This Sunday I invite you on a journey. A journey that we’re all on, but this is a journey that none of us knows how it ends, in one way, though we are aware how it ends in another, Let me explain.
We were on course to celebrate Easter in our church buildings. We are used to the Easter story, and are told that we are the Easter people. We believe that Jesus is the Christ and that he rose from the dead on the third day. And we celebrate that in a great festival. We have glorious singing, and of course we were going to welcome two new people into the family of God through the waters of baptism.
Then suddenly, even though much had been prepared, we found ourselves under lockdown and what were we to make of that? When I was growing up in Zambia, there were a few times when a ‘lockdown’ was imposed – either by the government or by the military – attempted coups. Lockdowns of a different nature, where instead of fear of an unseen airborne virus, the fear was of being shot. And that is where we find, on the Easter 2, the disciples. They too were under lockdown – we don’t know whether it was self-imposed or by the Jews. But we do know they were in fear of them. They wouldn’t have simply been told off if they had gone outside, and we don’t know the length of the restriction. There are many similarities between this story and our own. And yet, Jesus came and stood amongst them.
I wrote about this in the parish magazine, but not everyone on my email and postal list for the Sunday reflections receives Outlook. So for those who don’t, I stated then, as I do now, that just because we’re not gathered does not mean that Christ cannot be with us. We’re told by Jesus that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We count ourselves amongst those who have not seen and yet come to believe, such is our faith. But to remain under lockdown needs a new way of thinking, and being.
So, having looked at the Gospel for Easter 2, we now move on to that for Easter 3. The Gospel for that Sunday was about the disciples being able to leave Jerusalem and going away. Away from the place that confined and threatened their faith and existence. The place that was oppressive and where their teacher had been tortured and killed.
“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
And I think we are all, metaphorically, on the same road. We are all wandering along, either coping very well, or climbing the walls in an effort to get out. Where is God in all this, in what we are experiencing at the moment? The disciples were obviously hoping for a military leader and they did not get one. They hoped for the oppressive Roman regime to be overthrown, but it did not happen. That’s what they thought redemption meant. And then the story about the women. And unfortunately we have a little understanding here of the patriarchal society simply brushing the women’s story aside, because they couldn’t see the evidence with their own eyes. They simply would not believe because a woman had that experience first.
Where are we in that story? Who are we in that story? I chatted with Bishop Mark yesterday and spoke about what I wanted to share with you since it was my turn to write the Sunday reflection. Bishop Mark spoke of how he is watching all the events unfold. How he is observing his clergy learning new tricks and working with different media and yet reaching out to the people, gathering them and teaching them. And we, with him are wondering what we will need to retain of this format when, eventually, we are allowed back into the church buildings as a congregation. I choose my words carefully, because the clergy are allowed in to worship and pray, but currently no-one else is allowed in (insurance purposes).
So we are all on the road to Emmaus, still. Metaphorically, as we are all in our houses. These could likened to sheepfolds. And that is where we find ourselves with the Gospel for Easter 4. One of the (many) tasks of the minister is to read and pray over the Scripture that we are to bring to you, with an interpretation and an application.
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
“So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
We are all under lockdown for our own good. Your clergy are isolating, with the churches locked, out of love for you. Yet, God is the gatekeeper and Jesus is the gate and the shepherd. He’s holding you safe, out of his love for you. You know his voice, and only you will know, after the government begins to lift restrictions, when it is safe for you to stop self-isolating. That is a deeply personal point of trust and faith, because the pasture we may return to will not be the same pasture that we left. But we’re told in the Gospel for Easter 5:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
We come back once again, to knowing how the Easter story carries on in our hearts and minds, although we are still on the road to Emmaus and we don’t know what a service in the church building is going to look like for some time to come. But it’s not going to be the same style of nurture that we have come to know and love. It has to be different, for our own good.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Where are you in the story?
“How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.”
Do you still have to see with your own eyes? Or can you believe in your heart that Jesus is who he says he is. The works he speaks aren’t the rituals we so carefully curate in church – the mass settings, the chasubles, the altar cloths, the robes, the ‘right way’ of doing things. Instead, Jesus is asking us to take the deeds he is done (how people are included, welcomed, healed, restored, and forgiven), and put these into place. These are the things, the works that are important.
Church, as it has become, has been stripped of all that we held dear. What is the essence of church for you? And how can the ministry team help you with that?
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
The Church of God continues to evolve and adapt to the culture we’re in. We are in the world, but not of the world. What can we do differently, missionally, in lockdown that we couldn’t before?
I want, lastly, to write a little about Julian of Norwich, whose Saint’s Day was Friday. In the monthly service curated by Neil, he explored what is applicable in our lives from that of Julian’s.
Julian was an Anchorite – a recluse who has withdrawn from the world for religious reasons. Norwich, her home town had 22 religious houses and 63 churches, many of which had an ‘anchorage’ attached to them. She also lived through the time of the ‘Black Death.’ It is suggested that Julian’s isolation in her cell, with minimal contact with the outside world, helped her to survive. She had several visions of Christ following on from being severely ill and these writings were eventually published after the Reformation, in the book titled ‘Revelations of Divine Love.’
There are obviously similarities between Julian’s position and our own self-isolation, but I think we may still feel that our isolation separates us from church. I would argue that we are still church in our isolation. Think back to the first century where, in Judaism, all the people would travel once a year to the Temple in Jerusalem from what was known as the diaspora. The Jews in their homes and their hamlets, would keep their faith alive in their families and come together for big celebrations and festivals. Of course, there are many different diaspora such as people living in different countries who come together for a meeting once every so often. Gatherings of clans could be viewed in a similar manner.