A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, April 23rd 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube
‘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 [i.e. the two] told what had happened on the road, and how he [Jesus] had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.’ (24:33-35)
As well as being an ancient-world historian the Gospel-writer, Luke, is a fantastic story teller. It’s amazing how much he can pack into one story without completely overloading our brains. Take his account of the encounter between two disciples and the risen Lord Jesus on the road to the village of Emmaus, which was located somewhere seven miles from Jerusalem. Luke tells a story that is actually composed of several stories, though you might not notice that at first glance.
It’s the story where two people on the road tell a third person the story about what has happened in Jerusalem over the previous few days: ‘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.’ (24:19-21)
Then they tell the stranger a story about another story, that was told to them by some female followers of Jesus: ‘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.’ (24:22-24)
Then this stranger, who we know is ‘Jesus himself’ (24:15) – because Luke has told us so in his Gospel story – but whom they have not yet recognised, tells them stories of scripture, interpreted in the light of their story about who Jesus was and what had happened to him: ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.’ (24:27)
Once they have recognised Jesus, and after he has ‘vanished from their sight’ (24:31), they rush back to Jerusalem. At least they do so as much as you can rush seven miles down a road in the dark – they had sat down to eat when, ‘it was almost evening and the day … [was] nearly over,’ don’t forget. (24:29)
Once back in Jerusalem their intention is to tell the eleven and those gathered with them (24:33) the story of how they told their story about events in Jerusalem, and the story they told about the story told to them by the women, to a stranger who responded by telling them the story of scripture, read in the light of the story of the life of Jesus, so as to make sense of their stories. And to top it all, the punch line of their story now was …
But they don’t get to deliver the punch line. They don’t get to finish their story about these stories, at least not yet. No! Instead, those who are in Jerusalem jump in with their story first: ‘‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ (24:34) Or to put it another way, their story, told to the two just back from Emmaus, was that the story the women had told about the outcome of the story of events in Jerusalem was true! The Lord Jesus had risen from the grave – oh, and by the way, he had appeared to Simon … who doubtless had a story to tell!
And then, after all of that, finally, the two from Emmaus get to tell their multi-layered story, at this point in Luke’s Gospel story reduced to, ‘then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.’ (24:35)
We all like a good a story, and sometimes it’s all the better for being a true-life story, like the one contained in Luke’s Gospel; the story of two followers of Jesus who really did meet their risen Lord and ours, just as other disciples had done and were yet to do. And what all this story telling in Gospel suggests to me is how important it is for followers of Jesus today – like us – to be able to tell our stories about how we have met with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our story telling starts by sharing stories with each other in the Church. My guess is that this is how most of us got to hear the stories about Jesus: ‘tell me the stories of Jesus, I love to hear; things I would ask him to tell me if he were here …’ as the old hymn goes. I still have one or two books on my bookshelves from my childhood, illustrated Bible stories, given to me part of being a church during those early years. And we , as Church, have a long, honourable, fruitful tradition of telling the stories of Jesus – of God – to children, equipping them to own Christian faith for themselves when they reach an age of responsibility, when ever that might come.
There’s been a rich tradition of sharing personal stories of faith among ourselves – what we sometimes call ‘testimony.’ Sometimes in the setting of a church service, but also often in informal, conversational settings, church folk have shared their experiences of walking the Christian way. Perhaps you can remember occasions when what others shared has had a significant impact on your own faith and the way you see and live your life. I think our Messy Church events do good work here, telling Christian stories in a less formal way than this sort of service attracting people who don’t feel as at ease with being here at 10.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
That moves us to another important aspect of sharing the Christian story; we start by sharing stories among ourselves, but then we share those stories with others. Today’s reading from Luke comes near to the end of that Gospel. The focus is upon the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and its impact upon those around him. It makes sense that Luke gives space to disciples sharing among themselves their stories about meeting Jesus. But the storytelling does not stop there. Luke’s Gospel draws to a close, the Book of Acts gets underway.
In our reading from Acts, Simon Peter (who had his own story to tell about meeting with the risen Lord Jesus Christ) takes the story of Jesus outside of the Church. He conducts fellow Jews through a swift tour of Old Testament passages of scripture applied them to Jesus (just as Jesus had done as we walked down the road to Emmaus).
Then he invites them to make the story of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection their story too. He he urges them to turn their lives around – that’s what the word, ‘repent’ means –to be baptised and to receive the Holy Spirit. (2:38) And we’re told, in this story of the early Church, that many were convinced, and that thousands were added to the ranks of the Church (2:41), becoming part of its ongoing story.
We live in more challenging times, as far as telling our faith story outside the Church is concerned. Peter could address a crowd at length, quoting Old Testament scripture, confident that those listening were already familiar with it and believed that what he was talking about might be significant for their lives. When we try to share our faith stories beyond the church in our society things are not so straightforward.
We need all the help we can get in being able to put our story into a form that attracts others, and which makes sense in today’s culture. At the same time we need to be careful not to lose the essential content of the story – it’s about Jesus Christ, his teaching, his actions, his death and resurrection, through which we meet with God, discovering that God loves us and does everything that needs to be done for us to live in peace with him.
Today, Messy Church helps us to do that storytelling to some extent. Also, we’re getting close to persuading our URC Northern Synod to provide us with an additional worker to helps us to find ways of telling the story of Jesus in our changed cultural setting. There are reasons to be hopeful that we can find ways of sharing our story more widely and effectively than we do at present.
What really keeps me hopeful, though, is that whatever the way in which the story of Jesus is presented, it’s a story with content. It’s our story about the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ, the same Jesus, risen from the grave, who accompanied his disciples down the road to Emmaus.