Let’s Have A Proper Conversation
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, April 18, 2021
Reading: Luke 24:13-27
I want to take this opportunity to extend our condolences to the royal family on the loss of the Duke of Edinburgh. His service was a memorial to a man who had a huge impact, not only on the United Kingdom but on the Commonwealth and the world. Our condolences to Her Majesty the Queen and the whole family. There are, of course, members of our own congregation who were pleased to meet the Duke of Edinburgh at the opening of buildings here in Toronto, a school in our neighbourhood, and at the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. There are also some who watch us in Nova Scotia whose family members were visited by him after the Springhill mine disaster. Regardless of whether we met him in person, our condolences, and our remembrances of 99 years.
I’ve been thinking about that 99 years. I was invited to a birthday party for a 99-year-old woman in Nova Scotia to express congratulations on behalf of the church. I love these opportunities to celebrate great milestones in people’s lives. We sat down for a while and she reminisced about her life and some of the moments that she had experienced, especially that she had experienced two World Wars, the Depression, and many other things. As we were talking, I said to her before I concluded, “I hope we can do this again next year for her 100th birthday.”
She looked at me and with a twinkle in her eye said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why not, you seem to be in very good health”.
I miss those personal conversations. The inability, with the shutdown over this last year, to just sit down and have a cup of tea, or a meal, and a conversation. I’ve been thinking about the power of conversations and how in our conversations there is a third party when we’re talking about our faith, that third party is God in the form of Jesus Christ. Conversations, you see, are powerful things. They’re an interaction and whether it’s in moments of joy like a 99th birthday party, or in a moment of sadness and sorrow and loss, conversations can be healing and powerful and reveal a lot about ourselves. I miss that. I’m sure you miss that. I know our other clergy members miss that.
Thinking about conversation draws me to our text today. A classical text after the Easter period that took place three days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the third day after the crucifixion and this is as a moment when two followers of Jesus are walking on a road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a town that was just a few miles away. They’re having a conversation about the most important thing that they had experienced. They were talking about the crucifixion of Jesus; they were talking about some women who had come and spoken to the followers saying a tomb was empty, and their minds were full of this singular moment in their lives and it dominated their conversation.
As they’re walking along, Luke gives us an insight into not only that conversation but also about someone who interrupts them. What is evident is that they are emotionally distraught, their eyes and spirits down. They were depressed and they were grieving. Then suddenly this stranger comes up to them. We’re not told how or why; we can’t even speculate. Their eyes did not see him, whether it was because they were downcast, or due to the nature of his risen body. Who knows, we’re not told why, we’re just told they didn’t recognize the stranger. But the stranger, who we are told by Luke is Jesus the risen Christ, comes up to them and he says, “What are you discussing as you walk along”. In other words, “What are you guys talking about?” They stilled, looked sad; they were emotionally distraught, we are told. Someone had triggered them to think about the crucifixion and an empty tomb and they couldn’t understand any of it.
I love the writer, Frederick Buechner and he has a wonderful way of coining a phrase and talking about incidents and moments in Jesus’ life, but he says this about the appearances of Jesus not only at that moment but at other moments as well: “Have you noticed that every time Jesus appeared to people, he appeared in the most inglorious fashion”. Rather than with trumpets and sounds of cymbals and the power to make the earth shake, he appeared to people as a gardener to women at a tomb, to fisher people as they were catching fish, to people when they were having a meal or just walking beside them on the road. Jesus caught them by surprise.
The risen Christ does not appear with trumpets. There was no great theophany or shekhinah as they called it in the Old Testament, a great light and divine appearance. No, he comes alongside them and simply says, “What are you talking about, what are you discussing?” Then he says something that reveals the truth of what he was to say later. He says, “Why are you so sad?”. He recognized their grief. He recognized their confusion and their sense of bereavement. The reason they were so sad was not only because they were emotionally distraught, but also intellectually distraught. Their world had collapsed around them. Those who had been following Jesus expected that Israel would be redeemed, that something dramatic would occur because of the resurrection. They thought something special was going to happen, but it didn’t. As far as they were concerned Rome was still the dominant military power, the religious leaders were still in positions of power and influence in society, nothing for them had changed. It was all dark, dismal, their world had been shattered and their minds were full of doubts and despair and most of all, disappointment. You can understand it can’t you?
The great writer William Kingdon Clifford, who was a mathematician and a brilliant intellect, always questioned Christianity because he demanded that there was always some evidence that needed to be provided to substantiate the claims of Christianity and as a mathematician, he describes what had happened to the disciples. He says this in the most negative of ways, “We have seen the spring sunshine out of an empty heaven to light up a soulless earth”.
On the evidence, it would appear would it not that Cleopas and his friend were feeling exactly that same thing. So, when Jesus says to them, “Why are you so sad”, they give an account for their sadness, they explain everything. They said, “Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet and he was mighty in both deed and word”. Notice the language, “In both deed and word.” The same phrase was used in our prayer of confession today and it’s important because for Luke and for all the disciples there was no distinction between Jesus’ word and his deed, he was mighty in both. He wasn’t just someone who was remembered for being a great speaker, he was also someone who did mighty deeds, and those mighty deeds included the crucifixion. Now, they said he was taken away and crucified. “He was handed over” was their phrase. Then, in one of the saddest comments in this whole period, they say, “We had hoped that he would redeem Israel”. There you go, there’s the sorrow, “We had hoped he would redeem Israel”.
Then they said, “And then some women”, (which is a little derogatory don’t you think?) “said that the tomb was empty.” One of the followers had gone and corroborated that the tomb was empty, which really was of no comfort to them at all because they did not know what an empty tomb meant and they’re downcast. So, it seems right intellectually their world had fallen apart but Jesus comes to them and he challenges them. Now remember, they don’t know who he is, and he says, “Oh how foolish you are and how slow of heart you are to believe everything that the Messiah was supposed to do.” Then we’re told through scripture beginning with Moses; in other words, beginning with the first five books of the bible, he explained to them that all of this had to transpire to fulfill the Messianic providence and purpose. He challenged them to look and see things in a new light.
Later, they came to recognize who he was, but I want to save that for another Sunday. But at this moment he had a conversation with them and led them to scripture and a profound understanding that these things had to take place as he was the risen Messiah and Lord. Conversations you see can be very powerful, but what about a conversation with us? Is it not also true that Christ Jesus wants to have, as the risen Lord, a conversation with us? Not like the one with Cleopas and his friend because Christ has ascended to heaven, Christ has sent his spirit, Christ though is still present among us as his people and faith really is an encounter with that living Christ. Faith is really recognizing the presence of Christ in our lives and having a living vibrant conversation with him.
The great writer, John Updike, who would say some amazing things and could, like Buechner, put things in almost poetic forms, in November 1999 on the verge of the new millennium wrote a piece in The New Yorker magazine and talked about faith. I cut this out at the time, and I thought, “You know, some time I’ve got to use this, this is really good.” Now is the time. Updike wrote: “Theistic exercises in science and logic, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Deism, may fortify the already persuaded but they will not convert disbelievers. No, belief, like love, must be voluntary and must be in the heart”. Updike understood that faith is not just a series of propositions, faith is an unfolding relationship, an unfolding conversation that we have with God and this conversation is an important thing for us to have as an integral part of our lives. You see, we can have a faith that has been given to us by our parents, we can have a faith that has been affirmed by the church, we can have a faith that is even rooted in some logical persuasion, but faith needs to incorporate something deeper.
I was asked by a complete stranger actually not long ago what denomination Timothy Memorial Church was. This might either please or upset our Anglican friends, but a lot of people think we’re Anglican and I have to dissuade them of that truth. We are a United Church and our history here at Timothy Memorial Church is a Methodist one in its origins. I was explaining Methodism and suddenly I found myself having a conversation on the street about John Wesley and why Methodism arose. I talked about John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738, where he was at Moravian Church and went to a study looking at Luther’s commentary on the Book of Romans and his heart was strangely warmed. Something happened as an encounter, a conversation of sorts between God and Wesley.
Now Wesley was already a priest, he had already been trained at Oxford. He had multiple credentials, but he needed that experience of faith to really change him. When he had that encounter, the whole of his ministry changed to a society that was riddled with alcoholism and the overuse of gin, poverty, minors being exploited, churches decaying and dying because they had become boring, proforma, and had no passion, Wesley comes along and turns everything upside down all because he had an encounter. Something transpired that had changed him and his whole conversation about God and Jesus Christ changed. So too for Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus.
Faith is a living encounter, a living conversation and isn’t that what prayer is and when, as Emil Brunner said, “The moment that you pray you believe, and the moment you believe you pray.” Cleopas and his friend also had a conversation with each other and in the realm of that conversation added to the presence of the stranger things were revealed to them. They talked about things in the past but the stranger was now talking about things that were going to have purpose and meaning, “Oh foolish and how slow of heart you are to believe” the stranger said to them. The conversation revealed something deeper and I believe our conversations with each other can have a redemptive effect, can have meaning and purpose.
I think one of the things that COVID-19 has changed – and I’d be interested to hear some time what other ministers in our community feel – but certainly from my experience I have found the conversations I’m having with people now, online of course or maybe just ad hoc in the street, about the faith are no longer about things that we had previously thought were important. We’re not talking about the church, we’re not talking about the buildings, we’re not talking about social programs so much except the feeding of the hungry and the poor – yes, okay, that was a big one – but our conversations have changed, they’re more about substance now. They’re more about the meaning of faith in a time of crisis, the importance of the bond and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The missing of the communion that we have, both physical and spiritual. They’re things that are based on the relationship that took place between Jesus and Cleopas and his friend on the road and less about social niceties or things that we might think otherwise were important.
Conversations are important and I’d encourage you whenever you can to talk about your faith in a meaningful way because as you do that Christ comes into those conversations and makes our lives richer, better, and more meaningful. As we come out COVID-19 and we’re once again able to gather together – and we will – let’s have those conversations that are based on our faith.
That 99-year-old woman was a great soul, she really was. Not only was she funny, as you’ve already gathered, but she also was deeply faithful, what a wonderful Christian woman she was. As I sat in her living room, I noticed there was a crocheted prayer up on the wall. These things are normally the Lord’s Prayer, or maybe “Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace” or perhaps “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” you know what I mean, but this was different. I took it off the wall and she said, “Reverend Stirling, would you like to read that and maybe it would be our prayer”. So, I read it. It was from Bishop Thomas Ken, who was a bishop in the Anglican church in the 17th and early 18th century and I was able to find it again on the web just this week. – wouldn’t she love that – and it goes like this, maybe you’d pray with me:
“O God make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, and a heavenly Father’s care; and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and hate. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged enough to turn back the tempter’s power: make it a gateway to thine eternal kingdom. Amen.”
What a conversation that woman and I had that day and I hope that all our conversations with Jesus and with each other are full of such passion and love. Happy Easter. Amen.