. But looking back they remembered the excitement they felt. And also, a deep and unshakeable recognition that their needs were being met. They felt affirmed, reassured, a deep sense of unity with God and all his creation. It was like drinking a glass of cool water on a hot day. This they realised that this was everything they had ever wanted, their deepest desires, to be close to God and know themselves loved by him. It had started in the opening of the scriptures and completed in the breaking of bread. The intensity of the experience was over, and Jesus had vanished, but nothing could take that afternoon away from them. A few hours ago, they had wearily plodded along the road from Jerusalem. Now, full of energy, they returned there to share the good news. And they found that they were not alone – others had had a similar experience. From the depths of despair and the suffering of bereavement new hope and joy had unexpectedly come to them. The world would never be the same again.

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