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"Sure and certain....?"

Salisbury Cathedral Cloisters
Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 30th April 2017

A sermon preached by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor

The Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14 a, 36-41
Luke 24:13-35

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

Over the Easter weekend we had some chums of ours staying with us, and as often happens when these particular friends are staying the conversation turned to things theological. There was one particular conversation about the accounts of the resurrection in which I didn’t come off awfully well. To be fair, these friends had arrived on Maundy Thursday evening while I was at the Watch, and so by the time I got home at about twenty past midnight I wasn’t at my peak for intense theological debate, and our friend Tim who is a philosophy graduate and Christian apologist is about twenty times cleverer than I am. The conversation was about which of the resurrection accounts seem the most useful and edifying, and which of them do not. It being twenty past midnight the language I picked to express my dissatisfaction with Saint Matthew’s account of the resurrection was probably a bit more basic and disparaging than that which I would select to use in a sermon, but the point I was trying to make to Tim in the early hours of Good Friday morning was that there are some accounts of the resurrection appearances with which I instinctively relate more than others. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not a huge fan of Matthew’s account of the resurrection. Luke on the other hand seems to be doing slightly different things. And today we hear the story of the road to Emmaus. This seems to me to be one of the most helpful and honest accounts of the resurrection that we have in Scripture, with its themes of journey, doubt and revelation, learning and exploration.

 

We often talk about life as being a journey don’t we? It’s sometimes used in a fairly trite way, you know, “well you never know what’s around the next corner do you?” “When God closes a door he opens a window…” But there is of course deep truth in the metaphor. We are on a journey from somewhere to somewhere else. We don’t know what the future holds. The road that stretches ahead of us can sometimes seem broad, leafy, smooth and bounded with good things. Equally at other times the road can seem dark, twisty, foreboding, mysterious and wraithed in mist. Sometimes it feels like we are journeying in the company of friends, and sometimes we feel quite alone. Sometimes we know where we’re trying to get to, and sometimes we seem to have set off impulsively like Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit, without even remembering to bring a handkerchief with us. Sometimes the journey feels like it has been forced upon us almost against our will.

 

And as much as we might want to be able to control and negotiate for ourselves the circumstances of our future, very often they are at least partly in someone else’s hands. Either there are other human protagonists in our story who exercise control over us, or we find ourselves in the grip of accident or disease, of mortality itself, and perhaps to that mysterious spiritual dimension to our lives which was described by Graham Greene as the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”.

 

You know six years ago, just about, I applied for this job, to be precentor of Salisbury. How did I know to do it? Well it was a complex mixture of faith, instinct, the fact that Emma had moved to Southampton and I was lonely, a whole bunch of different factors nudged me towards making that particular move down the road. And of course much of that decision was in the hands of the Bishop, the Dean, and one hopes “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” How do we know whether we are walking in the right direction? How do we know whether being Bishop of Llandaff is the right thing to do? How do we know whether that nudge upon our heart is a calling to ordination or not? How do we know if the relationship we are in is the right one? How do we know how to commit to a friend properly? To be honest and open, not to manipulate or test or abuse? How will we know how to vote on 8 June? How do we know what to do and say and think?

 

 Well of course we don’t know how to do most of these things most of the time, and to be honest if we did we would bewail the fact that our lives are mechanical and automated and lacking in free will.

 

But we do need to be able to say something about the nature of faith. We do need to be able to say something about how it makes any difference at all to be friends, and sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters of God. To be people of Jesus Christ. Because if we can’t do that then what’s the point? Why aren’t we all in the Cosy Club having a fried breakfast and a Bloody Mary?

 

And it’s got to do with this thing about being accompanied. The story of the road to Emmaus is really interesting because you have this mixture of inquisitiveness, despondency and hope, and then revelation at the end, when Jesus breaks the bread and the two disciples realise who he is. But then he’s gone again, and they’re left to negotiate the rest of their journey inspired by his appearance, and with their faith evidenced by the fact that their hearts were burning within them. “Did not our hearts burn within us as we talked with him on the road?” Jesus is gone by then, but the encounter with him lends evidence, lends truth, and strengthens faith in the fact that he was there all the time.

 

And we really struggle with how much certainty we can have about faith. Next week, when I am safely hiding in Church House doing some teaching for the Bishop, you will sing a hymn which I know will enrage one of our Lay Vicars, because it contains the line “through the Spirit who clothes faith with certainty”. And he will say, because we‘ve had this conversation, ‘the whole point about faith is that it can’t be certain, it’s faith’. And he is of course right. And perhaps the line is not the best line in hymnody, but it is trying to say something about the fact that through the operation of the Holy Spirit, through the fact that we encounter Jesus in our lives, something happens which means that we can be assured that we are accompanied. And I don’t know how to describe that properly. One of the best words I think is hope. The funeral service gets close to it when, at the committal, the minister says that we commit the person’s body to the earth or to the fire “in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” But can hope be certain? Can it be any more certain than faith? It’s really tricky, and it’s where language runs out, and human intellect runs out, and it’s where I’m afraid I bottomed out at half past midnight on Good Friday morning and went to bed!

 

But here’s the thing. We are people who live in between the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom. We are people who are on the road. Individually we are on the road, and our road may be leading us in all sorts of directions, South Wales or otherwise. As a community we are on the road and bits of that road are probably less certain today than they were a week ago. As a world we are on a road surrounded by nuclear threats, uncertainty about the outcome of elections, an unstable and degenerating natural environment. And yet that road is also populated with friends, family, community, beauty, music, signs of hope, markers of faith, and Jesus who walks beside us even when we don’t know that it is him. Jesus who is able to open the scriptures to us and help us to navigate the terrain, and Jesus who ultimately sits at table with us and in the breaking of the bread, in those few, precious, and too rare moments, we glimpse in a way that, yes, does bring us if not certainty, then at least sure and certain hope that we are not alone, that we are accompanied, that we are taught and developed and made better people, people thus more able to take the next steps down the road. That I think is resurrection faith. No, of course I’m not certain, but I think I am sure. I think I am sure that I’m not alone, and that neither are you. I think I am sure that as people living between the empty tomb and the culmination of the kingdom we are not left alone to wander aimlessly, but we are accompanied by the sort of God who wants us to grow, who wants us to struggle and explore and make new decisions and take risks, and not to forget to celebrate when those moments do come in which “our hearts burn within us”.

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!