God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. Today we are celebrating ten decades of that goodness and grace, and more than ten, in fact 150 decades since our founding saints first landed on these shores. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. Botolph, Felix, Edmund and Etheldreda knew his presence with them in their times of triumph and their times of tragedy, in the big things of their lives and in the small things. And the same God is with us too, in country church and cathedral, in grand project and the daily grind, whether we succeed or fail. Thank God for his goodness. Thank goodness for God.
To say that God is with us is not though to say that we always feel his presence or are buoyed up by it, and indeed we live in anxious times (though perhaps the times are always anxious, for one reason or another). Although in many ways we have never had it so good, there is also a real concern that this has been at the price of the planet, a sort of global mortgage that we may never be able to repay. We mistrust the institutions that we depend on for our common life, and we struggle to deliver the common good. Spirituality and even some forms of religion are as popular as ever, but the established infrastructure of the English Church feels very vulnerable.
I was reading the true story recently, from a benefice well away from here, where a diocesan officer came to preach at their two morning services in adjacent villages. Five people attended the first. Five people also attended then second, the same five in fact, though one lady had changed her hat in the hope of throwing the officer off the scent. They didn’t want the diocese to know how weak things were, lest some great axe should fall and their doors be closed. Few churches there of course do actually close – there are other good routes to explore – but the fear is not uncommon, and quite understandable.
So yes, we proclaim as we must that God is good, all the time, but is easy to feel downcast, which is how it was too for the disciples on the Emmaus Road. They are so disappointed at Christ’s death on the Cross that they are full of disbelief in the resurrection, even though eyewitnesses have told them of it. So they are leaving Jerusalem, a sort of pilgrimage in reverse, tempted perhaps to give in on God. Can you identify with them? Emmaus Road stands for everywoman’s, for everyman’s road, the journey of every life’s pilgrimage. The story is in fact going to end spectacularly well. We’ve been allowed to cheat and read the last chapter and share the vision of a new Jerusalem. But we are not at the end yet, our pilgrim’s progress must continue, and there are no shortcuts.
But now look happens to our first-century cousins. Jesus meets them while they are slipping away in their despondency. God’s providence and grace can cope with our shortcomings. Note how it is not their fault that they don’t recognise Christ: they are kept from doing so. Somehow even this is part of God’s plan. Even our duff notes will be worked into God’s great symphony. I suppose that when Jesus challenges them and says “How foolish you are!” he got a bit close to the bone, but I don’t think I’m being too rosy-eyed in imagining a twinkle in his eye not an accusing tone in his voice.
The tables are going to be turned for these early disciples. It’s interesting, assuming we are ourselves interested in how our own darknesses can find light, to see how it happened for them. Because the Emmaus story is not just a one-off but also a parable of the life of the church, even of churchgoing. The penny drops for the disciples as first the Scriptures are opened to them, and second the bread is broken. We only need the vicar’s notices and we have a service!
So I want to suggest that we have here an invitation to see the value again of the ordinariness and effort of our weekly church life and Sunday services, our very mini Messy Church or our family service with rather few children, an opportunity to reenergise ourselves with a reminder that they are the places where we remember the big story of which we are such a small part, find Jesus present with us, and restore our hope. And as on the Emmaus Road they do that using the very familiar, perhaps even taken forgranted, building blocks of the readings and sermon, the ministry of the Word, and of the Holy Communion, the ministry of the Sacrament: weekly treasures that await us as we do the old-fashioned thing and actually go to church.
Let’s take opening the Scriptures first, the ministry of the word that forms the first part of many of our services. What Jesus was doing when he opened the Scriptures for the Emmaus disciples was joining up the dots, linking the Old Testament prophecies with what have become for us their New Testament fulfilments. This was the normal and vital method of bible study in the early church. It helped the early Jewish Christians make sense both of how they fitted into the big picture, and also of what was new and special in being a Christian too. They were still the people who believed in everything God had done in the Old Testament and in promising the coming of the Messiah. But they were also the people who believed that the Messiah had actually come. How amazing!
Whether it’s our own personal life, or our church, or our whole society, world or creation, we too need to recapture the great story of God at work and alive with us now, or we risk sinking into the bog of the worries and limitations of the moment. And making this leap back into the great story of God is at the heart of our Centenary year, as we reimagine ourselves as pilgrims in time, on a journey that is ours, yes, but is God’s too. That’s why King of our Life story is the Centenary hymn’s theme. No matter what is happening or ever will or could happen, God is working his purpose out; and if at times his ways are mysterious and his purpose is hidden, remember that our job is neither to understand everything not achieve everything, and even Jesus went to the cross, in faith for an outcome he could not humanly know.
No, our job is like David in the Old Testament, to be faithful in our generation. Our job is like Abraham and Sarah to set off into a future we can only grasp by faith. Our job is like Moses to choose life not death, like Joshua to say that as for me and my family, we will choose the Lord. The list of witnesses could go on, and with so great a cloud of them around us, we choose now to throw off every hindrance and run with perseverance the face that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
So keep on meeting together as the Scriptures say you should, keep on opening those Scriptures together, and keep on discovering the great story that is in them, a story whose chapters are written on the very walls of the churches around us, the witness of those who were faithful before us in so many generations, and whose inheritance we dare not in ours deny.
There was even more, though, than this for those early disciples. The fire began to burn in them as the Scriptures were opened, but the moment of transfiguration came, their lives were actually changed, when they recognised Jesus, in the breaking of the bread. It was really him. He was really there. He is really there too in our ministry of the sacrament, our Holy Communion. Both ink and blood have been spilled about how Jesus is present in the Eucharist. Is it a change in the bread and wine or a change in us? Is the presence spiritual or physical? As if we could ever really fathom such a mystery. The point surely is not the theory but the presence, desiring it, discerning it, being transformed by it. This isn’t something we can manufacture or magic. It is gift and it is grace. Just as the Scriptures are alive, so are the Sacraments too, surprising us, sustaining us.
It’s as well really. How dreadful it would be if the dilatoriness and dryness of our very partial attempts at prayer were the limit of our relationship with God. But Jesus himself through the Spirit is praying not only for us but in us. How awful if would be if it was our priestcraft or presidency that set a ceiling on our worship. But Jesus who knows no limits is with us as we gather in his name and is with us as we break the bread in his name. It is Jesus who makes the Eucharist, and it is meeting him that transforms our lives.
So we say with confidence “The Lord is here,” “His Spirit is with us.” We lift up our hearts, and set songs of praise on our lips. We desire the presence of God, we receive his presence into our very being, and we expect to be transformed by his presence, as we go out to live our lives a little better, a little more like Christ. Of all the models of mission, this is surely the most convincing. Life in, life out. We receive life freely, and give it freely too. And when beggars see that another beggar has bread, they are keen to know the source. So whatever your role in worship, come with expectant hearts, and do all you can to be ready to make a touching place with God, for yourselves and for the others who are worshipping with you.
Then, with hearts burning and faces shining, we will find ourselves willingly propelled by the Spirit back to our Jerusalem, to our families and friends, workplaces and clubs, telling the good news of the great story that is true, of Jesus alive and with every one of us as we walk as pilgrims in time. And the fire will spread, most fiercely when we are hardly doing the organising but running to keep up with God, most authentically when the kingdom is coming not only with words but in deeds, real lives being really changed for the good.
As we start our next centenary I put it to you that we dare not hope for anything less, and so my prayer is simply that the great prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, will be seen to be coming true among us, that God’s name will be so hallowed and his will so done that the hungry are fed, the fallen forgiven, temptation overcome, and evil vanquished.
Selig Suffolk, Suffolk of the saints, may God bless you and bless your people, in the name of Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and for ever. Amen.