Taking sides on the road to Emmaus

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter (April 23rd 2023) for Holy Trinity, Leamington, based on the gospel for the day – Luke 24:13-35 (text below)

Lovers in Arles by Vincent van Gogh

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark

At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
For your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone.

This Rogers and Hammerstein song has stood the test of time. It was originally part of their 1945 musical, Carousel. It is the anthem of Liverpool. It is also the anthem for Celtic and Borussia Dortmund, several Dutch teams, a Belgian team, and also became the anthem of support for medical workers, first responders and those in quarantine during the pandemic.

It’s an anthem which has stood the test of time. It’s seen us through the pandemic and saw Liverpool fans through Hillsborough and other tragedies. It was sung as a tribute to the Busby Babes at Manchester United’s first home game after the Munich air disaster in 1958 and was also used to support those affected by the fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade which killed 58. Some of you may have YNWA tattooed on your body somewhere.

This is a song with legs. Behind it is a truth with even longer legs. The last words of Matthew’s gospel are “Remember, I am with you to the end of time”. These are the words of the risen Jesus even though he has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Remember, I am with you to the end of time. These are the daddy long legs behind the Liverpool anthem and all the songs of faith which have sustained so many on their long and difficult walks to freedom through storms of betrayal, injustice and pain.

In today’s gospel, Jesus, the I AM of “I am with you always”, joins two people on their way home from the festival in Jerusalem. He asked them what they were discussing, and Luke tells us “they stood still, looking sad”. They had reason to be sad. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to free Israel, but their own leaders and priests had handed Jesus over to be condemned to death by crucifixion

They walked on. They walked on with Jesus. They walked on, with Jesus listening to the hope that was in their heart and his response: his explanation of things in all the scriptures about him.

Here, as in other resurrection appearances, Jesus appears as stranger. They don’t know the one who has joined them is Jesus, and only discover his identity when he broke bread with them and reflected on the change of heart they felt as they walked with Jesus.

Jesus becomes known in the breaking of bread and through companionship. Companions are literally those we eat bread with. That is the meaning of the word companion.

When Jesus accepted the invitation of these two (Cleopas and the other whose name isn’t given) he joined them as companions, and they found him in the intimacy of companionship.

Was the revelation, and is the revelation, through the way the bread was taken, blessed, broken and shared? Was it, and is it, through the visibility of the scars and vulnerability. All of us will have our stories to tell about how Jesus has become known to us through the companionship of breaking bread together.

Through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36:26) God promised God’s people a new heart – a heart of flesh instead of hearts of stone. When the penny drops, Cleopas and his companion say to each other with the benefit of hindsight, “Were not our hearts burning within while he was talking to us on the road?” Is this not the fulfilment of that promise? 

The road home from Jerusalem had been a road of desolation for the two of them – they shared their heartbreak with the one who joined them at their side and then found all the consolation they could ever have wished for, and more. It was with a fresh heart that they rushed back to Jerusalem and told the eleven what had happened to them on the road. We’re not told what happened next for them. We can only assume that their next steps were to walk on, with that fresh heart to their being, with hope at their heart.

I was leading worship in a strange church a couple of weeks ago. It was a service I had never led before. I sat in the church beforehand, on my own when someone joined me, sitting at my side. She was calm, a non-anxious presence, who quietly engaged me in conversation. I knew her slightly – enough for us to have a conversation about what matters to us. So it wasn’t small-talk. I immediately knew what she had done. Of all the things that she could have been doing, she had joined me, she had taken my side.

She will never know the effect of that simple action – taking my side. It was certainly heart-warming. It was immensely encouraging (encouraging literally means heartening). It gave me confidence. I knew I wasn’t on my own.

All of us, feeling vulnerable,
love it when others take our side,
when they sit with us, 
when they walk with us, 
when their heart goes out to us, 
when they make sure 
we never walk alone. 

When they join our side 
with a love that is patient and kind, 
that isn’t boastful or rude, 
that bears all things, 
believes all things, 
hopes all things, 
endures all things – 
well, (in the words of Andrew Lloyd Webber), 
that changes everything, 
doesn’t it? 

Is it not Christ
in such love
who takes our side
even as a stranger?

Isn’t it this love,
joining us at our side
who gives us new heart,
a heart-warming of flesh,
emboldened and encouraged?

Emboldened and encouraged
enough for us also 
through Christ and in Christ
to take the side of others
along their roads of sorrow,
even through the valley
of shadows marked Death

heartened to side with them
as part of the promise
“You’ll never walk alone”,
joined by the insistence of Jesus,
“I am with you always,
to the end of time.”

So, who is it  who has joined you on your journey, particularly when you have felt like Cleopas and his companion? Who has taken your side, particularly when you have felt forsaken? Who has stayed by your side through thick and thin? Who has loved with a love divine? These are the people who have encouraged us and given us fresh heart. These are the people through whom Christ lives his life in ways we often don’t recognise.

We give thanks for them and their presence in our lives – and we pray that we too may commit ourselves to Jesus’ risen life by siding with those Jesus sides with – those who are poor, or lost, or broken – in fact, everyone apart from the proud and self-satisfied – walking with them, standing up for them, taking their side, joining them.

Note: the information about YNWA is from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You%27ll_Never_Walk_Alone

Luke 24:13-35

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 recognising 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 s 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 indeed had 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.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near to the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘stay with us because it is almost evening and the day in now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Love on the rocks

Heartwarming: Nice beach
Heartwarming on Nice beach

I couldn’t resist taking this photo when on Nice beach for St Valentine’s Day ’12. I don’t know the woman. She never noticed me taking the photo and my lovely wife was sunbathing further along the beach.

St Valentine’s Day was perhaps popularised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century, though, according to this blog post, the Valentine’s Day may refer to May 3rd, the feast day of the wrong Valentine, Valentine of Genoa. Legend has it that Valentine, Bishop of Rome, was imprisoned and executed for performing weddings for soldiers (they were forbidden) and for ministering to Christians (they were persecuted). While in prison he is supposed to have healed the jailer’s daughter, and gave a letter to her on the day he was executed signed with “Your Valentine”. He is said to have given heart shapes cut from parchment to the soldiers to remind them of their loves and vows.

The heart is used as a measure for our dealings with one another. The measure isn’t beats per minute, but a blood-red thermometer with hard-heartedness being the coldest, and the soft-hearted being at the top of the human scale.

Many live with the dire consequences of hard-heartedness. There is an ancient promise for the sake of the loveless victims of hard-heartedness in which God promises a heart transplant. The people will have a change of heart when their heart of stone will be replaced by a “heart of flesh”. “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)

Hearts of stone can never be broken. They have to be removed. The transplants don’t come with any guarantees. They are soft. They are made to be responsive to the feelings of others. They are made to be sensitive. They are made for moving. They are made for love. They are made to be broken. (There is a beautiful Blessing for the Broken-hearted by Jan Richardson)

Too many of us have been hurt, and too many of us have heeded the advice “don’t be soft”. We can become hard to know and we can be hard on others. Our responsiveness, flexibility and ability to change can be non-existent. We stop listening and we stop learning. Our cause isn’t lost in that condition. Many hearts have been changed though history by tender hearted care and by brave hearts such as Nelson Mandela. The sexualisation of Valentine’s Day may prevent us remembering all those people and moments that might have heartened us. But the extent to which we have been touched  and softened by them will affect our loveliness and our eagerness to be a true lover.

A friend who was a high school teacher was a real advocate of the “unlovely” young people. She said that they had been hardened into it, and that “they’d be lovely if they were loved”.