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Mary, Cleopas and we: Making the Easter Vision real

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Third Sunday of Easter at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne:

Cross of Glory

‘The Lord is risen indeed and he has appeared to Simon’ (St Luke 24.36), the couple rushing back from Emmaus told the startled disciples—a couple transformed by their meeting, on the open road, with the risen Jesus. In today’s gospel reading, we hear how Cleopas and his wife Mary, who had stood with the women under the cross of Jesus (John 19.25; for the view that Cleopas’ unnamed companion is, in fact, his wife, Mary of Clopas, see: Richard Bauckham), make their way from Jerusalem through the hill country to ‘a village called Emmaus’ (St Luke 24.13). All their hopes were quashed, ‘they stood still, looking sad’, we hear (St Luke 24.17). And they told the stranger who had joined them on their walk about the things that worried them: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, was mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. 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’ (St Luke 24.19-21). ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’, they said to the stranger. And in their hearts may well have thought: ‘but this was not to be. It was all in vain’, they may have thought. ‘And now it’s too late to do anything about it’.

And the stranger who had joined them on their way told them: ‘You fools—do you not know that the Messiah had to suffer in order to be glorified?’ (St Luke 24.26). The Messiah has to suffer, he told them, before he can be revealed in glory. And he interpreted the Scriptures, so that they would understand why this was so. And they took to him, and asked him to stay with them: ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over’ (St Luke 24.29). And it was there, as night fell and deep darkness surrounded them, that they recognised the stranger by the way he broke the bread at table. And just as they recognised him, Jesus—for it was he—disappeared from their sight. And they said to one another: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (St Luke 24.32). And Cleopas and his wife Mary rushed back into the night to return to Jerusalem, to tell the other disciples that the Lord had indeed risen from the dead.

The couple on their way from Jerusalem were wearied from the events that had led to Jesus’ arrest and his crucifixion. Their world had been shattered; they still found themselves surrounded by the darkness that descended onto Jerusalem on the afternoon of Good Friday—during the time that Jesus hung on the cross. That cloud had not been lifted from them. And for some of us, that cloud may not have been lifted, either. On the contrary—news reports from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and, closer to home, Nauru—only add substance to that darkness. And then there are the many personal darknesses in our lives. I can understand why Cleopas and Mary want the risen Christ to stay with them: many of us would want the risen Christ to remain with us in our darkness: ‘Stay with us’, we’d like to say to him, ‘because darkness is gathering, and it will soon be completely dark outside’ (St Luke 24.29).

Stay here, Lord, stay with us and shield us from that darkness. But that is not what Jesus does. Jesus does not stay with the couple on the road to Emmaus. Instead the Mary and Cleopas leave their homes once more, and turn back, and enter the darkness once more. They brave the darkness that holds all their fears in order to return to their friends, to tell them that it is indeed true: ‘The Lord has risen, indeed’, they say (St Luke 24.34). And their joy at the news of Christ’s resurrection bursts through the darkness that had frightened them so much. The psalmist assures us that darkness, the thick tangible darkness where those horrors lurk that make the news or the subject-matter of deep and difficult conversations, that that darkness is not dark in the eyes of God: ‘Even the darkness is not dark to you’, we read in Psalm 139, ‘the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you’ (Psalm 139.11). And in the light of this assurance, and the experience of Cleopas and Mary, we are to do as they did: we, too, are to rush out back into the darkness to tell others that there is no reason to be afraid any more.

How great the surprise of Mary and Cleopas must have been when they returned to Jerusalem: they had just finished telling the other disciples what had happened on the road, and how they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread when, we read in the continuation of today’s gospel story, ‘Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”.’ (St Luke 24.36). The same Jesus who would not stay with them in their comfortable road-side inn, the same Jesus who sent them hurrying back into the night of their fears and worries, that Jesus appeared before them in the midst of their room and told them: ‘Peace be with you’. And they must have understood why Jesus just could not remain with them in the inn at Emmaus. Why they had to journey through the night—only to be greeted by Jesus at Jerusalem. The peace that Jesus bestows on them—the ‘peace be with you’—was the peace that had overcome their experience of the darkness, on the road back home.

Meeting Jesus can change lives like that. We heard in our first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, how the frightened disciples, who in last week’s gospel were still seen meeting behind bolted doors in that desolate upper room of the Last Supper, became bold preachers of the message of Christ’s resurrection. We read how they overcame their own darknesses to spread the light of Christ. And we are told, that we are called to be ‘witnesses of these things’ (St Luke 24.48). We, too, are to tell those around us that there can be light in the midst of all that darkness. We are to tell—we read—‘that forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus’ name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (St Luke 24.47). And this is the most important message to us this Easter-time: that meeting Jesus changes lives. That Jesus—now as much as then in that Upper Room—speaks words of peace to his people. And I have come to know that this work of transformation from sinfulness to forgiveness, from fear of darkness to peace and radiant light, begins when Jesus’ followers—when you and I—join together in making this Easter vision a reality.

It is this Easter Vision that lies at the heart of our Cathedral’s vision to become a place of transformation in the life of our city and diocese. We can glimpse it when we meet to break bread in our worship Sunday by Sunday; when we share a meal at our monthly congregational lunches and young adults’ group meetings. We can see it in the lives of others whenever our many volunteers—Chaplains, guides, shop volunteers and welcomers—welcome visitors to this building. We observe it through our work with migrants and refugees through our English as a Second Language program, our ministry of prayer and healing. We see it at work when we witness adults and children come to faith through our enquirers’ programs, through baptism and confirmation preparation. We see it at work even when we plan to renew our office and meeting spaces, or our procedures and governance, so that they become resources and instruments for ministry.

A record of this lived-out vision is set before us in our 2013 Annual Report. It gives glimpses into our rich life and many ministries, and pays tribute to the generosity of time and talents of our staff and volunteers, and records some of the milestones on our journey—the achievements our Cathedral community who have already joined to help make our Easter Vision a reality. I am delighted to serve this Cathedral as Dean, and am thankful for the many moments in the past year when the Easter Vision has been shown forth in the lives of our congregations, and our Cathedral community: moments that help us on our journeys to transform our city and diocese through the light of our Easter faith.

The Easter Vision that today’s readings set before us encourage us first of all to recognise the signs of renewal in our midst—the ‘talking on the road’, the sharing in the breaking of bread, that can lead to recognition of the living Lord in our midst, that can set our own hearts aflame. And out of that recognition, our readings tell, comes the motivation for action: with the first disciples, and all those who, through the generations have borne witness to this Easter truth, we, too, are called to share in that life-changing power: we are invited to recognise the signs of Easter life in our midst, and then to go and face the darknesses that surround us. I look forward to contributing with you—through giving of our gifts, our time and our talents—to this Easter Vision. For like Mary and Cleopas, who braved the darkness of the Emmaus road to witness to the true light in their lives, so we, too ‘are to be witnesses of these things’ (St Luke 24.48); people who to carry the good news to those who yet have to recognise and believe that the Lord is risen indeed, and is alive and changing lives in our midst today.

© Andreas Loewe, 2014.